Milner Response

Laurence Sterne

A Sentimental Journey

Over the past several days Kent and I have been trying to figure out with just how much irony we should take Sterne's _Journey_. Because I have trouble discussing practically any scene in the book without laughing (even Maria under a bush with her goat or the dancing peasants), I think I prescribe to an even more ironic reading than Kent might. At certain times in the past week, I have claimed that the novel is a staged send-up of sensibility, that Sterne's constant irony and humor always undercut any moral purpose Yorick asserts for sensibility, and that Sterne is chuckling at the over-the-top sentiment as it turns into a humorous, but paltry, sentimentality. In the throes of my most ironic fits, I would say that any scene of sentiment in the novel -- from the peasants' religious dance because it is so conventional and cliched to the glove scene that Junish points to with its baudy, sexual double entendre at the moment of universal communication -- is meant to be taken with a large dose of irony.

At this point Kent usually reminds me that I need to see Maria and the peasant family (in their nice pastoral retreat) through an 18th century lens. I suppose this is correct, but I can't help thinking that Sterne with this supreme wit, his eye for reversals, his mercurial imagination, his purposeful ambiguities, didn't have other perspectives in mind far different from a sentimentalizing 18th century audience.

It is important to get a bead on this irony (if that is possible) and I'm not at all sure that I've got it right. At my most ironic, it is hard for me to see this as a novel which recuperates the religious purpose (albeit in a different way) of the orginial Grand Tour (as Kent suggests in his report). Can we talk about the "betterment of the soul" in _Journey_ as Kent seems to think that we should and as the tag "sentimental novel" seems to require? Is this a work of near religious redemption as Professor Battestin argues in his "_A Sentimental Journey_: Sterne's Work of Redemption." Or do we take Sterne's apparent comment that this was his "_Work of Redemption_" (recalled in a letter written by Richard Griffith) with a wink meaning he only wished to satisfy an audience which at times criticized the liberties of _Tristram Shandy_? Does the novel "progress from solipsism toward communion" as Professor Battestin describes it? As Kent asks, does it have any didactic purpose?

These unaswered questions get at the heart of sensibility which I take to have a moral goal of communication and sympathy beyond the self that in turn nurtures fellowship and community. Yorick also suggests this communal role for the sentiments in "The Preface in the Disobligeant" while fully understanding the impediments involved:

[F]rom the want of languages, connections, and dependencies, and from the differeence in education, customs and habits, we lie under so many impediments in communicating our sensations out of our own sphere, as often amount to a total impossibility. (78)
In my ironic reading Yorick is never truly able to get past the impediments. We are always reminded in one way or another that he is still working solipsismally, still serving his individual desires, sexual, financial, and otherwise. Furthermore, for all his feeling, he never actually takes much action. I also think, as Kent rightly points out, that there is a war going on here between mind and body. Sterne's sense never allows the reader to be carried off by the raptures of Yorick's sensations, but rather this sense and ironic wit remind us of the ephermality of these sensations. In any case, the moral efficacy of sensibility is purposely complicated and left in question by Sterne.

Heading off in a slightly different direction, I also sometimes see all this irony and humor as less a subversion of sentiment and more as a protecting insulation for the sensibilious character. This is a more complicated but perhaps more sophisticated reading of Yorick. Sterne is possibly suggesting that one can develop a way of knowing and operating in the world around feeling as long as he can maintain a critical distance, as long as he can mock his sentiments and prevent them from turning into sentimentality. This may be where Werther is lacking. The other part of this equation is that you must also be able to mock your sexuality. As Yorick does, you must see your sexual desires as play and whimsy. To have distance on these sexual desires or to control them by self-mockery or by channeling them through play means that you can tap into your sentiments without the dangers to self and society that come with sexuality. (I think that Junish and I differ greatly on how sexuality works in this novel -- where he sees it as important because it is an instinctual, shared mechanism of sensibilious communion, I see it as something of possible danger which must be kept at arms length through humor.) Self-irony saves the character from being a sentimental lush or a Lovelacian rake. Of course this irony of sexuality is only available to male characters; for female characters, Clarissa included, this idiom of irony is impossible because they do not hold mastery over their sexuality to begin with.