Friday, November 18, 2011

'Good Cursed, Bouncing Losses': Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, and Exuberance in Tristram Shandy -- Secondary Lit Post by Nora Ellis

For my secondary lit post, I read “ ‘good cursed, bouncing losses’: Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, and Exuberance in Tristram Shandy” by James Kim. The article largely focused on the idea of masculinity and emotional expression within Tristram Shandy. Kim looked at Tristram’s reaction to death, as well as focusing on the “veritable encyclopedia of phallic injury” (Kim 9) that describes the book for him. Finally, he discusses the idea of the book as being both satirical and sensitive, something he by no means believes to be true only for Tristram Shandy but that he believes to be a rising theme of eighteenth century literature. Finally, he determines that the desire for both man and woman, satire and sensitivity, are a part of the desire for excess which seized control of the entire novel genre.

The way that Kim examined Tristram’s reaction to death was really interesting. In what can only called the introduction to the article, Kim describes in great detail the black page in volume 1, chapter 12 of Tristram Shandy. One wouldn’t think it possible to describe a black page in great detail, but James Kim sees a great deal in it. For one thing, he takes it as being Tristram’s way of expressing what he feels about Yorick’s death. He says, “An overflow of ink, the black page seems to record Tristram’s overflow of feeling at Yorick’s death. It is as if, overwhelmed by the task of conveying his sentiments on Yorick’s demise, Tristram tries to say everything at once—and therefore can say nothing at all” (Kim, 4). He adds that it is also Tristram’s way of attempting to put down everything malicious that was ever said about Yorick.

He writes next about whether Tristram Shandy is satiric or sentimental, ultimately deciding that, not only is it both, that is not the point of the piece. The way that sentimentality and satire work together, says Kim, enables the depiction of a man that is both masculine and melancholy. The next section begins to focus on the idea of the multi-natured man. Here, Kim discusses the idea of a man as being both masculine and feminine, as well as the repercussions that would have upon the women of the eighteenth century. He here declares that, “For its part, Tristram Shandy faces sentimental masculinity and its concomitant sense of effeminacy with an attitude of loss and nostalgia” (Kim 8). This returns to the way that Kim interprets Tristram’s voice as being emotional, at the beginning of the paper. This emotion, to Kim, is not a masculine feeling to express. Tristram’s expression makes him effeminate, yet strengthens him as a character.

Part of Kim’s exploration of manliness is the question of whether behavior or sensibility is what makes a person male or female. He wisely does not assume that gender stereotypes are concrete, but does recognize the necessity of some differentiation between the two sexes. He finishes off the section by saying, “I think it would be a mistake to draw any conclusions simply from the air of phallic loss that saturates the novel, for the phenomenology of loss is itself a deeply ambiguous thing, capable of fostering a variety of complex attitudes and conflicted responses” (Kim 9). He is speaking particularly of Uncle Toby’s groin wound and the conversation revolving around Tristram’s father setting the clock, here.

Unlike Kim, I don’t read this as being a poem mourning the penis so much as an expression of the fear of castration. However loathed Freud might be, that phrase (fear of castration) is difficult to avoid using. After all, this book is almost entirely about genitals, however much it might pretend not to be. Most literally read, the book focuses a great deal on the fear associated with manliness and the loss thereof being associated with genitalia and the loss thereof. The desperation with which the Widow desperately tries to find out if Uncle Toby is, in fact, intact strengthens this claim.

It is interesting to combine the ideas of the feminine masculinity and the fear of castration. In a book that is, as Kim argues, both sensible and satirical, how much is the fear of the loss of manhood to be taken seriously? Is that one of the most satirized aspects of the novel, or is that something that is actually to be taken seriously? And, how closely does Tristram Shandy relate genitalia to sex? That is, does having a penis make you manly in the world of Shandy?

Kim, James. "'Good Cursed, Bouncing Losses': Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, And Exuberance In Tristram Shandy." Eighteenth Century: Theory And Interpretation48.1 (2007): 3-
24. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Sterne, Laurence, and Graham Petrie. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1967. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Rather than a literal fear of castration or emasculation, I think that Sterne may be referring to a male fear of loss of agency resulting from marriage to emotionally strong, independent women. Essentially, the men of Tristram's time lack the security in their own sexuality and masculinity to deal with not being the spouse who "wears the pants" in marital relationships.

    Mrs. Shandy is a prime example of the kind of woman that men like Mr. Shandy, for that matter, can't adapt to. She explicitly wants a sexual relationship with her husband for its own sake, while he doesn't want sex in his own life at all. He compromises, grudgingly, by choosing the time and frequency of their encounters and allowing for them in the first place solely on the grounds of the need to produce heirs and continue on the family line.

    Toby's courtship of the Widow Wadman, he lack either control or comprehension of the situation except insofar as he ultimately ends things between them, but as far as directing the course of the relationship Wadman is firmly at the tiller of that 'ship, as it were.

    Tristram is unable to have his own tryst as he would wish it, owing primarily to his own performance inconsistencies, but is that really the only issue? The very thought of Jenny alternately drives him mad with fury and lustful nearly to the point of spontaneous poetic ramblings of her. My reading is that she has him twisted around her little finger, and that fact enrages him as powerfully as her actions delight and arouse him.

    I believe that there are more relevant examples, Mrs. Bridget's explicitly declared intentions with Trim to be certain, whose details escape my memory, but I think the point has been made: the women in Tristram Shandy have at least the potential for so much agency, especially and paradoxically within the institution of marriage, that their husbands are unable to cope with the associated transfer of practical power between sexes. This, I contend, is the source of all of the castration and genital references throughout.