“I am convinced that there is a North west passage to the intellectual world; and that the soul of man has shorter ways of going to work, in furnishing itself with knowledge and instruction, than we generally take with it.” – Laurence Sterne

Following the advice of Father Busa, I scoured my bedroom floor “for some type of machinery” and found it: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram ShandyPenguin Classic edition (qtd in Ramsay 85). As a text, Tristram Shandy is self-generative: the more Sterne writes the more he has to write, and the more readers read the more they have to read. Sterne repeatedly describes his book as a “machine” composed of “wheels” that turn, progressively and digressively, one within the other (Sterne 64). Indeed, Tristram Shandy lends itself to computational analysis because the book itself is a machine, with the grammatical (or algorithmic) and metaphorical (or transcendental) systems working together to produce meaning. Sterne’s metaphor of the book-machine unveils a North west passage to the novel: namely, that by dismantling Tristram Shandy, we come to a better understanding of how the book functions—not just on a mechanical level, but imaginatively, as well.

As a machine, Tristram Shandy is an assemblage of parts:

. . . the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, —and at the same time. (Sterne 63-4)

The wheels of Sterne’s book-machine turn in opposite directions, and their revolutions power exegesis. Sterne describes Tristram’s family in mechanical terms—as a machine, driven by dialogue:

Though in one sense, our family was certainly a simple machine, as it consisted of a few wheels; yet there was thus much to be said for it, that these wheels were set in motion by so many different springs, and acted one upon the other from such a variety of strange principles and impulses, —that though it was a simple machine, it had all the honour and advantages of a complex one, —and a number of as odd movements within it, as ever were beheld in the inside of a Dutch silk-mill. (Sterne 323)

Tristram’s family is a machine composed of different ‘springs’ such as “motion, debate, harangue, dialogue, project, or dissertation”—with one spring going “forwards in the parlour” and another, at the same time and upon the same subject, running “parallel along with it in the kitchen” (Sterne 323). Sterne extends this mechanical metaphor in comparing foreign languages to machines whose workings he does not understand: knowing “as little of the Chinese language” as he does “of the mechanism of Lippius’s clock-work” (Sterne 468). For Sterne, language functions as a clock: the moods and tenses of verbs (infinitives, past participles, and subjunctives) are time-telling devices that communicate temporality to language users.


Yet if Sterne’s book is a machine or clock, how does one ‘wind’ Tristram Shandy?

Programming Sterne

“Is a man to follow rules—or rules to follow him?” – Sterne

Sterne’s metaphor of the book-machine raises the question of whether literature can or should be reduced to an operating system. Rules governing language production are, after all, complex; words are not purely denotative but also connotative, and their uses shift in discourse over time. Sterne has little to no control over the discourses governing 18th century prose: indeed, Sterne can only challenge traditional modes of reading and writing through his playful reformulations of the codex format. He does this by refusing to ‘program’ Tristram Shandy according to Horacian algorithms: “I should beg Mr. Horace‘s pardon;—for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man’s rules that ever lived” (Sterne 8). Further, he resolves to plant dandelions instead of cabbages: “I defy the best cabbage planter that ever existed, whether he plants backwards or forwards, it makes little difference . . . I defy him to go on cooly, critically, and canonically, planting his cabbages one by one, in straight lines and stoical distances . . . without ever and anon straddling out, or sliding into some bastardly digression” (Sterne 489). Sterne also criticizes the rules of reading, scoffing at conventional readers who are “ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last . . . ab Ovo” (Sterne 8).

By planting dandelions instead of cabbages, Sterne creates random and un-programmable characters. Tristram’s father is like a cloud of electrons: we cannot pinpoint his disposition exactly, but can only guesstimate who he might be:

As many pictures as have been given of my father, how like him soever in different airs and attitudes, —not one, or all of them, can ever help the reader to any kind of preconception of how my father would think, speak, or act, upon any untried occasion or occurrence of life.—There was that infinitude of oddities in him, and of chances along with it, by which handle he would take a thing, —it baffled, Sir, all calculations. (Sterne 344)

Walter Shandy cannot be reduced to a traceable pattern, nor can he be programmed into an algorithm. Instead, Walter’s character is forever in flux—a permutation of the Shandean book-machine which throws “all things out of rule” (Sterne 253).

An Exploding Machine

 “A book itself is a little machine.”Deleuze & Guattari

Yet how is Tristram Shandy a machine if it does not follow a strict order of rules or algorithms—always sliding down dashes towards another bastardly digression? Indeed, Sterne’s book is not so much a machine as it is an ‘exploding machine’: that is, a machine that consumes its readers and author in its own processes of deformation. Sterne’s book is a machine that functions both within and without the rules of discourse; like Paul de Man’s machine model of language (described by Cynthia Chase as an ‘exploding machine’), the perlocutionary effects of Sterne’s utterances continue to haunt him long after he puts them to paper. In this way, Tristram Shandy effects its own deformance, functioning according to—yet separate from—a grammar that operates beyond the scope or intentionality of the writer:

We call a text any entity that can be considered from such a double perspective: as a generative, open-ended, non-referential grammatical system [i.e., as a machine] and as a figural system closed off by a transcendental signification [i.e. as a linked chain of metaphor traceable to a final or literal meaning] that subverts the grammatical code to which the text owes its existence. (de Man, qtd in Loxley 97)

Sterne’s novel is therefore “best imagined not as an organic, coherent entity, something entire of and enclosed in itself, but as a kind of endless work: it might still be apprehended as a machine, but as a machine now that is not simply regular or predictable, one that instead performs the interference between these different aspects of textuality” (Loxley 97). Sterne’s book is an ‘exploding machine’: a textual entity composed of two interlocking systems (the algorithmic or grammatical; the transcendental or metaphorical) which are incompatible, yet cannot function independently. Caught between two jammed gears, Sterne’s reader is powerless:

Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture, extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player. Like a passenger on a train, he can study and interpret the shifting landscape, he may rest his eyes wherever he pleases, even release the emergency brake and step off, but he is not free to move the tracks in a different direction. (Aarseth, qtd in Ramsay 41)

It is here that the “rhetorically maintained separation between text and reading” disintegrates, with the meanings a reader generates and the text itself fusing into a single entity (Ramsay 50). The non-referential grammatical system (the writing machine) continues to run alongside the chain of traceable metaphors (the reading machine) to produce statistical paratexts. The explosion of the book-machine shatters the central narrative, resulting in a proliferation of —- and digressions.

Less > More

Thus, the clashing grammatical and metaphorical systems destroy the so-called ‘central’ elements of Sterne’s text, and all that remains following this Shandean apocalypse is a bucket full of dashes, sermons, and * * * * * *—textual fragments readers reassemble through distant reading. Distant reading, Franco Moretti writes:

. . . allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. (qtd in Ramsay 77)

Tristram Shandy is one such case: even Sterne argues that his book is better once the text disappears. The “chasm of ten pages made in the book” between p. 271 and 282 is not a flaw, he assures us: the “book-binder is neither a fool, or a knave, or a puppy—nor is the book a jot more imperfect” but rather is “more perfect and complete by wanting the chapter, than having it” (Sterne 282). Tristram Shandy is most complete when the text disappears because Tristram Shandy has no central narrative: it is composed solely of paratexts, or digressions. Indeed, Tristram Shandy is so full of digressions that, were we to remove them, the book would cease to exist:

Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine; —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. (Sterne 64)

Sterne therefore favours paratext over text. The value of digressions, he says, lies “in the good cookery and management of them” which will “be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author” (Sterne 64). Readers manage those digressions through deformance: a process Stephen Ramsay defines as the creation of alternate texts while reading. Critical essays by fourth-year English majors have the capacity to render the rambling incoherencies of Sterne coherent; they untangle digressiveness, “restoring it to a logical and linear pattern of meaning and deduction” (Ramsay 35). Further, Sterne’s characters partake in their own textual deformation through reading and interpretation—losing themselves in their own explications:

What became of that story, Trim?

—We lost it, an’ please your honour, somehow betwixt us…’twas, just whilst thou went’st off with the wheelbarrow—with Mrs. Wadman. (Sterne 527)

Though they do not always recover their lost stories, those stories become embedded in statistical paratexts. Text analysis tools, like Voyant and TAPoR, have the capacity to exhume them: revealing the presence or absence of certain features, and mapping out themes in Sterne’s novel. Indeed, one can search for the ‘main’ character, Tristram, using such tools: ‘proving’, through statistical paratexts, that Tristram Shandy is not about Tristram at all, since the word Tristram occurs only 53 times in the novel. In place of a narrative, the computer substitutes a more valuable statistical paratext: a map, chart, or diagram that turns Less into More.

Have You Ever Seen A White Bear?

Thus the explosion of Sterne’s book-machine is not so much the disappearance of the text as it is the replacement of that text, by the author or reader, with a statistical paratext. Like a computer, the Shandean book-machine produces statistical paratexts that resemble visualizations of text analysis tools:

Word Frequencies:

(Sterne 451)



(Sterne 397-8)



(Sterne 425)

(Sterne 550)

(Sterne 426)

(Sterne 32)

(Sterne 206)

Sterne’s book-machine is self-productive: powered by auxiliaries, Tristram Shandy generates digressions and statistical paratexts that open up “new tracks of inquiry, and make every idea engender millions” (Sterne 364). Those auxiliaries (which grow into sermons, letters, and dissertations upon names and noses) produce an endless array of paratexts and digressions, and enable readers to speak of white bears as though they have actually read about them (something akin to talking about books you haven’t read). Readers, like Tristram, are forced to conjugate every word in Sterne’s novel “backwards and forwards the same way,” with each word “converted into a thesis or an hypothesis” and each hypothesis into “an offspring of propositions” which lead “the mind on again, into fresh tracks of enquirings and doubtings” (Sterne 370). The generative force of the Shandean book-machine makes it impossible to predict which word will come next: “guess ten thousand guesses, multiplied into themselves—rack, torture your invention for ever, you’re where you was” (Sterne 286).

Learned Men Don’t Write Dialogues Upon Long Noses For Nothing

If reality never reveals more than part of its totality, then neither does Sterne’s novel: Tristram Shandy is structured in such a way that justifies “a thousand interpretations, significations, and solutions” as to why learned men write dialogues upon long noses—all of them equally probable (Bens, qtd in Ramsay 25). When we approach Sterne’s book as a machine, we discover that literature contains an element of the algorithmic, making it amenable to computational analysis. Readers struggle through Tristram Shandy in the same way that Walter struggles through Erasmus; each one must employ a text analysis tool in order to find meaning:

Nature had been prodigal in her gifts to my father beyond measure, and had sown the seeds of verbal criticism as deep within him, as she had done the seeds of all other knowledge,—so that he had got out his penknife, and was trying experiments upon the sentence, to see if he could not scratch some better sense into it. (Sterne 207)

Walter Shandy is an algorithmic critic: extracting truth from Erasmus using his penknife as an exegetical tool. He reads Erasmus’ treatise “over and over again,” studying “every word and every syllable of it thro’ and thro’ in its most strict and literal interpretation” until he reaches the limits of the denotative, and so begins to “study the mystic and the allegorical sense” (Sterne 207). “Mayhaps there is more meant, than is said in it,” he wonders aloud to uncle Toby; “learned men . . . don’t write dialogues upon long noses for nothing” (Sterne 207). Picking apart the page, Walter discovers that there are different ‘senses’ or levels of meaning in literature:

There are some trains of certain ideas which leave prints of themselves about our eyes and eye-brows; and there is a consciousness of it, somewhere about the heart, which serves but to make the etchings the stronger—we see, spell, and put them together without a dictionary. (Sterne 313)

Tristram Shandy leaves prints upon our eyes and hearts: the book functions both at the level of visual perception, as well as at a deeper, metaphorical level. The discordant energies that make up Sterne’s book-machine (the grammatical and the metaphorical) are only discharged by the trained literary critic: armed with a penknife, or text analysis tool. The statistical paratexts generated by Sterne’s book-machine are what we might call the ‘latent potentialities of the text’: such paratexts (the flourish; the blank page) blur the boundary between the grammatical and metaphorical—both of which must be present for the machine to do its work.

Works Cited

☞ NB all images are hyperlinked to the original source. Train window video courtesy of Tumblr.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Brian Massumi trans. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011. Print.

Loxley, James. Performativity. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Print.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London:Penguin, 2003. Print.