The origins of the aphorism are both elevated and abject, as fits a literary form of sublime ambition that is at present in a kind of disgrace. The English word, which seems first to have been used in the sixteenth century, to describe certain medical writings, derives from the French aphorisme and the Latin aphorismus, whose Greek original denotes a definition or distinction, a setting apart. The term appears at the head of writings on medicine and the good life attributed to Hippocrates. There are over seventy of these texts, and the first is among the most well-rehearsed gobbets of wisdom in literary history: “Life is short, and Art long.” The second fragment or thesis treats of “disorders of the bowels,” which suggests already that the aphorist is a costive sort, disgorging small verities with considerable effort. The aphorism is defined by its monadic quality, its obtuse resistance to being teased or elaborated. It is related to the essay, though the essay may also contain aphorisms. These go by other names too: maxim, apothegm, dictum, epigram, gnome, and sentence. I am not quite sure they are the same as saws, adages, and proverbs—the aphorism is an oblique sort of statement.

The modern aphorism may be modelled on the classical, but it adds to the form a degree of self-consciousness about its own power, motion, drive. Above all, the aphorism is a sharp or pointed thing, violently deployed—though this action can never be definitive, but must be repeated time and again. Like the fragment of which it is a version, the aphorism is mostly to be found among others of its type; it manifests in multiple, even though its internal workings are all geared toward the unique verbal thrust or parry. (The contradiction is neatly expressed in a remark by James Boswell about Horace Walpole: “I am told that Horace, Earl of Orford, has a collection of bon-mots by persons who never said but one.”) In the seventeenth century, this combination of economy and violence was given various names. In Spain, the Jesuit writer Baltasar Gracián, in “The Art of Worldly Wisdom,” perfected what he called agudeza: a kind of wit in which the maximum of meaning is compacted into the minimum of form or style. In the same century, in Poland, the poet and aesthetician Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, also a Jesuit, elaborated a theory of the acutum: a Mannerist knife-thrust, a stylistic stiletto. It has never gone away, this pert or pointed metaphor for the action of the aphorism. Here is Maurice Blanchot in “The Writing of the Disaster”: “Writing is per se already (it is still) violence: the rupture there is in each fragment, the break, the splitting, the tearing of the shred—acute singularity, steely point.” And E. M. Cioran, on the virtues of economy and obliquity: “Is there a better sign of ‘civilization’ than laconism? To stress, to explain, to prove—so many forms of vulgarity.” Finally, Barthes on the pointedness of the aphorism, and the performance that goes with it: “Point is a form of rupture: it always tends to close thought on a flourish, on that fragile moment when the word is stilled, touching on both silence and applause.”

The aphorism, then, is singular and separated—or at least separable, when discovered in the midst of other aphorisms, or embedded in some more discursive text. It is sharp, also hard: in an essay on the polished maxims of La Rochefoucauld, Barthes compares the form to the brittle casing of an insect’s thorax—the aphorism not as weapon but as suit of armor. The aphorism would like us to believe in its tightly furled autonomy, but we can still discern its secret anatomy. It has a well-defined structure, which at its simplest is composed of symmetries and parallels. The aphorist imagines a rhetorical algebra; everything is structured like an equation. The genre has a curious affinity with the verb to be; in the aphorism, x is y. Or better, according to the writer’s need to surprise the reader: x is actually y. Still more effectively: x is, after all, only y. Thus La Rochefoucauld, in his “Maxims,” as related by Barthes: “The clemency of princes is often only a policy to gain the affection of the people . . . . The sage’s constancy is only the art of keeping his agitation shut up within his heart.”

As Barthes remarks of La Rochefoucauld’s somewhat glib and static phrases, the subjects of the aphorism appear to be solid and stable, to exist eternally. Aphorisms contain such sturdy, ahistorical abstractions as love, passion, pride, deceit, and so on; with its brute insistence that x is (however complexly) really y, the genre sometimes looks like a field of immovable prose monuments. But there are more complex, oblique structures available. In a gymnastic mode, the author may attempt a daring backflip between the parallel bars of a slightly more baroque formulation: a is to b as x is to y. And, in an embrace of the structure and practice of thought called chiasmus, of which Pascal in his “Pensées” was master, the terms may be reversed. At times, Pascal’s structures are straightforward, as in his reflection on inconsistency of character and morals: “Contradictions. Man is naturally credulous, incredulous, timid, bold.” Here the parallel form and antithetical content raise no further problems: the aphorism still feels self-contained. In other cases, the terms are flagrantly reversed, so that when considering moral contradictions we are left to wonder at the seeming labyrinth, with no reputable way out, in which humanity exists:

We are so presumptuous that we should like to be known all over the
world, even by people who will only come when we are no more. Such is
our vanity that the good opinion of half a dozen of the people around
us gives us pleasure and satisfaction.

Wit is the art of bringing unlikely things or ideas together, in such a way that the scandal or shock of their proximity arrives alongside a conviction that they have always belonged together. In the aesthetic theory of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wit is opposed to judgment, which is the skill of making fine distinctions, prising things apart. Perhaps the aphorism is made of equal parts wit and judgment, its success depending on its making a sufficiently daring detour in thought, while at the same time maintaining formal integrity, poise, and precision. In his “Waste Books”—a supposedly casual repository for passing reflections and notes—the German scientist and essayist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg remarks of an unnamed individual: “He was so witty that any thing served him as an intermediate term for comparing any pair of other things with one another.” There is a good case for saying that the essence of the aphorism is not merely the economical expression of contradiction, but the condensed presentation of pure paradox. (Which has been present at least since Pascal—hence Cioran’s quip: “Pascal, excessive in everything, was excessive in his common sense as well.”) At the furthest remove in this direction, the aphorism risks becoming only paradox, in an escalating contest to trump logic, realism, and ethics alike. Oscar Wilde’s is the epitome of the paradoxical style; each of his bon-mots, whether embedded in a play or story, or discretely proffered as part of a list, is designed to expose this or that cliché from the store of Victorian piety and hypocrisy. A single example should suffice to remind us: “In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.”

In this sort of aphorism, assertion is all: in place of argument or proof, the implacable “is.” But isn’t there something insufferable about this tyranny of the verb to be, and the rhetorical recourse, always, to reversal or paradox? It starts to sound like a species of intellectual and stylistic kitsch, a preciousness that is the preserve today mostly of pseudo-spiritual treatises and vacant self-help volumes. Maybe this is what Nietzsche meant when he complained that the aphorism was no longer taken seriously enough; it was about to be appropriated by purveyors of aching banalities of the following order: “By teaching others you will learn yourself ” (G. I. Gurdjieff). There is the tendency also to extract seemingly plain aphoristic nostrums from essays or works of fiction with manifestly ironical intent. Consider for example the fate of the opening sentence in Joan Didion’s “The White Album”—“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What sump of literal-mindedness must subtend a sensibility so obtuse as to miss the fact, even on the first page of this essay about the curdling of nineteen-sixties counterculture, that the telling doesn’t work? But the impulse to read such statements literally, as if they were autonomous examples of timeless wisdom, is not entirely disreputable; sententiousness is one of the aspects of essayism, and we may find it all over the landscape of the genre, solid and informing, like a series of altitude markers on an upland trail.

For myself, when it comes to aphorisms I admire a certain sidelong approach. If most aphorists are addicted to assertion, telling readers what is and is not, there is always the option of shunning the verb to be and its imperious rule. A degree of absurdism comes with this choice. In the most engaging of his aphorisms, Lichtenberg writes: “Let him who has two pairs of trousers turn one of them into cash and purchase this book.” I like the idea of the aphorism as an expression of desire rather than a small machine for defining things, abstract or concrete. Sometimes such aphorisms are about the form itself, as in the poet Don Paterson’s doleful fantasy: “To induce a horrific paralysis of boredom in the reader, in the compass of one sentence . . . .” Or Cioran again, whom Paterson is partly channelling: “No need to elaborate works—merely say something that can be murmured in the ear of a drunkard or a dying man.”

This piece is excerpted from “Essayism,” out this month from New York Review Books.

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