Good cursed, bouncing losses: Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, and Exuberance in Tristram Shandy
The Eighteenth Century, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2007
Haunting in its strangeness, Sterne’s famous black page offers a particularly dense example of a rhetorical formation that I would like to call “sentimental irony,” irony and sentimentality placed in a mutually constitutive, dialogical relationship. The black page’s sentimental appeal both deepens and complicates—and is in turn deepened and complicated by—its ironic implications. An overflow of ink, the black page seems to record Tristram’s overflow of feeling at Yorick’s death. It is as if, overwhelmed by the task of conveying his sentiments on Yorick’s demise, Tristram tries to say everything at once—and therefore can say nothing at all. The black page thus takes to its absolute limit the inexpressibility topos that is the hallmark of sentimental rhetoric: the formula “words cannot convey what I then felt” surely finds here its most extreme expression. And yet if the black page records all the things that Tristram can’t quite say, it also registers all the things that Yorick’s enemies actually did say. It is as if, outraged at the circumstances leading to his friend’s death, Tristram has collected all the slanderous invectives published by Yorick’s enemies and deposited them on one horribly inky page. In this light, the black page satirizes the workings of what Jürgen Habermas has dubbed the public sphere. A synecdoche for all the ink shed in all the vicious logomachies of the world, the black page savagely ironizes the Enlightenment notion that public argumentation inevitably produces the truth. Sentimental inexpressibility here reinforces and is reinforced by satiric irony.