Tag Archives: Tristram Shandy

Marginalia, no.249

Every man chooses to be present at the shaving of his own beard (though there is no rule without an exception)…

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

I’ve had this beard for more than two years, though I keep it fairly short. I might have shaved it off a hundred times already except that when my children see fresh-faced photos of the former me they point and laugh and tell me I looked “ridiculous.” I think it was Meister Eckhart who said that desiring something was the same as possessing it. I doubt he counted smooth cheeks among his own desiderata. But I believe that somewhere in the mind of God or an alternate universe I’m contentedly shaving my beard this very minute. I may even be humming ‘What a Wonderful World’ …or ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top.’ I can’t be sure which one because I’m not present for it.

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Marginalia, no.224

For what is war? …What is it but the getting together of quiet and harmless people, with their swords in their hands, to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds?

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Rather than kill their enemies, Indians of the great plains would sometimes count coup on them – which meant to approach near enough on the battlefield so that they might have killed or injured them, but only to tap them with a stick instead. It was a symbolic deathblow, a humiliation. In the western world, since the age of chivalry, we’ve been more concerned to preserve the honor of the ambitious and turbulent than to preserve their lives. This we call civilization.

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Marginalia, no.195

I swore that I would set up for Wisdom and utter grave sentences the rest of my days – and never – never attempt again to commit mirth with man, woman, or child.

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

A friend once confessed that he’d been class clown in grade school, a period of his life during which he answered only to ‘Bub.’ This was a surprise on both counts. Known to crack occasional jokes as an adult, most of them had a bitter kernel. His mother, he explained, once took him for a walk to discuss his antics at school. “You can’t laugh your way through life, Bub,” she said. I hate it when people lie to children.

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Marginalia, no.192

Heat is in proportion to the want of true knowledge.

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

All due respect to old Sol, this may help explain why the world warms toward noon after everyone’s been up and blabbing for a few hours. But heat of the sort the Shandean aphorist has in mind is most evident around those topics dearest to the species: eternal damnation, the politics of foreign intervention, and college basketball. Does it follow that when I am cool as a refrigerated cantaloupe I am therefore an oracle of certainty? No, I’m only momentarily content with my ignorance.

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Marginalia, no.190

It is said in Aristotle’s Master-Piece, “That when a man doth think of anything which is past, – he looketh down upon the ground; – but that when he thinketh of something which is to come, he looketh up towards the heavens.”

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

I recently heard a  radio interview with a scientist studying a species of vole (“shaped like a cigar with a red mark on its back”) that lives below ground in the Chernobyl evacuation zone – which nowadays is something like a wildlife preserve. The voles are dangerously radioactive but thriving, with no detectable increase in genetic mutations. I remember the rosy sunsets sent us by the Chernobyl blast in the spring of ’86. Today I scan the western sky for funny clouds and catch myself wondering if Japanese voles are as hardy as their Ukranian cousins.

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Marginalia, no.45

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; -they are the life, the soul of reading; -take them out of this book, for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer, – he steps forth like a bridegroom, -bids All hail, brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

It is a generally reliable observation that whatever is true of books is true of life itself.

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