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.