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…

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