Broken Knowledge

Frank Kermode

  • The Oxford Book of Aphorisms edited by John Gross
    Oxford, 383 pp, £9.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 214111 2
  • The Travellers’ Dictionary of Quotation: Who said what about where? edited by Peter Yapp
    Routledge, 1022 pp, £24.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7100 0992 5

Richard Rorty has made us familiar with the distinction between two sorts of philosophy, which he calls ‘systematic’ and (I think infelicitously) ‘edifying’. The first sticks to the central epistemological tradition, which assumes that it can deal systematically and progressively with reality; the second is essentially of the periphery, and its exponents are pragmatical opponents of the institutional tradition. They include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, the later Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger, all philosophers who ‘want to keep the space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause’. Bacon once called wonder ‘broken knowledge’ – a definition that suits Rorty’s needs. These people, he argues, substitute for continuous inquiry into the way things are all manner of discontinuous instrumentalities, and one of these is the aphorism.

So John Gross’s Oxford Book of Aphorisms might, if properly used, be less a book to nod over than a neo-philosophical catena, an instance of the edifying that ousts the epistemological. As a matter of fact, it contains some strong anti-systematic remarks. ‘Philosophy, hoping and promising at first to cure all our ills, is at last reduced to desiring in vain to remedy itself,’ opines Leopardi; and Lichtenberg was there or thereabouts before him: ‘For a long time now I have thought that philosophy will one day devour itself. Metaphysics has partly done so already.’ Not long after Leopardi mused thus, we find without amazement that, in the view of Kierkegaard, ‘in relation to their systems most systematisers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack nearby; they do not live in their own enormous systematic buildings.’ Aphorisms may be shacks of this kind, or they may be specially designed shacks made by people who dislike or cannot build castles.

The natural rival of this Oxford Book is the Faber Book, compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger and first published in 1962. Auden was himself an aphorist (he is represented in Gross’s collection), and Kronenberger was a connoisseur of the form, so their book, which will take a bit of beating, is equally eligible for use as materia neophilosophica. The piece of Kierkegaard quoted above can be found in both books, but on the whole there is not much overlap. I checked out the sections on religion: the Faber, unsurprisingly, has twice as many entries as the Oxford, but there seem to be only three repeats. In one of these, Xenophanes observes that Ethiopians say their gods are snubnosed and black, while Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair (‘gray eyes’ in Auden). Another is by Kafka: ‘The true way goes over a rope which is not stretched at any great height but just above the ground. It seems more designed to make men stumble than to be walked upon.’ (‘Designed more’?) Finally Cesare Pavese states that ‘religion consists of believing that everything that happens is extraordinarily important. It can never disappear from the world, precisely for that reason.’

Since these morceaux have a double endorsement, one might say what one thinks of them as aphoristic substitutes for philosophy. Not a great deal, I fear. Kafka seems well below his best: you could as well say ‘fallen off’ as ‘walked upon’, which implies that the true way is easier than it is. Pavese’s observattion isn’t entirely true, for there are things held to be indifferent, and only to very unusual modes of attention can everything seem extraordinarily important. So his ‘precisely’ seems a bit strong, his inference too bold. And ho-hum to Xenophanes. Of course all these aphorisms suffer in translation; wisdom leaks away, like poetry.

Fortunately there are vast numbers of aphorisms to be had, witness that small degree of overlap between Auden and Gross. Auden fancies aphorists like Simone Weil and Charles Williams, neither to be found in Gross, and Gross has his pets – Sherrington, for instance, and Thomas Szasz, unknown to Auden. The earlier book has a useful thematic index, Gross’s has not. Gross is more specific about his sources. Both classify their material under such headings as Humanity, Religion, Nature, Life, down to Young and Old, Sickness and Health, or, more vaguely still, The Arena, Friends and Foes. The same names provide most of the substance of both books, though with varying emphases. Thus Dr Johnson is Gross’s champion, with Nietzsche the runner-up, whereas in Auden this ranking is reversed. Gross’s other seeds are Vauvenargues, Schopenhauer, Hazlitt, La Bruyère, Goethe, La Rochefoucauld, in that order; Auden has Nietzsche, Johnson, Goethe, Chesterton, Halifax, Lichtenberg. Both editors are partial to Thoreau and Emerson, and both enjoy Samuel Butler 1, as well as Samuel Butler 2, though Gross favours the former, Auden the latter. Neither has anything from McLuhan, Auden because he was too early, Gross because he was too late: there are fashions in aphorisms. On the whole, it would be unreasonable to prefer one of these books above the other: each has advantages, each is the product of hard reading and great literary curiosity.

Like his predecessors, Gross has an Introduction in which he tries to say what aphorisms are: not quite maxims (more subversive) and not quite epigrams (more discursive). They are, as Johnson said, ‘unconnected propositions’, with a tendency towards the mauvaise pensée or pensiero cattivo. Not wanting a book made up of thousands of one-liners, he decided to take a liberal view: ‘to interpret the idea of aphoristic writing more loosely’. No doubt this was wise, though it means that there are, in this book, remarks that are not, in my view, aphorisms at all (‘remarks are not literature,’ as an excluded aphorism has it). For instance, Winnicott’s line, ‘The baby creates the object, but the object was there waiting to be created,’ is simple exposition of a central doctrine. Gombrich’s ‘All culture and all communication depend on the interplay between expectation and observation, the waves of fulfilment, disappointment, right guesses and wrong moves that make up our daily life’ also derives its force from a larger system of thought. The same could be said of a chunk of Sherrington’s prose on altruism. In these lines from The Taming of the Shrew,

Preposterous ass! that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordained!

Shakespeare isn’t saying anything at all; and

Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp’d,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is

is not really an aphorism but a sententia – a Senecan sentence, in fact. Orwell remarks that ‘Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books involves constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever,’ and this is true, but it is not an aphorism: it lacks point, in the sense of OED IV.10, a or b, as when Mark Pattison said of an inscription that its moral was better than its point, or Pope’s dunce was armed with points, antitheses and puns. Sometimes there is point, but also a degree of awkwardness that virtually cancels it, as in this uncharacteristically ugly bit of Hobbes: ‘I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, That the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, that the doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.’

The best way to show that none of these is truly aphoristic is to quote some real aphorisms. Samuel Butler 1: ‘As small tyrants are always found to be the most severe, so are all little critics the most unmerciful, and never give quarter for the least mistake.’ Here, of course, it is the unexpected analogy that makes the point. Or compare Orwell’s line with this, by Harold Rosenberg: ‘No degree of dullness can safeguard a work against the determination of critics to find it fascinating.’ This is altogether more balanced and pointed. Sometimes one finds these qualities and others even more valuable: ‘It is desirable at times for ideas to possess a certain roughness, like drawings on heavy-grain paper. Thoughts having this quality are most likely to match the texture of actual experience.’ That is Rosenberg again, exploiting in a little allegory the figurative and literal senses of ‘texture’, and so yoking the heterogeneous notions of thinking and drawing; the sentence neatly mimes the very idea of texture. Here we have the aphoristic in a high degree.

That there are degrees of the quality may be seen from two examples of Swift: ‘Sometimes I read a book with pleasure, and detest the author,’ ‘A nice man is a man of nasty ideas.’ The second is less obvious, more pointed and more interesting. We should spoil it if we said ‘fastidious’ for ‘nice’: it depends on the alliteration, which enforces an antithetical sense now lost. The aphorism needs these rhetorical or poetic devices, as aphorists used to know. ‘Birds are taken with pipes that imitate their own voices, and men with those sayings that are most agreeable to their own opinions’: Samuel Butler 1 again, giving point to an observation just about worth making. This began life as an aphorism, was excogitated as such. ‘Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists’: if Norman Mailer had been thinking aphoristically, he might have dropped the last four words and touched up the remainder. ‘Doubt is to certainty as neurosis is to psychosis. The neurotic is in doubt and has fears about persons and things; the psychotic has convictions and makes claims about them. In short, the neurotic has problems, the psychotic has solutions.’ Here Thomas Szasz produces, in the end, a rather brilliant aphorism, but first he explains it. Aphorisms are not explanations.

Nor are they jokes. This book contains a number of jokes, and they have that look of the complacent but exhausted rotarian familiar from the tailpieces in Reader’s Digest: ‘Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.’ On the other hand, aphorisms are not just bits of wisdom. Pushkin observes that ‘A foreign tongue is spread not by fire and the sword but by its own richness and superiority,’ which (in English) lacks ‘point’; it may or may not be wise, probably not. Max Weinreich says that ‘a language is a dialect that has an army and navy,’ which is both pointed and true, Pushkin to the contrary. However, it is not always a matter of choosing between points or sagacities. Edifying philosophers will sometimes seek from the union of two aphorisms some third thing: for instance, from Pascal’s ‘Two faces are alike; neither is funny by itself, but side by side their likeness makes us laugh,’ and Yoshida Kenko’s ‘As soon as I hear a name I feel convinced I can guess what the owner looks like, but it never happens, when I actually meet the man, that his face is as I had supposed.’

The wisdom of those observations must be in large part of the reader’s making. Usually it is more obvious, though in this case you may have to choose, for instance, between Cyril Connolly’s ‘The particular charm of marriage is the duologue, the permanent conversation between two people who talk over everything and everyone till death breaks the record’ and Disraeli’s ‘It destroys one’s nerves to be amiable every day to the same human being.’ It is hard to be surprisingly wise about marriage (as distinct from love), or for that matter Life, and there are aphorisms here to which the only response can be ‘How true!’ ‘You can pretend to be serious; you can’t pretend to be witty,’ as Sacha Guitry accurately notes. But neither wit nor wisdom is enough alone. The best aphorisms have some of the properties of the koan. Emerson’s ‘All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle’ is the germ of a lot of Wallace Stevens; it has the quality of wonder.

Poems, then, may grow out of aphorisms; they may also sink into aphorisms, as when Churton Collins scribbles on some famous lines of Milton: ‘We are no more responsible for evil thoughts which pass through our minds, than a scarecrow for the birds which fly over the seed-plot he has to guard; the sole responsibility in each case is to prevent them from settling.’ Or a poet’s conceit may be reduced to the vernacular: Donne’s ‘There is a hook in every benefit, that sticks in his jaws that takes that benefit, and draws him whither the benefactor will’ has turned into ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ These in their different manners are guides to conduct; there are lots of them about, some earnest and some cynical, only a few surprising as well as just: ‘In the presence of some people we inevitably depart from ourselves: we are inaccurate, say things we do not feel, and talk nonsense. When we get home we are conscious that we have made fools of ourselves. Never go near these people.’ I doubt if I should have included this rather laboured injunction of Mark Rutherford’s, but it has the qualities of truth and surprise.

For the record, History seems to inspire good, gloomy aphorisms: ‘Makes of men date, like cars’ (Elizabeth Bowen); ‘Posterity is as likely to be wrong as anybody else’ (Heywood Broun); ‘History books begin and end, but the events they describe do not’ (Collingwood); ‘When smashing monuments, save the pedestals – they always come in handy’ (Stanislaw Lec). Love is another rich field, dominated by Proust (‘It is seldom indeed that one parts on good terms, because if one were on good terms one would not part’), but with good contributions from Walter Benjamin, and from the dependable Emerson: ‘Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.’ Here is the touch of wonder required for Rortian aphorism. It isn’t to be found everywhere among the thousands Gross gives us, but there is no dearth of material, the aphoristic mines are not worked out, and we need not fear a shortage of edifying philosophy. At their best, aphorisms will always exhibit the surprise that comes when language contemplates itself as well as the message it bears: not mere wisdom or wit, but a kind of self-broken knowledge.

The Travellers’ Dictionary of Quotations has around ten thousand entries on countries, places and their inhabitants. It seems to have no practical purpose. If you are planning a visit to, say, Stuttgart, you will hardly be helped by the knowledge that in 1900 Jerome K. Jerome said it was ‘a charming town, clean and bright, etc’. When I read the many extracts on Cambridge, almost unrelievedly gloomy, I conjectured that Mr Yapp must have gone to Oxford – ‘so much better a place than Cambridge’ (A.H. Clough) – but no, he was at Trinity College, Cambridge. I was perhaps naive to suppose otherwise.