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O, the Hobby-Horse

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

We greet them heartily enough but often with a slight, uncomfortable restraint—these boys who, donning the uniform, have invested themselves with a maturity beyond their years, and these men whose lives war has simplified to a singleness of purpose like that of youth. Whether the uniformed ones reveal in face and bearing that they have seen action, or whether their government issue still displays the creases of the quartermasters shelves, they are not, to civilian eyes, what they once were, deny the fact as we may. Truly, we resent this estrangement, however slight, and we do so rightfully. These boys and men in uniform are our brothers, our sons, and our lovers; and the war that we are waging is one in which the civilian is entitled to the utmost comradeship with the soldier.

By all means, therefore, let us have it. Let us take ourselves into the soldier’s world and keep him in ours. Let us affirm with every device at our command that, after all, there is but one world for him and for us, indeed, for all men in all times. It is a world toward the mastering of which those of good will have had to address themselves, from the dim past to the vivid present, in a struggle marked throughout by blood, sweat, and tears.

It has been also a struggle marked by something less grim, yet endlessly needed and strong in its power to unify those who do battle. Men must have laughter, the easy laughter of hilarity and the quiet, soundless laughter of amused understanding.

For fellowship, then, and for a sympathetic comprehension of weakness and strength, muddleness and discernment, depravity and saintliness, verily, for help in the attainment of that faith whereby we can take upon us the burden of the mystery of things entire, we will laugh at ourselves as at our soldiers and at our soldiers as at ourselves.

To this end we have no lack of the touch-and-go, sometimes bitter or slightly frantic gaiety that always flaunts itself in the face of any seriousness, however dread. It comes in good measure from the camp and the battlefield, for it is as inevitable as taking breath—and dying. Valuable as it is, however, it is not enough. We be civilized creatures intent on remaining such, and we insist that always art is needed to supplement life. Hence, determinedly, blowing dust from this book-top or that, we draw down the volumes in which art has surpassed ephemeral funniness and created humor rich and full, an oil for deeply troubled waters, capable of smoothing them, save for ripples and bright crests of amusement, to the rise and fall of a reader’s quiet breathing.

Among these volumes is one upon which its enjoyers have permitted little dust to gather, though parts of the book they have often wished away. It is the work of Laurence (Yorick) Sterne, that bright-eyed observer and jester, who, now merely prancing and shaking his bells or snickering nastily, again deftly deflates pomposity and pretence and, at his best, shows a discernment sometimes puckish, sometimes instinct with almost maternal tenderness. Nowhere does he more fully reveal his better quality than on those pages across which Uncle Toby attended by Corporal Trim betakes himself through the “Life and Opinions” of the Tristram who was to have been christened Trismegistus. Here in the personality of Captain Toby Shandy, retired, late officer of foot in the wars of William and Mary, a great humorist has compounded elements military and civilian, a consuming delight in the technique of destruction and a sympathetic sensitivity that pertains not merely to civil peace but to things ideal.

Rigorously described thus, the characterization might seem an unstable mixture of incompatible traits each of which is exaggerated beyond even that degree of stressing accepted in high comicality. Not so. There emerges our very Uncle Toby, a triumphantly simple totality, the divergent excesses of his nature fused within one captivating master excess, a childlike naivete, a childlike literalness, a supernal innocency.

‘Tis a pity, said my father . . . considering what ingenuity these learned men have all shewn in their solution of noses.—Can noses be dissolved? replied my uncle Toby-There, for example, in but these four words of Toby’s well known reply he displays his patent of identity and utters his opensesame to the hearts of all readers.

If any readers there be who are not captivated, they are doubtless such as would botanize and psychologize upon their mothers’ graves. In all fairness to these unfortunates, however, and for the good of all concerned, their view of Toby must be set forth. Behold, then, the two hobbling oldsters whom Sterne presents to us (for Trim will have place in almost any picture of Toby) dressed in regimentals, playing a child’s game, investing toy towns, building mimic siege works across the sward of a bowling green and between the cabbages of a kitchen garden, with toy field pieces to arm their trenches and a pair of old jackboots for mortars and puffs of tobacco smoke to represent the salvos of their artillery. If this were going on next door to you at the moment, you could see in it naught but senile dementia, a thing absurd but at the same time distressingly pathologic.

But Toby and Trim are not next door, nor do they come to you out of a report about goings-on next door. They come to you from a humorous fiction, and by virtue of that fact they have no savor of abnormality. They are native to the “Life and Opinions” of that Tristram who was to have been christened Trismegistus and hence, if we can accept his father’s views upon the potency of given names, became even more Shandean than the lamentable circumstances of his geniture alone might have made him. His book it is, save when he lets it be his father’s, of which Toby is part and parcel. Between them, son and father, they create a world, the making of which is complete before Uncle Toby’s “hobby-horsical” doings are, in Volume VI, for the first time presented to full view.

It is a world of which there is little that is quite identical in value with its counterpart in life, a world of which the atmosphere is a magic (and sometimes slightly miasmic) medium, now thick, now thin, through which appear dim shapes, swift, astounding clarities, strange collocations, transvaluations. Here the death of Tristram’s brother and the demolition of Tristram’s nose produce emotions of the same intensity. Here we can laugh properly enough while his mother agonizes painlessly in childbirth and squat Dr. Slop struggles with the knotted strings of his instrument bag and cuts his thumb bloodlessly to the bone before freeing the horrendous, harmless forceps that amusingly disfigure Tristram for life. Here, in short, is the realm of literary non-realism, in which the comic possesses a large province by long and gratefully acknowledged right of occupancy. Of this shire, Toby and Trim are right citizens and could no more be themselves out of it than Titipu or the Cheshire Cat could exist out of their particular spheres.

In a sense, then, every “curvetting it and frisking it away” in Sterne’s story-telling, all its mazy motion, and every obfuscating divagation of My Father’s are part of every character in the book. It is also true that they combine to make a complexly patterned background against which Uncle Toby and the others stand forth in sharp simplicity. Here Sterne’s justly lauded skill with suggestive details is most in evidence. He manipulates easily the mere names of things, a whistled tune, a wig, pipe smoke; and we would take oath that he had shown us much more. He makes us see, and he makes us see without seeing. He lets us collaborate in deriving, not a labored actualism which defeats its own purpose, but a Shandean essence of actuality. The happiest result of it all is our Uncle Toby, simple, complete, and clear.

Indeed, Toby shares this quality with all the other characters of the book. Even My Father, notwithstanding his diverse interests, is a simple character complicated only by possessing in his own right an intermittent sense of humor and an occasional trace of Falstaff’s ability to make himself amusing to himself. Therefore, this simplicity of Sterne’s characters must be pondered; and to ponder it is to be led straightway to take serious thought about him as a humorist —and risk the serious absurdity of making absurdity dolefully serious.

It should be asserted, in any event, that the absurd in its simon-pure state thrives on simplicity. No doubt civilized man’s sense of humor demands more complexity than primitive man’s, for the one feeds on incongruity and the other on the superiority of the amused to the amuser. Yet comicality has remained capable of the utmost simplicity. Even the most discriminative acknowledge joyfully as absurd many an incongruity which is but a simple deviation from a none too complicated norm. Hats a-wing on a blustery day are funny still. And there is our Uncle Toby, a captain of the line who is so little the typed soldier (full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard), who turns all the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war to childlike favor and pret-tiness, and who is equally and even more graciously absurd when by sheer excess of kindliness he sets himself in contrast with the normally benevolent.

To the making and the using of this comical simplicity, there is more than meets the casual eye. One of the more persistent dangers besetting it is that of satiety. Intense funniness cannot long be sustained at any given moment, and too many moments of it are tiring. Here Sterne is both fortunate and unfortunate: “Tristram Shandy” contains too much excellent burlesquing of quaint and curious lore; but it has just enough of Uncle Toby—indeed, of all its characters with the possible exception of My Father. In this Sterne may have profited through one of his very limitations, his inability to write a typical, properly progressing novel. Such a novel requires “major persons”; and Sterne’s people are all better suited to minor roles. Being so continually under inspection the major persons of many a passable novel are, if they be of a simple nature, rather a self-repetitious bother. In many a passable book the vitality is largely in the minor persons—and often the best of those are of comic persuasion. Happily, there are no major persons in Sterne’s book; his genius, it would seem, is just that which can provide suitable characters for the sort of thing in which he excelled, the novel-by-courtesy.

Sterne also excels in another skill helpful in the management of comicality. He can shape it to the uses of a satire that ranges in tone and intention from the personal caricature in the figure of Dr. Slop to the hearty yet neatly typifying indecency of the Abbess’ Tale. And properly enough, Sterne, child of the garrisons, has not failed to do something satiric about the military. Here Uncle Toby is put to service, innocent Uncle Toby, who knew not one of the uses of satire, who had not the satirist’s indispensable gift of irony, and who lacked the satirist’s innate desire to reform the world.

Nevertheless it is Uncle Toby that guilelessly offers My Father the story of the Walloon officer who lost part of his brain by musket-shot and had “another part of it taken out after by a French surgeon; and after all recovered and did his duty well without it.” And it is Uncle Toby who serves as an agent for the more subtle, though always genial, satire of his beloved profession. The more manifest implications of this have to do with the science of warfare as studied in time of peace rather than with the art of war in combat (let no withers anywhere in our present world be wrung); and it directs attention toward the danger of a fussy academicism and a forgetfulness that the plaguy irregularities of the earth and the vagaries of the enemy upset plans, make the perfect battle impossible, and render useless too much concern about “the depths and slopes of the ditches, the talus of the glacis, the precise height of the several banquets, parapets, etc” It may be true, as Toby declares, that “when the ravelin, brother, stands before a bastion, then the ravelin is not a ravelin:—it is a half-moon;—and a half-moon likewise is a half-moon, and no more, so long as it stands before its bastion;— but was it to change place, and get before the curtin,— ‘twould no longer be a half-moon; . . . ‘tis no more than a ravelin.” Even so—(Toby speaks only of eighteenth-century siege warfare and can say nothing of reconditeness possible in future manuals dealing with all the paraphernalia and intricate co-ordinations of modern war.)

This good-natured ridicule is no more than that directed against any specialized way of life by those who follow it and know that they may seem a bit ridiculous to the rest of the world at times. Old soldiers can chuckle at Toby and Trim as they perform upon their mimic ramparts with all the seriousness of children at play. “When the chamade was beat, and the corporal helped my Uncle up it, and followed with the colours in his hand to fix them upon the ramparts-Heavens! Earth! Sea!—” Where else, indeed such a world within a world as the military; where else on life’s stage such elaborate and lengthy rehearsals of a performance often over in a twinkling, rehearsals in maneuvers and sham battles that require all parts to be played with desperate histrionic abandon?

‘Tis the mildest possible satire that Sterne directs at this military world. Indeed, but for our present high interest in things military we might see in the antics of Toby and Trim only a chaffing of us all because of certain childish vagaries from which even our matured minds do not free us. Thus, to let one example serve, Toby’s delight in the appurtenances of mimic warfare suggests the lingering delight in miniature machines, things that buzz and gyrate internally and move of their own power, which persists in many a strong man from first childhood to second, and which only of recent years, in guise of the toy train mania, has been boldly acknowledged despite indulgent feminine amusement. Oh, the joy with which our Uncle Toby, after some hesitation, abandons himself to puffing tobacco smoke through the toy cannon and the cannonized jackboots! And as he puffs, so puff we.

Truly, in this mood of kinship, we are scarcely aware of any satire effected through Uncle Toby. We feel ourselves in the presence of sheer comicality alone rather than of that disapprobation edged with amusement which is satire when satire is humorous. This is a distinction of general moment and of particular import in our regard for Uncle Toby. Satire would have us reject non-conformity and disproportion; comicality (or absurdity, if you will) makes us revel in them. This is good for us. It is essentially, like tragedy, a catharsis. It is a harmless rebellion against the tyranny of immutable law and the eternal fitness of things, and as such it satisfies safely something perverse in human nature. There are moments, even, when we rebel because we must admire what is admirable and must revere what is reverend. Here skilled comicality can give us a relief which in the end makes our admiration more quick and our reverence more profound.

This value of comicality shows forth most clearly in the portrayal of Uncle Toby when it is reviewed entire and some attempt is made to distinguish between what Sterne calls the “Hobby-Horsical likeness” and “the moral character,” between Uncle Toby’s militaristic obsessions and his virtues of unparalleled modesty, innocence, patience, sympathy, and general goodness of heart. These latter Sterne presents without intent of satire; yet they amuse us to our well being. They are something fine in excess, a burgeoning and a blossoming in a Shandean forcing house.

I’ll not hurt thee, says my Uncle Toby, rising from his chair and going across the room with the fly in his hand,— I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;-—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me.

Sterne asks at this point that there be no smiles over the episode; but knowing Yorick as we do— ‘Tis Uncle Toby; ‘tis a man in a comically non-normal excess of kindliness, We smile at too much of a good thing; but the comicality has augmented our response to Uncle Toby’s goodness. There passes through us an alternating current—amusement at a man kind to flies, pleasure because we find ourselves for the moment believing that there can be such gentleness in a world so often devoid of it.

As the portrayal of Uncle Toby proceeds, sheer comicality continues its good offices. In truth, without it he would be in part an idealized incredibility. Henry Fielding has wisely observed that it is easier to make readers accept a character totally depraved than one supremely virtuous. We may add, perhaps, that idealized virtue is best supported either by poetry, which can frankly affirm the ideal, or by comicality, which with tongue in cheek denies it, and at the same time surrounds it with that atmosphere of a non-real world in which it can breathe freely.

In the spirit of this achievement, or of its possibility, many of the great English humorists have written; and it is this which may account for moments of bewilderment in foreign critics of a certain temperament. “There is a moroseness, I could almost say a sadness, in this sort of comic writing,” complains Madame de Stael. “The writer who makes you laugh does not feel the smallest degree of the pleasure he causes. You may easily perceive that he wrote in a somber mood, and that he would be almost irritated with you for being amused.”

Truly, the great humorist does go about a serious business.

He has not merely to divert you with his wanton wiles and strengthen many of your graver satisfactions. He has to mitigate life’s incomprehensibility and help you to live without going distracted. Deep within the great humorist is something more than a quick and special response to that which is out of the ordinary. There abides in him the equanimity of one who knows what to do about the strange incongruities and disharmonies in things that be.

Thus our Uncle Toby, simple soul, as unaware of his creator’s mission as babe unborn, is himself a portent and a symbol—Uncle Toby, who, gentle, kindly, sensitive, wrung by war’s cruelties, yet loved war from boyhood to boylike age. What a world it is, where, among beings just beneath the angels, there has been endless need of endlessly fascinating, endlessly horrifying war, need of what Uncle Toby, speaking to justify his trenches and his palisadoes, defined as “the getting together of quiet and harmless people with swords in their hands, to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds.”

‘Tis a world after the truth of which we may well go cantering in the saddle of a hobby-horse.


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