1761 | Coxwold

Heads or Tails

A man’s mind is torn asunder.

The moment my father got home, the weight of his afflictions returned upon him but so much the heavier, as is ever the case when the staff we lean on slips from under us—He became pensive—walked frequently forth to the fishpond—let down one loop of his hat—sigh’d often—forbore to snap—and, as the hasty sparks of temper, which occasion snapping, so much assist perspiration and digestion, as Hippocrates tells us—he had certainly fallen ill with the extinction of them, had not his thoughts been critically drawn off, and his health rescued by a fresh train of disquietudes left him, with a legacy of a thousand pounds by my aunt Dinah—

My father had scarce read the letter, when taking the thing by the right end, he instantly begun to plague and puzzle his head how to lay it out mostly to the honor of his family—A hundred and fifty odd projects took possession of his brains by turns—he would do this, and that, and t’other—He would go to Rome—he would go to law—he would buy stock—he would buy John Hobson’s farm—he would new forefront his house, and add a new wing to make it even—There was a fine water mill on this side, and he would build a windmill on the other side of the river in full view to answer it—But above all things in the world, he would inclose the great ox-moor, and send out my brother Bobby immediately upon his travels.

But as the sum was finite, and consequently could not do everything—and in truth very few of these to any purpose—of all the projects which offered themselves upon this occasion, the two last seemed to make the deepest impression; and he would infallibly have determined upon both at once, but for the small inconvenience hinted at above, which absolutely put him under a necessity of deciding in favor either of the one or the other.

St. Fina Saving a Carpenter Who Has Fallen from a Scaffold, by Lorenzo di Niccolò, 1402. © Alfredo Dagli Orti / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY. 

This was not altogether so easy to be done; for though ’tis certain my father had long before set his heart upon this necessary part of my brother’s education, and like a prudent man had actually determined to carry it into execution—yet the ox-moor, which was a fine, large, whinny, undrained, unimproved common, belonging to the Shandy estate, had almost as old a claim upon him: he had long and affectionately set his heart upon turning it likewise to some account.

But having never hitherto been pressed with such a conjuncture of things, as made it necessary to settle either the priority or justice of their claims—like a wise man he had refrained entering into any nice or critical examination about them: so that upon the dismission of every other project at this crisis—the two old projects, the ox-moor and my brother, divided him again; and so equal a match were they for each other as to become the occasion of no small contest in the old gentleman’s mind—which of the two should be set o’going first.

—People may laugh as they will—but the case was this.

It had ever been the custom of the family, and by length of time was almost become a matter of common right, that the eldest son of it should have free ingress, egress, and regress into foreign parts before marriage—not only for the sake of bettering his own private parts, by the benefit of exercise and change of so much air—but simply for the mere delectation of his fancy, by the feather put into his cap, of having been abroad—tantum valet, my father would say, quantum sonat [It’s worth as much as it sounds like].

Now as this was a reasonable, and in course a most Christian indulgence—to deprive him of it, without why or wherefore—and thereby make an example of him, as the first Shandy unwhirl’d about Europe in a post chaise, and only because he was a heavy lad—would be using him ten times worse than a Turk.

On the other hand, the case of the ox-moor was full as hard.

Exclusive of the original purchase money, which was eight hundred pounds—it had cost the family eight hundred pounds more in a lawsuit about fifteen years before—besides the Lord knows what trouble and vexation.

It had been moreover in possession of the Shandy family ever since the middle of the last century; and though it lay full in view before the house, bounded on one extremity by the water mill, and on the other by the projected windmill spoken of above—and for all these reasons seemed to have the fairest title of any part of the estate to the care and protection of the family—yet by an unaccountable fatality, common to men, as well as the ground they tread on—it had all along most shamefully been overlook’d; and to speak the truth of it, had suffered so much by it, that it would have made any man’s heart have bled who understood the value of land, to have rode over it, and only seen the condition it was in.

I think there must certainly have been a mixture of ill luck in it, that the reasons on both sides should happen to be so equally balanced by each other; for though my father weigh’d them in all humors and conditions—spent many an anxious hour in the most profound and abstracted meditation upon what was best to be done—reading books of farming one day—books of travels another—laying aside all passion whatever—viewing the arguments on both sides in all their lights and circumstances—communing every day with my uncle Toby—arguing with Yorick, and talking over the whole affair of the ox-moor with Obadiah—yet nothing in all that time appeared so strongly in behalf of the one, which was not either strictly applicable to the other, or at least so far counterbalanced by some consideration of equal weight, as to keep the scales even.

Playing with Dice, Lahore, India, c. 1890. © Royal Asiatic Society, London / Bridgeman Images. 

Nobody but he who has felt it can conceive what a plaguing thing it is to have a man’s mind torn asunder by two projects of equal strength, both obstinately pulling in a contrary direction at the same time: for to say nothing of the havoc, which by a certain consequence is unavoidably made by it all over the finer system of the nerves, which you know convey the animal spirits and more subtle juices from the heart to the head, and so on—It is not to be told in what a degree such a wayward kind of friction works upon the more gross and solid parts, wasting the fat and impairing the strength of a man every time as it goes backward and forward.

My father had certainly sunk under this evil, had he not been rescued out of it by a fresh evil—the misfortune of my brother Bobby’s death.

What is the life of man! Is it not to shift from side to side?—from sorrow to sorrow?—to button up one cause of vexation!—and unbutton another!


Laurence Sterne

From The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. After attending Cambridge on scholarship, Sterne became a vicar. In 1759 he composed a satire about the spiritual court system in a misguided attempt to support a friend who had become a dean; churchmen burned it, but Sterne had discovered his literary ambition. “Truly,” he wrote, “I am tired of employing my brains for other people’s advantage.” He soon began writing Tristram Shandy and published the initial two volumes to immediate acclaim that same year.