Melancholy and the Hobbyhorse

‘A Man’s body and mind, with the utmost reverence to both I speak it, are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin’s lining;– rumple the one–you rumple the other. There is one certain exception however in this case, and that is, when you are so fortunate a fellow, as to have had your jerkin made of a gum-taffeta, and the body-lining to it, of a sarcenet or thin Persian.’

What a metaphor for the fragile link between mind and body! Sterne’s preoccupation with internal matters is clear to see. Mind and body, imagination and reality, both generate friction through their incompatibility in the Shandean, the ‘fortunate fellow’ with an unusually flexible mind. It is a mind whose imagination is subject to distortion, a fact that causes difficulties for each of the central characters in Tristram Shandy, as their fancies are proved incompatible with the physical world. It is telling that the catalyst for Sterne’s creations to immerse themselves in fancy is so often to be found in the library – whether in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s Essays, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Sterne shares with Cervantes a taste for the playfully self-referential, each author maintaining a level of self-consciousness by writing about writing throughout. Cervantes confesses ‘Many times I took my pen to write it, and many times I put it down, not knowing what to say.’ Whereas Tristram is more likely have the opposite problem: ‘Ask my pen, it governs me, I govern not it’. But the most obvious common ground between the two is their ability to create amiable madmen. The eccentric dispositions of Don Quixote and Uncle Toby provoke a laughter more affectionate than contemptuous.

As Toby and Quixote mount their hobbyhorses, we can trace the progression from a harmless diversion into a ruling passion, and see how easily people can be ensnared. Toby is disturbed by his inability to explain the precise circumstances of his war wound, so he dips into military model-making and finds it to his liking. From similarly innocent beginnings, Quixote derives such joy from medieval romance that ‘he almost entirely forgot the care of his estate . . . he sold many acres of cornland to buy these books of chivalry’.

When he meets others on his travels, such as the innkeeper and the whores, who wheedle money from this earnest knight that genuinely believes himself to be in a medieval castle, Quixote becomes an object of both ridicule and pity. His compassion for the shepherd boy is comparably admirable and naive. He demands that the master pay the boy his outstanding wages, but the intervention is counter-productive. The boy is given an even sounder beating once Quixote has left; and yet Quixote is happy, trusting that the master will keep to his word.

The amours of Uncle Toby and Don Quixote are as misguided and endearing as a schoolyard crush. Quixote aims to imitate his knights as closely as possible, which requires an imitation of love. When he thinks of the girl from the farm, Quixote cries to ‘conform to what he had read in his books about knights errant spending many sleepless nights in woodland and desert, dwelling on the memory of their ladies.’ The affair of Toby and Widow Wadman may be less superficial, but because of Toby’s military fixation, love is constantly equated with warfare. Like the scaled-down battles in the garden, it is an imitation of reality. Toby and Trim put on their swords and breeches to make their own ‘attack’, planned with the precision of a Napoleon. Trim briefs Toby that ‘we’ll march up boldly, as if ’twas to the face of a bastion I’ll attack Mrs Bridget in the kitchen, to the left: and having seiz’d that pass, I’ll answer for it that the day is our own’. So through Toby’s desire to imitate his favourite generals, and Quixote’s desire to mimic his knights, women are drawn into the alternate universe of these imaginings – but reality resists once more, as neither Toby nor Quixote quite manage to convince the ladies in question.

Tristram insists, nonetheless, that the military hobbyhorse ‘carried my uncle Toby so well,– that he troubled his head very little with what the world either said or thought about it’, implying that it is wrong to judge Toby.

Rather than opt for cathartic confrontation, Montaigne constantly ducks to avoid the ‘inward goblin’ of melancholy. In ‘On Diverting and Diversions’ he counsels the reader ‘neither to bear nor break, but to shun or divert, the blow’. Montaigne draws on literature for authority, as he diverts the flow of his own essay away from melancholy into a series of anecdotes: ‘Epicurus also at his death comforted himself in the eternity and worth of his writings’. To put on a remarkable show can also draw attention away from problems. Montaigne notes that Alcibiades would mutilate his dog so that ‘other actions’ might pass unnoticed. With empty chapters, a preface halfway through volume VII and black pages to signify death, can Tristram be mutilating his book to relieve attention from an unhappy, unfulfilling life? Five chapters in, he rues having ever been born into such a ‘vile, dirty, planet’.

Stuck as we are on this vile, dirty planet, the best we can do is to attempt some sort of reconciliation. Montaigne’s work is wildly digressive, but it is also pointedly scattered. That he spent the remainder of his life adding to each essay indicates a peculiarly stylised disorder. Montaigne creates a tapestry by setting passages separated by some 20 years beside each other.

The incompatibility of Walter Shandy’s arcane, bookish theories with reality suggests that the literary hobbyhorse is just another form of escapism. Montaigne himself concedes that poetry ‘represents a kind of air more lovely than love itself’. Walter will utilise his rhetorical capabilities to transport his thoughts far away from uncomfortable situations, as with the news of Bobby’s death. His oration is precipitated by Tristram’s alluding to over twenty figures from antiquity in the chapter’s opening paragraph, and before long Walter is immersed in his books, ruminating on the fall of Troy and Mycenae; ‘Better in battle! continued my father, smiling, for he had absolutely forgot my brother Bobby.’ In this instance, literature exorcises Walter’s pain – but to forget about a recently deceased loved one is not quite compatible with social codes. Hence the function of books can appear simultaneously wonderful and deplorable.

Montaigne is not caught short in the physical world because he owns up to the mind/body discrepancy and tries to control, not suppress, the conflict. Suppression will betray itself, and Walter’s disgust at ‘the desires and appetites of the lower half of us’ is contradicted by the vocabulary used to frame his performance and the sexual overtones of its violence. Tristram describes his father ‘thrusting and ripping, giving everyone a stroke to remember him by in turn’. Toby’s sport is war but Walter’s pastime is more warlike. His son’s method of reportage leaves Walter’s approach susceptible to questioning. When the celebrated squiggle from Trim’s stick leaves Tristram in raptures, he declares that ‘a thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy’, which says very little for his father’s subtle syllogisms.

Walter’s laborious ‘facts of life’ letter to Toby has a conspiratorial feel. Literature is a weapon to hoard from women, lest knowledge empower them. Of comic literature, he says ‘Keep her from all books and writings which tend thereto, suffer her not to look into Rabelais, or Scarron, or Don Quixote’. The ill-tempered misogyny provoked by Walter’s reading shows a more dangerous side to the hobbyhorse than Toby’s harmless (if tasteless) war games in the garden.

Tristram differentiates between his own hobbyhorse, ‘the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour . . . to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life’ and ‘my father’s ass’, which will kick back at its rider. Montaigne asserts that ‘Men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, and not by the things themselves’. To be well-read is to multiply these opinions and therefore the potential causes of torment. If the hobbyhorse is valuable as a cure for/diversion from melancholy, Walter’s ass is surely the point where the cure itself requires a cure.

Which is, of course, where Robert Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy becomes relevant, saturated as it is with a vast range of lists and references, bursting at the seams with information. Maintaining as he does a constant self-awareness, Burton probably had his own task in mind when he declared that satirists ‘must sacrifice to the god of laughter once a day, or else be melancholy themselves.’ His remedies against melancholy are often taken up by the Shandys.

Accordingly, Burton’s discussion of a scholar’s misery provokes pity for Walter, Quixote and friends. ‘How many poor scholars have lost their wits to gain knowledge for which, after all their pains, in this world’s esteem they are accounted ridiculous fools, idiots, asses, and (as oft as they are rejected), conterned, derided, doting and mad!’ The temptation to bury oneself deep in the library can be understood. Burton is mesmerised and delighted by the art of writing and explains this delightfully. ‘In this labyrinth of accidental causes, the farther I wander, the more intricate I find the passage; there are many windings, and new causes as so many by paths offer themselves to be discussed.’ Burton himself did not learn of human suffering first-hand, but from the comfort of his own study in Oxford. Likewise it is Walter and Toby’s state of retirement that enables them to give full rein to their hobbyhorsical trajectories.

Tristram may pull of spectacular stunts, but his consistent inability to confront his own life and opinions render such tricks hopeless. The outside world once more unseats a Shandy from his hobbyhorse. All of the aforementioned melancholic wits display a pathological need to write, immersing themselves in quotations and digressions to keep melancholy at bay. By turning a traumatic event into a literary artefact, Tristram achieves a degree of catharsis. ‘My nerves relax as I tell it.–Every line I write, I feel an abatement of the quickness of my pulse’. But the hobbyhorse can often bring on something just as deranged in its place.

If a fundamental dishonesty and misrepresentation is required to avert melancholy, can the aversion be justified? Must we choose between happiness and the truth? Sterne makes no definitive decision, but portrays the hobbyhorse as a harmless illusion that carries its rider through crises. Rather than ask whether Tristram Shandy is a tome of wisdom or a mild diversion, we should perhaps accept it to be wise precisely because it serves as a diversion.

Jamie Manners | Summer 2004