Friday, August 29, 2014

`Filled With Very Little'

“We may suspect that the author wrote them for himself, and didn’t know that he was tracing for others the image of a solitary and lucid man, conscious of the singular mystery of each moment.” 

Back to aphorisms. This is Borges writing of the Italian-born Argentine aphorist Antonio Porchia (1886-1968). Private writing of a literary nature made public is rare, especially in recent centuries. Writers are forever preening and customarily write to be read. Most could not and would not write without the assurance of readers. We sometimes sense Pascal is writing in a personal vacuum, and Robert Walser, but even Kafka has his eye on the future. Porchia is an odd case. He published a single book, Voces, starting with a private edition in 1943, which he tinkered with for the rest of his life. Think of it as a terse Leaves of Grass. Ultimately, Porchia published some six-hundred aphorisms and nothing else. He is routinely called a poet but writes brief bits of prose. A selection in French came out in 1949. W.S. Merwin published the first English version of Voices in 1969, with Copper Canyon Press putting out an updated edition in 2003. Porchia is one of literature’s solitaries, a modest autodidact of the word. In his 1969 note, Merwin says of Porchia, “the aphorisms themselves are not, in his view, compositions of his own so much as emanations which he has heard and set down.” 

There is a sense not of misanthropy in Porchia but monastic austerity, minus a deity. Merwin tells us Porchia’s father had been a priest in Italy, but abandoned his calling. His recurrent themes are solitude and suffering, but without self-pity. His thinking is stark and modest, qualities reflected in his choice of forms. Each aphorism is a small illumination. He has no dogma to preach and follows no system of thought. In this, he is like another European transplanted to Argentina, Witold Gombrowicz. Sometimes, Porchia has a Chestertonian taste for paradox: “A large heart can be filled with very little.” He channels Kafka: “When one does not love the impossible, one does not love anything.” And Heraclitus: “Everything that changes, where it changes, leaves behind it an abyss.” 

One of the effects of reading a body of aphorisms is to further condense one’s thoughts and words. Novels and histories start to seem ungainly, like corpulent children. But one also becomes aware of the risks in thinking and writing aphoristically, the temptation to slip into portentousness, like pundits, street preachers and other crackpots. Bad aphorisms are too pleased with themselves, like comics who laugh at their own jokes. One also starts seeing aphorisms everywhere, even where they don’t exist. Rereading Auden on Shakespeare (ed. Arthur Kirsch, 2001), I found this in the lecture on Richard II: “Richard has few feelings, but he enjoys those situations that should produce feelings.” Porchia writes: “A child shows his toy, a man hides his.”

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