On aphorisms, essays and Yahia Lababidi

, 29 December 2013

In a recent article, ‘Reflections on the Death of the Essay’, I found few positive things to say about the art of the aphorism; in its popular contemporary version, this ancient form has become the ultimate PR- and marketing-friendly literary formula, serving the purpose of self-promotion above all else.

The aphoristic style, venerated by centuries of tradition and volumes of ancient knowledge, flourishes in the digital age. Once practiced by such reputable thinkers as Nietzsche, Cioran and Canetti, aphorisms now thrive – albeit diluted, and yet no-less-authoritative – in the context of what cultural critic Neil Postman named “sound-bite politics”. In Postman’s view, the nature of modern media causes snappy, easily-quotable catchphrases to replace deepened reflection and discussion, in the process rendering the latter impossible.

W.H. Auden saw aphorisms as an “aristocratic genre”, in which the author imposes their wisdom on the – implicitly less enlightened – reader. Susan Sontag, who called aphoristic thinking “impatient”, noted that the form of an aphorism may encourage banalities; subjects which have the allure of universal knowledge but little true substance (“the hypocrisies of societies, the vanities of human wishes, the shallowness + deviousness of women; the sham of love”). Memorability, and the attempt to convey irrefutable wisdom contribute to the continued popularity of aphorisms, adages, bon mots and soundbites throughout the Internet, especially in social media: shareable, quotable, catchy phrases inevitably thrive and proliferate via the means of memetic multiplication.

Wisdom –or rather, what passes for it at a glance – is a highly commodified good. What sells are the pseudo-metaphysical “life lessons” delivered to drained corporate souls by the professional self-development industry. The rise of the life coach –a flawlessly aesthetic, confident and calm stock photo character with a gleaming smile –is a telling sign of the times. People seek guidance, consolation and advice, however banal, and prefer it in a short, digestible format (the latter is not a modern invention: we commonly know philosophers’ quotes far better than the theories from which they are extracted).

Thus the contemporary aphorism is either an invitation to participate in forced enthusiasm, best illustrated by “motivators” (typically: an image of a sunset and a man standing on a mountain, housed in a stern black frame with a mantra-like caption, such as “you can achieve whatever you wish”) or their evil sibling, the “demotivator”, a picture sometimes illustrated with a witty caption, but more often a banal or offensive assertion (along the lines of “life is like…”, “men/women are like…”, etc.). The internet is an arena hosting a ceaseless battle for attention: on Twitter, Facebook and message boards, the language of memes and one-liners contributes to a mode of communication in which wit and sheer eristics (argument-for-argument’s-sake) matter more than merit or valuable observation. In such contexts, aphorisms and quotes provide a powerful back-up from a respectable, published supporter, much like a superpower invoked by a fantasy hero in a duel: “for who am I to outsmart Oscar Wilde?”

In such circumstances, appreciating a contemporary collection of aphorisms may prove challenging. “Somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle defined by Proverb, Philosophy, and Poetry, the Aphorist drifts restlessly in his tiny boat”, writes James Richardson in the preface to Yahia Lababidi‘s Signposts to Elsewhere; my immediate, net-weary response was that we’re currently located closer to the Scylla of New Age coaching and the Charybdis of Twitter one-liners. But Lababidi is a poet by trade, so cynicism gave way to sympathy: it’s a tough job these days.

Image courtesy Matt Biddulphhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/mbiddulph/
Image courtesy Matt Biddulph

Signposts to Elsewhere is a valuable read for those who enjoy genuinely intelligent observations in small doses: musings on topics from creativity and youth through to astrology, war and suicide. Lababidi often writes beautifully –and yet, at the same time, I am reminded of Sontag’s acerbic comments on the uniformity of the aphoristic scope. Striving for universality may be, it transpires, a trap: attempting to enfold the complexity of things in miniature forms inadvertently confines the thinker to a small pool of the familiar.

Yet reading Signposts to Elsewhere in conjunction with the author’s more recent Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly-Dancing sheds additional light on the work: as if Lababidi grew tired of the constrictions imposed by the stylish, yet necessarily-limited form of the aphorism. Trial by Ink is a collection of essays –vivid, lively, and with fascinating momentum, the author’s appetite for words seemingly reawakened after the necessary asceticism of Signposts to Elsewhere. Thus the many rewards of Trial by Ink, as intellectual background is entwined with the personal, almost in order to stay true to the original meaning of “essay” (which translates roughly as “an attempt” –to convey one’s thoughts on a particular subject). Its scope is exceedingly wide, as one may deduce from the title: from Nietzsche to belly-dancing, taking in Beckett and Michael Jackson on the way. Aside from the sheer intellectual joy, the last part of the book provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Egyptian society, its inherent contradictions and multifaceted nature – sometimes sarcastic, sometimes compassionate, yet always perceptive and enraptured; Trial by Ink is worth reading for this section alone.

It transpires that a poetic background can indeed serve an essayist, providing lightness and flow; it’s fascinating how both essay and aphorism are equally subjective, and yet the former lacks the aura of imposition and tone of indisputability which the one-liner often carries. After comparing Lababidi’s two books –the long and the short –it becomes apparent that whilst there may be beauty in the aphorisms’ style, their truths are confirmed when given substance by the essays. **

Yahia Lababidi’s Signposts to Elsewhere and Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly-Dancing are out now on Jane Street Press and Common Ground Publishing respectively.