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Cracks in the Universe

The Oxford Book of Aphorisms

chosen by John Gross
Oxford University Press,, 393 pp., $15.95

We know what an “Oxford Book” is, but what exactly is an “aphorism”? Etymologically the word is traced to the Greek for “setting a boundary,” “defining.” It is impossible to set precise boundaries but we might propose, as a broad definition, that aphorisms convey general truths or tenets while epigrams tend to be more specific in occasion and more personal in application (often aimed at somebody’s bad habits) and maxims offer moral advice (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”) trotted out, as John Gross has it, “in the spirit of Polonius.” Aphorisms incline to be subversive, and “indeed, it is often a maxim that they set out to subvert.” What most significantly distinguishes them from proverbs is that they are not anonymous: as opposed to what we call the “proverbial style,” they bear or ought to bear “the stamp and style” of the minds that created them. They are in that sense personal.

Aphorisms are not obliged to be satirical, skeptical, or even chastening, yet it must be admitted that deflation is more commonly experienced among them than inspiration, admonition more often than consolation or good cheer. “Maximiste, pessimiste” (Joseph Roux, 1886), the shortest entry in this book, occurs on the first page. But we should also attend to Montaigne’s opinion that whatever beings of a more elevated species may say against us, it is contrary to nature for us to run ourselves down: “‘tis a disease particular to man, and not discerned in any other creatures, to hate and despise itself.”

These thoughts I had jotted down, in some form, before reading John Gross’s introduction, only to find them all there, and a good deal more besides. “Summaries that contain most things,” says the seventeenth-century Samuel Butler, “are always shortest themselves.” And indeed, this introduction, brief but substantial, is itself an extended aphorism.

When introducing The Oxford Book of Death, which (so to speak) is due shortly, I quoted an anonymous and aphoristic couplet—

For what was there none cared a jot;
But all were wroth with what was not

—in part because it happened to be the first words in a collection of last words from which I had begged or borrowed, but chiefly by way of self-protection. As such, a vain measure, of course, since reviewers never notice when authors have spiked their guns in advance. Consequently I am bound to renounce the device, particularly useful to reviewers of anthologies, of listing all the delightful, profound, indispensable items that the editor has unaccountably omitted. Actually I cannot at the moment think of any, though no doubt if I racked my brains…. I doubt I would have noticed that Wittgenstein was missing had not the editor regretted the literary executors’ refusal to allow him to quote. Did they, one wonders, consider such usage demeaning, a regression to more ancient conceptions of philosophy as “literature”?

Remarks are not literature,” remarks Gertrude Stein. Well, true, sometimes; it all depends. There are inevitably other half-truths here—“To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation” (Lichtenberg)—but surprisingly few that strike one as noxiously half untrue, or that raise one’s hackles. “Few maxims are true in every respect,” admits Vauvenargues, bringing up the rear. That aphorisms contradict one another, like proverbs, is no offense against reality, and Gross allows them to do so freely. “Most celebrated men live in a condition of prostitution” (Sainte-Beuve) follows the distinctly nobler sentiment, “Contempt of fame begets contempt of virtue”: both (we think) are true, even though the latter comes from the lips of Tiberius, in Jonson’s Sejanus, one who was less than virtuous and in fact quite aptly characterized by the former aphorism.

As Pascal observes, “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” But many things are, and it is a common habit of aphorisms to have it both ways. “Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons” (Aldous Huxley); and “The University brings out all abilities, including stupidity” (Chekhov). Likewise, “One never knows what will happen if things are suddenly changed. But do we know what will happen if they are not changed?” (Elias Canetti), and “The tongue of a woman is capable of producing sound, which admits of no comparison either for frightfulness or harmony” (Anon., early eighteenth century). The wise gambler hedges his bets. The wise Chateaubriand reminds moralists that seeing the world in an odious light is not a sufficient sign of superiority.

From the moment that a religion solicits the aid of philosophy,” Heine declares, “its ruin is inevitable.” Nor, it would appear, can any religion safely look to aphorists for support. The nineteenth-century Samuel Butler exhorts us to seek out the religion whose followers surpass in amiability and trustworthiness those of other religions…but holds out little hope of our finding them or it. That impiety or at least disrespect prevails is not surprising since aphorisms are so often provoked by cozy platitudes. “God was satisfied with his own work, and that is fatal” (the nineteenth-century Samuel Butler) is mirrored in Mark Twain’s “If man had created man he would be ashamed of his performance,” while more robust is: “For a priest to turn a man when he lies a-dying, is just like one that has a long time solicited a woman, and cannot obtain his end; at length makes her drunk, and so lies with her” (John Selden, seventeenth century). We cannot object to “A poet may praise many whom he would be afraid to marry” (Johnson), but possibly the sections on love and marriage (“Love is blind, but marriage restores its sight”: Lichtenberg) are glummer and sourer than they needed to be.

The other device of reviewers is to complain of what is there. This is rather more legitimate since, though there may well have been no room for what was left out, room was undeniably found for what has been put in. As Gross notes, aphorisms have to stand by themselves. While he was right not to restrict himself to consciously aphoristic writing, there are some examples here that have been untimely ripped from their context, or so it may seem. Mark Twain’s “The human race consists of the dangerously insane and such as are not” leaves us, perhaps fairly, to work out the significance of “not.” Yeats’s “An intellectual hatred is the worst” can survive the loss of its second half, “So let her think opinions are accursed,” if only because it comes under the heading “Politics.”

And perhaps we know Remembrance of Things Past at least well enough to comprehend “The beloved object is successively the malady and the remedy that suspends and aggravates it.” But, once excerpted, Proust’s rhetorical question, “Do not the indiscretions which occur only after a person’s life on earth is ended prove that nobody really believes in a future life?” would be clearer if “revelations” were discreetly substituted for “indiscretions”: he goes on to observe how fearful we should be of meeting the angry woman in heaven, whether the scandalous revelations were true or not.

Issa’s haiku (c. 1800), given under “Nature,”

The world of dew is
A world of dew…and yet,
And yet…

carries more poignancy and greater general power if one knows the personal circumstances: a Buddhist with little respect for this fleeting world is nonetheless lamenting the death of his only child. Cocteau makes several telling appearances—for instance, “What are the thoughts of the canvas on which a masterpiece is being painted? ‘I am being soiled, brutally treated and concealed from view.’ Thus men grumble at their destiny, however fair”—but “The cinema has thawed out people’s brains” leaves us uncertain whether he is praising or (water on the brain?) condemning the cinema, or conceivably people. (The context doesn’t help much: it looks as if he is patronizing both the cinema and the people.) As for his dark caveat, “A mother who says ‘My son will only marry a blonde’ does not suspect that her remark corresponds to the worst sexual imbroglios. Travesties, mingling of the sexes, torturing of animals, chains and insults”—one’s impression there is of a ludicrous incongruity. At this point, in Opium, Cocteau is contending somewhat perversely that a normal man ought to be able to make love “with anyone and even with anything” since the instinct of the species is blind, whereas selectiveness, a concomitant of intelligence and nervous fatigue, has no certain end and can lead to anything. He assures us (we shall be glad to find) that “I do not speak of love”, but Gross has grouped “Love” together with “Libido” and “Jealousy.”

Since not all wisdom can be absolutely new to us, or unforgotten by us, some commonplaces must be accommodated: “Malice is cunning” (Cicero), “Riches, knowledge and honour are but several sorts of power” (Hobbes), “Every day men sleep with women whom they do not love, and do not sleep with women whom they do love” (Diderot); and also, perhaps for the sake of our digestion or our self-esteem, a scattering of items hardly notable for distinctive stamp and style. We also find the faintly idiotic utterance, such as “A passionate nature always loves women, but one who loves women is not necessarily a passionate nature” (Chang Ch’ao, seventeenth century), and “The Classics! it is the Classics, and not the Goths nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars.”

This latter fulmination comes from Blake, who in the present company seems a little fulsome and merely eccentric; while Goethe, alas, is largely pedantic and worldly (livelier passages could be drawn from his poetry, and from his ruder moments), and D.H. Lawrence—whose best entry is “Don’t be on the side of the angels, it’s too lowering”—emerges as overbearing and excitable. More effective in this genre is the cool urbanity of such as Chamfort, La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, Bacon, and (“I am not fond of expecting catastrophes, but there are cracks in the universe”) Sydney Smith, and the contained, unstraining gravity of the incomparable Dr. Johnson. The exemplary practitioners are for the most part gentlemen, albeit fallen ones, and, if rebels, then generally on the conservative side.

Criticism is necessary, I suppose; I know…” (Randall Jarrell), but this is only part of the story. Among my favorites here—a reviewer may on occasion set up as a ‘parasitic mini-anthologist—are the following. “The rebel angels fly in ranks” (Henri Petit, d. 1978); “It is only the poor who are forbidden to beg” (Anatole France); “The wicked are always surprised to find that the good can be clever” (Vauvenargues); “Our virtues and vices couple with one another, and get children that resemble both their parents” (Marquess of Halifax); “There is something about a cupboard that makes a skeleton terribly restless” (Anon.); “There is no unhappier creature on earth than a fetishist who yearns for a woman’s shoe and has to embrace the whole woman” (Karl Kraus); “A man my deceive a woman by a pretense of love, provided he is not really in love with someone else” (La Bruyère); “When smashing monuments, save the pedestals—they always come in handy” (Stanislaw Lec, 1962); “Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before taking action. Twice would have been quite enough” (Confucius); “If you go expressly to look at the moon, it becomes tinsel” (Emerson); “It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them” (Alfred Adler); “The name ‘moralist’ sounds like a perversion, one wouldn’t be surprised at finding it suddenly in Krafft-Ebing” (Canetti; followed here by Bernard Shaw: “The word morality, if we met it in the Bible, would surprise us as much as the word telephone or motor car”); “If an editor can only make people angry enough, they will write half his newspaper for him for nothing” (Chesterton); “Literature: proclaiming in front of everyone what one is careful to conceal from one’s immediate circle” (Jean Rostand, 1931); “Of all lies, art is the least untrue” (Flaubert); “Only a born artist can endure the labor of becoming one” (Comtesse Diane, Marie de Beausacq, 1908); and, as mere decency requires, “Solomon made a book of proverbs, but a book of proverbs never made a Solomon” (Anon.).

Aphorisms are not always easily classified by subject—the shorter they are, the more directions they seem to point in—but John Gross has arranged his specimens in fifty-seven sections, convenient for ready reference and immediate use: “Beliefs & Opinions,” “Pleasures & Penalties,” “Design & Chance,” “Young & Old”…with “Observations & Oddities” to house such anomalies as “All the news that fits we print” (attributed to the composing room, The New York Times). The collection is brought full circle neatly and wittily. It began with Gide observing “everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again,” and it concludes with Thoreau: “What the first philosopher taught the last will have to repeat.” Inviting us to read the book at least more than once, these passages indicate the true, legitimate reason why anthologies like the present one are so exceptionally difficult to review fairly. What you need is not to scurry through them, your pencil at the ready like a flag or a hatchet, but to live them. There are exactly 365 pages of aphorisms here, and I would send in my definitive review a year hence—God and the editors, willing.

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