Aphorisms Are Essays

An aphorism is not a truth but a kind of test — a statement you are meant to run up against to decide if you agree.



Etymology has become an overused avenue into semantics. It’s a cliché to begin an essay or meta-essay with a reminder of the original meaning of essay, to try. Still, recently, I wondered after the etymology of aphorism. Since it’s often paraphrased as “truism,” I wondered if the roots involved truth. And was it one root or two? Perhaps the negating prefix a- designated the opposite of phor? I sort of wished this were true; phor means to bear or to carry, which would make an aphorism something that does not carry — more of an untruism. A contronym. I looked it up and learned that the Greek root aphor means to define: The definition of aphorism is “definition.” But I reject the armchair linguist’s inclination to use etymology as argument. In spirit and in use, an aphorism is not a definition, but something more like an essay, an attempt to define. An aphorism is an essay, an essay in its smallest possible form.

In other words, an aphorism is not a truth but a kind of test (an assay), a statement you are meant to run up against to decide if you agree. If you don’t agree, that is not necessarily a failure of the aphorism. The best aphorisms are not the most true but the most undecidable, those worth endlessly testing. In The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits writes of herself and her husband: “We love to take a conviction we might, for a moment, entertain, and then turn it on its head and make a joke about it. This joking is our form of the Socratic Method. Our jokes are interrogations that help us figure out what we care about, and where our faith, at the moment, lies.” Jokes as essays.

Twitter has made my poetry more aphoristic. Formally, it’s a platform ideally suited to the aphorism; in fact aphorisms should be quite a bit less than 140 characters. Further, you can like (or “favorite”) an aphorism even if you disagree, or aren’t sure you agree. “RT ≠ endorsement,” as many Twitter bios attest, but nor does a favorite. Some tweets, of course, aspire to literal, factual truth — those that report on science or the news, for example. But others are more like essays or poems or novels which can’t, fundamentally, be true or not true; it’s a category error.

I became fully committed to hating Goodreads while reading some of the early reviews of my second book, a poetry-prose hybrid (but prose, not poetry, by my own definition; it’s marked on the back as ESSAY/LITERATURE) that is full of aphorisms. Several of these reviews included statements like “While I like the philosophical ramblings, and love the brevity of the collection itself, I found myself disagreeing with many of her postulations.” My internal response to the above review in particular was, in a variation on Amy Poehler’s now-anthemic line “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” I don’t fucking care if you agree. (I have stopped reading my Goodreads reviews.)

Part of the job, I think, of the aphorist is to write statements that even she does not necessarily agree with. In my thinking about aphorisms, I have returned often to Wallace Stevens’ Adagia (as in adage), a list of aphoristic statements mostly about art and poetry. For example:

Poetry is not personal.

Life cannot be based on a thesis, since, by nature, it is based on instinct. A thesis, however, is usually present and living is the struggle between thesis and instinct.

Ethics are no more a part of poetry than they are of painting.

Poetry is the expression of the experience of poetry.

Once, in a philosophy class in college — I remember distinctly that on the day this discussion took place, we were sitting outside on the grass — my professor, a visiting professor from England who used the usual British “a” sound in all instances except for the name Kant, which he pronounced as cant, asked us why we reject a statement like “It is raining, but I don’t believe that it is.” This class must have been Theory of Knowledge; it, like all my philosophy classes, was a small class consisting mostly of men. I responded that the statement is self-contradictory because an assertion like “It is raining” begins with an implicit “I believe.” (Or “I think.” Or “I know.”)

The same is true of most of Stevens’ statements in Adagia; the “I believe” part is implied. Occasionally, however, he breaks the pattern, as in “I don’t think we should insist that the poet is normal or, for that matter, that anybody is.” That “I don’t think” is odd in context; he could have phrased it more impersonally: “We should not (or must not) insist that the poet is normal.” Paradoxically, explicitly mentioning what he thinks or believes makes him sound less sure, the belief more shaky. This works in speech too: “I believe it is raining” does not mean “I can say with complete conviction that it is raining,” a level of conviction analogous to, say, “I believe in God” or “I believe in freedom.” Instead, colloquially, “I believe” is a hedge that allows some doubt; it means “I’m pretty sure it’s raining.”

Several years after I wrote it, I have a strange relationship with my own pseudo-Adagia. I filled it with assertions and overt ideas as a kind of overcorrection for what I saw as a lack of assertions and ideas in poetry. The fiction writer Mike Meginnis said on Twitter recently, speaking generally but especially of political speech: “We would rather make no sense and mean nothing than be wrong.” This is very close to the thinking that led me, in a kind of self-dare, to write a book of statements that, unlike most lines of poetry, might be wrong. But (perversely?) it’s the ones I do agree with that stick with me, like “Contentment isn’t happiness.” And the confessions, the lines I threw in, for contrast, that are not aphoristic at all, that are true in what philosophers call the contingent sense—they are true, but it could have been otherwise: “I regret the mistakes I made in my 20s, though I am the same, and would make them again. In fact I wish I could make them again.” This is something I too want from poetry — truths no one can contradict. •

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.