Aphorisms by Brian Jay Stanley
Brian Jay Stanley is a practitioner of the long-form aphorism, a strand of aphoristic technique pioneered by people like Balthasar Gracian and Arthur Schopenhauer, a variant that borders on the parable but pulls up well short of the essay. Mr. Stanley’s Aphorisms and Paradoxes are outstanding examples of the form. An interesting aspect of the long-form aphorism is that the complete text, in Mr. Stanley’s case, usually around a dozen sentences in length, is inevitably studded with discrete individual aphorisms that could easily stand on their own. Ralph Waldo Emerson did this all the time; he actually wrote full-length essays, but the essays themselves were accumulations of self-contained aphorisms. Mr. Stanley’s “Fellowship or Freedom” is like this, too, by my count consisting of at least a half a dozen good aphorisms:
Human nature needs both fellowship and freedom, but usually we must choose. The more we encircle ourselves with others, the more we handcuff our will. Ask for help on a project at work, and it will not be done exactly how you want. Marry, and your holidays will be spent at in-laws’. Have children, and you will listen to their music in the car instead of yours. But worship your freedom, and you will be an empty temple. A bachelor’s life resembles a widower’s. Write, sing, or paint the way you please, disregarding the market’s demands, and you will be your own and only audience. Travel wherever you want, whenever you want, and you will go alone. Fellowship imprisons us, freedom exiles us.
Just as often, the long-form aphorism has the same delivery mechanism as a joke: a fairly long build-up followed by a concise punchline. Take Mr. Stanley’s “Against Living in the Present” as a case in point:
Poets exhort us to savor life by forgetting the past and future and living wholly in the present. Yet I find that living in the present is precisely what hinders appreciation. During the week, I live solely in the present. I eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. My world is circumscribed by my commute; my mind’s range is limited by my body’s. Do not animals live wholly in the present? In the weekend’s pause, I read a Balzac novel and emigrate to history for an afternoon. I think of the great populace of the dead, see my life in the context of Life, gain depth of emotion through breadth of imagination. As travelers in foreign countries think fondly of home, we must be conscious of other times to love our home, the moment. Living fully in the present requires living partly in the past.
These kinds of long-form aphorisms are like holograms: The whole picture can be reconstructed from any single part of it. In this case, the entire aphoristic essay is contained in the last line.
Mr. Stanley works as software developer and has master’s degrees in library and information science as well as theology. His aphorisms tell it like it is, both the long and the short of it.
A Hobby is Work for Work’s Sake
To know someone truly, look at what he does when no one is paying him. My wife makes jewelry, my father gardens, I write, my grandfather cleared brush from the woods by his house. Seeking the common core of varied hobbies, I notice in all a devotion of effort toward a self-imposed goal. To accomplish something is every hobby’s purpose, but what is the purpose of the accomplishment? We are less interested in the accomplishment than the accomplishing. Hobbies express an entrenched urge to create, to add patches of order to the universe. In our hobbies as in our careers, we stack the world’s raw scraps into meaningful shapes—arranging dirt into flower beds, stones into necklaces, words into paragraphs. We curse a Saturday that sees no progress on our projects, not because anyone needs what we produce, but because we need to produce. At work we long for leisure; in leisure we keep working.
We Were Gold Medalists in the Sperm Olympics
A man ejaculates around 300 million sperm in sexual intercourse. That means on the night each of us was conceived, 299,999,999 other sperm were vying for the finish line with the one sperm that became us. A wrong turn down the fallopian tube, a faulty flip of the tail, and one of the hordes of barreling competitors would have outswum us, won the trophy of our mother’s egg, and would now be living our life instead of us. How easily this planet might have been home to a completely different set of inhabitants!
Nothing we will ever accomplish in life—not if we win a Heisman trophy, a Nobel Prize, or the presidency—can compare to the improbable victory we achieved to get here.
Luxury is Multiplying the Basics
Most people daydream of wealth as a marble staircase to happiness, but on a recent tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I was disappointed to discover that money does not buy a different life, but a larger portion of the same life—a somewhat roomier finitude. Instead of two or three bedrooms like most homes, the mansion has thirty five. Yet still, what can one do in them but sleep? By the time I had seen the fifth sitting room, each with innumerable chairs and sofas of countless shapes and upholsteries, I realized that wealth gives no help for ennui except a choice of which chair to be bored in.
My mornings begin with fifteen minutes of depression. Startled from slumber’s nothingness by my alarm, I see what I must do today, but not why I must do it. My mind is as calm as a Buddha’s, examining my planned activities with passionless clarity, surveying life without yet quite belonging to it. All my business has an air of empty busyness. Toasting breakfast, commuting to work, responding to emails—all normalcy seems a costume of the preposterous.
By the time I step from my shower, my philosophic why? has given way to what order should I run my morning errands? Practicality clouds my clairvoyance, curing my depression not with hope, but a to-do list. Small thoughts rescue me from large thoughts.