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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.2 (2005) 117-121

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Patrick Madden

If ever there were a literary form that seemed finite, exhaustible, it is the aphorism, that "wisdom broken" (in Francis Bacon's terms) that expresses profundity in few and beautiful words. If poetry is "the best words in the best order" (in Coleridge's terms), then aphorism, stripped of scene, character, image, is something like "the only words that will do," the ineluctable perihelion between sign and signified. Yet the form is not yet exhausted, as James Richardson's 2001 collection shows us, nor is it limited to deep thoughts and smatterings of wise advice, as the widely, wildly varied takes of Antonio Porchia, E. M. Cioran, and Elias Canetti illustrate. Nor is it poetry, despite its poetic leanings and Richardson's 2001 inclusion in the Best American Poetry anthology. It is its own form, akin to the personal essay's thought-driven side, an individual grappling with, attempting to apprehend the world, to make some sense of things. Each aphorism may be read as the seed of an essay. The following four books include some of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries' most vibrant examples of the form. [End Page 117]

Voices (bilingual edition), by Antonio Porchia, translated by W. S. Merwyn. Copper Canyon Press, 2003. 128 pages, paper, $14.00.

Italian-born Argentine Antonio Porchia (1886–1968) worked in a print shop and walked the bustling streets of the Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, apart from the literati and the intelligentsia of his time. This background delayed Porchia's recognition both in Argentina and in the rest of the world, but, thankfully, it also hides the author's artifice, imbues his aphorisms with an air of happenstance, as if they were found along the way, not conceived but received. One reads them, calmed and silenced by the resonances, just as one reads an essay. W. S. Merwyn points out in his introduction that "the authority which the entries invoke, both in their matter and in their tone, is not that of tradition or antecedents, but that of particular, individual experience." Some examples:

"Truth has very few friends and those few are suicides."
"If you do not raise your eyes you will think that you are the highest point."
"One lives in the hope of becoming a memory."
"They will say that you are on the wrong road, if it is your own."
"Following straight lines shortens distances, and also life."
"He who goes up step by step always finds himself level with a step."
"Since I prepare only for what ought to happen to me, I am never ready for what does happen."

The Agony of Flies: Notes and Notations (bilingual edition), by Elias Canetti, translated by H. F. Broch de Rothermann. Noonday Press, 1994. 233 pages, paper, $14.00.

Bulgarian-born Elias Canetti (1905–1994), who won the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, offers here his "autobiography stripped bare, [his] self-portrait of a mind." Inside, we find everything from the briefest fragments ("A person who still learns new words even as he's dying"; "The calamity of knowledge when it is passed on unchanged.") to quotations from scripture and from Jules Renard to defenses of animal rights to embryonic discourses on the Greek tragedies. But mostly he condenses his wide vision, focusing on minutiae, discovering secret inner workings that scramble our hard-wired circuits, give us pause, make us think on things we overlook. Some examples: [End Page 118]

"The good thing about notations is that they are free of calculation. They are too swift, they don't have enough time for the head that conceives them to ask how they might be used."
"The past grows in all directions through its depiction."
"Praise first animates the spirit, which then desires to deserve it."
"It is possible to live only because there is so much to know."
"The poet lives by exaggeration and makes himself known through misunderstandings."


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