Monday, March 12, 2012

When a book and a head collide - reading aphorisms

Here  we have Friedrich Nietzsche describing the “difficulty” created by the “aphoristic form” of some of his work which:

arises from the fact that today this form is not taken sufficiently seriously.  An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been “deciphered” when it has simply been read; one has then rather to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis.*

Not this week nor the next, but perhaps in the week after I will begin to write the fragments of my notes of my ideas of the art of exegesis of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a fragmented text that could be fruitfully read aphoristically.  Whatever that means.

There is my question.  What does that mean?  How do I read a book of aphorisms?  How do you do it?  I start at the upper left corner, reading all of the words as my eyes move right, moving down and left when I reach the end of the line, etc.  Yes, that is in fact how I read such books, but I do not believe that helps much with Nietzsche’s criticism.

I am rummaging through the “Maxims and Arrows” section of Twilight of the Idols (1888), not reading it straight through.**  Hey, there’s a famous one:

8. Out of life’s school of war:  What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.

I can posit a principle in my art of exegesis: do not take aphorisms literally.  Do not add “except for those things that do not destroy me but do weaken me.”  A difficulty with this one is that it is too famous, material for motivational posters, and hard to see straight.  Let’s see.  What’s next.

9.  Help yourself, then everyone will help you.  Principle of neighbor-love.

A cynical dig at Christian “slave morality”?  My temptation is to snort “Preposterous” and move on.  Perhaps Nietzsche is not the right test case for my current mood.  It has been twenty years since I have even glanced at Nietzsche and am obviously not reading him in a deciphering spirit.  Even here, where I am pulling  the thought from the text, typing it myself, and staring at it intently, I feel the urge to explain this idea not by thinking about it but by reading the next one.  The next one will provide the key, right?

As Georg Christoph Licthenberg wrote, "Much reading is harmful to thinking" (F51), and also "People who have read a great deal seldom make great discoveries" (E85).  Neither idea is quite true, but when I compare them to my own experience, I can only wince.  They are not mere provocations.  It may help to know that Lichtenberg was a physicist who made one discovery, and likely would have made more if he had not spent so much time reading.

Lichtenberg has so many pointed sayings or jokes about books and reading:

D66  When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?

A common Lichtenberg theme is that readers are fools.  Also, that we all are fools, but readers particularly so, although writers are worse:

D36  May Heaven forfend that I should ever write a book about books.

What a relief that Wuthering Expectations is not a book.

I should be done with this subject, but I am not.

*  The quotation is from the prologue of On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), but I found it in R C. Hollingdale’s introduction to the NYRB edition of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, p. xiii.  Subsequent Lichtenberg quotations are from the same source.

**  I’m in The Portable Nietzche, actually.


  1. On the more direct question, the only book of aphorisms I've read are Kafka's. In this case, reading the aphorisms individually was helpful to look at possible meanings but then a re-reading of all of them at once helped produce a grander picture. OK, really just an outline. Hinted at.

    In Kafka's case, the next one definitely did not hold the key to any other aphorism but that didn't mean they couldn't be interrelated at times. But then his aphorisms may not be a good example.

  2. These books were written to be read on the toilet, although personally I have a preference for books of very short stories.

  3. Lichtenberg might well agree with obooki, but I am not convinced.

    Dwight, given what you read, you are going to have a fine time with Heraclitus and Diogenes. And La Rochefoucauld. And - it's not a long list, exactly, but for such an odd form, it's a healthy group of writers.

    I think you're right - more than a narrative, the books really demand a two-part attack. The text creates the personality, which then directs the interpretation. I guess.

  4. I guessed you were sailing for Pessoa with that title (and I pity those hoping to join in the discussion at the end of the month who are just now staring The Book of Disquiet, with its challenges in this regard - but then again, I'm a slow reader). This is probably an inane approach, but I've found it helpful (in the case of Pessoa and before him, Montaigne) to try to slip into a kind of receptive trance in which I treat the aphorisms less as trenchant content than as rhythmical aesthetic elements (especially in Pessoa, where every other sentence reads like an aphorism). Of course, I feel the same way whenever I'm in the Chinatown public garage in San Francisco, which has a different fortune cookie aphorism painted into each parking space. So: probably inane.

  5. A trance! If I only knew how, although "rhythmical aesthetic elements" sounds awfully close to my own experience, which is likely more trance-like than I want.

    My biggest problem, which the trance is unlikely to solve, is one of memory, how to store, categorize, and sort the wisdom or anti-wisdom of the aphoristic writer - how to do anything to retain any memory of them at all. This is a subtext of tomorrow's post. Or perhaps the text. I just wrote it and have already forgotten.

  6. I'd put Pascal in this group, too, and closer to La Rochefoucauld than to Bierce.

  7. I had my Penguin Classics Pensées on the pile of books OI was playing with during this little exercise, but I did not figure out how to use him. You are right, he is surprisingly close to La Rochefoucauld in attitude. And Pensées is certainly not a joke book.

  8. Shoot! That explains why people don't laugh when I tell jokes out of it!

  9. "Continuous eloquence wearies" makes me giggle every time, though. The one about man wanting to act the angel but instead acting the brute is good, too.

  10. Oh, I'm with Jenny, in the "Pascal is funny" camp. He's not continually funny. I don't mean that. But I do not mean witty, either. He shares the clear-eyed, cock-eyed view of human nature along with many of the great satirists, although he is better at math than, say, Evelyn Waugh.

  11. Pascal is far more modern -- or maybe I mean postmodern -- than, say, Descartes is, as a philosopher. And part of it is that cock-eyed view you describe. No flies on Pascal, is what.