In How to Write a Sentence Stanley Fish quotes this opening sentence from Laurence Sterne’s “novel” Tristram Shandy:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equaly bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were doing–that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; and for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost–had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly–I am verily persuaded I should have made a different figure in the world from that in which the read is likely to see me.
Now this is a marvelous sentence, but it was at the time a verbal bomb dropped from out of the blue on 17th century English letters. I don’t know, but I suspect that Montaigne, that French inventor of the essay (for trial or attempt, as in, “I will essay this project”) and Cervantes, that Spanish master who was able to write one of the greatest novels in all of literature with faulty structure and style, influenced Sterne. But for the English reading public, this sentence embodied a world they had not seen before in a novel.
But of course, the question for a writer or one who just wants to better understand writing so he can read better, the question is, “Why did he write like that?” or at least, “What did he accomplish writing like that?”
Why not write something like this:
I wish my parents had minded what they were doing when they begot me. Had they duly considered how much depended on what they were doing and proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made a different figure in the world from that in which the reader is likely to see me. After all, they were in duty both equally bound to it. Not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it but also possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind. For aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost. They should have considered all this.
Of course, one reason not to write it like that is because it isn’t written as well, but why did Mr. Sterne write such a long sentence, starting and stopping, digressing and hesitating. As Mr. Fish explained, “One thought leads to another and then to another, each provisional and not quite followed through, until, in an act of will-there is no natural stopping place-the speaker puts a (temporary) period to his musings by revealing the wish behind his wish: I might have been a different person than the one you now see.”
It seems to me that many students think they are writing like Mr. Sterne when in fact all they are doing is wandering around. Mr. Sterne has a purpose in his writing and though it may be hard to identify, it is fulfilled – and it was compelling to his audience, even though it has always been controversial because it tends toward disorder and confusion.
Here again is Mr. Fish: “The expectations Sterne’s prose repeatedly disappoints are the expectations that come along with a belief in a rationally ordered universe, a belief that is conveyed, even breathed, by the subordinating linear style we have seen in writers like Austen, James, Milton, Melville, and Martin Luther King Jr. In place of the unity and coherence attempted and achieved by these authors, Sterne puts ‘a seemingly new pattern of unity, not new but as old as humanity: the organic pattern of life'(Toby A. Olshin, in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Norton Critical Edition).
There are, in short, two basic options for sentence forms: the organic and the “rationally ordered.”
In the latter case, the author takes authority over the sentence and arranges his words “in relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance.” Mr. Fish calls this “the subordinating style.”
In the former, organic case, the sentence “just reports… events in a loose sequence, like beads on a string.” This Mr. Fish calls “the additive style.” Mr. Sterne wrote the sentence above in the additive style.
It is intriguing to note the contrast Mr. Fish draws between the two styles, calling one organic and the other rational. It takes me back again to principles of creativity embodied in Genesis 1-3. What strikes me is that the six day creation would seem to be a rationally ordered process. But it was none the less organic for that rational ordering. Indeed, the task given to man was in part to “subdue” the earth.
Apart from the work of the man, the creation would run wild. God appointed him to fine-tune His creative work. But to be coldly rational, a very modern phenomenon as it seems to me, would not order but destroy the garden. The God of Genesis never told Adam to create a concrete garden with plastic flowers in styrofoam soil – the dream of the Enlightenment and of the conventional school.
There is something wild in the creation and we must subdue it for our survival. But if we alter its nature and remove its wildness, we do not subdue but destroy it. This is the heart and soul of creative tension.
There is something wild within us too and it must be tamed, but never removed. The stereotypical creative writing class wants to tap into that wildness and let it out with Whitman’s “barbarian ‘Yowp!'” Yes, but…
The task of the artist is not to release the inner barbarian but to subdue it so that the artist – the man – flourishes. The task of the writer is not simply to release expressions of the self, but to take control of them, to rule them with wisdom and strength of will, and to raise them to true fruitfulness through discipline and the SUBsequent, hard-earned creative power.
For that reason, the subordinate sentence (and you can see from the foregoing why subordinate really is a very sound word to describe it) should take first place temporally and in precedent and should be taught with earnest and eager discipline.
The additive style also has a place, but contrary to expectations, perhaps, though not to experience, the additive style should follow the subordinate. I have no doubt at all that Sterne, living in the 17th century, was able to write such effective additive sentences BECAUSE he had learned to control his writing through the training he received in the subordinate style.
However, I also believe that the 17th and 18th centuries went way overboard on their demands for rational order. Or rather, they misunderstood rational order, often putting it in conflict with the organic. If there is one point I wish this blog post would have successfully made, it is that the organic and the rational are not in opposition. I do not fight with my garden; I cultivate it. I do not seek to kill it; I seek to bless it. It is a great joy when an author or composer can join these often divided corollaries, and achieve the greatness of a Shakespeare, a Chaucer, a Mozart, a Bach, a Coleridge, or a Michaelangelo.
Creativity requires technical training and mastery of the tools and it also requires an open and receptive soul, one that is not limited to the discoveries made by rational thought, one that is open to being and truth and beauty and every kind of goodness and that, because it is trained, is able to take the untamed-ness of reality and express it in compelling, fitting, “subdued” forms. Creativity requires work; Creativity requires play.
- Joyce’s Ulysses: The only chapter worth reading. (slate.com)
- The Redesigned Tristram Shandy (finebooksmagazine.com)
- The Unreadable Masterpiece (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- English Honey (circeinstitute.org)