In Praise of the New Aphorism, No Longer Just For Great Men
How Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, and Rivka Galchen Are Making It New
When I was a tween, I started collecting aphorisms, though of course I didn’t know what “aphorism” meant back then. I had developed a habit of squirelling away quotes from books and songs and movies, scribbling them in notebooks and on the front of my school binders. I was particularly enamored with lines from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”), and, yes, like most tweens, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (“All morons hate it when you call them a moron”). This was the age of AIM profiles, of defining yourself with a pithy, profound phrase, and I switched out my quotes on a near-daily basis.
I loved pulling what I saw as wisdom out of context—it was a comfort to have these nuggets of universal truth to turn to, to repeat like little incantations in my head. I’m by no means alone in this impulse: the tradition of the commonplace book—a notebook of sorts filled with proverbs, aphorisms, maxims, and other ephemera—dates back centuries. Everyone from Milton to my Grandpa Jack to H.P. Lovecraft has kept a commonplace book; Grandpa Jack jotted down Latin phrases and bits of wisdom in a datebook from the insurance company he worked for.
Somewhere along the line, though, I started getting skeptical of aphorisms—perhaps when I realized what they really were. The definition of “aphorism” has shifted over time, from Hippocrates’ original use of the term in the fifth century BC to describe brief medical teachings to our current understanding, encapsulated by the Oxford English Dictionary: “Any principle or precept expressed in few words; a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import; a maxim.” Though that’s not quite right, either—as John Gross explains in the introduction to The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, an aphorism is different than a maxim, because a maxim calls to mind “something waiting to be trotted out in the spirit of Polonius,” whereas an aphorism is “distinctly more subversive.” Gross also adds that “the most obvious characteristic of an aphorism, apart from its brevity, is that it is a generalization. It offers a comment on some recurrent aspect of life, couched in terms that are meant to be permanently and universally applicable.”
This straining toward permanence and over-generalization caused me to chafe against aphorisms, to roll my eyes at the (often unattributed) aphoristic quotes I continue to see posted all over Instagram, like this one from the Insta-poet R.M. Drake: “If it doesn’t hurt then what’s the point? Love till it hurts, love till it kills you and love everyday till you lay in your grave.” The idea that such phrases could apply universally, that they represented truth with a capital T, seemed lazy, even harmful. Turning to such concise phrases for advice or comfort can lead to a dead end: a repetition of one static interpretation that serves only to self-soothe. Comfort is the enemy of inquiry, to turn an aphoristic phrase. Only when we feel unsettled, when there’s some nagging dissonance that requires looking underneath received wisdom, do we question the world around us.
Only when we feel unsettled, when there’s some nagging dissonance that requires looking underneath received wisdom, do we question the world around us.
I would argue, against Gross, that we’ve been using aphorisms more like maxims these days—the aphorism-cum-Instagram-post is “a stock response,” the phrase Gross uses to belittle the maxim. But Sarah Manguso’s new book 300 Arguments demands that we reevaluate the aphorism’s ability to inspire inquiry.
In 300 Arguments, Manguso resuscitates the aphorism from its descent into maxim, bringing it back as a spur to thought instead of a deadening thereof. Manguso, whose previous books include Ongoingness, an 800,000-word-long diary condensed into 104 pages, and The Two Kinds of Decay, which unfolds in poetic, compressed chapters, is a writer who seeks perfection in the small form. As she wrote in “In Short: Thirty-six ways of looking at the aphorism,” a piece for Harper’s last fall, “The shortest pieces of writing strive not for greatness but perfection (per, ‘completely,’ + facere, ‘make, do’), the utmost condition of madeness.” 300 Arguments presents 300 of these pursuits of perfection, ranging in topic from craft to heartbreak to success to depression to motherhood.
These kernels are seemingly disparate, but it’s impossible to resist the urge to draw connections among them, to make reading this book an exercise in hypotaxis rather than parataxis. Each time I’ve read through this 90-page volume, I’ve created a different narrative out of Manguso’s aphorisms. First, I found a story of ambition and envy: “Vocation and ambition are different, but ambition doesn’t know the difference” appears catty-corner from “When I indulge in envy, I envy everyone who has ever achieved anything, even things I achieved fifteen years ago.” Next time, the book seemed to be a rumination on the writing life: “I don’t love writing. I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of.” After that, a deeper meditation on mortality and what can be accomplished in a life: “Death will reveal what you would otherwise have finished. Also what you never would have finished. I found the notes for a book a woman had been working on for thirty years: sixteen pages.”
Manguso’s disjointed aphorisms invite readers to look underneath them, to question them, to test their applications and imagine contexts for them. This is a return to what the aphorism is meant to accomplish: as Francis Bacon put it, “Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire further; whereas methods, carrying a show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at furthest.” Or, as James Geary wrote in the introduction to The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms, “Aphorisms deliver the short sharp shock of an old forgotten truth . . . Aphorisms are spurs to action. It’s not enough to just read one and murmur sagely to yourself, ‘How true, how true.’”
By serving as impetus rather than endpoint, this kind of aphorism falls in a different class entirely from Instagram poetry and inspirational quote memes. It also differs from some of the best-known aphorisms, which have become clichés so oft-repeated that they mean essentially nothing. Instead, Manguso’s unsettling arguments deliver the world back to the reader at 300 different, jarring angles. Most crucially, however, this project stands apart because with 300 Arguments, Manguso wrenches the aphorism out of the grasp of Great Men.
Men, who love to explain things to women and to each other, have never had a problem considering their perspectives to be universally applicable.
Historically speaking, aphorists have tended to be overwhelmingly male. As Manguso points out in one of her considerations of the aphorism for Harpers, “Of the 500 or so writers in the Oxford anthology’s index, there are fifty women at most.” She notes later that “the women in the book who wrote actual stand-alone aphorisms are almost all French nobility.” W.H. Auden explained this connection in one of his meta-aphorisms: “Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing.” This makes sense; Manguso explains that “before the Industrial Revolution,” only noble women would have had the schooling or the free time needed to distill wisdom into pithy phrases.
The greater issue is not that aphorisms are historically the enterprise of men, but that they have continued to be. In her Harper’s piece, Manguso attempts to account for this continuing trend: “Even now, people who cannot conceive of themselves as Great Men may be inclined to shy away from the form.” It takes great ego to believe that your thoughts speak to a universal truth, one that will permanently describe some aspect of what it means to be human. Men, who love to explain things to women and to each other, have never had a problem considering their perspectives to be universally applicable.
An example may help underline my point here: in the introduction to The World in a Phrase, James Geary writes about his early love of aphorisms, and how he staged a “performance” involving aphorisms in his university dining hall. For this “performance,” Geary carried around a globe with the Article Circle cut off, “so that the top of the earth came off like the lid of a cookie jar. I had dropped dozens of little slips of paper into the globe, each one bearing an aphorism—either one I had composed myself or one from a famous writer. As I strolled through the dining hall, I approached people as they ate and asked them to reach in and pick a phrase from the globe. The only catch: Everyone had to read the aphorism aloud. I wouldn’t leave the table until they did.” Everything about this sounds insufferable.
Indeed, the biggest problem with aphorisms now is not just that they’re so often maxims in disguise, but that they’re so often the pronouncements of men. You could make this point about any genre of writing, of course, but because the aphorism is meant to represent, as the OED states, “a truth of general import,” having men be the overwhelming producers and guardians of those supposed truths is particularly concerning.
Over the past few years, though, women have been writing exemplary nonfiction in short forms; Manguso’s 300 Arguments is part of this trend, and the first to assert itself as a collection of aphorisms. Others, like Rivka Galchen’s 2016 Little Labors and Maggie Nelson’s 2009 Bluets, which both proceed in fragments of varying length, are aphoristic in nature if not in name. What unites these three books is the way in which they invite the participation of the reader—their pleasure lies in reconsideration and rereading. In their brevity of form, these books feel at once definitive and generously open.
The jacket copy on Little Labors bills it as a “literary miscellany,” and that feels accurate. Galchen combines several page-long essays on babies in literature and on the 11th-century Japanese court lady Sei Shonagan’s own work of literary miscellany, The Pillow Book, with entries that are just a few lines long. Little Labors is a book about motherhood, but it is not a comforting or inspirational book. One of her concise entries, “New variety of depression,” epitomizes the book’s subversive core: “It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.”
The fragments of Little Labors fit together to tell a two different stories. The first, more personal narrative is of the days and months following the birth of Galchen’s daughter, whom she refers to first as “the puma” and then as “the chicken” (“when she began to locomote, she ceased being a puma and became a chicken”). The second, more general, is of how motherhood fits—or doesn’t fit—with literature and the writing life; an entry called “Notes on some twentieth-century writers” lists writers names alongside the number of children they had, juxtaposing “Toni Morrison: Two children. First novel at age thirty-nine” with “John Updike: Many children. Many books. First book age twenty-five.”
I would argue that Galchen’s shortest entries here are aphorisms, and her longer passages, like the last one, “Money and babies,” contain aphorisms: “A baby is a goldmine.” Galchen’s tone and style bolster the aphoristic feel of Little Labors; each section is shot through with a combination of crispness and aplomb, making you all the more willing to go along for the ride as Galchen thinks on the page.
In their brevity of form, these books feel at once definitive and generously open.
Where concision imbues Galchen and Manguso’s books with confidence, wit, and charm, it allows Nelson to convey an anxious searching, a fragmented journey through the end of a relationship and in pursuit of the color blue: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color,” Nelson writes in the first entry of Bluets. “Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke.”
Bluets proceeds in 240 numbered passages; few exceed a page in length, and most are just a few sentences long. The passages are connected, but not always linearly. As they unfold, Nelson swerves, coming at the heart of the matter—loneliness and loss—from different angles. She consults Goethe’s Theory of Colors and a self-help book called The Deepest Blue; she quotes William Carlos Williams and Leonardo da Vinci and Heraclitus and Wittgenstein and many, many others.
Nelson’s method involves much more overt questioning than Manguso’s or Galchen’s, and one might think that this would preclude it from seeming aphoristic—if an aphorism is supposed to be complete and definite, where does the question mark, which adorns many of Nelson’s entries, fit in? Yet, I trust her most in Bluets when she is unraveling a bit of received wisdom, turning an aphorism inside out so we can see its actual indefiniteness, the way in which it truly is what Bacon called “a knowledge broken.” Take entry 207, for instance: “I can remember a time when I took Henry James’s advice—‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’—deeply to heart. I think I was then imagining that the net effect of becoming one of those people would be one of accretion. Whereas if you truly become someone on whom nothing is lost, then loss will not be lost upon you, either.”
There is no final revelation or resolution in Bluets—nor in 300 Arguments, nor in Little Labors—and that is the way it ought to be. If there is comfort to be found in these aphoristic books, it is that while the maxims of Great Men might suggest otherwise, there are so many ways we can still attempt to come to terms with this life, this world.