The Universe in a Sentence: On Aphorisms

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From The Millions:

“A fragment ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.”
Friedrich SchlegelAthenaeum Fragments (1798)

“I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.”
Italo CalvinoSix Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

From its first capital letter to the final period, an aphorism is not a string of words but rather a manifesto, a treatise, a monograph, a jeremiad, a sermon, a disputation, a symposium. An aphorism is not a sentence, but rather a microcosm unto itself; an entrance through which a reader may walk into a room the dimensions of which even the author may not know. Our most economic and poetic of prose forms, the aphorism does not feign argumentative completism like the philosophical tome, nor does it compel certainty as does the commandment—the form is cagey, playful, and mysterious. To either find an aphorism in the wild, or to peruse examples in a collection that mounts them like butterflies nimbly held in place with push-pin on Styrofoam, is to have a literary-naturalist’s eye for the remarkable, for the marvelous, for the wondrous. And yet there has been, at least until recently, a strange critical lacuna as concerns aphoristic significance. Scholar Gary Morson writes in The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel that though they “constitute the shortest [of] literary genres, they rarely attract serious study. Universities give courses on the novel, epic, and lyric…But I know of no course on…proverbs, wise sayings, witticisms and maxims.”

An example of literary malpractice, for to consider an aphorism is to imbibe the purest distillation of a mind contemplating itself. In an aphorism every letter and word counts; every comma and semicolon is an invitation for the reader to discover the sacred contours of her own thought. Perhaps answering Morson’s observation, critic Andrew Hui writes in his new study A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter that the form is “Opposed to the babble of the foolish, the redundancy of bureaucrats, the silence of mystics, in the aphorism nothing is superfluous, every word bear weight.” An aphorism isn’t a sentence—it’s an earthquake captured in a bottle. It isn’t merely a proverb, a quotation, an epigraph, or an epitaph; it’s fire and lightning circumscribed by the rules of syntax and grammar, where rhetoric itself becomes the very stuff of thought. “An aphorism,” Friedrich Nietzsche aphoristically wrote, “is an audacity.”

. . . .

[A]phorism is rife in the pre-Socratic philosophy that remains, from Heraclitus’s celebrated observation that “You can’t step into the same river twice” to Parmenides’s exactly opposite contention that “It is indifferent to me where I am to begin, for there shall I return again.” Thus is identified one of the most difficult qualities of the form—that it’s possible to say conflicting things and that by virtue of how you say them you’ll still sound wise. A dangerous form, the aphorism, for it can confuse rhetoric for knowledge. Yet perhaps that’s too limiting a perspective, and maybe its better to think of the chain of aphorisms as a great and confusing conversation; a game in which both truth and its opposite can still be true.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG did some quick hunting for aphorisms and discovered the following:

  • There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.
    Edgar Allan Poe
  • Who would venture upon the journey of life, if compelled to begin it at the end?
    Francoise d`Aubigne Marquise de Maintenon
  • There are no solved problems; there are only problems that are more or less solved.
    Jules Henri Poincare
  • Life isn`t hard to manage when you`ve nothing to lose.
    Ernest Hemingway
  • It takes a woman twenty years to make a man of her son, and another woman twenty minutes to make a fool of him.
    Helen Rowland
  • In school, every period ends with a bell. Every sentence ends with a period. Every crime ends with a sentence.
    Steven Wright


2 thoughts on “The Universe in a Sentence: On Aphorisms”

  1. I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.

    — Albert Einstein

    God is in the details.

    — Mies Van Der Rohe

    A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.

    — William Shakespeare

    The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.

    — H.P. Lovecraft

    The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.

    — W. Somerset Maugham

    I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

    — Umberto Eco

    I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.

    — Robert Anton Wilson

    The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you control the people who must use the words.

    — Philip K. Dick

    The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.

    — Terence McKenna

    A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.

    — Mark Twain

    If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.

    — Joseph Campbell

    Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, nothing more; there is no road — you make the road by walking. Turning to look behind, you see the path you will never travel again.

    — Antonio Machado

    The reality we can put into words is never reality itself. Every word or concept, clear as it may seem to be, has only a limited range of applicability.

    Not only is the Universe stranger than we think . . . it is stranger than we can think.

    — Werner Heisenberg

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

    — H.P. Lovecraft

    I think that, like in my writing, reality is always a soap bubble, Silly Putty thing anyway. In the universe people are in, people put their hands through the walls, and it turns out they’re living in another century entirely. . . . I often have the feeling — and it does show up in my books — that this is all just a stage.

    If you think this universe is bad, you should see some of the others.

    — Philip K. Dick

    The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill.

    — Robert Anton Wilson

    The search for Reality is the most dangerous of all undertakings, for it destroys the world in which you live.

    — Nisargadatta Maharaj

    It is clear that there is no classification of the Universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what kind of thing the universe is.

    — Jorge Luis Borges

    Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

    — Mark Twain

    Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the Moon.

    — Sawyer Rosenstein

    Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.

    — Jonathan Swift

    It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

    — Alice

    History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

    — Mark Twain

    All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination.

    — Carl Jung

    Where there is no imagination there is no horror.

    — Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr.

    Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.

    — Joseph Campbell

    Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.

    — Oscar Wilde

    Dreaming is too important to be left to psychologists.

    — Henry Reed

    Dreams fall like nuts from the tree of life, and yet they are so hard to crack.

    — Carl Jung

    God is just what happens when Humanity is connected.

    — Jim Gilliam

    There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know.

    — Ambrose Bierce

    This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.

    — Carl Gustav Jung

    If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

    — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?

    — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of ‘two lives’. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we’ve developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real – they’re just real in different ways.

    — Alan Moore

    Better to be wise by the misfortunes of others than by your own.

    — Aesop

    The morning breezes have secrets to tell; don’t go back to sleep.

    — Rumi

    May you be alive at the end of the world.

    — Old Irish prover

    Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

    — CG Jung

    In dreams begin responsibilities…

    — W.B. Yeats

    As the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.

    — Albert Einstein

    We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.

    — John Wheeler

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

    — H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

    The universe we see playing out in space and time may be just the surface level, where we float like little boats while leviathans stir in the deep.

    — George Musser

    The Edge . . . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others – the living – are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In.

    — Hunter S. Thompson

    One way to differentiate between the Gnostic view — or at least a Gnostic view — and the Hermetic, is that while one wants to escape a prison, the other wants to turn it into a cathedral.

    — Gary Lachman

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