Friday, October 14, 2011

Secondary Lit Post: Entropy and Tristram

This was a rather dense article describing some "Focaultian" and some anti-Enlightenment perspectives on the novel of Tristram Shandy.

The first part of the article claims that the novel presents a worldview that is divorced or apart from Enlightenment. The author calls that worldview, "linear, [and] clockwork regularity of Newtonianism" and he sees this novel as a "fracturing" of this kind discourse, common to the Enlightenment era (2). The article explains that Tristram is going against life as concrete, easily divisible hard details in favor of entropy; entropy meaning the idea of physical systems as a gradual decline of order into disorder and lacking predictability.

An interesting point the article made was the way in which Sterne was the way in which he uses every miniscule, drawn out detail, and the reason for the drawn 3 volumes. The article claims that Sterne goes against "classical scientists' arbitrary discounting of small influences and the large-scale effects they can have within dynamic systems" (3). Linearity is impossible in the novel form; Sterne is making an assertion that the very nature of the novel form cries out for the very nature of life itself. By providing the small details, he gives importance to those things in affecting the bigger picture.

A way he continues to challenge what are "essentialist" Newtonian perspectives, is the way he treats his birth. The book takes so long in getting to Tristram's actual birth as a way of disputing the conventions produced by the homunculus. The author writes
of the homonculus, "no longer fully formed and predetermined, this homunculus loses its Newtonian particulateness as a self-contained 'information packet' only needing unfolding and expansion; rather, it is opened out into a whole field of relationships, its identity only determinable in a constantly widening web of information" (6). The reason for all these minute details is to show that this essentialist view of the homonculus are trite. It goes against the idea of sperm as simply holding a tiny human and fully formed. The interconnected way in which the details lead up to his birth show the way in which we are not fully formed human beings here. The article calls them different "scales" or "web of information" (6-8). There is chaos in birth. We are not fully formed or going along predetermined paths and these details are way of showing that human beings are not definable creatures, stuck on a linear, clockwork type event line. The more details added, the more chaos, and the more true to life Tristram makes this novel.

From this big picture perspective, I believe that this is in keeping with the way in which the 18th century novel is a way in which a ideology or idea can be pushed. I always saw the novel as decidedly anti-religion and anti-essentialist. It is, however, didactic, not in a religious sense, but it makes some clear ideological assertions. He is using the novel form as a tool for teaching or presenting certain ideology, which I see as somewhat moral; he's got an agenda.

I apologize if the ideas seem half-formed; I'm not sure if I've fully grasped some of the assertions made in the article, but there you go.

My question would be to what degree do you agree with this assertion? Are the minute details, and the drawn out discourse of his birth a way of going against the scientific views of the time period? If so, how does it affect the way in which we view this novel in a discourse with 18th century literature of the time? Is it in keeping with those ideas or not?

Works Cited

Freeman, John. "Delight in the (Dis)order of Things: Tristram Shandy and the Dynamics of Genre." Studies in the Novel 34.2 (2002): 141. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.


  1. I feel like Stern was already challenging the typical novel mold in how he chose to write the work. So, I think it is a logical step to believe that he was also challenging the scientific views of the time, views on birth included. In a lot of ways Stern seemed to want to challenge the status-quo as much as possible. I agree with Freeman's idea that "we are not fully formed or going along predetermined paths and these details are way of showing that human beings are not definable creatures, stuck on a linear, clockwork type event line." The way Stern writes, jumping back and forth in time-lines and taking 3 volumes to eventually be born surly demonstrates this.

  2. I may have missed this, but who wrote this blog post? I just wanted to be able to address him/her by name.

    You did mention that your ideas may seem a big half-formed, but you said you believe he is definitely pushing an agenda? What is his agenda? What do you believe the moral of the novel is? It is interesting to me that you bring up the idea of entropy, as I have never thought about it in terms of this novel, but now that you mention it....I can see where Freeman is coming from. I'm not a physicist, so I'm not too familiar with entropy, but from what I remember, one part of it is that the world is continually moving toward a state of disorder (like you said) and that we will never again be in the same place in time. I can certainly see how Sterne is speaking of the unpredictability of life and, through this, I can understand Freeman's assertion that is representative of entropy. However, the way Sterne hops around in time, never being quite linear, seems to contradict the entropic principle that we can never return to the same moment of time. I am probably way off base here, but Sterne continually returns to the same memories, and this seems anti-entropy to me.

    This is such an interesting blog post. Awesome job!

  3. You've certainly hit upon an important set of observations here. Sterne's attack on the science of his time is absolutely as scathing and ironic as his treatment of the form of the novel itself.

    In particular, Tristram's blaming his mother's awkwardly timed comment on damaging his own humunculus, and therefore ruining his entire life's potential from that point onwards, highlights both his own unreliability as a narrator and points out some of the considerable flaws with then-contemporary scientific discourse, as well as his understanding thereof.

    Specifically, if the homunculus is fully formed even before conception, its course of development would similarly be predetermined. How then could Mrs. Shandy's interruption of Mr. Shandy at the critical moment have impacted the homunculus at all? By Tristram's own causal reasoning, the very idea of the homunculus is rendered invalid philosophically.

    His desire to blame his own failings on his parents would be more rationally focused on his father's bizarre detachment and lack of support or guidance. Mr. Shandy failed to provide a proper role model for Tristram or otherwise go about the business of parenting itself, given that he was too busy with writing so exhaustively on how precisely to do so. His assertion of his mother's seeming role in screwing up his life makes more sense to me in the context of highlighting the degree of his father's detachment from his family and emotion: Mr. Shandy reacts to his wife's interruption so forcefully because he wants to complete the act of procreation quickly and move on to activities he actually cares about. He has so little interest in any part of the process of gaining progeny that he begrudges even the slight bit of additional time it takes away from his own pursuits to answer his wife's question.

    However, as to the claim of Freeman on the novel concerning entropy, I must disagree on the grounds that the concept of entropy didn't exist until the 1870's. Rather, I interpret Sterne as essentially criticizing the over-simplified models used to explain nature and humanity at the time, the homunculus being an excellent example. Sterne tried to show through Tristram's life story that the world contains and is formed by much greater complexity than the theorists of the day admitted to.

  4. Thank you for finding this essay! While reading Tristram Shandy, I have never thought of the possible meaning of disorder and for lack of better terms “craziness” within the novel. Although I cannot ascertain whether or not Sterne wrote this novel with the intent of opposing the scientific views of the time period, I have to admit that Freeman’s ideas of entropy, the gradual pull from a static state towards a state of disorder within the novel better mirrors true life, makes perfect. Sterne draws upon minute details and puts much time describing them. He also does this, in my opinion, in a rather eclectic way, drawing upon different sources, different ideas all at once. In the course of a day, we do many things, and especially many trivial things. In order to compensate for this multitude of stimuli, we must forget many of it and not draw attention to the way cold jeans feel when you put them on in a winter morning to the sound of people laughing at the cafĂ©. If we should remember every aspect of our life in its most complete detail, we would inevitably drive ourselves crazy. Life is viewed linearly. We wake up, do our business, and go to sleep. We are born; we live; we die. It is very straightforward. When we take into account all the little events in life as Tristram Shandy brings to light, we realize, as readers that life isn’t as simple as a straight static line, but filled with apexes and depressions. Although Freeman’s idea on entropy makes sense in terms of its parallel to real life, there are also aspects which I do find to be rather static, but perhaps static as a negative connotation attached to it. There is something dependable and stable about Tristram’s crazy life and crazy family, as I’m sure many of us will admit to having, and that is the love that this family has for each other. Despite all the nuances of life that may knock us off balance, there exists something solid to which everything continues to be revolved around, and that is the family, the mutual care all of them possess for each other. So, yes, I do believe that disorder makes the novel more real, but at the same time, if it did not have a static source of support, a home, then the disorder would not only be meaningless, but would detract from the reality it strives to imitate.