Autobio/graphies: Corporeality and Subjectivity

in Tristram Shandy and Midnight's Children

Sample Conference Proposal--English 632

by John Goshert


This paper will present an examination of the use of the body in the fictional autobiographies of Salman Rushdie's Saleem Sinai in Midnight's Children, and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The connections between the two novels have been discussed, yet the focus on the bodies of their narrators has had little treatment outside of Clement Hawes's 1993 essay on the noses of the narrators. I will argue in this paper that the physiognomic focus in both novels goes far beyond a commentary on generational inheritance; in fact, I believe that the question of familial inheritance is only one ideological space in which the body is used as the visual point of reference for a psychical notion of subjectivity. As Shandy's body falls apart in his attempts to recuperate the narrative of his past, especially in the recounting of his Sentimental Journey through France, so does Sinai's as it becomes the mirror image of the nation, through India's independence and subsequent tripartite split. While both narrators overtly attempt to recontain their decaying bodies through autobiography, both are failed attempts.

What both novels question most clearly is, I believe, a notion of narratable identity through their use of metafictional strategies to foreground the very fictionality of the autobiographical subject. The main goal of this paper is to show that neither Sterne's nor Rushdie's texts operate in an oppositional manner to any conception of the "Western literary tradition," despite the apparent desire to see at least Rushdie's work in such a light. Rather, Sterne provides for Rushdie a model of writing that is a tradition of disruption that works toward the possibility of systemic critique in a way in which oppositionality never can. As John Guillory recently noted in Cultural Capital, oppositional critique only functions at the symptomatic level of a dominant system, thus always reinforcing that system itself.

The work of David Wills and Avital Ronell point out the synecdochal, prosthetic relationship that the body has had to identity and open up the possibilities for their disruption. My project takes their work to its thematization in Sterne and Rushdie, for if the tropes of visuality on which the formation of subjectivity depend are broken down, then new and uncontainable possibilities for the re-visioning of identity are made possible. The decontained body makes possible the proliferation of multiple, often incompatible, narratives of not only the self, but additionally of the other archetypal identifactory narratives of the family and the nation. I wish to demonstrate that both narrators argue for breaking down the ancrage of the subject at its most vulnerable point, the body, in order to proceed toward a similar breakdown of the possibilities of subjective wholeness itself.

The subjective debt demanded of both narrators (one as the inheritor of gentility, the other as inheritor of a nation) is clear in their respective explanations and justifications for writing. What Shandy (writing at the time of formalization of the British imperial project) teaches Sinai is the means to fire the inheritance of the colonial project back at the colonizers by making the subject of that project unrecognizable as its alterity. Taking the subjectifying desire of the colonial project at face value as he attempts successfully to present himself in subjective terms, Sinai's re-visioned body makes possible a post-sovereign critique of his inheritance of the Enlightenment/imperial project. By using Shandy's narrative as a model, however, Sinai presents himself through an overt acknowledgment of his inheritance, rather than the always recuperative attempt at disavowal. Reading the two novels together then, will demonstrate that the colonial debt is not only that of the Western tradition of self-perception, but is, additionally, the always present possibility of its disruption.


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