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Different Journeys: '"I can't get out, I can't get out": Sterne's Starling and the song of liberty' by Lucy Powell

Exhibitions and events

Different Journeys: '"I can't get out, I can't get out": Sterne's Starling and the song of liberty' by Lucy Powell

7:30pm Medical Society Rooms, 23 Stonegate, York YO1 8AW

General event

Ticket: £3.00

Plato once defined a human being as -a featherless biped, capable of speech and reason.'A rival Greek philosopher, Diogenes, retorted by plucking a hen, and declaring it a fully-fledged Platonic human. Sterne engages in much the same philosophical wrangling in A Sentimental Journey, from 1768. Our narrator, Yorick, hears the voice of what he takes to be a child, complaining: 'I can't get out, I can't get out'. It transpires that this voice belongs to a caged starling, who has been taught to speak by its manservant owner. Like Plato and Diogenes, Sterne uses the starling to investigate what is and is not a human being, and also to ask how 'real' our emotional responses can be to artificial stimuli, and to investigate the concepts of freedom and ownership. This talk will follow Yorick's amiable, ticklish, and disturbing amblings into eighteenth-century ideas of the limits of humanness, sentimentality and the possibility of freedom. It will trace Sterne's starling back to the writings of John Locke and David Hume, forward to the novels of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, and will look at other eighteenth-century fictional birds, like the speaking parrot of Robinson Crusoe, in order to try to understand just what it is that the starling means - to Sterne, to Yorick, and to us.


Lucy Powell teaches English literature at University College, London. Her research focuses on expressions of subjectivity in the eighteenth century. She is currently completing her monograph on the eighteenth-century prison, which left her with an abiding fascination with cages and flight. Lucy is also a New Generation Thinker for the BBC, and has made broadcasts on a range of subjects, including the art and science of silence, and the history of dreams from Homer to Freud. In June of this year, she hosted a discussion between the author Helen Macdonald and Professor Tim Birkhead on the relationship between birds and humans as part of the Proms season. She is currently recording a series of episodes for Radio 3's Time Travellers podcast.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Places limited.