The Long and Short of It
From Aphorism to Novel
Gary Saul Morson
(Stanford)The long and the short of it --- as best I can figure out --- is that Morson is fond of apothegms, witticisms, maxims, dicta, aphorisms, insights, short pithy mots, and anything to convey an Important Thought in Brief. He says he has found no other book that treats such a pithy subject, and he's here to provide relief.
He then tries in a somewhat cloudy fashion to explain the difference between dicta "which resolve all mystery" and apothegms "which see the world as mysterious." (I have always looked with fondness at the word "apothegm" which looks like it ends with a cough and a spit ... but which, according to my trusty Webster's, should properly be pronounced "AH-puh-them." I gather that extra "g" is stuck in there for sheer English-language cussedness --- like pronouncing "rough" as ruff and "through" as thru.) I am willing to let Morson cadge the words "dicta" and "apothegm" ... even set them on the opposite sides of the ring so he can get on with whatever he wants to tell us about paradoxical sayings. Immediately after granting him that freedom, however, he comes up with a whopper which I would have to define as more than mystical ... perhaps even 'pataphysical:
The Origin of Species [he writes] stands as one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century English prose, and only its spectacular scientific significance masks its importance as a major work of English literature.
I gather that our author has actually made it all the way though Origin. Me? I tried several times over several years, and let me say this about that: If this is the defining literary centerpiece of the 19th century, besting Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Twain, Dickens, Stendal, Austen, Flaubert, Victor Hugo et al, I shudda stood in bed.
Speaking of which, Morson has an excellent aside on the genius who first coined this phrase. It was the great, unsung American etymological philosophical genius, Yogi Berra. He also said, according to Morson, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." And: "If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be." Too: "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." Also: "The future ain't what it used to be." And, finally: "Always go to other people's funerals, or they won't go to yours." Morson makes the mistake of trying to parse these gems. No need: like all good yogi masters, Berra makes sure that the aphorisms parse themselves.
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One could classify the author as a quack if it weren't for his (sometimes) delightful leaps of logic. This on Byron's Don Juan:
the poem both was and seems to have been written spontaneously. It re-creates the experience of a first draft, as if a professional improviser were making it up on the spot before an audience. As Bakhtin would say, it seems to take place in "the real present of the creative process."
And this on judging the self: "A physician might heal himself, or a lawyer defend himself, but a judge cannot judge himself. One cannot discern if one is insane because one might be discerning insanely. Fools and wise men both consider themselves wise."
§ § §
As we consider Morson's world of apothegms and dicta, we are faced with the limitations of language. We can read Johnson's acerbic "There are minds so impatient of inferiority, that their gratitude is a species of revenge." We can even comment on its astuteness ... then in five minutes it is gone from our minds forever. Too, there is this from Dostoevsky's Idiot: "Is it possible to perceive as an image that which has no image?" Say who?
The sport of Long and Short is the chance to choose between the many examples offered up to us. Twain saying that "Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds." Or Holbrook Jackson: "The great revolution of the future will be Nature's revolt against man." (Response from G. K. Chesterton: "I hope Man will not hesitate to shoot.") Nietzsche: "The very sign of great health, an excess that gives the free spirit the dangerous privilege of being permitted to live experimentally and offer himself to adventure." But where is the classic (and one of the shortest) mots, from Zhou Enlai, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. He said: "Too soon to tell."
Mots (or aphorisms or apothegms or whatever you want to call them) are not unlike a meal stuffed into a pill. You can swallow it, get all the vitamins you need --- but you've lost the pleasure of the time and the company and the fine physical act of cooking and serving and eating a great dinner.
Even a extended quote can only be a whiff. Morson is much taken with Dostoevsky. There are at least ten quotes from his books, but I often caught myself thinking that I might have felt better off spending a few days thumbing through The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment rather than laboring through the Long and the Short.
And even when it is a pithy quote, it can be truncated, losing much in translation. For instance on death, he calls up Pascal's "We all die alone." It lacks that fiery additional twist of the Buddhists: "We are born crying ... and we die alone."--- Cynthia Morrow, PhD