Commentary Magazine

I Quip, Therefore I Am

The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel
By Gary Saul Morson
Stanford University Press, 296 pages

“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.”

In direct contrast, the short sayings Morson calls “dicta” purport to clear up the universe’s great mysteries. Successful dicta solve “not just a riddle, but the riddle, the one providing the key to all others.” (Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” is perhaps the classic example.) It would seem obvious that dicta will always trump apothegms; mustn’t the answer be more satisfying than a conundrum? Morson does not think so. In his view, every dictum conceals an act of aggressive repression against the freedom of human thought. “Dicta…allow no legitimate disagreement…the dictum offers itself as beyond coherent challenge,” he writes, citing arguments by Marx, Engels, Spinoza, Bacon, and Freud, among others. Each of these men claimed to have solved the world’s problems; in a lovely scholarly sleight of hand, Morson dismantles their arguments simply by listing the threads of logic common to all.

He systematically summarizes the dictum’s inevitable algorithm, from beginning (“Since antiquity, people have looked for the best way to organize society, and now we know it”) through middle (“Nothing has seemed more complex and bewildering than the human psyche, but we have at last discovered the key to its workings”) to end (“The secret of happiness has been revealed”). Here lies logical trouble: The master plan that explains the universe must by definition be unique. It certainly cannot be structurally identical to any number of other master plans. Once this logical fallacy is exposed, the dictum’s self-satisfied conclusions collapse like a house of cards.

Morson, calmly surveying the ruins, does not rush in with pet theories of his own. He aims to enlighten, not to preach; he is no dogmatist, but an old-fashioned intellectual polymath, the hip professor who manages to be both erudite and droll. Even in a discussion of, say, Yogi Berra’s “witless witticisms,” he leaves no page unturned. And his critical acumen is matched by his skill as an anthologist; he has amassed a wonderful collection of everything from Marxist doctrine to deathbed wit, from gallows humor (both literal and figurative) to sarcasm, unintentional howlers, homilies, proverbs, repartee, insults, and lovely philosophical jewels. Without fail, he takes tremendous care with each aphorism he cites. He situates each quotation in its proper cultural milieu before he hones in on specifics. He draws our attention to the chilling brilliance of a single word within the sentence Thomas More uttered as he ascended the scaffold, (“I pray you, master Lieutenant, see me safe up, and [as for] my coming down let me shift for myself”—the word in question is shift) and provides a four paragraph explication de texte on Dorothy Parker’s famous three-word response (“Pearls before swine”) to an insult from Clare Boothe Luce. The latter is an astounding feat; humor is a delicate genre, and anyone who performs exploratory surgery on a joke runs the risk that his patient will die on the table. “Commentary can also ruin an aphorism,” Morson acknowledges; his never does.

But let us not forget the long of it. Throughout the book, Darwin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy (“If we indulge a taste for paradox, we might say that War and Peace is the longest apothegm in the world”), and even Gibbon are trotted out alongside one- and two-liners, with fascinating results. Morson does not mean simply to show that these tremendously lengthy texts contain aphorisms; rather, he believes that “aphoristic” longer works share the worldviews of shorter ones. Certain writers, such as Morson’s beloved Russians, intentionally deploy several kinds of aphorism within their books, the better to elaborate differences between characters, or to bring out particular aspects of a developing literary theme. Pitting long against short is not a novel endeavor. As Morson reminds us, “the ancients paired opposing genres. Satyr plays accompanied tragedies, epics provoked mock-epics, satire answered philosophy.” Thus, he says, a dialogue between forms took place; each genre did not exist in a vacuum, but rather participated in a long-form discussion, in which a six-volume history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire chatted up a 10-word maxim by La Rochefoucauld.

A good one-liner provokes a moment of awed silence, a stillness of logic, a skip in the beat of the heart of the world. These pithy little sayings, whether authored in private or proclaimed ex cathedra; whether smuggled into or out of poetry, plays, and novels; whether plucked from religious tracts and treatises or muttered as wisecracking asides, are the keys with which we attempt to unlock the universe. There is tremendous satisfaction in hearing unruly sentiments perfectly articulated in a meticulously wrought phrase, and the temptation to boil human wisdom down to a few words is irresistible.

No single utterance can, of course, completely succeed, which is why we keep doing it. But an accumulation of aphoristic wisdom leads ever toward the higher truths a lone statement cannot reach. Wittgenstein’s analogy sums it up perfectly: We compose aphorism after aphorism “as in spinning a thread we twist fiber on fiber,” he says. “And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fiber runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibers.”

Morson does not pretend to have the last word, but his book is an excellent start:

The long and short of it is, no matter how many aphorisms we know, we are in want of more. If we follow the spirit of apothegms, we will set them against each other and allow their dialogues to develop in surprising ways. Above all, we will keep the conversation going.

These days, the conversation is more crowded than ever. Morson has chosen to limit his discussion to the kinds of short literature written in ink and printed on paper; this is at once a relief (one does tire of academics eager to assert their hip bona fides by citing Star Trek and Snoop Lion alongside Austen and Auerbach) and a disappointment. Surely Morson has an interesting take on the present decade’s incarnation of the wisecracking literary salon, in which Twitter and Facebook have made aphorists of us all?

But this is a minor quibble. The book itself functions as a successful apothegm; it is an essay in the literal sense of the word, which is to say, an attempt. The Long and Short of It leaves readers illuminated and humbled, amused and enlightened and with their sense of literature’s richness—its ironies and foibles, its mysteries and truths—enhanced.

About the Author

Fernanda Moore’s short story “The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing” appeared in our last issue.

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