I Quip, Therefore I Am
“World literature is a great symposium, and we are invited to the banquet,” Gary Saul Morson writes in the introduction to his new book, The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel. “With short genres, it is a banquet of delicious morsels.” Morson’s delightful study, which aims to classify and examine these morsels, is both a work of serious scholarship and a feast itself. “It may seem odd that someone could have written a book on War and Peace and yet be fascinated by the shortest literary genres,” Morson, a professor of Russian literature at Northwestern, admits. But a successful aphorism is a masterpiece in miniature, evoking worlds far beyond its actual words. Morson unpacks these pithy gems using the same critical methodology one might apply to an epic.
Actually, there are many different kinds of aphorisms. As Morson declares, winking at one of the category’s most famous examples, “All short genres are brief, but each short genre is brief in its own way.” Consider the apothegm, which highlights the essential, inscrutable mysteries of existence: Pascal’s beautiful line “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” is the perfect example. Apothegms turn up in the work of writers as diverse as Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, the Greek tragedians, Dostoyevsky, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Whatever truth the apothegm points toward is by definition always postponed, and “anyone who regards its meaning as clear not only misreads it but also mistakes its very nature.” An apothegm’s inscrutability allows a tantalizing glimpse of wisdom that lies beyond our ability to comprehend. “Wisdom begins when we recognize that we do not even know what we do not know,” Morson writes. “Apothegms teach: There are always more doors to open.”
About the Author
Fernanda Moore’s short story “The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing” appeared in our last issue.