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How cruelly are our Lots drawn, my dear--both made for happiness--and neither of us made to taste it!
--The Journal to Eliza (1767)
The thirst of this, continued L as impatient as that which inflames the breast of the connoisseur, has led me from my own home into France--
--A Sentimental Journey (1767-68)
Laurence Sterne died at 4 p.m. on Friday, March 18, 1768, at age fifty-four due to complications arising from the chronic tuberculosis that plagued his entire publishing career and much of his youth. Public records and numerous biographical studies of the author provide reasonable assurance that this much is true. (1) Of Sterne's beloved character Yorick, however--fellow-parson and ironic sentimentalist par excellence--one can say significantly less with such authority. In the first volume of Tristram Shandy (January 1760), Sterne's Parson Yorick dies of consumption only to be resurrected when Sterne publishes his own sermons under the name (also 1760, and again in 1766), and then again when A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy By Mr. Yorick appears on the London scene (February 1768). The mere proliferation of Yoricks is likely more than enough to suggest the character cannot be strictly autobiographical even if he does share a vocation with his author, but nor is Yorick strictly a man of the eighteenth-century moment. While in France, the Yorick of A Sentimental Journey is quick to capitalize on how his name has transnational and transhistorical currency thanks to the court jester from Shakespeare's Hamlet. From within the diegetic frame of one fictional narrative, Sterne's Yorick turns another fiction into biographical credit to regain his passport and save his life, and ludicrous as that maneuver may well seem, Sterne redoubles its ironic force time and again by using his own fiction to the end of fabricating a kind of credit by association. For indeed, Yorick is also the most frequent of several names by which Sterne signs his public and private correspondence (published in 1775 by Sterne's daughter), and is almost exclusively the pseudonym selected for the letters he writes, most devotedly, to one Eliza Draper (circulating in collected form by at least 1773). As well, Yorick is the name under which Sterne begins a semi-autobiographical and highly sentimental journal addressed to an "Eliza" more or less identifiable with, but arguably not reducible to, that India-born lady of his acquaintance (unpublished until its rediscovery in 1851). And the list goes on, with close friends and anonymous readers, eighteenth-century obituary writers and twentieth-century literary critics all partially--but never fully--identifying that great man of ironic letters with the irony of a name that signifies so multiply it barely signifies his authorship--or anything--at all.
Yet while no two of the rhetorical Yoricks are identical and none can be definitively tied back to the empirical, embodied Laurence Sterne, all of them share at least two traits with each other and with him: All of Sterne's Yoricks are exceptionally sensitive, verbally effusive men, and all of them exhibit symptoms of tubercular consumption. (2) Given this, what proves most ironic, even at times most devastatingly ironic, about how the already-dead Yorick of Tristram Shandy stays alive but unwell in every text Sterne wrote after 1760 is how that fact makes it impossible to distinguish the mortal Sterne from his textual Yoricks merely on the grounds that the one died of tuberculosis on a given afternoon in March of 1768. I begin my investigation here. While Sterne himself participates in efforts to insist on reading the fictive parson as his double, the splitting and spinning off of Yorick narrators exposes just how fraught any process of identifying the embodied Sterne with his rhetorical personae necessarily is--whether performed by the author or by his critics. In his preface to The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, Sterne even makes a joke about how "the most serious reader" may respond poorly to a fictional--and dead--parson preaching from the beyond when he claims that Yorick may well already have more enduring fame than his creator since he has already received such high favor from the public. But Sterne makes that joke in the same rhetorical maneuver by which he defends the sermons against charges of being merely "jest," and indeed, both earnestness and jest persist at all moments in Sterne's ironic mode. For all the humor of the ironic cut against overly serious readers--a cut repeated more obliquely in A Sentimental Journey and in the frontmatter to The Journal to Eliza--Sterne gives indication there of the uncanny and distressing way that Yorick proves to live on more fully in text and in the favor of Sterne's public after he has ostensibly died from consumption. And every time that Yorick just won't die, Sterne's readers have to face how they do not know what they likely thought they knew about disease, or death, or how they play out on the body over time.
At stake here, then, in Yorick's stubborn persistence at the edge of death is just that question of readerly expectation--and readerly desire--that Sterne raises with the ironic juxtaposition of serious and sympathetic readers in his preface to the sermons? In Sterne's day, many readers mourned with Tristram in his "Alas, poor YORICK!" and then rejoiced to find that their beloved man of jest lived on, not just as Sterne's mouthpiece for spiritual address but as his own autobiographer in further fictions and in letters. And as W.B.C. Watkins notes in his discussion of Yorick in Perlious Balance, no reader ever since has been any more sure than those early readers--particularly when it comes to A Sentimental Journey--about whether to laugh or weep, or even fume, at how Sterne's tone in the voice of Yorick is invariably "not so much mock-serious [as] simultaneously mocking and serious" (123). For indeed, Yorick lives on with a disregard for teleological continuity and bodily integrity so flagrant that for all his sympathizers, Sterne still faced constant charges in the 1760s and well after his death of having broken faith not just with the church, but with his readers generally: "Sterne seems as if he were laughing at his audience," Vicessimus Knox chastised in one of his 1778 Essays Moral and Literary, "as if he had ascended the pulpit in a frolic, and preached in mockery." About the "pathetic" sincerity of A Sentimental Journey, Knox was far less kind, charging Sterne with encouraging "every species of illicit commerce"--from divorce to libertine free love--under the cloak of the sickly Yorick's purportedly selfless "sentimental affection."
Regardless of how seriously we take the criticism of someone like Knox, whose antipathy for Sterne was often paramount, such assessments make it abundantly clear just how much readers' understanding of themselves could and did prove to be at stake in how Sterne's ironic mode frustrates any notion of stably body-bound authorship. As a property of form, the power of Sterne's irony to keep competing interpretations in open circulation continues implicating readers to this day, refusing to let any critical reader reduce the text consumed to the idea of an embodied author solely accountable for its production. Taking this to heart, I do not begin my investigation into the case of Yorick with an effort to pin down how earnestly autobiographical (or sincerely sentimental) his character might be. Rather, I begin with a two-fold question about how radically the bodily and historically-charged fact of tubercular consumption informs the way Sterne's first-person narrators author their life histories in those final two 1768 texts, and about how radically this fact alters what it takes and what it means to read such narratives. (4) The Journal links disease and desire by framing both with a discourse on how the tubercular patient consumes food. Doing so exposes a double registering of consumption (alimentary and tubercular) that raises the stakes for the ongoing analysis of costs and benefits mobilizing episodes of "sentimental commerce" in A Sentimental Journey. In that final published text, Sterne's Yorick engages in a complicated sort of commerce of sympathies with his addressed readers by at once ironizing and embracing how projected, future-oriented communion with another makes him feel himself to be never more alive than when he sees he is about to lose himself inside the vastness of a longing to be met by someone else.
I HAVE DRANK TO THY NAME ELIZA!
A Sentimental Journey arguably engages with the bodily facts of tuberculosis far less directly than The Journal to Eliza, in which Yorick's "Debility of mind and body"--self-diagnosed as consumptive--take special prominence (143). However, the Yorick of A Sentimental Journey does note illness is a primary impulse behind his travel into warmer climes, dovetailing that desire with what he calls an insatiable "thirst" for sentimental encounters that would allow him "to spy into the nakedness of [other people's] hearts [and] find out what is good in them, to fashion [his] own by" (84). In the Yorick persona of The Journal to Eliza, Sterne insists even more fully on this linkage. He ends his first entry (containing Yorick's lament for his illness and Eliza's departure to India that outlines their promise to exchange journals in the future) with a reference to her notable absence from a dinner party "at the brawns head" (177). From that opening entry in the Journal forward, Yorick continues to frame his desire for Eliza's company--along with his pulmonary disease--in language of alimentary consumption that helps contextualize how Yorick's "thirst" for communion in A Sentimental Journey involves maintaining costly investments both in other people's hearts and in his own.
In order to account for his systematic rejection of dinner invitations like that opening the Journal, Yorick repeatedly offers up a counter-image of a painful, bittersweet pleasure in solitary dining. For instance, whereas communion with Eliza over a well-spread table is "sweet," communion with others figures in the Journal as a practice far less savory: "For Company I cannot relish," Yorick explains, "since I have tasted my dear Girl, the sweets of thine.--" (177). One passage from the fourth entry, dated April 16, offers a particularly strong example of the rhetoric of extreme feeling that Yorick consistently employs throughout his account of his desire and his pain. He writes,
5 in the afternoon--I have just been eating my Chicking, sitting over my repast upon it, with Tears--a bitter Sause--Eliza! but I could eat it with no other--when Molly spread the table Cloath, my heart fainted with in me--one solitary plate--one knife--one fork--one Glass!--O Eliza! twas painfully distressing--I gave a thousand pensive penetrating Looks at the Arm chair thou so often graced on these quiet, sentimental Repasts [...] I shall read the same affecting Account of many a sad Dinner which Eliza has had no power to taste of, from the same feelings and recollections. (137)
As critics such as Carol Kay and Markman Ellis have astutely noted, the figurative language eighteenth-century men of feeling such as Yorick employed often comes across as excessively, even hyperbolically, reflexive and self-indulgent. (5) One could easily enough dismiss Yorick's description of his "sentimental Repasts" as bittersweet as being merely metaphorical, and unoriginal at that: describing the frustrations of eros as bittersweet is indeed a trope already old by the time Sterne's Yorick uses it. (6) More troubling still, when Yorick endures his painful, bitter tonic of tears again and again, we find him in the midst of attempting to exercise a kind of self-discipline that amounts to a strangely willful, even neurotic, indulgence in the denial of sweetness and pleasure. The hyperbolic qualities of the figurative language Sterne ascribes to Yorick in the above passage and throughout the Journal do make it difficult to determine just how much agony--let alone how physical--accompanies his "painfully distressing" ruminations over dinner (137). If Yorick fears his will or subjectivity to be at stake (and thus in need of continual reinforcement and defense), the frustrations of his narrative could be accounted for as evidence of a kind of psychological instability or neurosis--and indeed, such anxiety has been accounted for in this way as regards the Yorick of A Sentimental Journey. (7) But what I want to suggest is that passages from the Journal, such as that cited in full above, make it impossible to separate mind and body in interpretation and simply diagnose Yorick as neurotic. Doing so fails to take full account of the numerous times when Yorick quite simply fails to narrate a distinction between physical and emotional trauma.
At the heart of this passage--with its arguably overwrought "one solitary plate--one knife--one fork--one Glass!" (Journal 137)--we find rhetorical or metaphorical self-indulgence doubled over on itself and re-literalized when Yorick indulges in the consumption of his own bitter tears. The way Yorick literalizes the metaphor with his own body bears a representational force that demands further investigation because the same reflexive blurring of intake and expenditure evident in this scene of eating drives any number of efforts Yorick makes to represent his consumptive body's permeability and capacity for painful as well as pleasurable stimulation. For instance, on April 22, Yorick writes in gasps of fractured, hyphenated syntax, "--rose with utmost difficulty--my Physician order'd me back to bed as soon as I had got a dish of Tea--was bled again [and] half bled to death in bed before I felt it. O Eliza! how did thy Bramine mourn the want of thee to tye up his wounds ..." (Journal 140). In the space of a single sentence of linked clauses, Eliza's Yorick mourns or weeps, takes tea, and is bled. The liquids and effusive sentiments expelled from his body in anguish and as medical treatment appear in the journal entry in fluid circulation with the liquid taken into his body for nourishment. The body in a consumptive's pain, then, surfaces …