Nietzsche upholds Laurence Sterne as “the freest writer of all times” in Human, All Too Human, Part II:
113. The Freest Writer. —In a book for free spirits one cannot avoid mention of Laurence Sterne, the man whom Goethe honoured as the freest spirit of his century. May he be satisfied with the honour of being called the freest writer of all times, in comparison with whom all others appear stiff, square-toed, intolerant, and downright boorish! In his case we should not speak of the clear and rounded but of “the endless melody”—if by this phrase we arrive at a name for an artistic style in which the definite form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that it signifies one and the other at the same time. Sterne is the great master of double entendre , this phrase being naturally used in a far wider sense than is commonly done when one applies it to sexual relations. We may give up for lost the reader who always wants to know exactly what Sterne thinks about a matter, and whether he be making a serious or a smiling face (for he can do both with one wrinkling of his features; he can be and even wishes to be right and wrong at the same moment, to interweave profundity and farce). His digressions are at once continuations and further developments of the story, his maxims contain a satire on all that is sententious, his dislike of seriousness is bound up with a disposition to take no matter merely externally and on the surface. So in the proper reader he arouses a feeling of uncertainty whether he be walking, lying, or standing, a feeling most closely akin to that of floating in the air. He, the most versatile of writers, communicates something of this versatility to his reader. Yes, Sterne unexpectedly changes the parts, and is often as much reader as author, his book being like a play within a play, a theatre audience before another theatre audience. We must surrender at discretion to the mood of Sterne, although we can always expect it to be gracious. It is strangely instructive to see how so great a writer as Diderot has affected this double entendre of Sterne’s—to be equally ambiguous throughout is just the Sternian super-humour. Did Diderot imitate, admire, ridicule, or parody Sterne in his Jacques le Fataliste ? One cannot be exactly certain, and this uncertainty was perhaps intended by the author. This very doubt makes the French unjust to the work of one of their first masters, one [pg 062] who need not be ashamed of comparison with any of the ancients or moderns. For humour (and especially for this humorous attitude towards humour itself) the French are too serious. Is it necessary to add that of all great authors Sterne is the worst model, in fact the inimitable author, and that even Diderot had to pay for his daring? What the worthy Frenchmen and before them some Greeks and Romans aimed at and attained in prose is the very opposite of what Sterne aims at and attains. He raises himself as a masterly exception above all that artists in writing demand of themselves—propriety, reserve, character, steadfastness of purpose, comprehensiveness, perspicuity, good deportment in gait and feature. Unfortunately Sterne the man seems to have been only too closely related to Sterne the writer. His squirrel-soul sprang with insatiable unrest from branch to branch; he knew what lies between sublimity and rascality; he had sat on every seat, always with unabashed watery eyes and mobile play of feature. He was—if language does not revolt from such a combination—of a hard-hearted kindness, and in the midst of the joys of a grotesque and even corrupt imagination he showed the bashful grace of innocence. Such a carnal and spiritual hermaphroditism, such untrammelled wit penetrating into every vein and muscle, was perhaps never possessed by any other man.