:: Article

30 Observations

On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments.

By Christopher Schaberg.

 

I’ve been interested in aphorisms for a long time, though I’ve struggled to actually write them myself.

 

Sarah Manguso’s new book of aphorisms 300 Arguments is the best example of this genre I’ve experienced since reading Nietzsche in college. But saying it like that makes the genre sound like a coherent thing, which it is not. It also makes it sound…developmental.

 

Collections of aphorisms are hardly a growth sector; bookstores don’t dedicate sections to them. But a college course on aphorisms strikes me increasingly as a good idea.

 

Aphorisms can seem to build logically, like a Wittgenstein argument. But just when you think you’re approaching a clear thesis or resolution, there shouldn’t be one—which should always come as a surprise.

 

Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons are a forebear of any decent attempt at aphorisms: not because they make sense but because they keep going, and going. A worthy accumulation comes to embody its own method.

 

Should aphorisms be personal? Or should they seek a sort of universal subject? It depends on what you mean by personal, and what you mean by universal.

 

The thing about aphorisms is that they can be only so good and still hang together. Anything more than that, and they’ll break apart.

 

Aphorisms and tautologies are like college roommates who never met before moving in together: they can complement one another and even turn into best friends, or they can just coexist in awkward tension. Of course, they can also become mortal enemies.

 

A confession within an aphorism functions like a fortune within a cookie. Which thing gets priority depends on multiple factors, including prescience, staleness, context, and appetite.

 

Aphorisms revel in the general and non-specific. But to be perceived as true, they must be attributable. We always want it both ways, and this goes far beyond aphorisms.

 

One time a college roommate purchased a huge container of fortune cookies for our house. It was an incredible deal, he said, from Sam’s Club. But you rarely want to eat more than one fortune cookie at a time, two at most. So by the time we graduated, the giant see-through plastic container was still half full. We were tired of fortune cookies.

 

Can a bunch of aphorisms comprise a great book? Yes, especially when the aphorisms remain keenly aware of the container in which they will eventually arrive in the hands of the reader.

 

The only thing better than repetition is the only thing better than repetition.

 

Aphorisms excel at jumping across things that seem impossibly far apart.  A philosophical problem? An opportunity for extrapolation?

 

Recently my mother wondered whether a certain poet always wrote about sex. I didn’t know how to respond; there were obvious assumptions at play, like that the poet was probably a sex maniac. But how much can we ever know about a writer, based on what they write?

 

A good book is hard to find. That’s no aphorism; it’s more like a short story.

 

A funny thing about aphorisms is how poorly most of them age. I’m curious to see how this applies to aphorisms that are explicitly about aging.

 

An enjoyable feature of aphorisms in books is their ability to respect and even utilize page breaks for effect. They only have so much room to make their points, or undo them.

 

Aphorisms can be broken up and continue after a page break, but they lose their…something. Aphorisms thrive on the ineffable. And the ineffable needs boundaries in order to be on the verge of being effed.

 

Sometimes we seek out parables, other times allegories. We almost never go looking for aphorisms. They come to us, and render us senseless.

 

Do we know how to learn from aphorisms? Do we know how to read aphorisms? There’s no guidebook or ‘very short introduction’ for this genre. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it. Ironic.

 

Should teachers be able to impart their lessons via aphorisms? If so, why all the extra exercises, elaborate assignments, and hours of instruction and reading? Yet if not, are the lessons even worth learning?

 

Opposites neither attract nor repel; they don’t even exist in pure form, really.

 

There are three kinds of books: but this kind of thinking won’t help you read or write books, much less get along in the everyday.

 

Book reviews can attempt to hover above the work, or feign to report from a distance. But writing about writing is still writing.

 

The best aphorisms are about children, or are childlike. The worst aphorisms know too much.

 

The more an aphorism proclaims to relay truth, the sketchier it becomes.

 

A flash of illumination. The steady glow of wonder. The taillights of an aphorism receding in the rear view.

 

You can always make money, but you can never make time.

 

The limits of language are the minefield of aphorisms. Yes, and their playground.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Schaberg
is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His latest book, Airportness, will be published by Bloomsbury in September.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 8th, 2017.