In the Seam of It All: On Reading "Short Flights" (A book of aphorisms)

This new book of aphorisms is an incredible, dizzying, disorienting experience.
 Like the form itself, this book leaves the reader in a strange, in-between state, immersed and enmeshed within the seams where words, sense, and concepts flow.
Check it out.

You might think that reading a book of aphorisms would be a quick, lighthearted affair while reading, say, Moby Dick demands a serious commitment. But I'm here to tell you that reading a book of aphorisms is dizzying (in the best sense — after all, who wants to read something that reassures? Shouldn't the best things dis- and re-orient?). 

Sure, one aphorism might be quick. (Of course, that one aphorism might linger, persist, resonate, alter, stymie, confound, grab, anger, frustrate enlighten, and/or liberate you over the course of your life.) But an entire book of them, from a breadth of writers — 32, to be precise — from an even greater breadth of perspectives and sensibilities is, well, a thing of another order. 

An aphorism is a strange beast. In the exquisite introduction to Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, James Lough gives us a learned and poetic survey of the form — a brief history (befitting the topic, no doubt) along with an attempt to define and develop a taxonomy for this oft-forgotten form. After all, is an aphorism only defined by its brevity? Well, obviously not. Must it contain wisdom? Perhaps. How about paradox? Often, it seems. 

Indeed, Lough argues that the aphorism is not a simple declaration or even platitude. In his words, it must twist — in word, in form, in sense, in expectation, in perspective. As he claims, "A strong aphorism seduces, surprises, and sinks in....It needs a reversal, or more generally, it needs to bear the double footprints of a thought retracing itself. A good aphorism's doubleness is what makes it pop. It undulates, airborne in two quick arcs — one up, one down — and snaps at the end with a wicked crack."

I want to say, yes, there's that doubleness but there might be even more twists, more directions than two — not just a doubling but a proliferation, a birth of trajectories, tangents, curves, an entire calculus of sense. The thing that, for me, makes this book so great is each contributor writes a pithy introduction to his or her take on the aphorism. That's 32 different perspectives on what the damn thing even is, creating a kind of meta-aphorism, a folded, twisting definition that contains multitudes (pace Whitman). 

The effect is origami-like. All these folds, pleats, twists! Some deploy the form to grasp at concepts and truths, picking up where the discipline of philosophy has proven inadequate. For others, it emerges from quiet, meditative exploration. Some need the brevity for the sake of quotidian convenience. Some question the prejudice of the aphorism's objectivity, pushing the aphorism towards the more familiar form of personal poetry and imagistic memoir.

And yet, even then, the familiarity will not stick. Aphorisms are nomadic all the way down. They refuse to stand still. They flourish in the seams of form, between and amongst and within philosophy, poetry, meditation, koan, joke. An aphorism is all those things and none. It may reach for wisdom, for truth, for empathy, for sympathy, for compassion. And yet again, it may persist right where it is, neither ascending nor burrowing but content in a kind of formal acrobatic sense making: This! Here! Now!

The effect of reading them is equally nebulous, multiple, and disorienting. Unlike, say, a philosophic tome — Kant's Critique of Moral Judgment or even Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals — the aphorism is on its own, adrift. It has no other context, no place to call home. It's not part of a system; it's not a stone within an edifice of one ideology or other. Sure, we readers may afford an aphorism a temporary resting site as the words seem to buttress some notion we already have. But that aphorism isn't there to confirm you or your beliefs; it's not a platitude or cliché. Despite its brevity, or precisely because of its brevity, its twist, its doubleness, its multiplicity disallow easy conforming to the ready-made world. 

It even resists authorship. No doubt, if we take the aphorisms of one writer together — as this book does for 32 different writers — we begin to see a style, a belief system, a world view emerge.  Ashleigh Brilliant (now that's a name!) has a taste for paradox — "There's only one everything"; Sharon Dolin evokes memoir and image — "Old woman on the road. Back bent. Nothing left to carry but her life"; HL Hix undoes final truths — "Our inability to entertain a multiplicity of ideas simultaneously, we call 'truth.'" 

But aphorisms don't necessarily want to be collected, to be taken together, to be unified. That is their power. They stand alone. But they're not hermetic. On the contrary, they find their very lifeblood in the seams of energy that flow between form, senses, truths, words, and disciplines. As such, they are generous, even if often quite dangerous. 

And this makes reading a book of aphorisms from different writers an incredible experience. Identities blur, even if great names are attached. Most conspicuously for me, it was my identity as a reader that blurred the most. As Lough points out, aphorisms play with perspectives. Who speaks in an aphorism? Who is the we? Who is the you? The I? From where does the aphorism usher its insight? In what tone is it scribbled? The aphorism is a rhetorical minefield (pun intended?). 

Take this one from James Richardson: "Of all the ways to avoid living, perfect discipline is the most admired." Who speaks? And what's the critique? Who does most of this admiring? Us? Him? You? People in general? The answer, it seems, is all and none. The aphorism hangs there, or better, flourishes there in the in-between, in the seam of perspectives.

Or this, from James Lough: "I'm anxiously awaiting the response to a text message I haven't sent yet." The I is Mr. Lough, perhaps, but it's also me just as it's not me but some other I, some I I don't want to be but often am. The phrase drifts among possible and actual I's, refusing to settle, claiming all and none as it own.

Then this one from Yahia Lababidi: "Envious of natural disasters, men create their own." In what voice is this delivered? Is envy good? Bad? Both? Neither? Is this wisdom? Observation? Something to be heeded? Known? Once again, the aphorism finds its power by claiming none and all, by drifting in the seams.

All these perspectives literally splay me. They disembody me, taking me out of myself, sending me adrift into a place of impersonal becoming, a place where knowledge is no longer mine — and is all the more resonant for it.

This is a book of folds, of multiplicities that in turn folds and multiplies you. To read this book is to be swept up in flows that exceed, surround, and ignite you. The sensation is uncanny, familiar and unfamiliar, as you take leave of yourself and join a kind of cosmic, inter- and intra-human becoming. To read this books of aphorisms is to flourish in the seam of it all. 


Unknown said...

Daniel, this is excellently thought and excellently written. The essays are a result of my having read an anthology called "the blackwater book of fantatic fiction," edited my a fellow named Alberto Manguel. The book features fantastical stories, magical realizations, transformation tales, stuff like that. A great story in there by Max Beerbohn called Enoch Solmes haunts me to this day. Anyhow, before each story Manguel had written a little essay, two or three paragraphs, about something of interest to him in with regard to the story itself or its authorship. And I found I kept turning back to those. Often reading them in succession. LIttle anecdotes or bits of philosophpy or just curious biographical insights. So when I considered the form of this book that was a must have. Anyhow, thanks for reading it and writing about it. best wishes, Alex Stein

Daniel Coffeen said...

Alex! We keep meeting at these odd angles as you bring these absolutely incredible books into being — you're some kind of magus. So glad you picked up on what I love. Yes yes yes: those little tidbits, those insights, those bio-philosophic reckonings take the book to a new height.

It reminds me of this idea I've had with a few friends: a book of cosmologies. Each of us would write a different cosmology, a different way of constituting and distributing the universe: The world is body and event. The world is atoms and swerves; the world is...and on and on. All these incompatible worlds somehow living together in the same book.

Anyway, thanks for commenting here and, even more, thanks for bringing such truly great books into existence.

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