Sunday, November 05, 2017

`He Asserts'

“Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers.”

Auden is not quite correct. All writing with pretensions to seriousness is aristocratic in that it can never be democratic. It’s judgmental, even contemptuous in spirit, even when expressing democratic ideas. To write well is implicitly to reject other ways of writing. It suggests that others aren’t quite up to your standards and probably ought to stop writing. It’s a writer’s job to be his own most ruthless critic, long before another reader enters the picture. Beware of folksy writers who curry favor and want to be your friend. They are at least as dangerous as writers who revel in snobbish obscurity.

Auden’s diktat can be found in his foreword to The Viking Book of Aphorisms, co-edited in 1962 with the once-ubiquitous Louis Kronenberger. It’s one of my favorite browsable books, reliable when time is short, uninterrupted reading isn’t possible and the only alternative is a decade-old National Geographic. In other words, the dentist’s waiting room. The usual suspects are present – Chamfort, Chesterton, Johnson, Montaigne, Santayana, Pascal, Lichtenberg, Kraus, Valéry, La Rochefoucauld. What surprises me is how au courant Auden could be in some of his selections. He includes eighteen aphorisms from Eric Hoffer (more than Baudelaire and Montesquieu, who published his first and best-known book, The True Believer, in 1951. A sample: “Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self.” One of the book’s failings is that Auden and Kronenberger do not identify sources. If an aphorism pleases you, you’ll have to use the internet to track it down. This one is from Hoffer’s second book, The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms (1955).

Even newer at the time was The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs. Auden and Kronenberger include a four-paragraph excerpt from the beginning of Chap. 3, “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact.” It’s too lengthy to be a true aphorism, but it is good prose and good sense. Here’s a piece of the passage:  

“Reformers have long observed city people loitering on busy corners, hanging around in candy stores and bars and drinking soda pop on stoops, and have passed a judgment, the gist of which is: ‘This is deplorable! If these people had decent homes and a more private or bosky outdoor place, they wouldn’t be on the street!’

“This judgment represents a profound misunderstanding of cities. It makes no more sense than to drop in at a testimonial banquet in a hotel and conclude that if these people had wives who could cook, they would give their parties at home.”   

Under the heading of “Writers and Readers,” the editors include this aperçu from Paul Valéry: “One only reads well when one reads with some personal goal in mind. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author.”

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