A taste for aphorism comes with age. It’s a matter of patience. Careful readers, as we get older, lose tolerance for clumsy verbiage. Time is short. A well-crafted aphorism, a mere handful of words, contains more thought-matter than most novels. I choose “matter” purposely. A good aphorism seems to confirm Einstein’s notion that matter is energy. I think of aphorisms lying on the page, coiled to strike when released by the reader.
There’s often a casual stridency about aphorisms that offends some people. They are a reproach to self-delusion and reveal a truth without compromise or qualification. An aphorism is the writerly opposite of popular political discourse, which aims to be “inclusive” and say nothing that might displease its intended audience. An aphorism respects the truth, not the reader. In his foreword to The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1962), W.H. Auden says an aphorism must “convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.”
Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) is not a familiar name in the English-speaking world. His best-known work is drawn from his notebooks and was published only posthumously. He didn’t claim the title “aphorist” but lived it. He is less stringent than La Rochefoucauld. Take this: “When you no longer love what is beautiful, you can no longer write.” That politely eliminates most writers, as does “Writing is closer to thinking than to speaking.” I quote the English translation I know best, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert (trans. Paul Auster, North Point Press, 1983).
[Pause for a digression: When some of us look back at the 1980’s, among our first bookish memories is North Point Press. From Guy Davenport alone I have seven titles published by the Albany, Calif. house, as well as books by A.J. Liebling, Osip Mandelstam, Evan S. Connell, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, William Bronk, V.S. Pritchett, Edward Hoagland, Hugh Kenner and Montaigne. I even bought books by writers who don’t particularly interest me -- Wendell Berry, M.F.K. Fisher – because North Point Press published them.]
Here is Joubert reflecting on his own method: “Maxims, because what is isolated can be seen better.” That’s the nature of aphorisms, maxims, epigrams, apothegms and aperçus. They are pebbles, not boulders. Some are written exclusively to stand alone. Others can be extracted from larger works. In fact, aphorisms can show up anywhere. Look at Pope and Proust. Consider Karl Kraus, Pascal, Chesterton, Santayana and Dr. Johnson. Aphorisms tend to be cold, merciless and unforgiving, making them ideal for delivering laser-guided projectiles of truth and puncturing pretensions. Can one even imagine a politically correct aphorism? Hardly. Political correctness, by nature, is dishonest and delusional.
Joubert died on this date, May 4, in 1824, three days short of his seventieth birthday.