BY Brian Dillon in Frieze | 04 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Brief Encounters

The Pleasure of Aphorisms

BY Brian Dillon in Frieze | 04 APR 03

1. Of all the literary forms inherited from the ancient Greeks, none is more arbitrary than the aphorism. The whole genre is the result of a happy scholastic accident: the complete disappearance of the books of the pre-Socratic philosophers, shadowy works later reconstituted from scattered quotations and paraphrases. If the aphorism is etymologically a 'separating off', a writing endlessly bisected by the horizon of blank space or typographical frontier, the enigmatic philosopher Heraclitus caught its paradoxical nature in a famously gnomic utterance: 'we step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.' Aphorisms aspire to wisdom: whole complex philosophies sketched as svelte outlines. But they keep threatening to turn into meaningless fragments, nuggets of wilful obscurity dredged from the river bed of something more coherent: an argument, a narrative, a proper book.

2. The aphorism is the stunted family secret in a modest but respectable dynasty of 'minor' literary modes: diaries, journals, notebooks, letters, essays. Often the aphorism is a tender offshoot of the author's real effort: a throwaway phrase, a shorthand definition destined to be reworked later as part of a serious work. Or it starts life as a snappy one-liner delivered with only one eye on posterity. The aphorism wants to look like it was lazily slung together but somehow ended up beautifully crafted too: so exquisite is the author's sensibility, it says, that even the slimmest sentences are heavyweight contenders for the title of Great Thought. Hence the aphorism's affinity with less noble genres: the joke, the adage, the aside; hence too its tragic pretension, its aspiration to moral and aesthetic certainty. The aphorist's perennial problem: walking the line between piety and trivia.

3. The aphorist hopes to temper thought and style to a single, lethal point. In the 17th century a Mannerist art of the verbal knife-thrust is imagined by the Polish Jesuit aesthetician Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski: his 'acutum' is a sort of stylistic stiletto, a murderously precise literary weapon. Three centuries later Maurice Blanchot wrote of his own fragmentary texts: 'writing is per se already violence: the rupture there is in each fragment, the break, the splitting, the tearing of the shred - acute singularity, steely point.' The aphorist dreams of a single stab, but the text turns into a storm of shards, a shower of needles.

4. The essence of the aphorism is wit: the art of paradox. The aphorist overwhelms our expectations by pairing the most unlikely ideas in elegantly startling conjunction. The 18th-century German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote in his Waste Books (1765-99) of a singularly witty individual: 'he was so witty that any thing served him as an intermediate term for comparing any pair of other things with one another.' A long tradition of calmly contrary writers does just that: from the bruised moralism of La Rochefoucauld and Pascal to the slyly roundabout equations of Nietzsche ('truth is a mobile army of metaphors') and Wilde ('even things that are true can be proved').

5. In Romanticism the ruined aphorism is exhibited afresh in the form of the fragment. Romanticism is in love with ruins: in Henry Fuseli's The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins (1778-9) the hapless artist contemplates a gigantic, severed sculptural hand and foot. Théodore Géricault's Severed Limbs (1818-19) depicts bodies hacked to pieces; the whole era is transfixed by fragments: everything remains tantalizingly unfinished. An aphorism by Friedrich Schlegel states: 'many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.' The dream of a perfect aphorism - thought squared, condensed to crystalline angularity - lies shattered in contemporary confusion.

6. The fragmentary work is an endlessly expanding universe in which the author explores new selves, uncharted constellations of identity. A fragment from Roland Barthes: 'to write by fragments: the fragments are then so many stones on the perimeter of a circle: I spread myself around: my whole little universe in crumbs; at the centre, what?' Modernity itself starts to look like a junkyard of cultural fragments. Things fall apart and are rebuilt as ruins: Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, a fractured panorama of the 19th century, or Samuel Beckett's progressively nugatory writings: thought and style shrinking to a series of snapshots, tentative images of a mind in tatters. As the prodigiously glum Romanian aphorist E. M. Cioran put it, 'no need to elaborate works - merely say something that can be murmured in the ear of a drunkard or a dying man'. 1

7. Despite its metaphysical ambitions, the fragment depends entirely on the practicalities of typography. Hence a myriad of serializing systems, all more or less arbitrary in design. In Pascal, Lichtenberg, Schlegel and Blanchot the fragments are simply numbered; in Benjamin and Barthes numbers and letters alternate. In the works of Cioran a host of tiny typographical symbols sets each fragment off from its fellows: little tombstones to each thought. But the purest marker is the white space of the page itself: in Beckett's How It Is, or in the volumes of Jean Baudrillard's Cool Memories, a pure white void intervenes. 2

8. The fragment's edge is like the frame of a film. It is only through cutting off one image or aphorism from another that the persistence of vision fools us into thinking that the sequence makes up a story. Yet another paradox: like Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies, written fragments freeze a continuum of thought, a movement we wouldn't otherwise see. Fragmentary works want to be static and moving at the same time, to let the reader's eye slide along the page, but also to seize it once and for all in a flash of insight, to compose a prose where, as Schlegel says, everything is in italics.

9. It may have its origin in philosophical profundity, but the fragment or aphorism always flirts with banality. Condemned to concision, the aphoristic imagination teeters constantly on the brink of idiocy: mere greeting-card flippancy, billboard sloganeering or ex cathedra hectoring (but also the art of the caption or the subtitle: a field of possible subversion). 'Each sentence is the spark of a will to power', writes Baudrillard, the prophet of banality. The true aphorist's power is to see the spark of something else in the banal, to track it, as Chris Marker (the cinematic master of fragmented memory) puts it, 'with the relentlessness of a bounty-hunter'.

10. The last aphorism is never the last. There is always more to say; with the final fragment, we haven't even begun. And so on.

1. E. M. Cioran's Notebooks, a manuscript the author marked 'to be destroyed', will be published by Arcade Publishing later in 2003.
2. The fourth volume of Baudrillard's Cool Memories will be published by Verso in June 2003

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.