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Hobby-Horses and the Definition of Character

Hobby-Horses and the Definition of Character

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Published by Hugo Blumenthal

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Published by: Hugo Blumenthal on Jun 09, 2009
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Hobby-Horses And The Definition Of CharacterIn Laurence Sterne’s
Tristram Shandy
 by Hugo Blumenthal
At the beginning of his autobiographical project, Tristram Shandy decides to ‘draw’ thecharacter of his uncle Toby ‘by no mechanical help whatever’ but from his uncle’s ‘hobby-horse,’ sure that ‘there is no instrument so fit to draw such a thing with, as that which I have pitch’d upon’ (I, xxii i-xxiv, 61).
The fact that Tristram arrives to such a decision after mentioning –at the beginning of the same chapter– Momus’s glass, the mythical device thatcould helpto reveal the ‘heart’ (truth) of a man, is rather significant: ‘[…] had the aid glass been there set up,’ Tristram writes, ‘nothing more would have been wanting, in order tohave taken a man’s character […]’ But since such aid is ‘an advantage not to be had by the biographer in this planet’ (I, xxiii, 59), Tristram would have to look for another way to present his characters. In that sense, as Martin Battestin has suggested, the recourse to thehobby-horse could be seen as an attempt to substitute an impossible Momus’s glass.
The impossibility of having the ‘advantage’ of Momus’s glass implies that men are‘opaque’, not ‘transparent.’ Therefore, by following the cultural metaphor that historically(mainly in the West) associates the sense of vision with knowledge and possession, to try toreproduce or represent the true being or essence of a man is a difficult enterprise. After all,how could anyone reproduce or represent –taking representation as a form of reproduction,as a form of doubling its object– what he cannot see, what he does not have access to?Someone could argue that a writer (like Tristram or Sterne) must know in order toexpress,as a painter needs to see in order to reproduce –in a word, that an artist, as everybody else,must possess, somehow, the ‘object’ he pretends to offer through art, in order to be able tooffer it. Otherwise, would not the artist’s offer be a false offer? According to Wolfgang Iser,even if man is not ‘transparent’, all attempts to define its character must not necessarily beillusory?
If so, what are the advantages of the hobby-horse? Or depending on its success,could the figure of hobby-horse pass for a substitute of Momus’s glass?Tristram, however, does notseem too apprehensive about the possibility of failing inhis attempts to characterise his uncle Toby, his father, or even himself, through the figure of the hobby-horse, a figure that is going to run as ‘a kind of back-ground to the whole’ (I, ix,
Hugo Blumenthal ©2006
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from Laurence Sterne,
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,Gentleman
, ed. by Melvyn New and Joan New (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997).
Martin Battestin, ‘Sterne: The Poetics of Sensibility’, in
Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne’s
Tristram Shandy, ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), [pp. 59-86], pp. 81-82.
Wolfgang Iser, ‘Eighteenth-century anthropology’,
 Laurence Sterne: “Tristram Shandy”
, trans. by HenryWilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988) [pp. 48-54], p. 50.
15). Because Momus’s glass is considered merely as an ‘advantage’, it is possible to think that there could be other ways to represent the true character of a man, that such anenterprise could, after all, be achieved, and that the hobby-horse could be one of suchways. If that is the case, perhaps the most logical question to ask first is what is a hobby-horse;only then it would be possible to try to understand why Sterne/Tristram could have chose‘to ride’ with it.Originally, the word ‘hobby-horse’ was mainly used to designate a wooden imitation of a horse’s head attached to a broom, used in the morris or the mummer’s dance; what todayremains mainly as a children’s toy. It was, therefore, a non-realistic representation of ahorse, that riders (dancers and children) supplied with their own legs (sometimes concealed,as John Vignaux Smyth notes), to sustain the illusion of riding a (real) horse.
As with mostgames, it was a question of enjoying an illusion (the hobby-horse) without mistaking itcompletely for what was supposed to represent (a horse). Curiously enough, ‘hobby-horse’was also a slang term for prostitute in Sterne’s day –as Elizabeth Kraft remind us–, a usethat could be traced back as far as Shakespeare.
Tristram, however, uses the hobby-horse as a metaphor for something different: after all, Toby’s fortifications, Walter’s theories, or Tristram’s autobiographical narration, don’tseem to include any ‘hobby-horse’ to explicitly designate any of the meanings theterm originally alluded. What happens is that Tristram assigns an extra meaning tothe ‘hobby-horse’, using it as a sign of a sign, to designate a sort of benevolentobsession that helps to organise, understand and interact with the world. In psychoanalyticterms, a hobby-horse could then be conceived as a sort of neurosis, that, though in excess itcould hardly be considered healthy, it is always preferable to the psychosis an individualcould have in its absence. [That is not to say that Tristram, Walter, or Toby, are latent psychotics; only that Tristram’s use of the ‘hob by-horse’ seems closer to a certain degree of necessary neurosis, that constitutes every subject (though it is more evident in some peoplethan others); a constitutive neurosis that if somebody were going to eliminate, could end upwith the loss of the subject into a psychosis.] In other words, the hobby-horse is a way todeal with the Real. Therefore, as Battestin points out, the order that thehobby-horse‘affords is real enough and necessary to the rider, but in an absolute sense it isillusory.’Despite such departure from the more familiar meanings of the ‘hobby-horse’ atthe time, it is difficult to believe that Sterne could have chosen such a figure without
Hugo Blumenthal ©2006
John Vignaux Smyth, , ‘Sterne’,
 A Question of Eros. Irony in Sterne, Kierkegaard, and Barthes
(Tallahassee:Florida State University Press, 1986) [pp. 13-100], p. 45n.
Elizabeth Kraft,
 Laurence Sterne Revisited 
(New York: Twayne, 1996), p. 63. See also John Vignaux Smyth,‘Sterne’,
 A Question of Eros.
 p. 45n; and ‘Hobby-horse’, Oxford English Dictionary Online,http://dictionary.oed.com/
Martin Battestin, ‘Sterne: The Poetics of Sensibility’, p. 66.
acknowledging, and intending, somehow, those other meanings that the readerscould have hardly avoided as connotations. Following then what seems to be thedoubling-up of a sign, the hobby-horse could be read as intending to point out theartificiality of those obsessions on which a man rides on, or dances with; anartificiality concealed in part by the rider himself (who hides his/her own legs). Andwith Tristram recognising Shakespeare as an influence, even the connotation of ‘prostitute’ for the hobby-horse doesn’t seem out of place, especially since Tristramat some point makes an analogy between uncleToby and his military games, andhaving sex with a woman; an analogy not difficult to untie through the hobby-horse,when the sexual act has been commonly represented as a kind of ‘riding’; in this case ridinga hobby-horse is like riding a ‘false’ woman, that stands for a real one.Whereas the figure of the hobby-horse incorporated all those meanings or more,its use as a privileged form to enable characterisation was not entirely original, ithas its precedents in a long tradition of the use of figures (as ‘humours’, ‘
’,etc.), to try to understand and define man. But that doesn’t mean they are all thesame, for Tristram at least is going to try to tak esome distance from one aspect of thiskind of tradition, declaring that[…] no shall my pencil be guided by any one wind instrument which ever was blown upon, either on this, or on the other side of the Alps; –nor will Iconsider either [Toby’s] repletions or his discharges, –or touch upon his Non-Naturals […] (I, xxiii, 61)And the same could be said about ‘the old doctrine of the humours […] which sawhuman nature as an unbalanced mixture of body fluids […] though the basis of the mixtureremained unknown’ –as Iser points out–, since, after all, the hobby-horse is proposed as asubstitution for a mechanical way of representation, and –again, according to Iser– ‘whatcould be more mechanical’ than such a doctrine?
(D. W. Jefferson, however, would havedisagreed with Iser, since he sees such figures in a more rhetorical way, as figures of ‘learned wit’ that allowed a certain degree of freedom in the construction of fabuloustheories, as Walter Shandy seems to demonstrate so well.)
As Battestin points out, Sterne’snotion of the hobby-horse seems closer is tothe theory of the ruling passion popular in contemporary psychology and mostmemorably stated in Pope’s
 Epistle to Cobham
and the
 Essay on Man
. […][according to which] if we would know the characters of men, Pope’s adviceis to “Search then the Ruling Passion.”
Hugo Blumenthal ©2006
Wolfgang Iser, ‘Eighteenth-century anthropology’, p. 51.
Cf. D. W. Jefferson,
Tristram Shandy
and the Tradition of Learned Wit’, in
 New Casebooks: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
, ed. by Melvyn New (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 17-35.
Martin Battestin, ‘Sterne: The Poetics of Sensibility’, p. 65. See also Henri Fluchère,
 Laurence Sterne: FromTristram to Yorick. An Interpretation of Tristram Shandy
, trans. by Barbara Bray (London: OxfordUniversity Press, 1965) pp. 284-285.

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