I subscribed to Harper’s magazine recently. After reading my third copy I wondered why I was reading Harper’s at all. The magazine contains learned literary submissions for what, I assume, is an elite literary following. I understood only about a tenth of the articles in any edition. However, I found an essay that I not only enjoyed, but I could actually understand. I felt briefly like a real grownup among those of us who like thinking of ourselves as essayists.
Sarah Manguso, in an essay called, “In Short: Thirty-six ways of looking at the aphorism,” explores the nature of aphorisms.
I have never given aphorisms a thought. I wasn’t even sure just what an aphorism was. I think the author was working on that, too, but she figured it out and it was grand fun being with her as she plumbed the mysteries of the aphorism.
Manguso regards the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates as the godfather of the aphorism. Many will be familiar with some of his famous aphorisms: “Art is long, life is short” and “First, do no harm.” Aphorisms might be loosely compared to one-liners. However they aren’t glib, or breezy like quips. They are brief, but deep. Hippocrates’ aphorisms, while deep, were not always brief. When it came to diagnostics, he told his patients more than they may have wished to know.
“In disorders of the bowels and vomiting, occurring spontaneously, if the matters purged be such as ought to be purged, they do good and are well borne; but if not, the contrary.” This was a time long before third party insurers strictly limited the time of office visits. Hippocrates had the luxury of taking all the time he wanted with his patients. Why this is considered an aphorism is not clear.
Sound bytes are the mother’s milk of political campaigns. They do not qualify as aphorisms. Although they’re brief, they lack depth and are rarely true.
Ms. Mancuso examines aphorisms like a jeweler studies diamonds. She doesn’t miss a carat. Attempting a broad definition for ‘aphorism’ she considers words like ‘small,’ ‘miniature,’ and ’brief’ and finally settles on ‘small.’ She suggests that in many walks of life even outside of literature and language, we’re obsessed with size. More or bigger is always better.
Small, in today’s cultural climate, is dismissed as insignificant. It’s especially apparent in the rise of home building’s signature achievement, the McMansion. The McMansion appears to be more of a monument than a home. It stands high above the ground where trees have often been felled to make room for it. It dwarfs older houses standing nearby. On the Eastern Shore, the second home (even for the affluent) was once a modest, ‘small’ cottage snuggled in among large trees near the edge of a creek. Emerging McMansions has eclipsed this phenomenon. It’s odd, considering today’s concern for economizing on energy. It’s also curious that a good number of them serve as second homes for aging couples to weekend, and so, one wonders – why all the space? It may be that the size serves as a kind of social statement more than the generous accommodations it offers.
The SUV is as ubiquitous to the streets and roads of the Eastern Shore as blue crabs are to the Bay. Small is passé. The days of the Volkswagen Bug, the Citroen and the MG are over, except for aging romantics who, at great expense, keep a few on the road. There are some Mini-Coopers and Smart cars, but their numbers are comparatively few. Small cars have been supplanted by monstrous SUV’s – they’re trucks really, but owners are too ashamed to “say it like it is” to use a popular aphorism and call them ‘trucks.’ Motor Vehicle Administrations are complicit in this charade.
The point: there is denial here – I suspect guilt – for those with voracious appetites for driving these huge behemoths. I read once in the Baltimore Sun that a man bought a Hummer so that he would be invulnerable on the road. What about the car that he crashes into? No hint of conscience or social responsibility here! I believe a reasonable case can be made for a family with six kids driving SUV’s. I find it less plausible that the retired couple I see driving through St. Michaels needs all that room. And then, when you are a normal driver with a normal car and have to park normally perpendicular to the curb between two SUV’s, backing out normally can be life threatening. No! Small is good.
But back to aphorisms: Their pithy nature can pack a wallop with an economy of words. For aging people like myself, an aphorism is short enough to make its point while easy to remember. Recalling large numbers of words taxes my memory and muddles my mind.
How does the aphorism stack up to modern twitter? It doesn’t have to. It’s a different animal. There is brevity and there is brevity. “Brevity,” Ms. Mancuso tells us, “isn’t the soul of witlessness; shallowness is.”
She also writes that twitter is “the collective brain lint of the internet.” I felt vindicated. To use an old aphorism, I couldn’t tweet ‘if my life depended on it.’
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.
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