Sterne’s macaroon

In one of the later volumes of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67), Tristram crosses the stable yard of an inn and is stopped at the gate by ‘a poor ass who had just turned in with a couple of large panniers upon his back, to collect eleemosunary turnip tops and cabbage leaves’. The ass, according to Tristram, is unsure whether he should come in or not. This is not, says Tristram, an animal that he would ever treat unkindly. As a rule, he says, he likes to fall into conversation with him – a situation which, he notes, is different from that with other animals (but with an ass, he observes, ‘I can commune forever’). In talking to the ass, Tristram notices that he was eating a stem of an artichoke – as bitter, he thinks, ‘as soot’ – and suggests to the ass that he ‘hast not a friend perhaps in all this world, that will give thee a macaroon’. This leads to the following act and reflection:

In saying this, I pull’d out a paper of ’em, which I had just purchased, and gave him one – and at this moment that I am telling it, my heart smites me, that there was more of pleasantry in the conceit, of seeing how an ass would eat a macaroon – than of benevolence in giving him one, which presided in the act.

I like this moment. Probably I like it because I have some sympathy for the ass stuck in the gateway, its feet either side of the threshold. But I am also entranced by Tristram’s double take. On the one hand, Tristram acts out of what he would call disinterest. On the other, he is very interested. Tristram discovers himself caught between his feelings and an almost scientific curiosity – two of the guilty pleasures of eighteenth-century life. We might also say, if we wanted to push the image a bit, that Tristram’s macaroon is a symbol of good taste. As such, it is an invitation to the ass to enter the human world. Of course, the ass is stuck on the threshold – but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that Tristram, replete with macaroons, cannot get out.

(The seventh volume of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was published in 1765. The ass becomes stuck in the gateway in Chapter 32.)

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