A good idea from... Laurence Sterne

  • @alaindebotton
IT'S SO hard to say what we feel. We're forced to rummage in a vocabulary box for the right label, but words are imperfect vehicles for conveying ourselves to others. We can't always make them capture nuances; bits of what we mean get left behind, like something stuck to the frying pan, when we try to move a thought or feeling from our minds to the minds of others. How much better it might sometimes be to draw a picture rather than struggle with words. If you asked me to explain how I've been feeling over the past week, it might be easiest to say:

That was the insight of the great British novelist, Laurence Sterne (1713- 1768), who in his Tristram Shandy, for the first time in the history of the novel, used a number of illustrations, which he felt could better capture what he was trying to say than words could. He abandoned the traditional idea that writers must rely solely on words to produce an effect on their readers, and suggested instead that they be allowed to use whatever tools at their disposal to get themselves across.

The most dramatic example of this occurs in the first volume of Tristram Shandy, where the narrator recounts the life and death of a local parson, Yorick. The story is sad and poignant, but rather than expounding on it at length, Laurence Sterne - in one of the most original moves in British literature - simply cuts his story short and ends it with two completely black pages.

Remarkably, these black pages convey more of the sadness of Yorick's life and death than any words Sterne might have found. The pages are more than just a joke; as we stare into their inky darkness, we are made to feel with a particular immediacy our grief at the parson's fate.

Sterne repeats the idea throughout. A few chapters later, a corporal waves a stick around in a particularly complex and crucial way. Sterne might have used many words, but instead, he tells us:

And when Sterne wants to sum up his hero's life so far, he sketches it thus:

The moral of the doodles is that, even if we lack the technical skill of an old master, we shouldn't be embarrassed to resort to the odd picture when words fail us.