A mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind

Number 257 of La Rochefoucauld’s Réflexions morales

La gravité est un mystère du corps inventé pour cacher les défauts de l’esprit.

Gravity is a mystery of the body invented in order to hide the defects of the mind.

Which Laurence Sterne cites in his perfect portrait of Yorick’s sensibilities regarding – because it comes to mind in my own struggle with this – what I’ll call ‘professionalism.’

For, to speak the truth, Yorick had an invincible dislike and opposition in his nature to gravity;—not to gravity as such;—for where gravity was wanted, he would be the most grave or serious of mortal men for days and weeks together;—but he was an enemy to the affectation of it, and declared open war against it, only as it appeared a cloak for ignorance, or for folly: and then, whenever it fell in his way, however sheltered and protected, he seldom gave it much quarter.

Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say, that Gravity was an errant scoundrel, and he would add,—of the most dangerous kind too,—because a sly one; and that he verily believed, more honest, well-meaning people were bubbled out of their goods and money by it in one twelve-month, than by pocket-picking and shop-lifting in seven. In the naked temper which a merry heart discovered, he would say there was no danger,—but to itself:—whereas the very essence of gravity was design, and consequently deceit;—’twas a taught trick to gain credit of the world for more sense and knowledge than a man was worth; and that, with all its pretensions,—it was no better, but often worse, than what a French wit had long ago defined it,—viz. ‘A mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind;’—which definition of gravity, Yorick, with great imprudence, would say, deserved to be wrote in letters of gold.

I think I knew – or could have guessed – the source but I hadn’t realized the similar connection with the reflexion immediately proceeding, number 256:

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.

In all professions each person puts on an expression and an exterior in order to appear as what he wishes to be taken for.  Accordingly you could say that the world is composed only of appearances.

Nimium amator ingenii sui

From a letter of Laurence Sterne’s of Jan 1, 1760, responding to an unknown addressee’s cautionary remarks about Tristram Shandy.  There are three significantly enough different versions of this letter that the editors of the Florida Edition printed them separately, numbering each 35A, B, and C.  I’m pulling from A.

I know not whether I am entirely free <of> [from?] the fault Ovid is so justly censured for – of being nimum ingenij sui amator.  the hint however is right – to sport too much with a Man’s own wit is surfeiting: like toying with a man’s mistress, it may be delightful enough to the Inamorato but of little or no entertainment to By-standers.   in general I have ever endeavour’d to avoid it, by leaving off as soon as possible whenever a point of humour or Wit was started, for fear of saying too much…

The criticism of Ovid is from Quintilian 10.1.88:

Lascivus quidem in herois quoque Ovidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen partibus…

Indeed Ovid is too sportive/playful/roguish/badin [lascivus] even in his heroes and too great a lover of his own talent/temperament – but nevertheless he must be praised in certain areas…

So much of motion, is so much of life, and so much of joy

From Tristram Shandy, as Tristram dashes through France:

‘Make them like unto a wheel,’ is a bitter sarcasm, as all the learned know, against the grand tour, and that restless spirit for making it, which David prophetically foresaw would haunt the children of men in the latter days; and therefore, as thinketh the great bishop Hall, ’tis one of the severest imprecations which David ever utter’d against the enemies of the Lord—and, as if he had said, ‘I wish them no worse luck than always to be rolling about.’—So much motion, continues he (for he was very corpulent)—is so much unquietness; and so much of rest, by the same analogy, is so much of heaven.

Now, I (being very thin) think differently; and that so much of motion, is so much of life, and so much of joy—and that to stand still, or get on but slowly, is death and the devil—


“Ass!” he exclaimed, “I’ll stop your kicking”

The basis for Walter Shandy’s Ass – from St. Jerome’s Life of Hilarion (5th paragraph):

[Satan] therefore tickled his senses and, as is his wont, lighted in his maturing body the fires of lust. This mere beginner in Christ’s school was forced to think of what he knew not, and to revolve whole trains of thought concerning that of which he had no experience. Angry with himself and beating his bosom (as if with the blow of his hand he could shut out his thoughts) “Ass!” he exclaimed, “I’ll stop your kicking, I will not feed you with barley, but with chaff. I will weaken you with hunger and thirst, I will lade you with heavy burdens, I will drive you through heat and cold, that you may think more of food than wantonness.”

Titillabat itaque sensus eius, et pubescenti corpori solita voluptatum incendia suggerebat. Cogebatur tirunculus Christi cogitare quod nesciebat, et eius rei animo pompam volvere, cuius experimenta non noverat. Iratus itaque sibi, et pectus pugnis verberans (quasi cogitationes caede manus posset excludere): Ergo, inquit, aselle, faciam, ut non calcitres: nec te hordeo alam, sed paleis. Fame te conficiam et siti: gravi onerabo pendere, per aestus indagabo et frigora, ut cibum potius quam lasciviam cogites.

The means he used to make his ass leave off kicking

From Tristram Shandy. I will for tomorrow find the quote referenced, which Sterne likely took from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Burton in his turn from Saint Jerome’s Life of Hilarion

If any thing in this world, which my father said, could have provoked my uncle Toby, during the time he was in love, it was the perverse use my father was always making of an expression of Hilarion the hermit; who, in speaking of his abstinence, his watchings, flagellations, and other instrumental parts of his religion—would say—tho’ with more facetiousness than became an hermit—’That they were the means he used, to make his ass (meaning his body) leave off kicking.’

It pleased my father well; it was not only a laconick way of expressing—but of libelling, at the same time, the desires and appetites of the lower part of us; so that for many years of my father’s life, ’twas his constant mode of expression—he never used the word passions once—but ass always instead of them—So that he might be said truly, to have been upon the bones, or the back of his own ass, or else of some other man’s, during all that time.

Every thing in this world, said my father, is big with jest

From Tristram Shandy:

Every thing in this world, said my father, is big with jest, and has wit in it, and instruction too,—if we can but find it out.

—Here is the scaffold work of Instruction, its true point of folly, without the Building behind it.

—Here is the glass for pedagogues, preceptors, tutors, governors, gerund-grinders, and bear-leaders to view themselves in, in their true dimensions.—

Oh! there is a husk and shell, Yorick, which grows up with learning, which their unskilfulness knows not how to fling away!

—Sciences May Be Learned by Rote But Wisdom Not.

It was the attachment to those objects

From part 1 of Within a Budding Grove

“The most I was capable of was astonishment, when my visit was at all prolonged, at the nullity of achievement, at the utter inconclusiveness of those hours spent in the enchanted dwelling. But my disappointment arose neither from the inadequacy of the works of art that were shown to me nor from the impossibility of fixing upon them my distracted gaze. For it was not the intrinsic beauty of the objects themselves that made it miraculous for me to be sitting in Swann’s library, it was the attachment to those objects—which might have been the ugliest in the world—of the particular feeling, melancholy and voluptuous, which I had for so many years located in that room and which still impregnated it”

Tout au plus m’étonnais-je quand la visite se prolongeait, à quel néant de réalisation, à quelle absence de conclusion heureuse, conduisaient ces heures vécues dans la demeure enchantée. Mais ma déception ne tenait ni à l’insuffisance des chefs-d’oeuvre montrés, ni à l’impossibilité d’arrêter sur eux un regard distrait. Car ce n’était pas la beauté intrinsèque des choses qui me rendait miraculeux d’être dans le cabinet de Swann, c’était l’adhérence à ces choses—qui eussent pu être les plus laides du monde—du sentiment particulier, triste et voluptueux que j’y localisais depuis tant d’années et qui l’imprégnait encore;

The bolded phrase is probably the closest Proust comes to summing up what I find to be the core uniting theme of the social/emotional psychology his novel posits.  Whether it be the sentimental and aesthetic value of the narrator’s memories, Swann’s (externally) inexplicable passion for Odette, the narrator’s fixation on Gilberte/the Swanns and later Albertine, the Verdurins’ cultivation of a salon, etc. etc. it all comes together in this idea that is – by independent evolution or direct inspiration? – so close to the opening of section 5 of Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

ταράσσει τοὺς ἀνθρώπους οὐ τὰ πράγματα, ἀλλὰ τὰ περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων δόγματα

What disturbs men are the things themselves, but their beliefs about those things

Which – for another hint at the many unappreciated links between Proust and Sterne – is also the epigraph to the first volume of Tristram Shandy



The two illustrious brothers Shandy combined in one person

From Sir Leslie Stephen’s essay on Sir Thomas Browne in Hours in a Library (first essay in vol. 2 of my 4 vol. edition – a different one is on Gutenberg):

A mind endowed with an insatiable curiosity as to all things knowable and unknowable; an imagination which tinges with poetical hues the vast accumulation of incoherent facts thus stored in a capacious memory; and a strangely vivid humour that is always detecting the quaintest analogies, and, as it were, striking light from the most unexpected collocations of uncompromising materials: such talents are by themselves enough to provide a man with work for life, and to make all his work delightful. To them, moreover, we must add a disposition absolutely incapable of controversial bitterness; ‘a constitution,’ as he says of himself, ‘so general that it consorts and sympathises with all things;’ an absence of all antipathies to loathsome objects in nature, for all theological systems; an admiration even of our natural enemies, the French, the Spaniards, the Italians, and the Dutch; a love of all climates, of all countries; and, in short, an utter incapacity to ‘absolutely detest or hate any essence except the devil.’ … A man so endowed … is admirably qualified to discover one great secret of human happiness. No man was ever better prepared to keep not only one, but a whole stableful of hobbies, nor more certain to ride them so as to amuse himself, without loss of temper or dignity, and without rude collisions against his neighbours. That happy art is given to few, and thanks to his skill in it, Sir Thomas reminds us strongly of the two illustrious brothers Shandy combined in one person. To the exquisite kindliness and simplicity of Uncle Toby he unites the omnivorous intellectual appetite and the humorous pedantry of the head of the family.