Sterne’s novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” could be argued to defy a “traditional” approach to the novel format. In T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (available here), however, we find arguments pertaining to whether or not a work ought to fit into our notion of “tradition.” Eliot formulates a unique understanding of the concept of “tradition,” which, when applied onto Sterne’s novel, underscores his adherence to literary tradition, while showcasing the aesthetic talent of Sterne as an author. Sterne’s work emphasizes allusion and demonstrates the contemporary importance of past literary figures, situating Sterne’s work into Eliot’s ideal of the concept of “tradition.”
Eliot states that, “[tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” (Eliot, 1). A similar notion is presented in Sterne’s novel, “for, without much reading, by which my reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page … than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one” (Sterne, Vol. III, XXXVI). The two writers show agreement on the importance of reading the literature of the past and, by extension, how essential it is in understanding their own respective modern eras. The scholarliness of Sterne, as an author, exemplifies what Eliot considers “great labour,” for Sterne himself appears absolutely familiar with the entire literary corpus which predates him.
It is an awareness of the timelessness of past works that allows an author to write not only with his own generation’s contemporaneity, but with “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” (Eliot, 1). Sterne’s awareness of the simultaneity of the entire literary corpus, which pervades into his present day, is what elevates him to the level of “traditional.” Throughout Sterne’s novel, his desire to discuss the whole of the literature of Europe overrides his desire to present a linear history. Sterne’s obsessive awareness of the preceding literary body builds a strong coherence between his own work and Eliot’s sense of “tradition.” Eliot writes, “[the poet] is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living” (3). The novel itself radiates an intimate understanding of the contemporary presence of the past through allusions, embodying the simultaneous existence of the whole of literature and presenting this simultaneity as the focus of his history.
Sterne appears new, with a unique aesthetic appeal and a new approach to creating art when taken in context with the literature which preceded him and, for Eliot, “[n]o poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone” (1). Sterne’s work means more, signifies more, and conveys greater semantics, when juxtaposed sidelong to the preceding literary body to which he constantly alludes and brings into his own modern era. In league with one of Eliot’s assertions, “[i]t is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art” (1). Had Tristram Shandy taken the form of a more conventional or accessible novel, its value as art would be lessened and would potentially render it as largely forgettable. In Eliot’s opinion, “novelty is better than repetition” (1).