More than other literary forms, aphorisms are stimulants to readerly conversation. One finds it difficult to remain silent after reading a good one. Brevity is part of the explanation. We speak in fragments, shards of thought. There may be continuity and logic, even eloquence, but it’s more staccato than legato, with connections implied or silently understood. An aphorism is brief but fully and elegantly packed, like good luggage. With a friend who knows me well, I can say much with little – a working definition of an aphorism. Take this one from Eva Brann’s Doublethink/Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts and Twofold Speech (Paul Dry Books, 2016): “Life’s full of incident, especially if you stay home and read and scribble.”
Appreciating a paradox requires a sort of unpacking in the reader’s mind. First we read it literally and accept that it defies pedestrian logic. The opening phrase – “Life’s full of incident” – is so incontestable as to be trite. At least half of life is “incident,” mostly familiar and often tediously repetitive. So what is it about the life of the homebound reader/writer that’s so action-packed? A writer lives in his imagination, which subsumes everything. An hour spent reading, say, Ben Jonson, or working the keyboard, consumes and generates more energy than a softball game. We’ve just finished reading Brann’s witty little nugget and want to tell her: “You got it. Here’s what happened to me. . .”
The choice of “scribble” is intentionally self-deflating (no one is more self-regarding than a writer). Children scribble, grownups compose. It also recalls the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh’s well-known response to being given a volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?” Here’s Brann on another timely issue:
“It’s evidently possible (I offer myself as evidence) to be a populist (in respect to people) who has a liking for and faith in her fellow-citizens and at the same time—horribile dictu—an elitist in respect to culture; I have only the flabbiest liking for the milder phenomena of pop music like barbershop quartets and musicals, big band and swing, folk and movement [?] music, rock and roll, and none for its latter-day harsh morphing.—Elvis is my aberration, but that’s mostly because he looks like Hadrian’s Antinous. And I don’t really love Whitman and I abhor football and the Marx brothers make me yawn. I’m not just occasionally brought up short by this dissonance: perhaps I’m as much European refugee as American assimilant after all. But then, it’s a free country: no one’s bothered but me.”
I sense a shift in the meaning of “populist.” Once it seemed associated with politicians like Wisconsin’s Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette or, in a different key, William Jennings Bryan. Then came Huey Long (and Willie Stark), and now there’s Donald Trump. The OED first gives specific references to political movements in the U.S. and Russia, and then offers “intended to appeal to or represent the interests of ordinary people.” In other words, more bogus opportunism. I like Brann’s understanding: “a liking for and faith in her fellow-citizens.” Strictly apolitical. Couple that with “an elitist in respect to culture,” and you have a combination I’m comfortable with. To love Dante and Evelyn Waugh is not to hate people who have never heard of them. “Populist elitist” is no oxymoron.
Elsewhere in the book Brann writes: “The sign of psychic health: never grow tired of sameness and welcome otherness.”