Beyond the Binding: Theatricality of Text in Tristram Shandy and Blue to Blue

Sterne, L. The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. Printed for R. and J. Dodsley. Beinecke MS Tinker 1973. Beinecke Library, Yale University.

by Honglan Huang

In the narrative preceding the marbled page in Tristram Shandy, continuing the discussion on noses, the narrator suddenly warns the female reader to keep her fancy away from obscenity and introduces an intertextual reference to Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. While the narrator attempts to rein the female reader back from reading further into the seemingly chaste surface of the text, he whips and urges his male reader to enter into the intertextual world outside the text. At the command of “Read, read, read, read” (3.36.180), the narrator makes it clear that the reader has to read beyond what is within the text so as to make the text itself legible. If the reading of a text necessarily leads to reading what is not in the text, where does the reading of a text begin and end? 
The marbled page appears immediately afterwards on the facing page, transforming itself from an element of paratext to that of the text and expanding what is outside the text from consisting solely of the less tangible intertexts to something more material. A text is therefore not only porous to other texts, but also to its very own material constituent. If according to Gérard Genette the function of a paratext is to provide a variable setting for the text that remains unchanged, Sterne’s performance with the marbled page is therefore radical. It is not a simple disruption of the boundary between the text and the paratext, but rather a challenge to Genette’s concept of the abstracted text as something more stable than its material form. 
If the text itself is not so constant after all, how shall we think about the relationship between texts, and what is then able to bind a text together despite all the contingencies? In one of my dissertation chapters, I would like to propose a new way to think about the relationship between text and what is outside the text. If Genette proposes to think about intertextuality and paratextuality through the architectural metaphor, it is perhaps time to turn to the theatrical metaphor, through which we are able to see the text as a stage composed of bodies, objects, light and backdrops, with motion binding everything together and revealing the play’s true shape. 
Centuries apart, Komagata Katsumi’s experimental picture book Blue to Blue responds to these questions in a more visual form. Komagata’s practice of creating images through means other than illustration and letting qualities of paper itself signify aspects of the narrative introduces paper-cutting as his main form of writing. Some of the paper used in Blue to Blue also appear as endpapers in art books. Without cutting, the book would look no different from a paper sampler. More importantly, cutting dramatizes the text porousness to the outside, trimming the pages into a multi-layered stage, conjuring up shadows that assume different shapes depending on the light in the reader’s space, and creating die-cuts that allow the paper to bend and twist at the reader’s hands. The beginnings and ends of the text are therefore always in motion. 

Author’s bio:
Honglan Huang is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University. She is especially interested in picturebooks, puppets, and other animatable beings.

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6 replies on “Beyond the Binding: Theatricality of Text in Tristram Shandy and Blue to Blue”

Hello–I really enjoyed this video and the paper it’s based on. I think it’s interesting how the experimental quality of ‘Tristram Shandy’ places it, at least in your reading, in the company of books designed primarily for children. Would you say that children’s books tend to be *more* experimental, more defiant of genre conventions, than adult books, and that that’s why they bear comparison only with this most exceptional of adult books, ‘Tristram Shandy’? Would you care to comment on this relationship between proto-modernist or modernist experimentation and the kind of experimentation found in the children’s books you discuss? How do the differing audiences for these two kinds of literature affect their shared experiments in adding elements of materiality, contingency, and idiosyncrasy to texts? That is, what does it mean, in your opinion, that Laurence Sterne would most likely not expect to find such elements in a novel, whereas readers of a picture book might be likely to expect them? And why is it that we might expect such elements in a children’s book and not in an “adult” book? (The deconsructionist idea of “the play of the signifier” comes to mind here, since it would seem to link serious literature, or literature seriously understood, with child’s play.)

Thank you for the comments! I have been also thinking about how to better present the lineage I am trying to trace between Tristram Shandy and Modernist picture books for children, so all these questions are quite helpful. On one hand, I would say that these experimental picture books are definitely not the most typical of children’s books: Komagata’s books are sometimes considered too delicate for a child to handle and it is always a question whether these books, though intended for children, might more likely to address an adult audience. On the other hand, type of paper, format and binding are more likely to play a role in the narrative, even in the most common kind of picture books for children, perhaps due to the centrality of image and the emphasis on perception as part of the reading experience. I did have a conversation with the curator at Shandy Hall who commented that it was interesting how the ideas that Tristram Shandy was exploring inspired more works of visual arts than verbal ones. I guess making use of the reader’s imagination and granting the reader the power to recreate infinite meanings out of a finite text might be what link great works of human creation after all.

Thank you for your presentation. I wonder if you could elaborate on the connection between the black page and the marble pages as, to paraphrase Stern, non-penetrating elements. In addition, do you see the repositioning of marble pages in ‘children’s’ books’ as if they were maintaining Stern’s epistemological code that deems an attempt at explanation to failure?

To me, the black page seems a little bit different from the marbled page, as it allows ink and paper, material constituents of a text that we often take for granted, to come to the forefront and signify in place of the verbal text. As I understand it, while the marbled page calls into question what is inside the text and what is not, the black page seems to try to make visible elements of the text that are usually invisible to us, but both are cases in which the limits of the verbal language are shown and an interesting alternative is presented.

Thank you for these comments, they help to clarify and expand my understanding of your argument and of its subject matter, both of which are very rich I think.

Hello! Really thought provoking work here, very interesting (and I have some new books to read!). I’m left wondering about a couple things. First, what is the relationship between the textures’ significance within a text (and even intertextual meanings in the limited sense Produced by one author) broader social understandings of textures beyond these artistic objects? In other words, the feeling of paper used to both signify a forest and an ocean may stimulate intertextual meaning… How do both of these interact with broader meanings of texture?

Second, I find it intriguing that in describing the effects of texture, you largely use visual language. I would love to hear more about how texture affects the reader via physical touch! Is that considered by the author? Or do they largely use it for visual effect?

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