A great novel’s wordless pages

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By Joshua Rothman
June 5, 2011

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This year marks the 250th anniversary of one of English literature’s most enjoyable experiments with the printed image: Laurence Sterne’s Marbled Page. It appears on page 169 of the third volume of one of the weirdest books in the Western canon, Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Written from 1759 to 1769 in seven volumes, “Tristram Shandy” tells the life story of its title character in the wordiest way possible — with the exception of two remarkable pages, which substitute abstract imagery for text.

First there’s the Black Page: When Yorick, the town parson, dies, Sterne frames the words “Alas, Poor Yorick!” in a little box, and then fills the opposite page with black ink. For death, no words will do.

The colorful Marbled Page is the Black Page’s lighter twin. On the page opposite the marbling, Sterne warns readers to “throw down the book at once,” for

you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one. Sterne’s printers used a different pattern for the Marbled Page in each edition, ensuring that Sterne’s “emblem” would change over time. Unfortunately, modern editions of the book usually reprint the same old marbling in black and white. To mark the page’s anniversary, and to get Sterne’s emblem moving again, an exhibition is being mounted in Sterne’s house, Shandy Hall, with 169 artists reinterpreting the Marbled Page.

“Tristram Shandy,” meanwhile, has been inspiring artists for hundreds of years. It was written in an experimental time, when novels were new, and hadn’t yet settled into a conventional shape. With the Black and Marbled Pages, Sterne created a singular work of art: He represented death and life simply and vividly, by balancing austerity and excess.

The ”John Henry” problem Could increased opportunity be bad for you? If it’s fickle or illusory, it might be. A recent article in the Yale Alumni Magazine highlights a phenomenon some sociologists call “John Henryism.” It starts when you respond to stresses beyond your control by working extra hard; if, despite your hard work, those same stresses keep you from succeeding, then the effect can feed back into itself, pushing you to work even harder. That kind of sustained, hopeless effort, some epidemiologists believe, can have long-term physiological effects. John Henryism takes its name from the legend of a mighty railroad worker who took on a new, steam-powered hammer in a contest. He won, but the effort killed him: As the song goes, “he died with his hammer in his hand.”

Ron Howell, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College, attended Yale in the class of 1970. African-Americans, he notes in his article, made up 3 percent of his class, and yet have accounted for 10 percent of its deaths. White men tend to live about five years longer than black men, but the death rate in Howell’s class is higher than statistics suggest it should be. Could John Henryism be to blame? One clue Howell uncovers is that, for several health indicators, the gap actually widens as African-Americans climb the socioeconomic ladder. Howell’s theory, at least about his own class: For African-Americans in 1970, “an Ivy education opened doors of aspiration and ambition, but not necessarily corresponding doors of opportunity.” John Henryism, he proposes, was the costly result.

A single class at Yale, of course, is far from a statistically significant sample, and John Henryism is probably too diffuse a phenomenon to be nailed down scientifically. But Howell’s proposal is striking. Striving, he suggests, is good for you only when success is possible. When it’s not, your energy can work against you.

Turn left at the second petalRemember when maps were simple, utilitarian, and shoved into that pocket behind the passenger seat? Not anymore: Today’s cartographers are also policy analysts and artists, striving for beauty and ingenuity. Ours isn’t the first historical moment to see map-making become a kind of art form, however. Donna Seger, a professor of history at Salem State University, has assembled a wonderful collection of historical “maps in the form of plants, animals, and humans” on her blog, Streets of Salem.

Here’s a map from 1581; it appeared in “Travels according to the Scriptures,” by a German theology professor named Heinrich Bunting, and shows Jerusalem at the center of the world. An 1882 map, L’Europe Animale, shows Germany as a wolf waiting to pounce.

Cartography, Seger points out, isn’t just about accuracy. It’s also about “competition in the age of print.” Cartographers compete by being creative and clever; geography, like a rhyme scheme, is a constraint that spurs the imagination.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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