“It bears the stamp and style of the mind which created it; its message is universal, but scarcely impersonal; it may embody a twist of thought strong enough to retain its force in translation, but it also depends for its full effect on verbal artistry, on a subtle or concentrated perfection of phrasing which can sometimes approach poetry in its intensity.”
Bad aphorisms are like mirthless jokes. They make one uneasy, and we pity the teller as we do the teller of lame jokes. A bad aphorism is a betrayal of all aphorisms, which are defined by wittiness and truth telling. Good ones, never preachy, tend to have a moral tang about them. Aphorists are neither gentle nor sensitive, and seldom are interested in sharing and caring. Given all of these qualities, Gross’ anthology, like La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes or Pascal’s Pensées, makes excellent bedtime reading. Here’s a pithy one in the chapter titled “The Written Word,” by an English writer new to me, Philip Guedalla (1889-1944):
“Autobiography is an unrivalled vehicle for telling the truth about other people.”
A classic that demonstrating the switch midstream away from the expected commonplace and into the tart truth we recognize. One reads aphorisms for moral deflation, not uplift. It’s good to see Gross has read the novels of Peter De Vries (1911—1993) and quotes him five times. This, from The Tents of Wickedness (1959), employs Groucho logic: “If there’s one major cause for the spread of mass illiteracy, it’s the fact that everybody can read and write.” Gross says in his introduction that “many aphorisms are also retorts and ripostes, shafts aimed at the champions of an established viewpoint or a shallower morality.” Which ought to keep aphorists, like undertakers, in business for a long time.