Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Only in looking for words do we find thoughts - if "thoughts" is the right word

APHORISM, n., Predigested wisdom.

In my thinking about aphoristic writing, I have barely moved beyond categorization.  For example, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), source of the above, is a century-old joke book.  That any of it is still funny is a literary miracle.  I find quite a lot of it funny, which is part of my problem with aphorisms:  I mostly read them for the laughs.

Aphorists are so often satirists.  If not exactly funny, their work belongs on the comic side of the ledger.  Le Duc de la Rochefoucauld begins his Maxims (1665+) with “Our virtues are usually only vices in disguise,” a motto for comic writers, even though, maxim by maxim, La Rochefoucauld is rarely comic.  His elegant, witty mind hovers over all of his writing, whether his topic is love or death, courage or vanity:

132  It is easier to be wise for others than for oneself.
135  At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.
137  When vanity is not prompting us we have little to say.

The first I find highly amusing, the second more painfully insightful, while the third could be the motto of Wuthering Expectations.   La Rochefoucauld’s maxims are wisdom with the lightest touch.

La Rochefoucauld’s book is unusual in that it was meant to be a book, and has a beginning, end, and even something like an argument.  Why were so many of the greatest aphorists unpublished, just keepers of notebooks, like Lichtenberg, or Chamfort and Joseph Joubert, or Novalis?  Joubert’s book feels like a set of notes for some other book, although what that book might have been is a bit mysterious.  A random entry, dated 1799:

The evening meal is the joy of the day.
How it happens that only in looking for words do we find thoughts.
We have philosophized badly.  (p. 49)

What luck, I have found another personal motto!  The last one, not the first; lunch is also a daily joy, as is, on occasion, breakfast.

I believe the notes-towards-a-masterpiece story explains Novalis as well, although I find his scraps incomprehensible.  Or I thought I did, until I looked at him just now:

127  When one reads correctly, there unfolds then in our interior a real, visible world according to the words.
128  All novels where genuine love is presented are fairy-tales – magical events.
129  The lives of cultured people should alternate between music and non-music, as between sleep and waking.

The first one is close to banal, the second a profound act of literary criticism, the third a fine aspiration, but all are written with clarity.  I wonder what book would have tied them together.

When I read books of aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, fragments, sayings of the fathers, or jokes, I create my own book, just like I do when I read a novel.  I imagine a narrator, a persona, speaking or writing the words before me, and behind him a “real” author, who also wrote the text.  I trace themes, keep an eye out for repeated ideas and imagery, concoct a story.  Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet is a more novel-like written object than any text I have mentioned here, so who am I kidding, when I write about it a couple of weeks from now, I will write about a novel, even if it is one I patched together in my own head. Other readers may read it as something else.  I hope they do.

Let’s see.  The Maxims are as per Leonard Tancock, Penguin Classics.  The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert, the NYRB edition selected and translated by Paul Auster, check.  The Devil’s Dictionary is in the new, fascinating Library of America volume of Ambrose Bierce.  The Novalis comes from Pollen and Fragments, tr. Arthur Versluis, Phanes Press, 1989.  If I had used any Chamfort, it would of course have been from the W. S. Merwin-translated Products of the Perfected Civilization.

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