The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Volume V, Chapter XLIII:
MY father took a single turn across the room, then sat down, and finished the chapter.
The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was? If it was not? What would follow?—If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?
Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child’s memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain, how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.——Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:—No, an’ please your honour, replied the corporal.——But thou couldst discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?——How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?——’Tis the fact I want, replied my father,—and the possibility of it is as follows.
A WHITE BEAR ! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must, or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I never dreamed of one?
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
—Is the white bear worth seeing?—
—Is there no sin in it?—
Is it better than a BLACK one?
Tristram Shandy does a lot of things, but one of those things is spinning out to the most distant conclusions the possible effects, anxieties, and contradictions that could emerge from complete faith in Enlightenment philosophy. Walter Shandy is obsessed with the prospect of filling his child’s brain-cabinet, which, according to Locke, is empty at birth (“how barren soever”). He is overwhelmed by the task before him, and takes great pains to plan and control every aspect of Tristram’s birth, education, and experience so as to fill that cabinet with all the things that could conjoin to make him the perfect man — scholarly, brave, virile, wise, and respected. Tormented by the possibility of misfortune and the vast and unreliable community of people surrounding his son, Walter finds his plans for Tristram are all miscarried or obsolete.
In the particular analogy I’m drawing here, Walter finds it necessary to equip his son with all the auxiliary verbs and teach him how to use them so that Tristram will have the facility of discoursing about things he knows nothing of, first-hand. He will be able to derive probing, even personal questions for topics completely foreign to him, leading beyond the merely speculative into the affective, relational, aesthetic, and moral possibilities of experience. The joke here is that even while Walter insists that it is impossible (or irresponsible) to imagine what one has not personally experienced, the questions he asks are themselves wild feats of imaginative inquiry.
What is a blog, other than one person, of limited experience, armed with speculative imagination? On auxiliary verbs and [blogging]