Aphorisms are opinions dancing with words –
Writers of aphorisms are the tap-dancers of prose – at best, they are Fred Astaire; at worst, Fred Flintstone.
A successful aphorism isn’t merely a memorable phrase, it’s a world-view up on its toes.
‘Even if you don’t agree with what I am saying’ – an aphorism says – ‘enjoy the rhythm of my certainty, the syncopation of my wit.’
Alexander Pope wrote, aphoristically, though not in an aphorism:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.
Emerson said, similarly:
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
But Karl Kraus, the great Austrian satirist, put it acidly counterwise:
Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.
In The Awkward Age, Henry James almost concurs:
What is it that some one quotes somewhere about some one’s having said that “Our antagonist is our helper – he prevents our being superficial.
‘I’m too clever by half. Please slice me in two.’ Isn’t this what all aphorisms secretly say?
Karl Kraus’s definition seems definitive:
An aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.
(This comes from his book Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths.)
I would say this about aphorisms:
Sometimes what one writes is exactly what someone else would want to have said.
Someone who can write aphorisms should not fritter away his time writing essays.
One cannot dictate an aphorism to a typist. It would take too long.
A similar thought has been attributed, variously, to Pliny the Younger, Mark Twain, T.S.Eliot, Cicero, Voltaire and Proust.
I am sorry to write such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.
I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.
Or in French, where aphorisms always crunch more new-snow-crisply:
Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
In fact, it seems to have been first said by Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16.
And the dissatisfaction with what is said, and how it is said, is part of the form.
Don Paterson, a contemporary master:
The aphorism is already a shadow of itself.
Fernando Pessoa, writing as Bernardo Soares, in The Book of Disquiet:
At the end of this day there remains what remained yesterday and what will remain tomorrow: the insatiable, unquantifiable longing to be both the same and other.
Collections of aphorisms always seem to homogenize the radically differing worldviews of the aphorists. Read The Oxford Book of Aphorisms cover to cover, most of it will seem to have been written by the same jaded patrician polisher of fine words. (Jaded patricians use fine words like ‘perforce’ and ‘yearn’ and ‘afterward’ and ‘sublime’.) Even a sensibility as unique as Franz Kafka’s can be made to fit:
Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.
Ho-hum. Those rum old leopards, eh?
Similar thoughts can devolve to a similar tone:
What is the Ninth Symphony compared to a pop tune played by a hurdy-gurdy and a memory?
That’s Karl Kraus again.
But Noel Coward put it nicely twicely, according to various sources.
Strange how potent cheap music is.
It is extraordinary how potent cheap music is.
The Twentieth Century Blues of this thought also hit T.S.Eliot in Portrait of a Lady:
I keep my countenance, I remain self-possessed
Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired
Reiterates some worn-out common song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired.
And one of my favourite lines of poetry – Rainer Maria Rilke, perhaps similarly enchanted by disenchantment, in the Duino Elegies:
Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing. All this was mission.
But perhaps Rilke’s violinist was playing Beethoven, not Broadway. Identical thoughts are harder to avoid, in aphorisms, than to discover. Perhaps, after all, there are only ten or eleven things worth saying. Here is Henry James in The Europeans:
We may sometimes point out a road we are unable to follow.
Is he deliberately recapitulating La Rochefoucauld?
Old people are fond of giving good advice; it consoles them for no longer being capable of setting a bad example.
And here is Kafka:
Human intercourse tempts one to introspection.
Mirrored by Kraus:
I must be with people again. For this summer – among bees and dandelions – my misanthropy really got out of hand.
These are the great aphoristic writers – Karl Kraus, La Rochefoucault, Pascal, Lichtenberg, Fernando Pessoa, Franz Kafka, Emerson, William Blake, Jane Austen, and, of course, Henry James:
It is very wrong to make love to a woman who is engaged, but it is very wrong not to make love to a woman who is married.
This is very like Oscar Wilde. He is marvellous, of course. (The of course of aphorists is always utter damnation.) The deeper insight of Wilde, I am not so sure about. An aphorism should be capable of devastating you, not merely patting you on the back. Wilde’s wit consists in little more than saying, on every occasion, the opposite of what a country priest would say.
There are various tactics taken by aphorisms. Here are some silly ones of my own to demonstrate –
Never in the field of human conflict plant lettuces.
God is a pain by which we measure our concepts.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single Proclaimer.
The difference between Lennon and McCartney is that between honesty and sincerity.
Writing is perpetual discontent; not-writing is so much worse.
Clouds never lose their dignity.
Six feet under is the moral high ground.
A door that opens on yesterday’s infinite: Theology.
Poetry is prose that fails to reach the edges of the page; Prose is poetry that fails to reach the edges of the universe.
Aphorisms are far easier to quote than to take apart. At dinner parties, combat occurs. Better and better examples are unfurled, one after the other, like rugs one is trying not to buy. But here, to conclude, are three of my favourite aphorisms. The first, I think, has that capacity for devastation:
Some people would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love.
Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.
– Karl Kraus
There are two cardinal human sins from which all others derive: impatience and indolence. Because of impatience they were expelled from Paradise, because of indolence they do not return. But perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience, they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return.