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Thoughts on Darkness 07: The Black Page in Tristram Shandy

Posted by on Sunday, 26 April, 2009 at 10:38 AM. Filed under: Essays

The black page from a 1972 edition of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman


There is a famous moment in Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth century novel, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, when the character Yorick dies and we the readers are then confronted with an entire black page.

This odd literary device might elicit laughter and amusement because of its simplistic representation of death, darkness, and fear of nothingness.

We might also think it poignant that the story’s long-winded narrator, Tristram, finds himself at a sudden loss for words and can only express his grief with a silent, dark page.

Is the page covered in ink because Tristram has filled it with an elegiac outpouring of words? Or does the black page indicate a blank? Both seem to be the case.

How much time ought we spend on this black page? Is the page a moment, or an eternity?

Then comes the next surprise: we turn the page and discover that the other side is black, too! No longer is it just a pictorial representation. The reader is now holding a slice of darkness.

If a book is the very opposite of darkness because it enlightens, Sterne has cleverly inserted a Void within his book.

In the name of research, I made a small tear in a friend’s copy of Tristram Shandy to confirm that the ink has indeed saturated the paper from both sides. The black page is one example among many in the book where the reader is made aware of the materiality of the page: its length, breadth, thickness, even the ink that seeps into it.

Tristram Shandy would delight any reader in the twenty-first century. It is remarkable that at the dawn of the modern novel, Sterne had already written a Postmodern book: very much aware of itself, it is a book about the process of writing – as well as the heft and look of a book.

Sterne’s Yorick, of course, is based on Shakespeare’s most famous jester, who is already dead when we meet him in Hamlet. “Where be your gibes now?” Hamlet asks his old friend whose skull rests in his hand. Yorick has since come to be represented by a laughing skull: merriment and death, or merriment in the face of death.

The opacity and three-dimensionality of Sterne’s black page make us wonder, might this be Yorick’s literal tombstone then? It is, after all, preceded by a passage about Yorick’s grave and his epitaph: “Alas, poor Yorick!”

It is a triumph of Tristram Shandy that such a simple gesture can convey both laughter and sadness. The page invites us to mourn, but in doing so, to pay our respects with a smile.

To see a 1768-1769 version of the black page, follow this link: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/teach/romanticism/shandy1p70.html


Lydia Chai is an artist and writer currently based in Auckland. She is interested in the form and idea of roots and footnotes, their rhizomic qualities, while extending the metaphor to relations between people. She also manages the online Malaysian Art Database (http://database.lydiachai.com).


This is the last post in our Thoughts on Darkness series. Be sure to click on the previous ones as well:

01: Intro
02: Notes on the Subway
03: Darkness Descends
04: Seeing Light In the Dark
05: Metamorphosis
06: Writer’s Block
07: Balance

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  1. Zedeck says
    27/04/2009 10:30 AM

    Are there any more such visual tactics in Tristram Shandy?

    (one of my favouritest posts on Arteri by the way)

  2. Daniel says
    27/04/2009 10:35 AM

    Douglas Coupland was pretty good at using typography and visual elements in Microserf. I thought it was a pretty good way of making the physical book still relevant to the reading experience.

  3. Lydia Chai says
    27/04/2009 11:37 AM

    Zedeck, I’m glad you asked! The book is chockful of such visual devices. Glimpse a few here: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/oct2000.html

    It includes a blank page for “describing” the beautiful Widow Wadman, a character so desirable that words are not enough; instead, the reader is invited to draw his own portrait of such a creature. “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind – as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you – ’tis all one to me – please but your own fancy in it.”

    A few missing chapters here and there, too. On one occasion, it is because Tristram himself has torn them out from his book. Also, in the final Volume 9, chapters 19 & 20 are visibly missing (blank pages with mere headers.. quite different from the earlier missing chapter that disappears without pause or trace). Cheekily, Sterne (or rather, Tristram) inserts them again AFTER THE FACT, in between later chapters, so there’s a screwball sequencing happening there.

    Like Daniel’s example, Sterne also saw typography as a visual element. Even the lengths of his dashes were important. Asterisks appear out of nowhere, in a row, sprinkled, or, as some scholar put it, to denote meaningful emptiness.

    The book was (is?) probably every typesetter’s nightmare!

    Modern editions are said to be less true to Sterne’s intentions. For eg, early versions of Tristram Shandy showed the “marbled page” in colour, each supposedly unique. The 1972 copy I have certainly has a different pattern than the one on the website above but it is also printed in black & white.

    Have you seen the movie…….

  4. admin says
    27/04/2009 12:23 PM

    what is the difference between a modern and postmodern novel? i always get confused! :(


  5. Yu Ye says
    27/04/2009 8:30 PM

    Lydia, I’ve heard of the book before but I had no idea about the full black page. On a much lighter note, I quite like Jonathan Safran Foer’s books with a page with a sentence and pictures of hands, just another way a visual dimension can added to books (so appropriate in some ways for the age we live in) . I think i’ll have to track down a copy of Tristram and Shandy this week. Great post – I can feel the literary nut in me coming out a bit.

    Simon with Postmodern novels as Lydia has written ” a Postmodern book: very much aware of itself, it is a book about the process of writing – as well as the heft and look of a book.”. And I would add, I think postmodern books are also self conciously aware of the world of literature theory, literary techniques and devices. Take a look at John Fowles, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, AS Byatt. Their books contain both plot but also have historical details interwoven.

  6. Jun says
    27/04/2009 9:40 PM

    The black page is very cheeky — and personally, very modern too. a graphical and minimalist shape occurring all of a sudden, at a period in publishing where pages, if illustrated, were to contain only delicate ornamental objects or engraved illustrations…

    I always enjoy seeing a layout or typographic treatment in books that go beyond the default flow of text :) Also when there are diagrams in the form of drawings like (literally) the line drawings in Tristram Shandy (as sighted in the URL you provided). Reminds me of the first few pages of The Little Prince! (elephants, snakes, hats)

  7. simon says
    28/04/2009 12:40 AM

    Hi Yu Ye,


    I think postmodern books are also self conciously aware of the world of literature theory, literary techniques and devices.

    as opposed to Joyce, who isn’t? this is the confusing bit! Or could one argue that Joyce is a forerunner of postmodern novel too?

  8. burhan says
    28/04/2009 1:41 AM

    it is interesting that the writer understands the void of total death as a total blackness instead of total whiteness, total light. or maybe they’re the same thing (i have not read the book) as you said. a textual space that contains an infinite amount of words, so infinitely dense and thick that it seems to contain the entirety of language itself – this space is also at the same time a bare space, where nothing is said, where the infinity of speech and the infinity of silence converge towards each other, highlighting the nothingness within pure being and the being of poor nothingness.

  9. Lydia Chai says
    28/04/2009 6:20 AM

    Burhan, excellent commentary.

    Simon, when I refer to ‘modern novel’ in my article, I mean the general breaking away from the format of plays and verse, and the dawn of the novel as we know it today ie a story told with a beginning, a middle and an end. Tristram Shandy doesn’t even have these traits because the narrator hasn’t yet been born; his story is always just about to begin.

    True, people do point to Joyce. A defining moment in postmodern lit? I’ll give you that. Forerunner? I’m not so sure… When I write that “It is remarkable that at the dawn of the modern novel, Sterne had already written a Postmodern book” I use ‘postmodern’ as a mere description instead of tagging it with the movement… that was my intention anyway.

    Possibly Tristram Shandy is not considered a forerunner of postmodern lit because it was NOT taken seriously by Sterne’s contemporaries (after all, it is advertised as a bawdy tale, a cock and bull story), and so, there was no momentum given it that something like Ulysses later enjoyed.

  10. Zedeck says
    28/04/2009 10:41 AM

    Isn’t Joyce considered the quintessential modernist writer? (I can’t remember.) Maybe the difference between the modern and postmodern book, if we really must have all things in their propah place, is seriousness?


    “Modernist literature sees fragmentation and extreme subjectivity as an existential crisis, or Freudian internal conflict, a problem that must be solved, and the artist is often cited as the one to solve it. Postmodernists, however, often demonstrate that this chaos is insurmountable; the artist is impotent, and the only recourse against “ruin” is to play within the chaos.”

    I remember Ulysses as being dour; even when it was funny you got the feeling that the writer is just beyond the page, saying: “Yes, this part is supposed to be funny, because it Must.” Finnegan’s Wake, in the garble I managed to plow through, felt similar. Both were efforts to continue building up the novel as a serious form.

  11. Sharon says
    28/04/2009 10:46 AM

    Even Jorge Luis Borges never finished Finnegan’s Wake. And challenged anybody who claimed they did.

    I consider Finnegan’s Wake (and most of Joyce) post-modern… because it’s as much about the form of the novel, and the structure of language as anything else.

    The hallmark of Post-modernism is self-reflexivity.

    Modernist works are more interested in a grand narrative.

    Post-modernism doesn’t follow modernism in a kind of linear progression. Throughout the heyday of modernism there was always a rebel thread of po-mo (Duchamp, fluxus, Dada, etc)… just as today in these here post-mo times there are modernists amongst us..

  12. simon says
    28/04/2009 11:17 AM

    The hallmark of Post-modernism is self-reflexivity.

    Hang on a sec… isn’t self reflexivity essentially MODERNIST? Or perhaps this applies to the visual arts and music.
    What can be more self reflexive than a modernist painting?
    Balzac is a ‘modernist’ right? His novels are quite self reflexive… or one can think of the stream of consciousness technque, as an exploration into the medium of literature as a private headspace.

    i always thought post modernism looks beyond self reflexivity, of what is contained within the work of art, towards the framing device, towards what is outside of the medium itself?

    Of late, I’ve realised that modernism/postmodernism in visual art is quite different to modernism/postmodernism in dance… do you think literature has a different trajectory between the modern/postmodern break?

  13. Shao Loong says
    28/04/2009 12:05 PM

    “When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’ a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘predicament of reflexitivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the ‘implosion of meaning’, the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘media’, ‘consumer’ or ‘multinational’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘placelessness’ or the abandonment of ‘placelessness’ (critical regionalism) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates: when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.”
    – Dick Hebdige, “Staking out the Posts”, Hiding in the Light


    That essay is worth looking at, though its bulk looks at Marxism’s ‘posts’. There’s basically little consensus on defining postmodernism. I think the debate fizzled out due to attrition. I think that if you have a reasonably clear definition of what makes ‘modern’ literature then a postmodern lit could justifiably be anything that is in critical/negative relation to its core principles, but is also deeply informed by them.

  14. Lydia Chai says
    28/04/2009 6:53 PM

    (xxxx indicates the too frequently mentioned buzzword) ;)

    Simon Says: “Of late, I’ve realised that modernism/xxxxism in visual art is quite different to modernism/xxxxism in dance… do you think literature has a different trajectory between the modern/xxxxism break?”

    Didn’t know that about dance – can somebody respond to Simon’s musing? I for one thought xxxx more or less meant the same thing across the board!

    Maybe the literate readers of Sharon Bakar’s blog could comment on this.

    Zedeck – “all things in their propah place” – I like that, haha! Perhaps it is not so important. We can talk and debate about precursors, forerunners and creators til the cows come home (well, maybe you folks can but I can’t). I’m leaning towards Sharon’s statement at the mo, that “xxxxism doesn’t follow modernism in a kind of linear progression. … just as today in these here xxxx times there are modernists amongst us.”

    Simon, by “i always thought xxxxism looks beyond self reflexivity, of what is contained within the work of art, towards the framing device, towards what is outside of the medium itself?” do you mean a work that involves its audience, the community? I think Tristram Shandy involves its reader readily… A work that implicates its reader has a xxxxist trait to me.

  15. burhan says
    28/04/2009 10:57 PM

    my two cents is that ‘modernism’, ‘postmodernism’, ‘post-structuralism’, ‘reflexivity’, ‘deconstruction’ etc., as all-encompassing names for some set of necessary indeterminate aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities — albeit those that seeks to radically surpass the very idea of art, narrativity, language and thinking itself — are more or less dead as descriptive or even ‘hip’ buzzwords.

    most of these terms are almost four decades old.

    we need to either
    (1) radically reinvent the postmodern, or
    (2) supplant it with more radical names, names not only for what is contemporary but also for what is at stake in reading old texts such as tristram shandy and ulysses (and even art works such as what we see in malaysia).

  16. Daniel says
    28/04/2009 11:38 PM

    I am interested in how Traditionalists/Modernists/XXXist types see the future. This is how I understand it so far…

    Tradition – the future is Armegeddon/Hari
    Khiamat/Nirvana/Salvation through some form of ‘god(s)’. This is achieved by maintaining the practices/virtues of the past. Any changes to tradition will fuck you up bad. The skull is the reminder that all is vanity, so best you cultivate your soul and don’t do any shit your grandfather/mother would consider weird. A little differences is ok but just don’t mess with the main rules.

    Modern – The future is an option between Utopia(Hope), or Dystopia(No Hope). Peace ON earth, not heaven / Hell is other people (Satre izzit?). The path to Utopia is different from the past, hence we must change/experient/do weird shit our ancestor never did before. For those with dystopian visions, they mock the past and the future (dada/punk). Malevich’s ‘Black on White’, ‘White on white’, Beetle’s White Album, Metellica’s Black Album.

    PoMo – the future is ‘…’ / a hyper-mega-meta rubik’s cube where every possibility/dimensions is still in play/calculation.

    PoMo sounds like a buzz word for now but when humanity makes a clean step into another paradigm, they might just look back and say that everything before year YYYY was so simply ape shit primative.

    Well, I haven’t read the book either but since it referenced tradition(Yorrick)mockingly and merely introduced a limited modern element (black page), i would have classify it an early modern dystopian story.

    However, it is your article about it that is clearly PoMo because we feel (kinda) alive playing together in the comment section of arteri.

  17. sb says
    29/04/2009 12:35 AM

    try ihab hassan


  18. simon says
    29/04/2009 4:20 PM

    oh god i’m soooo over po-mo. I don’t think there’s even a future in pomo… everything is just like whatever… who cares?

    Hey Burhan,

    Wanna supplant po-mo?
    Try alter-modern! It’s less PC than all the seriousness we take for play in pomo.

    There’s Chipinski the altermodern artist…

    African techno remixes

  19. burhan 'bruno' says
    29/04/2009 10:17 PM

    (burhan the metrosexual teleports in)

    omg pretty boy…that iz so ill!!!!!…lolz a billion times!…hey wanna like go hang out with tracey emin…M.I.A…mos def…kimutaku…datuk michelle yeoh…sarah silverman…string theorist ed witten…nurul izzah anwar…toni negri…malia obama…the artist formely known as murakami takashi…math genius terence tao…michel gondry…KJ…slavoj zizek’s supermodel wife…perez hilton…& nelson mandela 2nite on facebook?…while like watching torrents of arrested development…juno…colbert rapport…mad men…& evangelion, you can like tell moi about ur new apple netbook…ur new moleskin notebook made from mastodon fur…what you think about the large hadron collider…the mysterious P versus NP problem…& about how u adopted that malawi kid…i’ll bring some vegan sushi!!!…just twitter me, pretty boy!!! remember, it’s all about the economy!!! yes we can! miao!!! xxx

    (burhan the metrosexual teleports out)

  20. Sharon says
    30/04/2009 12:36 PM

    ROTF LOL me cute little ass off

  21. Zedeck says
    01/05/2009 3:24 AM

    very nice! sexy time! is it because i is black?

  22. Lydia Chai says
    01/05/2009 6:16 AM

    LMAO Si, you asked for it!

    Anyway, guys

    I highly recommend the FILM, starring Steve Coogan. It’s got everything.

  23. Daniel says
    01/05/2009 10:26 AM

    yes more african rap

    the group is called Africa China and their primative MTV is fascinating lol sad


  24. Yusuf Martin says
    02/05/2009 4:12 PM

    I am sure that the black page is meant to be a mere blink of an eye – an augenblik (an eye’s glance), a device similar to the other visual devices in the book.

    Existentially of course, the black page might represent uncertainty and inability to represent that which we know not of. A black hole as it were both for our imaginations and a cue for further contemplation. The denseness of the ink, on the original paper, would have represented the ink needed for a large number of words, so the seeming emptiness is factually full, allowing, as we have here, countless speculations, and maybe a wry wink from the author too.

  25. Zedeck says
    03/05/2009 4:52 PM

    Hello Yusuf:

    That’s a cool interpretation. Is there anywhere we can read more about augenblicks in Tristram Shandy? A surface Google search didn’t turn up with anything …

  26. burhan says
    03/05/2009 9:42 PM

    on the topic of asian pomo:


    (btw, i suggest arteri install rss feeds for the comments as well, instead for just the articles)

  27. Yusuf Martin says
    05/05/2009 10:20 AM

    Zedeck, that’s because it is my own theory based upon Heidegger’s Phenomemology.

  28. admin says
    05/05/2009 10:55 AM

    Burhan, we’ve just done the RSS feed for the comments. Thanks for the suggestion!

  29. admin says
    05/05/2009 11:22 AM

    sorry for being thick. how does one access this RSS feed thing? – Simon

  30. Lydia Chai says
    15/10/2009 9:00 AM

    This exhibition about the Black Page was brought to my attention: http://www.blackpage73.blogspot.com

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