skip to Main Content

Afterforeword – Ian Duhig

Why Afterforeword? Well, I felt this was a hybrid of a foreword and afterword, coming
up with this Germanic-sounding compound as a solution. I also thought so much prose
before the body of poetry and art here would deter some readers, while I hope those
interested by the foregoing may continue their investigations here. It is also true that
the making of Digressions has been in many ways a paradoxical process, not least
because in Tristram Shandy, Sterne introduces us to a paradoxical world, reversing
many of a reader’s expectations; regarding Tristram Shandy, Horace Walpole wrote
“the great humour of which consists in the whole narration always going backwards”,
and though its chronology might suggest this from time, its structure is nowhere near
as simple as that. Furthermore, the novel itself can be viewed as having risen from the
dead, Samuel Johnson famously declaring it deceased in his lifetime: “Nothing odd will
do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” The corpse went on to show much greater vigour
than the doctor and it is healthier than ever today.

Bearing that in mind, where should we begin? You’ll notice, should you visit Shandy
Hall, a framed and mounted Krauze cartoon from Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost
Books. This shows a copy of Tristram Shandy carved into the shape of a maze, an
appropriate emblem for the course of the Digressions project, which began to take its
labyrinthine shape at the end of 2013, the Tercentenary of Sterne’s birth. Like Gaul and
Yorkshire, Digressions is divided into three parts: poetry, art and prose, appearing both
in this book and magazines, on the internet and at exhibitions scheduled for Yorkshire
and London, as well as travelling events on a smaller scale which are a mixture of
these. To a certain extent, this tripartite division reflects Horace Walpole’s claim that
“Poetry, Painting, and Gardening, or the science of Landscape, will be forever by
men of Taste deemed Three Sisters, or the Three New Graces who dress and adorn
Nature”; although we hope that our Sisters will appeal to women of Taste as well, we
couldn’t pretend to be adorning Nature, and certainly not in God’s Own County, as
its natives are pleased to call it, where my Gardening will take the form of pointing at
neglected places within its landscape in a kind of knock-off John Baldessari exhibition.
I’ve always liked the notion of a ‘riding’ as a measure, an unusually dynamic unit which
here and now it puts me in mind Frost’s analogy for a poem’s course as ice riding its
own dissolution. Digressions was measured out by the ridings of my string of hobby
horses and the melting of forms. The only other place I have personally come across
in these islands divided into ridings is Tipperary, where Sterne (and my father) were
born and there is an Irish dimension, among many others, to Digressions. Although
he himself could display virulent anti-Catholicism and use the adjective ‘Irish’ as a
term of abuse in the ecclesiastical and political disputes he became caught up in, it is
worth bearing in mind that he lived through the very real Catholic threat of the Jacobite
rising under the Young Pretender. There is a very real military dimension to Sterne,
a soldier’s son, in his life and work, and it is one that is also reflected in Digressions.
On the question of his bigotry, nevertheless, it is important to remember that Sterne
spoke out for the victims of the slave trade at a time when it was neither fashionable
nor advantageous for him to do so. In 1766, Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne asking
him to write something against slavery, encouraged by a passage he read in Sterne’s
sermons, which had recently appeared as The Sermons of Mr Yorick. Sterne replied
to Sancho and kept copies of the letters. We will return later to what Sterne wrote
responding to this in Tristram Shandy.

A vaguely racist undertone lingers in a popular usage word ‘Irish’ as I am going
to invoke it to reclaim it here, meaning quaint, paradoxical, back-to-front, as in the
phrase “That’s very Irish of you”, employed when the speaker has uttered something
in apparent contradiction of common sense, for example in Mahaffey’s explanation
of an ‘Irish bull’ (an expression related to ‘a cock and bull story’) when he said “An
Irish bull is always pregnant”. In this peculiar linguistic sense, it could be said that
Tristram Shandy is one of the most Irish novels ever written. However, I’d go further
in justification of the Irish dimension of Digressions by pointing to Sterne’s real literary
influence on significant Irish writers such as James Joyce and Flann O’Brien especially
in the latter’s novel The Third Policeman, where hobby horses are updated into bicycles
in a world of circular wanderings.

Of course,Tristram Shandy’s influence was felt throughout Europe as well as in the
Anglophone countries—in Russia, for example on Pushkin, while the novel’s discovery
by the Russian Formalists in the 1920s gave it a new lease of life there. Shklovsky
analysed Tristram Shandy as being structured around digressions sabotaging narrative
momentum to a principle that he called “retardation” However, I was more particularly
taken with the playfulness of one German response to Tristram Shandy, Hoffman’s The
Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, where the composer and author almost out-Shandies
Sterne in his crazy inventiveness. In this book, the eponymous feline has written his
prose and poetry on the back of what he considers to be waste paper, in fact Johannes
Kreisler’s story, in the process confusing and reversing our reading time in that narrative
of the archetypal Romantic Kreisler, whose name invokes ‘Kreis’ meaning circle. Murr
is even involved in some of the same play of identities shown in Tristram Shandy, for
example in Volume VII Chapter 33: “as sure as I am I and you are you—and who are
you? said he.—Don’t puzzle me; said I.” In Part 1 of The Life and Opinions of Tomcat
Murr, he muses, “I then fell into a state that, dividing my Self in a curious way from my
Self, yet seemed to be my real self.” Passages like this seem especially contemporary
given our modern interrogation of the lyric I and the persistence of the Ego in literary
criticism. Sterne carried these games into real life when in London he could move
between being Sterne, Tristram and Yorick. This is like a playful version of the fate
of thieves in Dante’s Inferno who, because they made no distinction between ‘meum’
and ‘tuum’, lose even their stable egos. The issue of theft brings calls up a very present
concern with plagiarism, especially in the world of poetry, by which I don’t mean
Détournement, or the use of appropriated texts by Conceptual writers in new ways,
but passing off other people’s work as your own to win prizes in competitions or gain
publication kudos (a digression I don’t have time to pursue would involve an analysis
of gender power relationships in this area and why these kinds of plagiarists seem to
be all male, even though they frequently steal women’s writings). Of a very different
nature is what lies behind Tristram Shandy’s histrionic denunciation of plagiarism—itself
plagiarised from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

A tune is a hobby horse that can be ridden by lyrics with very different allegiances in a
practice we can trace from medieval contrafacta to modern football chants. However,
here I am as much concerned with the character of the tune. I wrote an article once
for Poetry Ireland Review connecting Irish song styles with the narrative techniques of
Sterne, Paul Muldoon and Flann O’Brien, among others, quoting Samuel P. Bayard:
“The English singer’s leaning to relatively straightforward and simple melodic lines is
counteracted in Irish tradition by a love of ornament, of multiplying notes, of varying
rhythmic patterns by this sort of multiplication. This ornamental tendency gives Irish
music a ‘wavering and unemphatic movement’ as opposed to the English preference for
the sort of melodic movement that ‘gets somewhere’, while the Irish habit of lingering on
certain notes and tones, ‘repeating them before going on to another tone, thus almost
impeding the onward course of the melody…dwelling on inconclusive or indecisive
scale-tones that do not contribute to resolution or finality in the entire phrase or musical
utterance…” For all the world, this sounds very much like Shklovsky’s principle of
retardation applied to Irish singing.

Researching Digressions involved consideration of, and discoveries in, not only
historical texts, but many at the very forefront of contemporary experimental poetry.
A number of authors who have held residencies at Shandy Hall are of international
standing in the field of Conceptual writing, such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin
and Christian Bök. I could not fail to find Conceptual writing interesting, not least as it
appears in part to be a hybrid of art and literature as Sterne frequently referred to what
he was doing in Tristram Shandy as “painting”. I decided that if I got the opportunity
to do something sustained with Tristram Shandy, I should set up an artist’s mirror
opposite my own to multiply the creative reflections that would become available. When
Arts Council of England funding made it possible, I immediately thought of Philippa
Troutman. I have enjoyed her own work for many years and responded to some of it in
my last book Pandorama, which contains a sequence based on her travelling exhibition
The Shanties, developed from her research into the lives of the railway navvies and
their families, and the horrors they suffered during the building of the Ribblehead
Viaduct. Her sense of place was important, as I wanted the real place of Shandy Hall,
Coxwold village and its countryside to anchor what I was trying to do in space and time,
however those categories might be fluid. Wallace Stevens wrote that we do not live in
places but in the descriptions of places and I was keen to incorporate new renditions of
locality in Digressions beyond the verbal. However, beyond any notion of her sensitivity
place and history, Philippa is a very versatile, contemporary and experimental artist.
For example, I quickly saw the value of her cut-ups of Tristram Shandy’s text: apart
from being visually interesting, they developed its theme of accident and we called
Sortes Shandeanae, ‘Shandean Lots’, on the analogy of ‘Virgilian Lots’, although I don’t
recommend it as a predictive tool. In printmaking, she introduced me not only to a great
range of techniques, but also to accidents of the process such as ‘foul bite’, where acid
strays into affects unintended areas of the metal, full of intellectual reverberations in
relation to place and trespass in society and genres of art. A reference in a book I read
during this time, Printmaking Today by Jules Heller, seemed particularly relevant:
“The Printmaker is a most peculiar being. He (sic) delights in deferred gratification
and in doing what does not come naturally. He takes pleasure in working backward
or in opposites: the gesture that produces a line of force moving to the right prints to
the left, and vice versa; a deeply engraved trench in a copper or zinc plate prints as a
depression in the paper. Left is right. Right is left. Backward is forward. The Printmaker,
peculiar as he is, must see at least two sides to every question.”
Philippa also introduced me to suminagashi (‘floating ink’) marbling techniques
added new dimensions to my understanding of these processes, which I had some
acquaintance with having contributed to Shandy Hall’s The Emblem of My Work
exhibition of 2013, inspired by Tristram Shandy’s marbled page. In one style of
suminagashi, Japanese court artists sought to let ink on prepared paper immersed in
the marbling trough to dissolve and create new patterns on the surface of the liquid,
parallel to processes we were engaged in, immersing the text of Tristram Shandy in
new media, seeing how its ink drifted smokily, reconstituting itself into new meanings.
Alternatively, in the more usual suminagashi technique, where ink is dripped onto the
surface of the liquid, its growing enclosed spheres reminded me of the matryoshka
worlds of the Ptolemaic cosmic model destroyed by the Wold Newton meteorite, which
I will return to shortly. Ptolemy’s tiered and broken worlds also reflected the science
fiction Wold Newton Universe created by Philip José Farmer, another new discovery
entering the creative mix after I chanced upon his writings. Philippa’s flexibility with
techniques and approaches was a perfect foil for me for investigating Sterne’s motley
novel in different settings.

Motley, things being various, hybrid and becoming each other in the world I was
investigating led me to be particularly struck by a passage in Matthew Sperling’s
excellent new book Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words.
Interpreting poem 20 of Speech! Speech! where Hill writes “you wriggle so, / old shapeshifter”,
Sperling interestingly comments “Language itself, therefore, is the ‘old shapeshifter’”.
Hill’s Mercian Hymns hadn’t been long published when I started as a student
at Leeds University in 1974 where Hill was working at the time and it is one of his
collections I have a special affection for as a result. Among other aspects of the book,
I liked the way Offa as presiding genius passed through time and space and modes of
address, and this was certainly in my mind while writing Digressions, although I was
working at a less serious level, in the sense that I wanted a Shandean spirit to permeate
the landscape as well as my words.
I read Sperling’s book at the same time as I was studying the ghost stories collected
by a monk from Byland Abbey in the Middle Ages, which M.R. James brought to the
attention of a wider public at the beginning of the last century. These tales often had
Christian morals tacked on to Scandinavian patterns, for the Viking penetration of
Yorkshire went very deep indeed, linguistically as well as imaginatively. When I was
at Leeds University, its English Department hosted research into the Dialect Atlas of
Great Britain, where I learned, for example, as we keep returning to the notion of ‘play’
here, that the Yorkshire word ‘laikin’, meaning playing, was etymologically related to the
name of the child’s toy Lego. The terror of the Byland tales reside not so much in what
the ghosts do as in the flux of their being, not just from human to animal, but from living
matter into inanimate objects, much like the fate of the thief in Dante’s Inferno. In M.R.
James’ short story Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance, the suggestion is made that the
soul of Humphrey’s damned uncle is transmuted into an Irish yew. For some reason,
I identified this yew with the tree that fell in a storm enabling Byland Abbey to be seen
from Shandy Hall.

A maze plays a central part in this M.R. James story and planning digressions around
Shandy Hall I read about some interesting-sounding local mazes. Alerted by Chris
Pearson at Shandy Hall, Philippa and I attempted to visit one of them, Asenby’s
Maiden’s Bower. I met Philippa for the Asenby trip in Ripon and took the opportunity
to Shandy about in Market Place while I waited for her. In places like that, I see
dead people: it’s witch-smellers, wife-sellers and Catholic recusants gathered for
the disastrous Rising of the North. Appleton’s Butchers is still there, its sausages so
gorgeous Naomi Jacob described them as “poems in skins”, not to be brutally stabbed
by a fork on the frying pan but pierced with a darning needle. This reminded me of
Tomcat Murr’s description of books with mixed poems and prose, where he opines
that the former should be like lumps of bacon in a sausage, to be discovered with
a special glee—which only goes to show that this modern fashion of presenting a
“sausage” as a collapsed pattie betrays its very essence; the content and the form have
a vital interdependence as with a poem, be it subject to Oulipian constraint or the rules
governing villanelles.

On arrival at the site of the Asenby maze, located behind the Crab and Lobster pub
according to our information, the landlord told me he’d never heard of it, which I found
hard to believe. On further investigation outside, as I stumbled about like a lost minotaur
looking for its maze, half Irish bull, we discovered the mound on which the maze was
supposed to be located was now part of a miniature or ‘crazy golf’ course. Sorry that
such a feature of topographical interest had been lost in this way, I comforted myself
by remembering that ‘Shandy’ used to mean ‘crazy’ and imagining what Shandean
golf might be like, with bunkers including Toby and Trim’s military earthworks and
holes missing, in the wrong order, or subject to metaphysical speculation with double
entendres about holes being deployed in battalions.

Philippa and I did, however, on another expedition eventually manage to find the City
of Troy, coiled on its hillside like a Cumberland sausage, a humble piece of land art
with that magnificent, legendary name. Modest though it is, and I understand it to be
the smallest such maze in Europe, this turf mandala which never seems to appear on
maps is a perfect location for ‘bewilderment’ in Fanny Howe’s sense: a site physically
reflecting the spirals of poetry in its structures of repetition and refrain, like Bayard’s
Irish music or those ancient recurring spirals Jorn described in his unrealised 10,000
Years of Nordic Folk Art. The circular mazes of Jerusalem Miles in cathedrals were
supposed to replace an actual pilgrimage, but our actual pilgrimages resembled
entering the labyrinth of a Jerusalem Mile after we set off from from Leeds on shuttling
journeys over the life of Digressions.

Leeds is a paradoxical place in itself, its name sounding a pun full of promise to the
seeker while being “completely outside the literary world” according to the former editor
of Granta, John Freeman. The architectural historian Patrick Nuttgens titled his 1979
book about the place Leeds: the Back to Front Inside Out Upside Down City and in its
opening sentences wrote “The first and most constant problem with the City of Leeds
is to find it. There never was a more faceless city or a more deceptive one. It hasn’t a
face because it has too many faces, all of them different; it’s a city without logical unity.”
Perfect, therefore, as a springboard for launching an investigation into a Shandean
world. I’m not a native, and it always has been a focus for immigration, with significant
Irish, Caribbean, African and Jewish communities. This has made it a target of
prejudice and regarding the last of these groups it has attracted anti-Semitic nicknames
which include the Holy City and the Jerusalem of the North—paradoxical abuse, you
might think, for an old Puritan town. Leeds’ Jewish communities centred formerly on
Chapeltown, and we’d take the Chapeltown Road where live to get to Ripon, Shandy
Hall and our other digressions including the City of Troy, a road I found out was made
by a blind man, Jack Metcalf. Metcalf was building roads at the same time that Sterne
was writing Tristram Shandy, and it seemed significant in itself that a blind man should
make the straight road I took to get lost in Sterne’s labyrinthine novel and our network
of Digressions from and around Coxwold including the maze of Troy.

After having photographed, made notes on and sketched the City of Troy, we
discovered that leaving it is even more difficult than finding it. It is possible to drive north
or south from there, not easy to drive east and impossible to drive due west, a bit like a
version of Abbott’s Lineland but gathering ancient mythical associations of being cut off
from the land of the dead in the direction of the sunset. I’m assuming this difficulty in the
roads is something to do with the long-gone railway line; I’d noticed the Coxwold signalbox
at the bottom of the village, now there only for ghost trains or “trains of ideas”, as
Locke describes them, which complicate so enrichingly the narrative of Tristram
Shandy. I felt as if the imaginary train had been conflated with the fiend at the end of
Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, which was pursuing me from Troy because,
like it, I was too much a creature of the straight line. Film as a medium was much in my
mind while working on Digressions, perhaps because of Michael Winterbottom’s
achievement in his film A Cock and Bull Story, a paradoxically successful version of
what most people would regard as the essentially unfilmable Tristram Shandy achieved
by foregrounding those very problems, among other means. I’ve often thought that film
is closer to poetry than prose as both rely on successions of images, while the non-
Shandean novel, in Eudora Welty’s phrase must attend to the mechanics of getting
people in and out of rooms. Rebecca Solnit, in another book I recommend, her A Field
Guide to Getting Lost, uses the physical image of film-strip for an Ariadne thread,
especially apposite in this context, while Patrick Keiller in The View From The Train
writes “Films even physically resemble railway tracks – long, parallel sided strips divided
laterally by frame lines and perforations, as is the railway by sleepers.” Straight roads
and railway tracks are what busy city people want, not to mention developing
capitalism—Patrick Keiller has made the Wold Newton Meteorite a harbinger of
deracinated mobile labour exploited through the Speenhamland System. This puts me
in mind of how in Das Kapital Marx’s biographer Francis Wheen sees the influence of
Sterne, making that work, like Tristram Shandy, “full of systems and syllogisms,
paradoxes and metaphysics, theories and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and
whimsical tomfoolery.”

I quoted Wallace Stevens earlier and here invoke his definition “A poem is a meteor”. I
think his idea was that they consume themselves with their own fire, rather like Frost’s
ice poem which rides its own melting that I invoked earlier. If part of them make it to
Earth, they become even more laden with symbolism—Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s
grail was a meteorite, for example. The area around Shandy Hall is historically rich
with them and meteorites have a particular appeal now to artists such as Cornelia
Parker and Patrick Keiller. When I had the opportunity to discuss them with Cornelia
Parker, she mentioned her ambition to relaunch one into space, which seems an
appropriately paradoxical and Shandean thing to do. At a literally more mundane level,
Patrick Keiller included the Wold Cottage Stone in his Robinson Institute in the context
already mentioned, but it has always had a particularly Shandean significance for
me. I first came across it, as paradigm-shattering in its scientific sphere as Tristram
Shandy was in literature, in the course of reading Roger Osborne’s A Floating Egg:
Episodes in the Making of Geology. Osborne describes how it landed on the grounds of
Edward Topham in Wold Newton, and quotes Topham’s letter to the Oracle newspaper
published on 12th February 1796:
“At Bridlington, and at different villages, sounds were heard in the air, which the
inhabitants took to be the noise of guns at sea; but at two adjoining villages, the noise
was so distinct of something singular passing through the air towards my habitation, that
five or six people came up to see if anything extraordinary had happened to my house
or grounds.

In burying itself in the earth it threw up a greater quantity of soil than a shell would,
and to a much greater extent. When the labourer recovered from the extreme alarm into
which the descent of such a Stone had thrown him, his first description was, “that the
clouds opened as it fell, and he thought HEAVEN and EARTH were coming together!”
Edward Topham is only one of the fascinating characters I stumbled upon during the
Digressions project. He was the son of the model for Sterne’s Didius, Francis Topham,
who first propelled the author into a literary career with his The Adventures of a Watch-
Coat (Didius also appears in Tristram Shandy) directed at Francis, who had attempted
to secure for Edward the living of Sutton-in-the-Forest at York. The boy Edward led the
famous 1768 boys’ revolt at Eton but later, joining the army, he earned the gratitude
of the King by clearing Parliament Square during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. He
later founded the most scurrilous and successful paper of his day, The World, during
his tenure there establishing the limits of the laws of libel, setting the precedent that the
dead cannot be libelled. Returning to Yorkshire as a magistrate, he took up dog-racing
and bred one of the most famous greyhounds in history, Snowball—with appropriate
paradox for our theme, a black dog.

However, getting back to the significance of his meteorite, it far transcends the literary,
requiring a new scientific understanding of such phenomena: Humphry Davy’s address
on taking the chair for his first ordinary meeting of the Royal Society as President
includes the passage on “meteors which, in passing through our atmosphere, throw
down showers of stones; for it cannot be doubted that they belong to the heavens,
and that they are not fortuitous or atmospheric formations”, it having previously been
imagined that such astronomical traffic was impossible due to the legacy of a Ptolemaic
model of our solar system and that meteorites were the result of volcanic eruptions
sending matter into the atmosphere that then fell back to earth. This paradigm shift
necessitated considerable adjustment in some quarters, Thomas Jefferson supposedly
declaring “It is easier to believe that Yankee professors would lie rather than that
stones would fall from Heaven.” The phenomenon stirred later American imaginations
though as the event founded a whole school of US science fiction writing, the Wold
Newton Family centred around the work of Philip José Farmer. Farmer’s conceit was
that passing coach passengers included pregnant women, radioactively affected by
the meteorite at the genetic level so their descendants ultimately included the likes of
Sherlock Holmes’ adversary Moriarty, H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller, Allan Quatermain,
Doc Savage, Tarzan, Raffles, and Leopold Bloom—not the only appearance of Joyce
in Farmer’s oeuvre: his 1967 novella, Riders of the Purple Wage is a pastiche of
Finnegans Wake. That Farmer is keen on unlikely crossover figures can be deduced
from the title of another of his books, Jesus on Mars. I knew I should maintain a
sensitivity to the Christian dimensions of Sterne’s work but I hadn’t imagined it would
take me to the Red Planet.

Having found so much of interest flowing from the Wold Newton Meteorite, a trip to
Byland Abbey and the nearby Kilburn White Horse with Philippa was also attractive
because of the history of the Hambleton Meteorite, a pallasite discovered near there
in 2005, in relation to which I was very interested to come across a widely-held view
now that it is a remnant of the Great Meteor of 1783, the year of a major edition of
Sterne’s life and works (there is a copy in Shandy Hall library). One unlikely report of
the Great Meteor contained in a contemporary issue of The London Magazine concerns
an officer’s account as seen from his warship moored off Ireland, which mentions it
stopping and reversing before continuing its former course, a very Sternean thing for it
to do. So I Shandied about in Google for 1783 to see what other Sternean things were
going on and discovered it to be the year of a stage version of Tristram Shandy as ‘a
bagatelle in two acts’. This adaptation was by the Dublin barrister Leonard McNally, and
“a sentimental and jingoistic celebration of British military might” according to Oakley in
A Culture of Mimicry. McNally’s legal writings fixed the standard of criminal prosecution
at beyond reasonable doubt; as well as a playwright, he was a lyricist most famous
for The Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill. McNally was a founder member of the United
Irishmen, betraying them systematically to the Crown at every stage through to offering
to act as defence counsel for its leaders after the failure of the 1798 Rising (which
McNally did so much to bring about), ensuring their convictions by secretly cooperating
with the prosecution. I contacted Donald MacRaild, Professor of British and Irish History
at the University of Ulster, about McNally, who as you can imagine is neither popular
with the Irish or the English, to try and gain some insight into his motives. Money,
Donald said. Britain was one of the richest countries in the world then and paid vast
sums in today’s terms to maintain its security on its vulnerable Irish flank. I didn’t have
more time on the Digressions project to digress further into the story McNally, but there
is surely room for other writers to do so. Famous in his day, vilified by all sides since his
treachery emerged after his death, McNally’s star fell into complete obscurity.
That Sterne’s name puns on the German for star was ingeniously deployed by
contributors to Shandy Hall’s Black Page exhibition of 2009, which reminded me of an
old love poem with the lines “Du bist mein Glück, Du bist mein Stern.” ‘Glück’ puts me
in mind of how luck, chance, accident and design obsessed Sterne as a religious man
whose faith in a divinely-ordained universe is inevitably compromised by their existence,
as Fortuna was such a theologically questionable character to the medieval Church.
The role of chance in modern art, however, has become something of a fetish. I was
always struck by the unlikely story often told about finding a name for dada (its hobby
horse meaning already connecting it with Tristram Shandy in my mind) by randomly
sliding a knife into a dictionary. The blade’s meteoric intrusion into the world of letters is
made in this way to appear part of a grander design than merely thinking up a name or
reclaiming an insult, the work of an artistic Blind Watchmaker, or more appropriately in
the Shandean universe, a Blind Clockmaker.

At Leeds University, one of my art lecturers was Sir Lawrence Gowing, who announced
authoritatively in a lecture on Alexander Cozens of the famous blot-and-paper-crumpling
landscape technique that there is no such thing as chance in art: Cozens’ crumpling of
paper was analogous to the folding of geological strata while the apparently random fall
of ink within it recreated the fall of light and shadow on and from rock. Nevertheless, I
thought, isn’t there a genuine element of chance brought about by the resistance of the
medium if nothing else? Every poet knows the feeling that she is only being allowed
to take particular directions with her writing because of the nature of the language,
especially when trying to box the shadows of rhyme: “Words mean something because
they always threaten to sound like something else” James Longenbach wrote in The
Art of the Poetic Line. The delusion persists that “It rhymes for a reason”, as the saying
goes, which it obviously doesn’t, though a poet may work hard to give the impression
that it does. Perhaps the habitual effort to square circles is one of the things that
distinguishes the artist from the scientist, although in his old age Thomas Hobbes
convinced himself that he had actually managed to achieve this geometrical feat.
Francis Bacon (perhaps coming to mind after thinking of Murr’s comments about
sausages) described something like this in an interview: “In my case all painting…is an
accident. I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself
by the actual paint.” And again, “All painting is an accident. But it’s also not an accident,
because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve”
and in a demonstration of the practical artist’s eat-your-cake-and-have-it approach,
“I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance.” I don’t believe
this argument will ever be settled, an aesthetic equivalent of the Arian controversy
about the nature of divine precedence within the Trinity, where the terms of the debate
eventually become irrelevant. However, I was reading something by Rachel Galvin
in The Boston Review recently where she referred to “Oulipian writers who are anti-
Chance”, reminding me of the suspiciously-convenient story of dada obtaining its
name from a paper knife slid between the pages of a dictionary. This too seemed to
demonstrate Bacon’s desire for a very ordered image brought about by chance, the
hobby horse flushed from linguistic cover to be the Pegasus for machine-age artists.
But the machine we are mostly ghosts in now is intangible itself: “The Internet is a giant
machine that does nothing but generate writing” was a recent Tweet from Kenneth
Goldsmith. Goldsmith makes the Internet sound like the Tarot was to Italo Calvino and
regards Tweets as Oulipian constraints generating a kind of poetry he calls poetweets.
For Raymond Queneau, Oulipo’s co-founder, Oulipians are “Rats who build the labyrinth
from which they will try to escape”, which sounds to me like the attitudes to chance
of Bacon and whoever devised the dada story about its name: it should be fairly easy
to find your way out of the labyrinth you build yourself after all. Sterne writes about
Tristram Shandy as a machine at the beginning of the first chapter of Volume VII, but at
a superficial level it appears to be one jury-rigged with bolted-on features back-to-front,
made from whatever came to hand as a hedge-carpenter might effect rough and ready
repairs from whatever lumber was about.

The internet is the modern writer’s lumber yard, but another writer concerned with the
implications of religion has a more negative view of the Internet, which he thinks his
absence from enhances serendipity: in his recent Oxford lecture, Geoffrey Hill said
“Because I don’t go online in any way, I think and work almost entirely by serendipity.
Serendipity works by the rule that the book which is to change your life stands next
on the shelf to the book that you had intended to take out from the library, and which
as often as not (the book you had wanted I mean) turns out to be a dud. You must
envisage me, then, reading and writing from the centre of a small intense radiance of
apprehension, a miniature vortex of intuition.” Ironies here include that the lecture is
available online, but you know what he means.

In the absence of a better word, I often ended up using ‘desearch’ in talks about the
Digressions project to describe the process that led me to McNally, for example: a semiorganised
serendipity that you could could still not describe by the more purposeful
word research. The book that stands next on the shelf to the book that Geoffrey Hill
intends to get but turns out more valuable to him is, nevertheless, on that shelf
according to the principles of a non-serendipitous classification system. Some other
practice is required to thwart the demons of efficiency; even second hand bookshops
can be too organised for such purposes and even some charity bookshops such as
Oxfam present their stock in well-ordered sections. I don’t know if Queneau’s rats were
in the back of my mind when I decided to buy Nick Mays’ book on the care of fancy rats,
a creature I’ve never kept. The National Fancy Rat Society, whose history Mays traces
in passing, struck me as such a wonderful example of hobbyhorsicality that I attended
one of their events in Bradford. Tremendous love and care was lavished on these rats,
which I discovered would laugh when they were tickled, like their owners looking down
warmly on them as they did so, putting me in mind of the notion that people are
supposed to start resembling their pets in a process analogous to that described by
Sterne whereby our prolonged contact with our hobby horses leads to an interchange of
natures. Flann O’Brien took this idea further in The Third Policeman through the book’s
version of “atomic theory”, with this hybridisation an actual physical process at the
molecular level between riders and their bicycles and all this not unlike the idea of
joined beings taking place during the ceremonial coronation rite of sexual intercourse
between Irish kings and horses Gerald of Wales recounts in his Topographica
Hibernica, which I need hardly say is historically controversial, especially in Ireland.
Nevertheless, when I was working on a commission to update the fourteenth century
Fauvel cycle for the Clerks Group about the usurping horse-king in a world turned
upside-down by Dame Fortuna’s wheel, I was fascinated to read Emma Dillon in her
Medieval Music-Making and the ‘Roman de Fauvel’ how in handling its manuscript in
the Bibliothèque nationale de France, “as flesh meets flesh, skin mingles with
skin…readers, also, literally, become part of the object.” In this case it is human skin
touching the animal skin of medieval vellum.

Touching the skins of rats to make them laugh or, to make me laugh again, the calfskin
binding of 1783 Sterne’s Life and Works in the Shandy Hall library (the year of the Great
Meteor); touching the skin of an Appleton’s sausage, testing the poetry inside—but
these actions touch on abuse too: harm is done to creatures routinely on an industrial
scale to provide us with food, especially fast food. Such considerations led to my wife
and son to become vegetarians and me to do my best in that direction as well. Harm
is done to humans too, historically, treating them like animals for reasons that are no
more than skin deep or to do with gender. I alluded at the beginning of this to Sterne’s
opposition to slavery, and there is an affecting episode in Tristram Shandy, written in
response to the letter from Ignatius Sancho where the abuse of a black serving girl who
works in a sausage shop is described, and the following exchange between Trim and
Uncle Toby takes place:
“Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white
I can give no reason, said my Uncle Toby—
—Only, cried the corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for

This still has the power to stop the reader in her tracks as it did me when I first read the
book: it alerts us to a moral dimension to our consumption. The Slow Food movement
emerged in the 1980s as a critique of Western society, growing from opposition to
McDonald’s, and then everything that chain symbolised. Slow Reading emerged from
this, although some trace the phrase back to Nietzsche, who referred to himself as a
teacher of slow reading. In a 2009 Guardian article, Nick Laird stated “To read poetry
now is to be part of a Slow Language Movement.” Books like Tristram Shandy require
us to read slowly, never demonically straight, but taking in its byways: following Sterne
is a paradoxical pun on his name in itself about chasing tails and often reminded me
of something Blake wrote, “Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads,
without improvement, are roads of Genius.”

Sometimes the language in Tristram Shandy doesn’t move at all but disappears, as
in its missing chapters, black and marbled pages, the murdered darling of the coach
journey or when, to describe the beauty of Widow Wadman, the readers’ imaginations
are directly commissioned by Sterne with a blank page: “paint her to your own mind”
which calls to my mind Botticelli’s climactic blank page for his illustrations to The
Divine Comedy. The white space we have arrived at isn’t Dante’s ‘candida rosa’ but
Yorkshire’s White Rose, whose culture and country we invite you to enjoy, to “Shandy
about” in, to use Sterne’s phrase; a strange land of tangled songlines, its anthem,
On Ilkla Moor Baht’at, seeming to invoke the worms of Hamlet as Tristram Shandy
constantly invokes this play about the fatal retardation of its hero’s actions. While
Yorick lives again for Sterne, Hamlet dies uttering “The rest is silence” just before the
thunderous applause of audiences everywhere throughout time. The rest is nearly
silence here too: our final Yorkshire paradox is to welcome you by saying get lost.
Digressions is our record of just how rewarding a process that can be.

Back To Top