There aren’t many contemporary aphorists in the U.S.A. of 2008, and I know several of them: Yahia Lababidi, Dan Liebert, and James Richardson. You might say that writers who work in this rare form constitute, what, an underground of adepts, a kind of apothegmatic freemasonry. A recent book edited by James Geary, Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists put all of us in it, which is pretty astonishing, considering that it also includes the Bible, Socrates, Seneca, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Landor, Kafka, Karl Kraus, and Elias Canetti. But then it also has Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, just to re-establish a sense of proportion.
More than ten years ago I published a little chapbook of aphorisms titled The Pith Helmet with Harry Duncan’s Cummington Press, and that’s where James Geary found those of mine he included in the collection. The chapbook began with a little introduction, reproduced below.
THE PITH HELMET
In an article about Chamfort published a few years ago, the critic Joseph Epstein remarked that aphorisms are no longer written, even so managing unobtrusively to place a few of his own in the argument. Present-day writers seem unwilling to publish aphorisms openly. Readers who have a taste for them have to turn to figures from the past--Bacon, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Dr. Johnson, Lichtenberg, and Nietzsche, to mention only the most famous. Their excellence isn’t in question, but the ecological protectionist in us all might not be satisfied, might want to assure continued survival for the vanishing aphorism. A purely circumstantial reason for the aphorism’s decline is, no doubt, the absence of a venue for it. Trade book publishers don’t seem to have put out any collections of new aphorisms for several decades, and few authors are willing to write what can’t eventually be printed. It may be that only an older readership even knows what they are.
The etymology of “aphorism” tells us that it is formed from Greek apo and horizein, “away from” and “to bound.” And so an aphorism is a statement that defines, just as the horizon, a related etymon, is the line dividing earth from sky. The aphorism assists the Latin philosopher’s distinguo and in Latin is also called the maxima sententia: not “the maximum sentence,” however judgmental, but rather “the most general statement” or “axiom.” This term gave us the synonym “maxim.” It presupposes a community at ease with the practice of making distinctions based on reflective reason.
Beginning in the 17th century, especially in France, aphorisms are most often associated with mondanité and in that mode undertake to reveal, more with wit than indignation, society’s selfishness and vanity. With Vauvenargues and Chamfort the distinction between aphorism and epigram begins to blur, a tendency observable all the way to the end of the 19th century. Heightening one’s conversation with concise and amusing observations about human behavior was a prized social grace among literate members of the beau monde. Because mondanité was the prevailing ideology, irony and paradox rather than sarcasm and invective were the desirable qualities in conversational as well as written aphorism. Its crystallizations affected the texture of all kinds of writing in France, including the novel, so that it has been possible for editors to extract “aphorisms” from the fiction of Proust, as can be done from a number of other writers of the same period, Oscar Wilde the most notable in English. When there was an available Boswell, casual conversation could also be sifted for treasure. If we'd seen more Boswells in the 1890s with the presence of mind to jot down on their shirt cuffs some of the “good things” said during those long belle époque suppers chez Maxim’s, how many more brilliant relics of this ephemeral verbal art would have survived.
In the twentieth century we find fewer aphorists, though Karl Kraus’s bitter political ironies are rightly valued, and his admirer W.H. Auden is often quoted in his aphoristic moments (which resemble those of the 19th century Anglican cleric Sydney Smith), even though he never actually published aphorisms as such. From private meditations, Paul Valéry culled several groups of sayings, including the Analecta and Mauvaises Pensées, and, though the great majority have to do with the art of thinking or of poetry, they have a bearing on conduct at large, since it involves, among reflective people, mental operations not utterly different from the processes of poesis. The beautiful meditations of Antonio Porchia, an Argentinian, count as aphorisms, but in a spiritual vein drawing on a tradition that begins with Augustine and passes through Pascal and Kierkegaard.
In the early 1980s I came across some aphorisms published by an American (a naturalized American, actually). A small press whose name I don't recall brought out a substantial collection of aphorisms by a little-known writer named Francis Golffing; reading these examples convinced me the aphorism was still possible as a genre, and I set out to try my hand at it. Whether or not a contemporary, pluralist audience can be expected to agree on questions of general judgment, I make an argument for the aphorism as a form of prose that is written to survive the attentive reading normally reserved for poetry. Much of its virtue arises from concision. Brevity must somehow be reconciled to balance and rhythm, repetition avoided except when used expressively. In some of these collected here, I've taken a broader view of what aphorism might be, based on some of Lichtenberg’s less classifiable examples, Valery’s Rhumbs, or the cryptic fragments of René Char.
A final definition of the aphorism is “a short, pithy statement,” where “pith” keeps its old association with strength, as in Byron’s satirical comment (from Don Juan) on the prevalence of certain English names: “Among them were several Englishmen of pith:/Eighteen named Johnson and sixteen named Smith.” Dr. Johnson and the Rev. Sydney Smith would have to number among these “Englishmen of pith,” no doubt, and, although wisdom has a bad name in our time, the idea of protective strength is allowed, a shade, say, from dangerous ultra-violet rays no longer screened out by our atmosphere’s damaged ozone layer. That’s the sense I intended by titling this collection The Pith Helmet.
Here are a few examples from Geary’s anthology:
“The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.”
“No person hath drunk a better draught than that of anger which he hath swallowed for God’s sake.”
“It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured.”
“If you analyze your happiness you become sad.”
“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes someone else’s.”
—Jean Paul Richter
“The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”
These are a minuscule percentage of the number found in Geary's book. I like the aphorism. It helps us endure and at the same time provides enjoyment, often in the form of chuckles.