The Long and the Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel
Gary Saul Morson
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is also much more. In this exploration of the shortest literary works—wise sayings, proverbs, witticisms, sardonic observations about human nature, pithy evocations of mystery, terse statements regarding ultimate questions—Gary Saul Morson argues passionately for the importance of these short genres not only to scholars but also to general readers.
We are fascinated by how brief works evoke a powerful sense of life in a few words, which is why we browse quotation anthologies and love to repeat our favorites. Arguing that all short genres are short in their own way, Morson explores the unique form of brevity that each of them develops. Apothegms (Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, Wittgenstein) describe the universe as ultimately unknowable, offering not answers but ever deeper questions. Dicta (Spinoza, Marx, Freud) create the sense that unsolvable enigmas have at last been resolved. Sayings from sages and sacred texts assure us that goodness is rewarded, while sardonic maxims (Ecclesiastes, Nietzsche, George Eliot) uncover the self-deceptions behind such comforting illusions. Just as witticisms display the power of mind, "witlessisms" (William Spooner, Dan Quayle, the persona assumed by Mark Twain) astonish with their spectacular stupidity.
Nothing seems further from these short works than novels and epics, but the shortest genres often set the tone for longer ones, which, in turn, contain brilliant examples of short forms. Morson shows that short genres contribute important insights into the history of literature and philosophical thought. Once we grasp the role of aphorisms in Herodotus, Samuel Johnson, Dostoevsky, and even Tolstoy, we see their masterpieces in an entirely new light.
my soul for the arguments against it in my mind. . . . Even more: if somebody proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if it were a fact that the truth excludes Christ, I would rather remain with Christ than with the truth.36 What does it mean to accept (not merely to profess) as truth what one believes to be untrue? For Dostoevsky, such paradoxes arise from the mysteries of faith, which demands doubt, and of belief, which consists of the struggle to believe. Theme 5: Paradoxes of
been able to read Dostoevsky’s works as narrative guides to the dark side of the soul. These novelists are often supremely aware of aphorisms as whole works, such as those of La Rochefoucauld, as well as of their use by earlier novelists and historians. George Eliot cited, and Tolstoy translated, masters of the short form. Some of Dostoevsky’s characters live as if they believe that a life can be redeemed if it results in a single brilliant aphorism. Many of the best-known short literary works
self-awareness to view his own defeat “philosophically”—to show his own presence of mind and rise above immediate circumstances. Outwitting the wit, the emperor displays the courage to speak power to truth. How to Discredit a Witticism Once one understands how witticisms work, one readily grasps how they can be discredited, whether by other people or by opposing genres. Sometimes the point is to show that a celebrated wit is not as clever as all that. At other times, the intent is to expose
former victims make the worst tyrants. From similar examples, Hume deduces a different sardonic law of human nature. Whenever a controversy among religious or ideological factions occurs, the outcome can usually be foretold: “Whichever opinion . . . is most contrary to plain sense is sure to prevail; even where the general interest of the system requires not that decision. Though the reproach of heresy may, for some time, be bandied about among the disputants, it always rests at last on the
anticipate death, prove remarkably accurate even when indications seem to go the other way.61 As we saw with Dostoevskian guilt, sardonic maximists understand positive feedback loops for negative qualities. Keenly aware of his debt to the great sardonic writers, Merton modeled one study on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and, in the course of its argument, cites one of Tristram’s laws: I am thoroughly mindful of what Tristram reports about the singular behavior of hypotheses, that, “it is the nature