21. Blank Paper (1)

Object type: A (nearly) blank page

Materials: paper, ink

Location: Volume 6, page 147 of Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy.  Image by curator.


This is the first of two exhibits which treat one of the critical metaphors of the moment.  This is John Locke's remark that the mind is like blank paper, a blank medium or inscription surface designed to receive impressions from the senses (see Exhibit 1).  The idea is that the mind has no content or form when it emerges into the world; everything that it is it gains from experience.  It is from this figure, in part, that the language of "impressions" derives, just as it is within and around this figure that a folk psychology of the mind as a container could make sense of memory as an inscriptive function.  That is, the sheet of paper, upon the mind's desk, might be marked up and filed away; like a librarian in a study, so the understanding presided over a little container of ideas.

It is worth remarking that blank paper isn't really very blank, nor is white paper perfectly white.  As a figure, blank paper is perfectly blank; it retreats into nothingness.  It is only there for thinking with.  But as a thing on the table, it is full of imperfections and anomalies, which is another way of saying that it is itself a network in a node of persons and things.  Robert Hooke knew as much, in his digression on a period (Exhibit 11); in the irregularities of the paper he divined the hand of another workman, who had laid the paper out of pulp, water, and rag.

My interest in blankness emerged while I was studying William Hunter, who deploys blankness in his atlas of obstetric anatomy.  Blankness allows him to say (or not to say) something about the origins of life.  It is what takes the place of what the obstetrician cannot see (see Exhibit 19)-- a way of answering (or not answering) the question of what something (a mind, a uterus) looks like when it is ready to conceive.  But Hunter wasn't alone.  Blankness was to become one of the period's principal finesses, a way of offering, instead of a straight answer, a sort of metaphor or figure.  It turns up in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, who asks us to think of the mind without thoughts; it is like the mind of an embryo in the womb, or like paper without any markings.  The two figures are linked by the "conception": conception as the origin of life or the origin of an idea.  Blank page or embryo-- take your pick.  

The same pairing turns up repeatedly in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, a book about origins.  It is one of the most famous pages in the book-- and which must rank among the favorites of printers and paper-sellers everywhere.  It turns up in the sixth volume of Tristram Shandy's mock-autobiography, a page left deliberately blank.  And despite bearing virtually no marks itself, more critical ink has been spilled over this page of Tristram Shandy than just about any other page in eighteenth-century letters.

Sterne, Tristram Shandy, 6.146.  Photo by curator.

It's all in the framing.  The page turns up when Shandy is attempting to describe the Widow Wadman, who has been involved in a brief, ill-starred courtship with his uncle Toby. The difficulty is how to relay a sense of her desirability.   “To conceive this right,” Shandy begins, “Call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand.—Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—’tis all one to me—please but your own fancy in it.”

Artistic production by this model begins with conception.  Shandy however does more than offer us a metaphor; he creates a strikingly realized yet singularly paused cognitive diorama, a whole little scene enacted, whether we want it or not: a body (yours) sitting, a hand poised, a page blank.  And he therefore stops the clock on what was already under way, the dimly conceived image of the Widow Wadman half-imagined, interrupted by the blankness that stares back, elaborately producing in the mind’s eye the absence of creation where before stood the first outlines of a figure of desire. It is impossible to conceive under these circumstances.  Shandy has, in other words, encountered the classic problem of the artist’s burden—and palmed it off on the reader.  He has done Locke the disservice of taking him literally, substituting, for a one-page description of the Widow Wadman, the vision of a mind ready to conceive.

Laurence Sterne, by Joshua Reynolds.  Original at the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 5019).  We usually assume that under Sterne's elbow is the finished manuscript of the first two volumes of his Tristram Shandy-- but, as it is a book that famously struggled to get started, it might just as well be that we are capturing him, here, having just conceived it.

Blankness turns up repeatedly in situations where conception is the object.  It ends William Hunter's textbook of obstetrics, which offers images running the human body backwards from parturition to conception.  It appears in Locke's remarks on the mind.  It appears as well in paintings and portraits, especially those concerned with catching conception in the act.  Two such portraits, with which I will end, are by Joshua Reynolds (see Exhibit 20), and together they share an approach to the problem of origins.  These are his paintings, separated by thirty years, of Sterne and Hunter, an author and anatomist, one painted while the subject's star was on the rise, the other painted posthumously in honor of a life that had run its course.  Each, however, meaningfully stages blankness as a way of capturing each man's pursuit after the origins of things.

William Hunter, by Joshua Reynolds.  Original in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.

This brings me, by way of concluding, to a portrait ranking among the oddest portraits Reynolds ever executed.  It stages William Hunter, obstetric anatomist, in his space of work.  On the table before him is one of his surviving anatomical preparations; it can still be seen in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.  Also ready to his hand are pen and ink, and several sheets of blank paper.  He has clearly just finished, or is just about to begin, his magnum opus, his Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (on which see Exhibit 19).  

But there is more-- and it is hard to know how much of this Reynolds intended.  Red drapery tends to be associated in his work with slightly scurrilous scenes; it turns up in his diptych, for instance, of the Dilettante Club, a pair of paintings which contain several well-known sexual puns and double entendres (see Jason Kelly's brilliant reading, for instance).  They turn up in Reynolds's portrait of Sterne.  

What is more, curtains of the sort, and in the arrangement we are presented with here were multiply associated with Hunter, who was an obstetrician as well as an anatomist-- as in the crude woodcut "Dr Hunter at a Confinement."  The whole low joke is this: Hunter is making an obstetrician's visit to a woman in labor, and the slit in the curtains is meant to show, while concealing, the obstetric play that is about to occur, within.  

William Hunter, man-midwife, pays a visit to the scene of a lying-in.  Original at the Wellcome Museum, London.

Taken together, therefore, Reynolds has assembled a portrait which appears to show us the scene of Hunter's intellectual efforts.  He has offered us a conception as viewed from the inside. Hunter, standing over one anatomical figure and turning away from another, is either about to begin, or has just finished, his magnum opus, depending upon how we read that blank page. He may, indeed, be about to sketch a figure of a conception, a small open-ended triangle (Exhibit 19). In this sense, Reynolds joins Hunter, Sterne, and Locke in adopting blank paper as a site of a certain conceptual vanishing and the ground of knowledge production. He gazes from flesh to idea; we see in Hunter, isolated from the riot of flesh that surrounds him, a certain tension between death and life, matter and form, desire and the cold eye of the obstetrician; Reynolds’s William Hunter was his Triumph of Galatea (Exhibit 20).