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The aesthetics of nationhood : the sublime in Burke’s Enquiry and Sterne’s Tristam Shandy Beaulne, Jeremy Charles

Abstract

Edmund Burke's "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful" (1757) and Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" (1759-67) are works that present competing strategies for preserving eighteenth-century Britain's independence and security. It is my contention that by examining the way in which Burke and Sterne employ aesthetics in their respective texts, we can gain a clearer understanding of what these strategies are and how they are supposed to function. Both Burke and Sterne define Britain in terms of its political and economic rivalry with France. In "A Philosophical Enquiry", Burke argues that while Britain is masculine and sublime, France is feminine and beautiful. According to Burke, Britain's natural sublimity means that it is destined to triumph over its enemies. In "Tristram Shandy", Sterne comically subverts Burke's model of sublime British virility. By constructing all three of the Shandy men as impotent, Sterne challenges Burke's assertion that the sublime is a tool that can be used as part of a nationalistic strategy. Finding inspiration in the eighteenth-century sensibility movement, Sterne argues that the strength of the British people lies in their capacity to feel rather than in their capacity to fight. The perfect embodiment of this idea in Sterne's text is Captain Toby Shandy, an extraordinarily compassionate old war veteran who is obsessed with recreating Britain's military campaigns on his bowling green. Although Toby is a somewhat naive, comical character, Sterne takes his nationalism very seriously. He argues that if the citizens of Britain emulate Toby's imaginative participation in the nation's military conflicts, Britain will be impervious to its enemies. Hence, while Burke's concept of the nation is based on the authority of Britain's rulers and the strength of its military, Sterne's concept of the nation is based on the patriotism and sensibility of individual Britons.

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