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Aphorism Art and Craft

What could we produce that wouldn’t be comparatively brief, I ask myself, as I assess the enormity of the sky and compare it with the distance between me and my horizon. A horizon is a visual limit, therefore a kind of eye-prison, and so could be a mind-prison, if our minds weren’t very fond of prisons, needed them, even, to keep themselves in order. So we call the horizon a definition, and a definition is a good thing because it tells us where we stand.

noun.   a concise statement of a scientific principle, usu. by a classical author.
any pithily expressed precept or observation; a maxim.
[ORIGIN: French aphorisme or late Latin aphorismus from Greek aphorismos definition, from aphorizein define, from AP- (from, away from; after; in descent from) + horizein set bounds to (from Greek horos, boundary).]

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
 However, we only stand for short periods if we have an ounce of curiosity, so our definitions must change accordingly. We move from mental point to mental point as we do from geographical to geographical, making of our lives a conceptual map. Definitions, like rules, are only as good as their contexts. They’re valuable because they locate us and then relocate us, so we’re always somewhere.

"The mind, when it reaches its limits, must make a judgement and choose its conclusions."

Albert Camus (1)

In his Introduction to Georg Christof Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books, R. J. Hollingdale says: “In its pure and perfect form the aphorism is distinguished by four qualities occurring together: it is brief, it is isolated, it is witty, and it is ‘philosophical’.”(2) But the horizon shifts. Most of Nietzsche’s aphorisms are not particularly short, nor witty in the conventional sense. They occur in themed books, not as random islands. But he called them aphorisms, and what else are they? They’re much shorter than book chapters, they’re philosophical and concise. On that basis, could we call The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa a collection of aphorisms? I presume so.

"Whoever learns to write in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read but to be learned by heart. In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks—and those who are addressed tall and lofty."

 Friedrich Nietzsche (4)

My concept of the aphorism is involved with its etymology. My definition—
aphorism: a concise, memorable statement or meditation, summarising in charged language a process of deep mental enquiry.

"We become aware of the void as we fill it."

Antonio Porchia (4)

Poets can’t do without their etymological dictionaries. Everything you do with language depends on how it’s been applied before. I suspect that aphorists are the same, because in writing my aphorisms for Savage Solitude, I chose words as carefully as if I were writing a poem. Sometimes the task felt more difficult, maybe because an aphorism is prose and the rhythm isn’t as helpful in suggesting sounds. Another difficulty was the purpose. The aphorisms in my book are linked and comprise an extended internal conversation. While they pose issues and ponder them, they do this in a dramatic manner, displaying character and motivation. As they inter-relate in individual dialogues, and are intended to be psychically portable units, the subject matter had to be brought to a flourish in a small space, in the appropriate voice.

I collect quotations. That is, I lift striking pieces of information or insight from larger works and keep them as conceptual architecture within my internal city, to be re-visited when the need or mood occurs. I’m patently not alone in this. What is this mania for epigraphs? Whether they’re necessary at the beginning of a novel or not, they do tend to direct the reader towards the premise of a book, acting as a kind of portal. In Savage Solitude that’s certainly their purpose, and they're a taster of what is to come.

Epigraphs serve the aphoristic purpose of giving us a position in relation to some horizon—this is the issue, this is where the author is, now abide if you will. We experience our lives in fragments—cannot, in fact, experience them as units, simply because we’re inside ourselves and don’t have the perspective. So we apply our attention to small areas at a time, as these rise randomly out of the panorama. The aphorism or pensée reflects this reality, but it also underlines the absence of a final path or destination. Its packed, fruity body is a planet of which there's an infinite number, a verbal distillation of thought and experience produced between journeys, at a wayside inn. As James Geary wrote: “Aphorists are people who have experienced ‘extremity of spirit’ and aphorisms are read by people in the same predicament.” (5)

"... we gain true wisdom not by measuring the boundless world, nor (more to the purpose) by travelling personally through endless space, but by investigating some one individual phenomenon in its entirety in an attempt to fully understand its true and specific nature."

Arthur Schopenhauer (6)

Aphorisms in book form can be unsatisfying if they’re disjointed and isolated, as Hollingdale’s definition requires. While I thought Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes clever, interesting and entertaining, I found myself wanting exegesis. I wanted to live in the concepts, walk around inside them, put flesh and organs around the bones. Effective aphoristic brevity makes them amicable to memory, and they’ve often been mnemonic devices, but without specific context they can be difficult to retain. The striking observation asks to be learned by heart, but you need to have a focus of heart in order to undertake the task. Given a book of pensées on a diversity of subjects, you might become overloaded. It might be best to approach it as you would a reference book, or one you leave on a hall table for serendipitous leafing.

"You exist if and only if you are free to do things without a visible objective, with no justification and, above all, outside the dictatorship of someone else’s narrative."

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7)

A story or image tends to affect more deeply than a stray aphorism, as does a longer philosophical argument that leads you to its conclusion. Nietzsche, the master, causes impact by turning aphorism into persuasive argument or poetic pensée. In Savage Solitude, I use a loose narrative thread and dramatised voices, together with poetic diction. This might be the future of the style, in the same way that linked series of poems are becoming very common.

A great attraction of the aphorism (short or not-so-short) is that it works by means of well-established rhetorical devices that are great fun and satisfying to use. To name a few: thesis / antithesis / synthesis, alliteration, punning, analogy, anaphora, anastrophe, chiasmus, epiphora, apostrophe, understatement, zeugma.... A glamorous party.

"It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is
easy in solitude to live after one’s own; but the great man is he
who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness
the independence of solitude.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (8)

Aphorisms are as old, and perhaps older, than writing. They comprise many of the world’s wisdom works, including: the Sutras, the Vedas, the I Ching, the Tao te Ching, the sayings of Confucius, the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, works by certain Greek and Roman philosophers, the medical aphorisms of Hippocrates, the 'Mirrors for Princes', Renaissance ruminations like those of Michel de Montaigne and Balthasar Gracian, Kafka's Zürau Aphorisms and comtemporary volumes by Sharon Dolin, Don Paterson and James Richardson. Modern aphorisms, according to Sharon Dolin, often display what she calls a ‘nuanced, personal voice’ (9). In this generation of sound-bytes, their revitalisation might just add depth and intellectual force where there is already a practice of pithy communication.

So here I stand, preparing yet again to bear towards the visible horizon, and all around me small, tall towers of compacted thought. Will encountering them, entering them, extend the limits of my vision, or delay me from purpose? Without reason, where is purpose? The towers are stations, places to consider oneself in relation to what’s outside. They crop up like mushrooms but stand like trees. Linger in them, and the horizon will, of itself, reach for you.

277. dice
To choose one option destroys the others and creates a
station. But without a station there’s no context and no
perceptible entity; I’m not even on the grid of my own mind.
If I choose carefully, I’ll gain something that I value. If not,
whatever I miss or lose will be taken up by somebody else.
Time will anyhow absorb.

 Máighréad Medbh (10)


(1) Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus, London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1979, p. 28.
(2) Georg Christof Lichtenberg: The Waste Books, translated with an Introduction by R. J. Hollingdale, New York: New York Review of Books, 2000, p. x.
(3) Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, quoted in James Geary: We Are What We Think, London: John Murray, 2005, p.129.
(4) Antonio Porchia, Voices, translated by W. S. Merwin, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2003, p. 43.
(5) James Geary: We Are What We Think, London: John Murray, 2005.
(6) Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Idea, London: Dent / Everyman, 1995, P. 60.
(7) Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes, London: Allen Lane / Penguin, 2010. Kindle Edition, Page 17.
(8) Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Self-reliance’, Selected Essays, Introduction by Larzer Ziff, London: Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 181.
(9) Sharon Dolin, ‘Making a Space for Aphorism: Exploring the Intersection between Aphorism and Poetry’, American Poet, Vol. 40, Spring 2011.
(10) Máighréad Medbh: Savage Solitude, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, p. 256.

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