Philosophers as early as Plato have made distinctions between the mind and body, or reason and material perception, resulting in a dualism of being that has seeped into all aspects of Western Civilization. The cycle of perception and judgment of exterior forms has caused an anxiety prevalent in society that has been fought by intellectual and revolutionary countercultures. Tristram Shandy is arguably written in the spirit of these countercultures that seek to break apart the tradition of suppressing the "animal" physicality of humanity. Using comedy as the weapon that disarms the reader, Sterne tells the story of characters struggling with communication and self-perception amidst the chronic theme of the organic versus the mechanical. Three primary aspects in which Sterne addresses the mind-body paradox are ribaldry and the role of sex, the self-perception/ world-perception of the characters, and their tragic attempts to transcend the body.
[...] He holds an interesting relationship with the reader in that he frequently projects certain attitudes upon them so that he can defend himself. These instances often occur before especially obvious sexual analogies, where he insists that he speaks earnestly, rather that the reader has a dirty mind, and he begs them guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil,” (book III, XXXI, p.173). Of course, it is this denial that makes it clear that the subject is sexual, and the prevalence of these instances make Tristram's sexual repression undeniable. [...]
[...] It demonstrates through characterization and theme a parable of the philosophical experiences of the western world, and creates an almost tragic irony in the character's all too familiar attempts to transcend the body. The body-mind problem has been an unsolvable paradox by many of philosophy's greatest minds. Though Tristram Shandy doesn't define an answer to the problem, it demonstrates that one should not deal with the contradiction by ignoring the body nor be ruled entirely by it. The humour of the novel is that the absurdity of the characters and their ways of dealing with life is identifiable. [...]
[...] It is difficult to determine whether the central problem in the mind-body relation stems naturally from the consciousness of being, or whether it evolved from a tradition of thought that places mind so far above matter. Traditional philosophy seems to end in the admission of a paradox; the real social problems, however, the individual angst, the societal tensions, only begin there. The primary dilemma is one of self-perception. The nature of dividing the mind from the body is that the fracture of the self leads a series of further contradictions: man's animal needs versus his thoughts and ideals, passion versus reason, mortal flesh versus immortal spirit, the grotesque versus the beautiful, sin versus morality, evil versus good. [...]
[...] Walter even devised his own form of Cartesian dualism in which he explains that “every man's wit must come from every man's own and that since all souls were created equal, differences in intelligence “arose merely from the lucky or unlucky organization of the body, in that part where the soul principally took up her residence” which he decided to be close to the medulla (book II, XIX, p. 117-120). The interesting thing about Walter's philosophy is his conviction that the soul was of a bodily substance that could be “squashed” during birth, which gave rise to his obsession with controlling his son's birth. [...]
[...] Rather than deny agency, as Tristram had become accustomed to doing from birth, Toby acts to escape the world in which his body hinders him, as a child does through make believe games. This escapism versus self-victimization may be due to the fact that Toby's wound physically confined him to bed for four years, his body literally trapping him in a broken physique. What's more, is that unlike Tristram, he suffered pain, “unspeakable miseries,--owing to a succession of exfoliations,” (book XXV, p.62). [...]
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