Anatomy of an Aphorism

At a recent appearance at the Falmouth Festival of Literature and Arts, I was asked how you go about writing aphorisms. So I explained the two aphoristic writing methods I had observed: the spontaneous combustion method (inspired impromptu aphorisms scribbled on napkins, receipts or anything else that’s handy, as practiced by aphorists like Stanislaw Jerzy Lec) and the formal composition method (whittling down a much longer piece into one sparkling sentence, as practiced by aphorists like Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld). All the aphorists I have encountered seem to practice one form or the other. But then the woman who asked the question said that she was actually asking howyou (i.e. me) write aphorisms. I was a bit surprised by the question since, though I still consider myself an aspiring aphorist, I’ve spent most of my time recently writing about aphorisms rather than writing the aphorisms myself. But yesterday I had a moment of spontaneous combustion and realized a few things about the practice of aphorism composition that might suggest the beginnings of an answer to her question.

I was out running on Hampstead Heath. It was a crisp, early autumn afternoon. The trees were turning orange, the leaves already on the ground puckering up like skin that’s been too long in the bath. The sun was slung low on the horizon. I was running past a group of about five people, all standing in a row next to one another, their hands raised to their brows and squinting into the sun. As I jogged past, the following line came to me:

People tend to salute anything that is unnaturally bright, at least until the shade from their hands reveals what it really is.

As aphorisms go, this isn’t great. It’s a bit flabby, a bit too verbose, but it will serve for the purposes of this anatomy. This was a classic case of spontaneous combustion. The line came to me whole and complete. Apart from tinkering a bit with “shows what it really is” versus “reveals what it really is”, I didn’t revise or edit the sentence at all. (I went with “reveals” because of the internal rhyme with “really”.) I looked at those people and the line appeared. That was it. So the first step in the process of composition was observation: seeing something in the world that I could use as an image. Running past those five people all strung out in a line with their hands to their brows reminded me instantly of a group of soldiers standing at attention, saluting as some officer struts past. It seemed to me a really comical sight. I knew, of course, that they were just shielding their eyes against the low-slung sun to see what was going on in the park, but the military image stuck with me. And that led to the second step in the process: making the link between the image and the moral, psychological or philosophical “lesson” aphorisms contain.
So the second stage of composition involved using the image of those people as a metaphor for some other observation; in this case, a sort of psychological comment on how people tend to react to authority figures. When you’re squinting into the sun, objects can appear larger, more luminous, more impressive than they really are. I remember driving through central Spain years ago and seeing what appeared to be enormous black bulls in the distance. Through the heat waves rising from the highway, these huge silhouettes seemed magnificent and menacing. When we got closer, though, and the glare was gone, they turned out to be just raggedy old billboards in the shape of bulls advertising some kind of Spanish beer or something. The same thing often happens with famous people and authority figures: the spotlights that come with their positions make them seem intensely bright and larger than life. But when you see them in ordinary illumination, shorn of spotlights, they turn out to be far less impressive. So the second stage in the process was: making the metaphor that gives the aphorism its psychological point.

Again, I’m not making any grandiose claims about my little aphorism. It is what it is, a shard of reflected light from a brief moment of observation and inspiration. But it seems to me that this must be what happens when aphorisms are composed. Even those who practice the formal composition method must start with some sudden revelation or insight. And it’s amazing how immediately that observation becomes entwined with language. You see some image in the world and less than a nanosecond later your brain has processed it into some clever little sentence. The observation and the insight seem to arrive together, inextricably linked in the mind. For the aphorist, I think, seeing something and saying something are the same thing.

On Political Aphorisms

I ruined at least one person’s breakfast yesterday when, during an appearance on The Takeaway to discuss aphorisms (or the lack thereof) in the second presidential debate, I illustrated my point that political slogans are,  by design, almost content-less by citing the Obama campaign slogan “Change you can believe in.” At least one listener found this slanted, further noting that most of the successful political aphorisms I cited during the program were from Republicans. I realize now that, during this time of crisis when what America needs is true bi-partisanship, I should have reached across the aisle and stated explicitly that the McCain campaign slogan, “Country first,” is more or less meaningless, too. My point is, ALL political slogans, from any political party, are deliberately designed to be empty vessels that voters can fill with whatever they please. Political slogans are meant to cast a wide net and sweep up as many people as possible in the context of an uplifting, engaging yet completely vague sentiment. Aphorisms, on the other hand, are unsettling, provocative and intended to make you question assumptions; hence, they are not very popular with politicians.

Neither McCain nor Obama seem, to me at least, to be natural aphorists. Some great politicians of the past have been, though. Lincoln was a brilliant aphorist:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

And so was Truman:

It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.

The aphoristic phrases that candidates use say a lot about them, I think. In both debates so far, Obama has said, in reference to proposed budget cuts, a variation on the theme that McCain wants to

take a hatchet to the budget when what you need is a scalpel.

That’s a very professorial, parsing approach, in keeping with Obama’s cool and cerebral take on issues. McCain, in contrast, takes a much more tough-talking, straight-shooting, rough-riding approach. In the first debate, he cited former Secretary of State George Schultz:

If you point a gun at somebody, you better be prepared to pull the trigger.

That’s an aphorism worthy of a true “maverick,” in keeping with the McCain’s invocation of the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, a hero of McCain’s and another great presidential aphorist. (In the interests of bi-partisanship and familial comity, may I also add here that the Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor both, were also great aphorists.)

The best aphorism of the campaign so far, though, comes not from a politician but from Peggy, the woman in New Hampshire who came up with the last question of the second debate:

What don’t you know and how will you learn it?

This is exactly the question aphorisms ask of us! Aphorisms inspire as they challenge, and it is the ‘challenging’ part that politicians find so, well, challenging. These are extraordinarily challenging times; aphorisms pry open our minds by slipping some healthy doubt, skepticism, and self-reflection into our thinking. It is in this mental space that aphorisms open up that new ideas, new solutions can form. Neither candidate really answered Peggy’s question. A shame, really, because as Mark Twain (was he a Democrat or a Republican?) said:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so …

At the Multatuli Museum

Multatuli (see pp.163–165 of Geary’s Guide) was the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, the son of a Dutch sea captain. Dekker seemed destined for a career as an obscure colonial bureaucrat until he uncovered corruption in Dutch–administered Java and decided to expose it. When Dekker brought the exploitation of local labor to the attention of his superiors, they fired him. He returned to Europe and roamed around the Continent for a while, trying to earn enough money gambling to survive. He believed he had invented a foolproof system for winning at casinos, but he always lost. In 1860, he published Max Havelaar, a fictionalized account of the colonial abuses he had witnessed in the Dutch East Indies.

The book caused a sensation throughout Europe, though it initially did nothing to stop the exploitation of the Javanese. After the success ofMax Havelaar, Dekker made a career out of polemical writing, becoming an early supporter of women’s rights, an impassioned lobbyist for educational reform and a fierce critic of religion. He was the first Dutchman to be cremated, in Germany, because at the time of Multatuli’s death it was illegal to be cremated in the Netherlands. His pseudonym is Latin and means, “I have suffered much.” I recently visited the home in which he was born, a tiny house in a narrow lane between the Singel and the Herengracht in central Amsterdam, now a museum. The museum houses an extensive collection of Multatuli books in many different languages, as well as a few scattered personal effects: his desk, an urn for ashes (though his aren’t in it), and the tattered, tasselled red divan on which he died. Some of his aphorisms:

Faith is the voluntary incarceration of the mind.

No one has a high enough estimation of what he could be, nor a low enough one of what he is.

A standpoint reached as the result of an ascent has a different meaning from the same standpoint reached as the result of a fall.

One does not advance the swimming abilities of ducks by throwing the eggs in the water.

He who has never fallen has no true appreciation of what’s needed to stand firm.