Whither the Aphorism?
In 2007, the mathematician-investor and self-styled “risk engineer” Nassim Nicholas Taleb published The Black Swan, a book that became very famous in the wake of the subsequent fiscal crisis. Basically a theoretical scientist’s practical view of why we ignore the metaphorical whistle round the bend or the thrumming of the rails and therefore never seem to see the train that seemingly thunders out of nowhere and flattens us, The Black Swan conferred great réclame on its author and made him a sought-after guest on talk shows. It was on a relatively recent rerun of one of these, possibly Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or (less likely) Charlie Rose, that I chanced upon Taleb talking about his latest book, 2010’s The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, a collection of wit (sic) and wisdom expressed in a form that has been around for centuries and exists in most if not all literary and philosophical cultures.
Aphorisms through the ages
On the show, Taleb was invited to strut his aphoristic stuff and did so. What exactly the content of these maxims was I have since forgotten, but what stayed with me afterward was the impression that if this is the best we can do, the aphorism is in pretty bad shape. Taleb’s existential and philosophical formulations, haloed in a penumbra of self-congratulation that was positively blinding, struck me as heavy-footed, obvious, inelegant, condescending and not particularly illuminating. They bestirred me, however, to reinvestigate a genre of expression I had not thought about in years. I ordered a copy of Procrustes for my Kindle, along with Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, an anthology edited by an Englishman who bids fair to be the Babe Ruth of modern-day aphorism collectors. To these I added books I knew: the Viking Book of Aphorisms, edited by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, and the Oxford Book of Aphorisms edited by my late and much-missed friend John Gross. Finally, as palate-cleansers, if you will, I got out Maxims by la Rochefoucauld and Georg Christophe Lichtenberg’s Aphorisms. These two are the acknowledged masters of the form; if the art of aphorism were subject to a draft along the lines of that staged by the NFL or NBA, they would surely be the first picks.
Good or bad?
Before getting to the matter of what aphorisms are and aren’t, let’s set the table with a few dishes, tasty and otherwise, starting with Taleb. Let me say at the outset that these choices are pretty much random. I didn’t comb the pages of the various books for cherry-picked examples to prove an a priori point. All I ask of readers as they look these over is that they consider only whether this or that bonne pensée captures or opens new windows on life as they have interpreted or experienced it, whether it really does have the ring of truth—or if it’s just chatter, just words. Here’s some Taleb:
Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.
The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said.
If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated.
Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, deficits, truces, and relationships; and nothing is more temporary than “permanent” ones.
Now a bit of Lichtenberg:
It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing someone’s beard.
To dispute badly is better than not to dispute at all. Even the chatter of a pothouse politician makes people wiser—if not about politics, then about other things.
And a smidgen of la Rochefoucauld:
Had we no faults, we should not take such pleasure in discovering them in others.
Prosperity accounts for the contentment of the fortunate.
And, finally, a discovery that has given me great pleasure. For years I have dined out conversationally on a saying attributed to Dorothy Parker: “If you want to see what God thinks of money, look at who he gives it to.” Well, in my rambles through Aphorismland, I came across this in John Gross’s anthology, pronounced by the great poet Alexander Pope in 1727: “We may see the small value God has for riches by the people he gives them to.”
Striking sparks of truth
What bothers me about modern aphorizing, assuming Taleb to be a fair example, is that it strikes so few sparks of truth from the flint of language and thought. I do not read books that people tell me are overrated. Plenty of arrangements in life deemed “temporary” prove to be just that. I have always found that the best way to deal with liars is to confront them to their faces. And so on, and so on. It all sounds so frightfully clever, but clever is as clever does, and there has to be more to a proper aphorism than verbal cuteness—especially when it isn’t all that cute. Personally, I think aphorisms should be value-tested by the standards set forth by Lichtenberg’s translator R.J. Hollingdale in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Aphorisms: “In its pure and perfect form the aphorism is distinguished by four qualities occurring together: it is brief, it is isolated, it is witty, and it is ‘philosophical.'”
John Gross makes an observation that strikes me as especially relevant to the negative style favored by Taleb: “There are times when the very form of the aphorism seems to lend itself to a disenchanted view of human nature. Anxious to distance himself from the platitude, the aphorist is drawn towards the unsettling paradox…. He takes pleasure in the cynical thrust, the mauvaise pensée—and naturally we respond…. But then we reach a point at which cynicism palls.” The point of the exercise has to be not to demonstrate how smart the aphorist is, how deft he is with sharp-pointed language, but how wise or witty is the truth at which he’s getting.
This is a test
Ours is an age in which the word authentic is much thrown about, usually with regard to modes of being and expression that on close inspection prove generally if not utterly ersatz. I’m grateful to Taleb for prompting me to go back and reacquaint myself with the real thing, because, at its best and most elegant, whether it penetrates to or merely glances off the deeper meanings that help us make sense of this mortal coil, the aphorism is a fine, useful, important and multifunctional cultural instrument.
Still, that doesn’t liberate me from the dilemma in which I find myself. If I tell the reader that I think Procrustes is overrated, by Taleb’s lights this will encourage thousands to rush to Amazon and buy his book. Will you do that, gentle reader? In that consumerist pudding will lie the proof.