Book Review

Martin Gurr, Jens. Tristram Shandy and the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Heidelberg Universitatsverlog, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

Jens Martin Gurr argues that Sterne’s great novel realizes the deepest insights of a book published in 1944, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Gurr defends his book against the charge of anachronism by insisting that Horkheimer and Adorno offer a valuable “foil” against which to “read Sterne’s critique of enlightenment (9).” Professor Gurr begins by offering a rather simplified account of the English Enlightenment, most especially its concepts of reason, science, and progress, its moral philosophy, and its “autocritique” (in writers like Jonathan Swift). In Gurr’s reading of Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy is the inflexible and abstracting proponent of a naïve but dangerous enlightenment projects of science, system and improvement; Tristram as a child figures as the “victim” of Walter’s enlightenment project; and Tristram as the writer figures as one who uses digression, his narrative technique, and Uncle Toby’s inquiries into the military arts to defend himself against Enlightenment progress. At the center of Sterne’s critique of Enlightenment, according to Gurr, is what Adorno and Horkheimer will formulate theoretically many years later: a dialectical tendency of enlightenment abstraction and rational system-building to turn into a new kind of mythology, of progress toward freedom to revert to new forms of domination, of the autonomous individual to become the subject of ideology. While it is nice to have Sterne already aware of all this, this critique of enlightenment is based in a concept of dialectics, as developed by Hegel and Marx, which seems to me to be deeply antipathetic to Sterne’s way of writing and thinking.

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