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Things That Have Interested Me

Tell It Like It Is

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
17 February 2007

In New York the other day, a group of writers was paying tribute to Susan Sontag. I had prepared something about her aphoristic style, but it turned out that most of the contributors to the evening had something to say on this subject - perhaps, I afterwards thought, because a gift for aphorism is unusual in a writer.

There is a difference between being witty - quick with the repartee and the insight - and having an aptitude for aphorism. It may be that an aphorism is the product of much hard work, that it is tried out and revised, honed in the notebooks before being shown (if ever) to the public. Obviously, the end product must not reek of effort. But we can readily concede that it was the outcome of purposeful brooding.

Sontag writes about Roland Barthes that "It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making." She identifies in Barthes a "superior relation to assertion". Such a conception of writing as his, she says, "excludes the fear of contradiction". And she quotes one of her favourite aphoristic writers, Oscar Wilde: "A truth in art is that whose contradiction is also true."

To have the last word, to be beyond contradiction, to inhabit a world of assertion and paradox - it may not be every aphorist's ambition, but it seems to come with the turf. To take a maxim at random: "All political careers end in failure." The assertion, if it interests us, forces us to interpret its potential meanings, since it cannot literally be true. And it won't do, it would be missing the point of the aphorism, to say: Oh, I can come up with an exception; the mayor of my city left office at the height of his powers, with the congratulations of the burghers ringing in his ears; there was a lavish banquet and the toasts continued into the early hours. Somehow, if the aphorism has force, it is still there at the end of this obviously provincial banquet, its meaning unexplored.

All political careers end in failure because to leave office is to die a little; and so we would rather court defeat than, as it were, volunteer to die. Or, all political careers end in failure because it is in the nature of politicians to promise more than they can achieve; or because that is the deal in most situations - you are in office until you are booted out, although the last thing you had in mind when you ran for office was the certainty of this kind of failure.

Whatever meanings we come up with, a successful aphorism has this power to provoke an interpretation, and to force our assent. It makes us work, it is not self-explanatory. Lichtenberg, the great 18th-century aphorist, wrote: "The oracles have not so much ceased to speak, rather men have ceased to listen to them." But there were no oracles in Lichtenberg's Europe; we have to supply a translation of the term. And this is not hard. The clergy has not ceased to speak, in our own day, but it has ceased to make sense. (And thus becomes petulant when faced with the prospect of losing its secular platforms. Imagine a Bunyan or a Wesley complaining at the prospect of being dropped from Thought for the Day.)

Some more from Lichtenberg: "Certain rash people have asserted that, just as there are no mice where there are no cats, so no one is possessed where there are no exorcists." "To write with sensibility requires more than tears and moonlight." "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is unlikely to look out." "To make a vow is a greater sin than to break one." "The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery." "The book which most deserved to be banned would be a catalogue of banned books."

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a mathematician and scientist, and his notebooks, full of aphorisms and striking phrases, date from 1765 to 1799, the year of his death. RJ Hollingdale translated them for Penguin in 1990, and this version was reprinted 10 years later in the States. I haven't even seen the book Lichtenberg wrote about Hogarth, which Hollingdale tells us "survives in literary history as an amazing tour de force or an amazing act of folly, depending on how you look at it". The description of Hogarth's engravings are so detailed, according to Hollingdale, as to render the works themselves almost redundant. Lichtenberg also wrote some Letters from England, in which he describes Garrick.

Hollingdale tells us that the word aphorism is first found at the head of a collection of treatises named after Hippocrates, the father of medicine. They are "rules for good living and good health, brief reflections and other short writings ..." And it is true of Lichtenberg's aphorisms that they contain many reflections on illness and its relation to psychology. How about this? "One use of dreams is that, unprejudiced by our often forced and artificial reflections, they represent the impartial outcome of our entire being." "I have remarked very clearly," says Lichtenberg, "that I am often of one opinion when I am lying down and of another when I am standing up ..."

"During my nervous illness I very often found that that which usually offended only my moral feeling now overflowed into the physical. When Dieterich said one day: God strike me dead! I felt so ill I had to forbid him my room for a time." And: "My body is that part of the world which my thoughts are able to change. Even imaginary illnesses can become real ones. In the rest of the world my hypotheses cannot disturb the order of things."

He looked, he tells us, into the register of illnesses, but did not find anxieties or gloomy thoughts among them, and this, he tells us, is very wrong. States of mind are intimately related to illness. For instance, if we were fully aware of the dangers of certain illnesses, that awareness itself would constitute a chronic illness. Hypochondria is a microscope through which we can examine diseases barely perceptible to the naked eye. Lichtenberg says that "if men seriously devoted themselves to studying the microscopic diseases, they could have the satisfaction of being ill every day".

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