Friday, July 31, 2009

Writing Aphorisms

Sometimes in life it's time to synthesize, to crystallize, to reflect upon experience in short, pithy sayings. These are called aphorisms. The word comes to us via French, sourced from the Greek aphorismos: to define, from apo- + horizein to bound. Aphorisms have come to mean a concise statement of a principle. Often short, pithy, and witty, aphorisms are a practice many writers have engaged in since antiquity.

The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas opens with the line: These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded. It's in some ways the only Gospel I read anymore, as it seems closest to the source.

Oscar Wilde was a gifted aphorist. Many of his throw-away lines are wit embodied.

Yesterday I was thinking about dialogues with other writers I had been engaged in recently, discussing books, poems, and related matters. I am occasionally frustrated with my peers, as at times many seem to cling to opinion beyond reason. The aphoristic phrase came into my mind late yesterday:

An opinion that is not an informed opinion is just a prejudice.

I can accept an opinion from someone, even if I disagree with their opinion, if I am assured that they've done their reading, and have thought about their opinion. Right opinion, in the sense of right livelihood and right being, is based on experience, on going out there and seeing things for yourself, on having read the book you're making remarks about. Nothing is more awful than a book review where it's obvious the reviewer didn't actually read the book.

If I state an opinion, you can be certain I've done my homework, and I've thought about it. That's my rule of operation. Perhaps it's a variation on the stoic theme given by the Norwegian side of my ancestry: If you haven't got anything good to say, don't say anything. That's an aphorism with some cultural weight. I reinterpret it for myself as: I'll say any damned thing I want to, but before I say it I'll be sure to know what I'm talking about.

Which leads me to my follow-up aphorism:

Opinions based on prejudice are generally impervious to reason.

Nothing is as impervious to discussion as a fixed opinion, in which your interlocutor is intolerant of disagreement, rejects alternative interpretations, and likes to have the last word, even if it means shouting down all opposition in the most blatantly foolish manner visible. (Y'all know who you are: Literature World is full of such bloviators.)

Quick knee-jerk opinions, it must be made clear, are not the same as intuitions—those sudden knowings which are beyond doubt. Intuition is as available as sunlight; and it can be developed as a skill. If you take an instant emotional dislike to someone, that's usually prejudice, not an intuition—because genuine intuition tends to be emotionally neutral, just data, just a knowing, a gnosis that arrives unbidden and unwanted. Knee-jerk opinions are indistinguishable from prejudices primarily because they evince no thoughtfulness beforehand. Few things reveal a fool like the agility with which they put their foot in their mouth.

Which leads me to my next follow-up aphorism:

Prejudice reveals itself by its own reflexes.

So you see the process by which one might convert some thoughts into aphorisms. This is one way to write aphorisms, by distillation and compression to the least statement of a principle. It requires compression in one's writing style, and focus on the essentials. One is encouraged to prune away anything extraneous. In this, writing aphorisms is like writing haiku: nothing but the core, nothing extra.

When a writer reaches a certain age in their writing experience—which is coincident with but not identical to their calendar age—it's time to start distilling one's experience into aphorism. Think of it as refining what you know. You can find witty or humorous ways to state it, and you can also just be blunt. I appreciate aphoristic wit when I encounter it, but my own style tends towards the plain-spoken, even blunt.

As much as I enjoy reading discursive writing, the model of which is Montaigne's Essays, one can distill numerous aphorisms from the broad weave. Oscar Wilde often disguised his best aphorisms as asides in dialogue. One living novelist who often gives us many excellent aphorisms hidden within the weave of his narratives is Neil Gaiman.

When I was in high school, Creative Writing was offered as an English elective class in 11th Grade. I took that class with pleasure—so much for MFA programs, we did it in high school, thank you very much—and discovered I had a flair for the writing exercises and ways of thinking our teacher presented. My creative writing teacher, in fact, became one of my creative life's first real mentors, encouraging me to go further, helping me with extra reading and lessons, and encouraging me to submit my finished writings to contests and publications. So it was that a short story I wrote that year was published, and won a national award.

I look back on this now and realize that this was the experience that kindled my first real interest in writing. Writing as self-expression, certainly. But more importantly, it was a realization that writing was another artistic medium by which I could interpret the world to myself. Writing was a lens through which I could explore the world, explore myself, explore my friendships and relationships, and learn about them. Writing is a kind of self-learning, a form of reflection. The living paradox is that one goes inward to learn about the outer life: writing as a practice is solitary, introverted, but what it can teach you about living and relationships is profound. As novelist Jerzy Kosinski once remarked in an interview, Novels are a rehearsal for life. Now there's an aphorism for the ages.

One exercise we were given in creative writing class was to carry around a notebook and notate everything we observed. I did this with my full attention, not realizing at the time that this was precisely the same kind of mindfulness that I later learned from studying Zen meditation. Pay attention! I'm sure I looked a little strange, walking around my neighborhood that week, stopping every few feet to scribble some few words in a palm-sized notebook. But what I learned from that practice, which I still do, is to observe closely, to see things clearly just as they are, without the filters of prejudgment, and transform them into words. This practice was foundational. It is the root and spring of writing even now. I am a writer who observes, who chooses the telling detail from the broad weave, who follows the image or experience wherever it leads. I have become an explorer, an adventurer; which is one reason I keep inventing new poetic forms rather than repeating stale ones: it's a way of fitting experience into the most perfect display container.

What does this have to do with aphorisms? My creative teacher was fond of them. One day we all wrote aphorisms in class, and some of the kids revealed both wit that made us all life, and some real wisdom that made us stop and think. There were several aphorisms our teacher was fond of repeating on appropriate occasions. Here are two of them, one humorous, and one profound.

Monads are essentially windowless.

And they also have a topological value of zero. Think about it.

The Kingdom of Boredom is within you.

I have to say, I took that latter saying to heart. I have therefore almost never been bored. In thinking about the aphorism, I realized that boredom is a luxury of the young, and never a necessity. It's easy to be bored if you're young and understimulated. But the solution is to go out and do something. Or invent a game. Or go for a bike ride. Or read a book. I did all of those things. I can honestly say that boredom is something I rarely experience.

When I do feel something like boredom, I now recognize it as acedia, the dryness of spirit, the noonday demon, that is a warning sign of spiritual discontent, of the nearness of the dark night of the soul. Acedia is a modern condition par excellence, in our culture which supplies us with Unlimited Stuff and Endless Entertainment, but at the unfortunate cost of depth of feeling. Far better to be passionate than bored. Far better to be engaged with life at full volume, at full intensity—as with Walt Whitman, Odysseas Elytis, Frederick Franck—than to be dried up, bored, and mental. Oscar Wilde's pose of dissolute boredom was in truth a pose: a mask that concealed his passionate engagements with life, words, and relationships. It seems to me that the greatest poets, the greatest artists, have all been passionately engaged with life—sometimes with its quietude and silence rather than its voluptuousness, but engaged nonetheless.

This morning I began reading Kathleen Norris's book Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. There are almost no books currently that explore acedia as the root of modern discontent. We're not really bored, we're not really depressed, as a culture, we're in the grip of acedia. The only other books I know of that approach our cultural malaise from this direction are Andrew Solomon's brilliant book The Noonday Demon: An atlas of depression, and the "Via Negativa" section of Matthew Fox's book Original Blessing.

I look back over where I began this essay, which has wandered far off into parallel universes, and I realize that my original aphorism, An opinion that is not an informed opinion is just a prejudice, in fact does contain a comment about acedia. Prejudices are one symptom of acedia. Opinions that mean nothing in the grand scheme of things are another. As Norris writes:

It is indeed acedia's world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. Now more than ever we need contrarians like Thomas Merton, who once told a Louisville store clerk who had asked what brand of toothpaste he preferred, "I don't care." Merton was intrigued by the man's response. "He almost dropped dead," he wrote. "I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest of something with five colors. And they all have a secret ingredient. But I didn't care about the secret ingredient." Merton concluded that "the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things."
—from Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p. 125

The worst thing, if you listen to the advertising and marketing gurus. The best thing, if you listen to your soul.

And that's where I was going with this meditation on writing aphorisms all along: As a way that I have used to combat acedia in my own soul. Writing as a tool of self-revelation, indeed, or self-expression. But much more, writing as a tool of discovering and making relevant to the self what really matters: of discovering what there is to live for, on those days I can't find any other reasons to keep on going.

Acedia, the Kingdom of Boredom, is a killer because it kills meaning. Camus' crisis of doubt in the meaning of existence itself can lead either to death or to overcoming. (And Camus always points us towards overcoming, unlike Sartre, who pointed resolutely at death.) Writing is fighting back the noonday demon, beating it with sticks and braces, till it retreats. If only for today.

Fight acedia. Write an aphorism. Don't be bored. Give a damn about what really matters.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

It has been suggested that I write a book of aphorisms. It was meant well but I'm not sure that's for me. Aphorisms = wise sayings in my head and therefore, by extension, anyone who writes them is purporting to be wise. Wise I am not. Clever I can be at times and witty but as soon as I start to clamber up on my pedestal I can just sense the crosshairs on my behind. There are many wee gems in my poems but that's the best place for them I think.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I suppose one could always extract aphoristic bits from larger works. I think that's perfectly valid. One locates from within existing materials rather than setting out afresh.

I'm playing with this idea, mostly. I don't really know if it would lead anywhere, for me, or anyone else. It could be an interesting exercise, though.

1:52 AM  

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