|Tell It Like It Is
copyright © 2007
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
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
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
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".