Extended aphorisms, essays & novels
In my first post on techniques of elaboration, I wrote about using form as a way of creating aesthetic space, a space for content that then needed to be invented. I used the but-construction as an example. If you make a statement, the insert the word “but” after it, you have opened up an aesthetic space.
Aphorisms are a form, a technique of elaboration, a way of creating content, often provocative and witty, sometimes wise. Here’s one from one of my short stories:
Love is an erotic accident prolonged to disaster.
As with most non-dramatic prose, we generally mark them in reading as part of the expository background. Though we are often inspired to underline them or even write them down in a notebook. They can look like little gems. But we seldom identify them as aphorisms, as a form or pattern. (For writers especially, reading is like butterfly collecting; you notice a specimen flitting across the page, you underline it, you identify it, you note its characteric behaviours, and you write it down in your collection of techniques to use in your own work.)
There are many variants of the aphorism form. The example above is a definition type. Love is… Life is… Men are… You can see the aesthetic space opening up. But that space is not without its own structure. Aphorisms work like metaphors by contrasting pairs of terms. As with metaphors, this creates compression and force. The force comes from surprise. The best thing about aphorisms is that you don’t plan them out. They require a certain sponteneity. Instead of planning, you just write a bunch of them, trying out different contrast terms. Then pick the best.
Here is another example, this time from my book on Don Quixote. It’s another variant of the form, in which the contrast structure is explicit in the syntax. The difference between…
The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm).
As you can see, it’s a form that is especially useful for encapsulating and compressing thought, and for making thought entertaining.
I’ve written about aphorisms before in both Attack of the Copula Spiders and The Erotics of Restraint, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Instead, I want to use the preceding to introduce a different use of the technique, the extended aphorism. I learned how to do these from reading Nietzsche and Theodor Adorno, especially the latter’s Minima Moralia. You compose, not by inventing a witty sentence, but by turning the contrast pair over and over, extending the comparison, spinning off ancillary contrast pairs, reaching along the way for some resolution in the tension between them. Nietzsche often confused readers because he sometimes contradicted himself from one text to another. That’s an important aspect of aphorisms, they are forms (of thought) but not necessarily presentations of committed belief. Nitezsche called his aphorisms Versuch, trials, attempts, experiments.
I used to write an end-page essay for each issue of Global Brief, an international affairs magazine. The editor called them “epigrams.” He would give me a concept, usually related in some way to the issue theme. Winning. History. Diplomacy. Nature. Very big topics that initially left me wordless, destitute of ideas. I couldn’t think of anything I might say about these subjects that any number of historians, scientists, sociologists, and political analysts hadn’t already said infinitely better. So rather than endure immense amounts of research, which would never be sufficient to the purpose, I invented a little form based on the idea of an extended aphorism. My essays became riffs on contrast pairs (which then gave birth to more contrast pairs).
Here is one I wrote on “deals.” Note how I set up my contrast pair in the first sentence.
Final Meditations on the Wheel & Deal
A deal is not the ideal. We have some history in the Bible. Eve breaks a real estate agreement with God in the early chapters. Then there is that sharpish episode with Jacob and his brother Esau over birthright and inheritance. And Jacob was followed by Bernie Madoff – no, sorry, he comes later. We call people who sell illicit drugs on street corners ‘dealers.’ ‘Pork’ is the unsavoury little word used in America to describe lucrative (and often seriously tangential) side deals included in legislation to ensure its passage in Congress. There is also double-dealing, doublecrossing, dirty-dealing, fraud, AIG and mortgage derivatives – all bad, bad words associated with deals.
Politicians and Wall Street traders and investment bankers all make their livings doing deals. We tend not to trust them, tolerate them at best – especially these days. A deal is not the ideal. In a perfect world, in heaven, where angels speak and everything is understood, there is no call for deals. Deals flourish under the sign of Babel and the category of time. They share the essential ambiguity of language and human nature: we try to be good, but have an unfortunate capacity for dishonesty, greed and an unhealthy will to power.
Yet we live in a sea of ambiguity; it is impossible to function without it. George W. Bush, a Puritan and a fundamentalist in more ways than one, was afraid of ambiguity and refused to negotiate with Iran. In fact, he refused to negotiate with almost anyone except, oddly enough, North Korea. Barack Obama, in contrast, campaigned on the idea that he would negotiate with anyone, assuming, one guesses, that diplomacy is cheaper and less messy than Shock and Awe. One notices that the American press is suspicious of his trust in words, in negotiation, in making deals.
Politicians are politicians, and we often disparage them for being good at the essentials of their craft – compromise, consensus and deal-making. But if you combine these with vision, a certain savoir-faire, elegance, a nice suit and an appropriate stage, you become a statesman. One man’s pork-barrel politics is another man’s Nobel Prize. Blessed are the peacemakers and the few banks still willing to lend money, for they shall move us forward into the Promised Land or – dare we hope – another bull market.
History is a wrecking yard of botched deals, yes. A deal is not the ideal. But deals are the gears of exchange: they make things work, they propel us into a future, willy-nilly, sanguine or otherwise. A good deal is a moment of clarity, of sudden understanding, of practical adjustment: one absolutely fascinating element of deal-making is the negotiation of functional equivalents between apparently incommensurable entities.
There is art and elegance here, along with the ambiguity and the ever-present possibility that the guy you are talking to is a crook. Deals create their own hermeneutics, their own systems of definition, interpretation and appeal. They also create their own shadowy quasi-legal systems. Indeed, one of the prickliest elements of large-scale international deal-making is the procedure for inventing a high power (now that God and the gold standard have failed us) – a court of appeal, as it were, that supersedes the legal power of sovereign nations which recognize no power higher than their own.
At a certain point, there are deals that seem to defy the law of gravity – floating in space above and between nations (and the UN). That hissing you hear late at night when the traffic dies down is the sound of money escaping from the credit default swaps market – a brilliantly nimble Dadaist system of deals that flourished briefly between common sense, greed and so-called worldwide securities regulations. Which is all to say, in the end, that the deal sits at the centre of everything that makes us human, at the centre of politics, business, criminality and love – for what is love but a deal between two hearts, a matter of trust, translation and a set of pragmatic equivalents?
Here is another. I think the topic theme was something like “nature and spirit,” whatever that means.
Nature and the Spirit of the Age
Nature is inevitable: spirit is not. Spirit is purposeful, possibly free, and, if not free, at least it knows it is not free, a burning ember borne along on the impetuous flood.
History is the chronicle of the man struggling to evade the vast pointlessness of matter, natural law and Fate. As Hegel saw it, History is man’s progress toward Spirit, toward the unity of all knowledge; not exactly the unio mystico of the Christian mystics or the spiritual extinction of the eastern philosophies, but something like that (vaguely echoed in the telos of globalization).
But the triumph of spirit today seems paradoxically spiritless. The Christian God has been dead, or at least moribund, since the mid-19th century, when Nietzsche pronounced the obsequies. Liberal political philosophy has progressively eliminated spirit from state and statecraft. Science has eliminated spirit from matter. And economics has eliminated spirit from the market.
Spirit seems to linger in the vociferous, but often derided religious rearguard actions of so-called fundamentalist movements (they seem to exist in every religion). But even the phrase ‘human spirit’ used in conversation is a marker for the naïve and passé. And humanism, without spirit, is derided as just another system of oppression. No longer can we wax romantically elegiac about the residuum of immaterial essence that we feel to be part of our existence.
The old arguments from spirit that every human life is infinitely valuable has led to planetary crowding, the exhaustion of resources, the advent of government-sanctioned abortion, assisted suicide, and various forms of medical rationing (when poor people cannot pay for health care, that is a form of rationing). Spirit has turned on spirit, per force, because species survival depends on it. In the end, our human desire to separate ourselves from nature has had the paradoxical effect of proving that we are nothing but nature.
Pope Benedict recently endorsed the use of condoms to inhibit the spread of HIV – a classic case of modern, secular, science-based, utilitarian calculation trumping the traditional spirit-based mode of thought. Even the Pope has acquiesced, yes, to the Spirit of the Age – the general feeling, the sense of Fatedness, as it were, that all decisions as to life and death and so-called quality of life should be based on material conditions, costs (markets), statistics and general outcomes. We bow to this every day of our lives in the West. It infuriates the Christian conservatives and the Imams even as they bow to it every time that they dial their cell phones. And between the extremes of liberal reason and religious doctrine – both having nearly reached their expiration dates – the poor individual human can no longer find words to describe the sense of his own unique, unrepeatable and infinite value.
What is the good life (not, sorry, quality of life)? What of honour, duty, hospitality, mercy and love? Why can we no longer speak meaningfully of such things? Once we conceived of ourselves as constructed in a god’s image, and set up over Nature as minor deities. Now, of course, our innermost impulses derive from the leftover reptile in us – the limbic brain – and scientists can track generosity and love by the ebb and flow of serotonin showers. Where is the unique and absolute value in that? (When I am dead, just render me into dog food.)
Is even the disinterested pursuit of knowledge disinterested? That we have confused spirit with domination is an underlying assumption of environmentalists who emit a faint air of Schadenfreude as they jet from conference to conference. Sometimes, it seems that all that we have left between the twin systems of Nature and Culture – the latter being the vast virtual apparatus of markets, bureaucracies and social hierarchies originally designed to help us to dominate Nature, and that now dominate us (our second nature) – is the negative capacity to protest. I am not that. And I am not that. Spirit resides in the individual saying I do not know exactly what I am, but I am not that.
This is meagre forage, except for the happy few who somehow find themselves at the top end of the scale. For them, the sense of domination and triumph fills their hearts with an old-fashioned sense of self and freedom of the will. Blessed are the billionaires, for they can still afford to have spirit. Yet, one senses a convergence of vectors, a brewing climax, and another immense turning of the wheel.
The Protestant Reformation is an example of a vast social expression of a general feeling of protest (I am not that) after centuries of domination by the old mythologies. Is it possible that something similar will follow hard upon the heels of our current miasma? Another mass expression of the universal I-am-not-that – the mysterious faint penetralium of the human spirit?
The aphorism is a form. Many writers publish books of them. (There is an unaccountable prejudice amongst certain readers against short forms.) The extended aphorism is an elaboration of that form that lends itself to essay writing. But it also works in novels. I learned from Milan Kundera and Herman Broch the value of inserting essays into fiction. (In Broch’s Sleepwalker trilogy there is a continuing character sitting in a room writing an essay on modernity; eventually we get the entire essay.) So in my novel The Life and Times of Captain N., I have a character writing a “Book about Indians” (the novel is set in the 18th century in what is now upstate New York and Ontario; Oskar is an odd duck — he sometimes dresses up like a native, tattoos words all over his body, and writes endless letters to George Washington). Several sections of the text are tagged “from Oskar’s Book about Indians.” Since an over-arching theme of the novel is the meeting of cultures, languages, and philosophies, much of the text revolves around a contrast between the natives (in this case Iroquois and Mississauga) and the white western European culture as manifested on the American frontier.
One of the sections specifically contrasts native dreaming with the European concept of history, but then spawns child-contrast pairs as per the form — oral cultures v literate cultures, Iroquois dreaming v Mississauga dreaming, etc. What Oskar is trying to formulate the radical difference between native and western European consciousness, two metaphysical views. He is not judging them (though he cannot escape what we would now tag as a bias in his language). At the end, he comes to a startling conclusion.
But again it’s important to see this as a form of elaboration. As you read, try to get a feel for the rhythm of the contrasts as they get tossed and retossed into the aesthetic space, then a shift, and another riff, and then a shift, and yet another juggling of terms. Contrast, over and over.
Dreams (from Oskar’s Book about Indians)
But now I wish to speak of dreams. Scholars of savage lore err in concluding that the native myths and legends are a primitive form of history. They are nothing like history, which is an hypothesis about past events, cast in terms of cause and effect, based on evidence and stretching further and further back into time.
Myths and legends are bizarre little stories which explain the world as if it had formed yesterday. They are organized like dreams and, in retelling, become the collective dreams of a people. Writing them down would destroy them. (Or the savages are fading now because they are being written — by writing this book, I erase any number of those creatures which I hold most dear, my subjects. The real challenge, the hardest thing of all, is to write a book about Indians.)
The act of memorizing the myths and legends and repeating them keeps them constantly before the savage mind. The savage attention is riveted by its collective dreams in a way unimaginable to readers and writers. (We of the infinitely scattered consciousness — who has not suffered anxiety for the unread? For that matter, who remembers what he has read?)
Savages dream in order to remember; we write in order to forget. Though not even all savages dream alike. The people my father called the Messessagey dream to seek a vision, to find and communicate with a patron manido. The Iroquois regard it as a matter of health and hygiene that the wishes of the soul expressed in dream be satisfied. The Messessagey keep their dreams a secret. The Iroquois tell their dreams in riddles so that others may guess their meaning.
By writing history down, we try to extend the explanation of the present deep into the past. But the savage, in his dreams, seeks to extend the present laterally, as it were, across the axis ot time.
(Would it be possible for an Indian to dream me out of existence while I erase him with my pen?