:: Article

The Weight of an Aphorism

By Adrian West.


“Vielleicht erkennen wir einander nur richtig in einem Licht von Abschied.” – Ilse Aichinger. Loosely translated: perhaps we only recognize one another precisely in the light of valediction. Like so many such phrases, this has the quality of a perennial intuition we have never known how to put into words. The aphorism, by virtue of its musicality or its lapidary concision, is always an instrument of seduction, and often its truth is not proportionate to its beauty; aspects of the second are apparent at first reading, while the first is only rendered clear through the application of the aphorism to the decidedly unaphoristic matter of life.


Has Aichinger has formulated the phrase in error? Somehow this possibility, when it enters into play, has about it the hazy irrelevance of the postulates of an alien religion. When we read these words and they ring true, we are beset by the responsibility to uncover the why and how of their doing so. In the nature of things, it is a responsibility we ignore. We have read the words on the metro, we are walking to the language school, we have paid three hundred euros for four weeks of classes there and we would not want that money to go to waste, we have furthermore been told that tardiness is looked down upon in this country and do not wish to see a frown tug outward on the thin, kindly lips of the man in the black shirt, always neatly pressed, who is imparting to us his mother tongue though he, like nearly everyone who has a job, would gladly be elsewhere. We stop at a street called pheasant and snap a photo with our phone, because we are thinking of Aichinger and her book Kleist, Moss, Pheasant, which we have still not made it far into, and we consider sending it to someone we have conversed with about this book, if relaying messages of 140 characters can be called conversing, because somehow, the representation of experience seems to have usurped experience itself and the image of myself recollecting Aichinger on seeing a street sign appears for a time to supervene upon the savoring of this recollection; but because I know in my heart this is not true, and that the compulsion to exhibitionism characteristic of the present is the most dismal infirmity, I delete the photograph, or else I don’t, now I no longer remember. In any case I do not send it.


I would like to talk about the truth of moments, or of the segmented nature of truth in time, the integrity of which goes unexamined or overlooked and as a consequence leaves in shambles our efforts to attain to moral clarity, as Jankélévitch stresses in his meditations on forgiveness. The expiration date of truth must extend past that of our multiform selves, otherwise a moral perspective is rendered impossible, he implies. You have hurt me, but I do not recall it; this must neither nullify nor expiate your misdeed. The offense has an inviolable truth in time and forgiveness is irreducible to negligence, magnanimity, or the frangibility of remembrance.


Indeed, it may be argued—perhaps at the risk of absurdity—that our debt to memory is graver than to our fellow man. The provisional nature of day-to-day comportment is too flimsy to serve as the fundament of principle: today we are in love, and we leave a magnanimous tip; tomorrow, because someone has gotten one over on us, or we are turned down for a raise at our job, we walk contemptuously by the decrepit woman on the bench shaking a paper cup. It is true we cannot redress the iniquities exercised on ghosts; at the same time, it is only—if then—by reflection on the wounded figures of memory that we can come to systematic conclusions about what we should and should not have done, and what we should henceforth do and not do. Certainly there is the possibility of unsystematic good; I was recently moved, while reading an otherwise hackneyed editorial, by the phrase err in the direction of kindness, and thought, this is what I shall do, and I need no longer be plagued by these intimations about my own turpitude; maybe that day I did err in this way, but in the time since, I have acted with the same muddle of callousness and empathy as before.


In other words, it is irrelevant whether what Aichinger writes can be disproven, whether another person would find it to be nonsense, or whether tomorrow I will cease to believe it. The responsibility that depends from its striking me as true relates not to the ranking of these words against conflicting claims about their theme but to the reconstruction of the conditions by which they have come to be seen, not only as true, but as a truth of vital importance, my laxity in respect of which feels blameworthy—a reconstruction, in other words, of the self I have just been, who has had no choice but to accept these words as true.


My thoughts turn, as always, to the person I love. Perhaps love is a long valediction, the recognition of the beloved in essence a torment overlaid with bliss and admiration, with kindness and weariness and the thousand obligations, chores, and contretemps that fill the space of conjugal life where we think something more beautiful ought to grow. It is true that on occasion, when I am free merely to observe—in the mornings when she is still sleeping, or when I see her from the backseat of a car, and my eyes can linger indefinitely on the fine folds in her knuckles or the calligraphic terrace of her brows, I am filled with the most miserable yearning, regardless that she is inches away.

Recently we were walking around this city, where neither of us had been for years, and remarking on the improvement in its fortunes. Where before there had been so many abandoned shells, call shops, and work-spaces, as they are called, for artists of various sorts, now one saw only upscale coffee shops with glimmering machines, clothing boutiques, artisanal bakeries and bars with menus in English and sidewalk benches with girls in Gigot sleeves and young men in trilbies. The endless uniformity, and the images it called forth of similar changes suffered by so many other places where it had once been possible for people other than the affluent and their offspring to live, provoked curiosity, then boredom, and finally disgust. It is strange, I remarked, how when we see people struggling, we are moved nearly to tears by their dignity, and feel roused to declaim their right to the fulfillment of their dreams; but when we see others whose desires are so sated that the better part of their leisure is spend investigating novel ways to spend more money on themselves, we wonder why they haven’t just gone extinct.

In the same way, when I look at my wife, particularly when we are traveling and I see her face through a pixelated screen behind glass, its edges dissolving into a haze at once blurred and geometric—the term of art for which, I have just learned, is unresolvable elements—sweat glistens my finger-pads, my heartbeat is irregular, and often, I recollect the title of an ancient novel, Triste deleytación; when she has returned to where I am, and we lie down together, all this, and so much of me, vanishes. Tranquility is something different from acute attentiveness to love, which is indeed a form of longing, with the detachment this word implies.


It may be that every form of lyrical precision is an act of cruelty, of pushing away, or of the suffering of yearning-towards.


A man is presented to us in the following terms: apish upper lip, strong-man torso, with spindly legs, frail-looking, almost feminine feet and an incomplete but formidable set of tawny teeth. We must always remember when we read a work of art that it never need have been thus. There is a reason the upper lip is apish and not merely rounded, why the torso, not simply sturdy, instead recalls a mustachioed nineteenth century cliché, and why, instead of another, equally probable adventure, he should find himself on the wrong train, then missing the bus, and otherwise toyed with until he begins to scream and curse, before his creator, on page twenty-three, after confessing to a hatred of happy endings and chiding the unethical behavior of an avalanche that comes to rest rather than descending treacherously down on a village, permits the poor man to catch a ride with a pair of delivery workers. This pattern, of exquisite torment followed by perfunctory release, is repeated throughout the book Pnin.

We must avoid not only the pomposity of reading Freud or Lacan and claiming to possess the codices to other’s dreams, but also the disingenuousness of aesthetic posturing, of truckling under to the purported inscrutability of the writer and the vaunted independence of the work of art when in fact there are times when what is happening therein is plain to us; we may be wrong, this is the risk whenever we try to understand something; but not to say what we think because we may be contradicted, or because it flies in the face of a cultish view of the artistic process, which is really a kind of classism, is pusillanimous.


Reading Nabokov inspires in me a kind of indignation that would indicate a gentleness and generosity of spirit of which I do not in fact dispose. More likely it displeases me to act as though the heartlessness I show in remarking on the idiosyncrasies of passersby or acquaintances who have irritated me, particularly as regards their physical oddities or their particular manner of dress, bears no ethical relation to the disaffiliative optical austerity of my lyrical writing. It is even possible that my criticism of Nabokov is an ersatz criticism of my inner cruelty or else a way of averting my eyes from it. Among the assorted inanities scribbled on post-it notes and poster boards pinned to the walls of the room I have rented for the coming months, the permanent occupant of which, to judge from her artifacts, has an unwholesome fixation on otherworldly life and the transcendent powers of the mind, is the phrase everything I say is about me. I imagine this is true of me as well, though I will never know how or to what extent. My judgment of others is based in the idea that, regardless of their protestations to the contrary, I know what they are doing, and I arrive at it generally by analogy with my own behavior in the past.


The allegation, on the part of littérateurs and their partisans, of the ethical autonomy of art is akin to a group of people that has insulted a social inferior pleading for expiation on the grounds that their words were only a joke and should never have been taken seriously. The spurious optimism by which the perpetuation of socially acceptable forms of cruelty is justified—I am thinking of excuses of the boys will be boys stamp—is likewise linked to the mock-worldly cheerfulness characteristic of many writers whose visual acuity crosses over into the sadistic: Cervantes, for example, or Balzac. Naturally there are other writers who make no concession to joviality, whose hard meticulousness derives from a generalized distrust in many cases linked to the personal experience of betrayal and abandonment and the sense of inadequacy and powerlessness that is its frequent fruit.


In reference to Nabokov, Richard Rorty writes, “the private pursuit of aesthetic bliss produces cruelty.” This is not true in every case. There is also a profound tenderness to be sought in scrupulous recollection, as when Bruno Shultz devotes to his pet Nimrod the following words:

The dog was warm and soft as velvet and had a quick heartbeat. He had two petal-soft ears, opaque blue eyes, a pink mouth into which one could put one’s finger with impunity, delicate and innocent paws with enchanting pink warts on the outside, over the fore-toes. He crept with these paws right into a bowl of milk, greedy and impatient, lapping it up with his pale red tongue. When he had had enough, he would sadly lift his small muzzle, with drops of milk hanging from it, and retreat clumsily from the milk bath.

If the aforementioned cruelty of Nabokov or Cervantes is a manner of pushing runts from the litter, or of establishing a solidarity with the reader that smacks of the ruthlessness of Nietzschean vitalism, writing like Schulz’s, or Proust’s at his most generous, attempts to fix in time, by the exuberance of attendance, an enchantment the silhouette of which is sketched by the evanescence that is the echo of its doom, and is, in this sense, the artistic counterpart of an insistent series of gazes cast from the back window of a train the departure of which seems to stretch into infinity.

Adrian West is a writer and translator as well as a contributing editor at Asymptote. His work has appeared in numerous publications including McSweeney’sWords Without Borders, and The Brooklyn Rail.  He has recently completed a novel entitled The Aesthetics of Degradation.  He currently lives between the United States and Spain with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 28th, 2013.