Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Tristram Shandy's Dad's Opinion

Inspired by this post at the incomparable Anecdotal Evidence blog, I have started reading Tristram Shandy
by Laurence Sterne. That it is very good and very funny goes without saying. However, possibly the fact that
it contains some observations on the business of naming is less widely known. The father of Tristram Shandy has strong views on the subject, and since I've been mildly preoccupied with the same sort of thing this week, I thought I'd add his perspective to the mix (the bolding is mine):

"I would sooner undertake to explain the hardest problem in geometry, than pretend to account for it, that a gentleman of my father's great good sense,—knowing, as the reader must have observed him, and curious too in philosophy,—wise also in political reasoning,—and in polemical (as he will find) no way ignorant,—could be capable of entertaining a notion in his head, so out of the common track,—that I fear the reader, when I come to mention it to him, if he is the least of a cholerick temper, will immediately throw the book by; if mercurial, he will laugh most heartily at it;—and if he is of a grave and saturnine cast, he will, at first sight, absolutely condemn as fanciful and extravagant; and that was in respect to the choice and imposition of christian names, on which he thought a great deal more depended than what superficial minds were capable of conceiving.His opinion, in this matter, was, That there was a strange kind of magick bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed upon our characters and conduct.

The hero of Cervantes argued not the point with more seriousness,—nor had he more faith,—or more to say on the powers of necromancy in dishonouring his deeds,—or on Dulcinea's name, in shedding lustre upon them, than my father had on those of Trismegistus or Archimedes, on the one hand—or of Nyky and Simkin on the other. How many Caesars and Pompeys, he would say, by mere inspiration of the names, have been rendered worthy of them? And how many, he would add, are there, who might have done exceeding well in the world, had not their characters and spirits been totally depressed and Nicodemus'd into nothing?

I see plainly, Sir, by your looks, (or as the case happened) my father would say—that you do not heartily subscribe to this opinion of mine,—which, to those, he would add, who have not carefully sifted it to the bottom,—I own has an air more of fancy than of solid reasoning in it;—and yet, my dear Sir, if I may presume to know your character, I am morally assured, I should hazard little in stating a case to you, not as a party in the dispute,—but as a judge, and trusting my appeal upon it to your own good sense and candid disquisition in this matter;—you are a person free from as many narrow prejudices of education as most men;—and, if I may presume to penetrate farther into you,—of a liberality of genius above bearing down an opinion, merely because it wants friends. Your son,—your dear son,—from whose sweet and open temper you have so much to expect.—Your Billy, Sir!—would you, for the world, have called him Judas?—Would you, my dear Sir, he would say, laying his hand upon your breast, with the genteelest address,—and in that soft and irresistible piano of voice, which the nature of the argumentum ad hominem absolutely requires,—Would you, Sir, if a Jew of a godfather had proposed the name for your child, and offered you his purse along with it, would you have consented to such a desecration of him?—O my God! he would say, looking up, if I know your temper right, Sir,—you are incapable of it;—you would have trampled upon the offer;—you would have thrown the temptation at the tempter's head with abhorrence.

Your greatness of mind in this action, which I admire, with that generous contempt of money, which you shew me in the whole transaction, is really noble;—and what renders it more so, is the principle of it;—the workings of a parent's love upon the truth and conviction of this very hypothesis, namely, That was your son called Judas,—the forbid and treacherous idea, so inseparable from the name, would have accompanied him through life like his shadow, and, in the end, made a miser and a rascal of him, in spite, Sir, of your example.


  1. For a number of Decembers, The Washington Post would run a list of "John Wayne"s who had achieved infamy during the year, or who having previously achieved it were back in the news: John Wayne Gacy, John Wayne Bobbit, etc. John Wayne's own parents, of course, named him Marion Morrison.

    1. I used to know someone called Honour who married someone called Mr Heap. Her love was so great that she didn't seem to mind becoming Honour Heap.

  2. For no good reason I feel desperate to tell you that from the age of 19 I regarded Tristram Shandy as one of my lifetime favourite books. I think it was [a] the chestnut incident [b] the sudden shutting of the window accident and [c] the fact that he gave the reader their very own blank page to add to the story.

    Now that's style on both his and my counts, I believe.