Aphorisms by Sarah Manguso

“I don’t read prose so much as root through it for sentences in need of rescue.” This is the first sentence in Sarah Manguso’s 2016 examination of the aphorism in Harper’s, ‘In Short: Thirty-six ways of looking at the aphorism,’ in which she also confesses she has “a thing for writers who deliver their work by the line, the epigram, the aperçu.” Manguso is one of those writers herself, as she demonstrates in her collection of aphorisms, 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017).

Manguso’s Harper’s essay is an aphoristic consideration of the aphorism as a literary form. In item #27 of ‘In Short’s’ 36-section sequence, she rejects the idea that the aphorism is a modern, Twitter-induced phenomenon and, as such, is evidence that our attention spans are contracting faster than matter at the edge of a black hole. “Please don’t try to convince me that my romance with concision follows from the way we experience reality now, in interrupted and interruptive increments,” she writes, “or that if I like short literature I should be on Twitter; or that my taste is merely a symptom of a pathological inability to focus or commit; or that since I have a child I no longer have the time to write at length. I have always loved concision.”

One of the aphorisms in Manguso’s essay about aphorisms is:

Brevity isn’t the soul of witlessness; shallowness is.

The aphorism is the oldest written art form on the planet. It is now and always has been a discipline and style of philosophical thought, not some psychic shortcut to drive-thru insights. Aphorisms are words without ends. As Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116–118) put it,

An aphorism is the last link in a long chain of thought.

Manguso’s aphorisms are indeed ‘arguments’; i.e., they put forward a point of view, a position, from which readers can form their own chains of thought. The arguments in 300 Arguments are not the partisan bickering we’ve become accustomed to, but part of the writer’s process of working on, reasoning through, and figuring out that also catalyzes that same process in the reader. In so doing, Manguso’s aperçus fit Julien de Valckenaere’s (Geary’s Guide, pp. 61–62) definition of aphoristic excellence:

The shortest aphorism that makes you think the longest is the best.

A selection from 300 Arguments:

The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.

If you want to know someone’s secret, don’t ask a thing. Just listen.

Achieve a goal and suffer its loss.

The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.

I grew up amid violently white winters and green summers and roaring autumns. Now, in a place without such seasons, I’m stuck in a waiting room with the TV on the same channel all day, and I’m never called in for my appointment.

Giving up hope and submitting to suffering looks the same as achieving total detachment and surpassing the Buddha but for one detail: the smile. Remember to smile.