Saturday, May 16, 2015

`As If They Had All Known Each Other Well'

Good aphorisms concentrate the mind wonderfully, as Johnson said of imminent hanging. Density of thought is masked by grace of manner. Most good writing makes virtues of concision and precision; aphorisms die of verbosity and vagueness. Somewhere I read a heated indictment of aphorisms. The author found them presumptuous. Who is the aphorist to presume he knows truth when he sees it? Well, it’s true: relativists are rare among aphorists. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Aphorisms (1983), John Gross distinguishes an aphorism from other forms by its brevity, generalizing force and status as a form of literature: 

“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.
In his final chapter, “Aphorists & Aphorisms II,” Gross quotes an observation from Elias Canetti’s The Human Province that prompts seasoned readers to nod their heads: “The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other well.” Or at least shared a common gift for seeing the truth and honing it into an edged weapon.


Dave Lull said...

David Myers pointed out that Peter De Vries wrote a sort of aphorism that De Vries called "Pepigrams" as well:

"De Vries developed a taste for verbal humor while working on a community newspaper in Chicago after leaving school. ‘The result,’ he told an interviewer: ‘I truly enjoy local, homespun philosophers. Right on top of that I actually did write Pepigrams [e.g., “To turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones — pick up your feet”], for use as wall mottoes and such. I got two bucks a Pepigram, and they got stuck in my blood.’"

For a blog about aphorisms, see James Geary's:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I discovered Gross's collection while I was in college, and over the years it's proved to be one of my desert island books. It's very comforting, encountering an aphorist coming back from a place in life that I'm heading.