Hobby-Horses And The Definition Of CharacterIn Laurence Sterne’s
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.