Does anyone except an aphorist care about the definition of an aphorism? Most likely not, but it is a question that I thought pertinent while reading these collections. In some ways it is easy to say what an aphorism is not, rather than what it is. It is not a proverb – “the wit of one and the wisdom of many”, as one definition has it. Proverbs tend to be anonymous and have an air of being self-evident; although many hands make light work while too many cooks spoil the broth, and you should look before you leap but strike while the iron is hot.
Nor is the aphorism a quip: it is unlike, say, WC Fields saying “Twas a woman that drove me to drink. I never had the courtesy to thank her” or Dorothy Parker’s retort to a question about the most beautiful words in the English language being “cheque” and “enclosed”.
Nor is it quite a koan, a spiritual exercise using paradox or even surrealism to evoke “great doubt” in the student. We all know “the sound of one hand clapping” but more problematic are phrases like “if you see the Buddha, kill him”.
But somehow, the aphorism at its best combines all three. It imparts a message. It has a rhetorical twist. It means something different each time it is read.
It is impossible to review books of aphorisms in the way one would review a novel, a biography or a volume of poetry. That would be like having an entire dinner of petit-fours. These are books that need to be set down and picked up again. These two authors represent the polar opposites of the aphoristic tradition (if such a thing even exists). Paterson is wry, sardonic and sceptical; in the same lineage as writers such as Emil Cioran, Karl Kraus and Friedrich Nietzsche, though I doubt he would care for that comparison. Lababidi, an Egyptian-American, is mystical, sincere and contemplative, and seems more in keeping with the likes of Kahlil Gibran, Rumi and the unctuous Paulo Coelho (it is always good to make one’s partialities evident early on). Let us just say I preferred one to the other.
Paterson’s book includes new work alongside previous works, The Blind Eye and The Book Of Shadows, as well as an afterword on aphorists. The Fall At Home is an ingenious title. On one hand it has a simple meaning – oh, so and so took a fall at home – and on the other, especially given the cover has Magritte’s The Listening Room, a giant apple filling a room – it is about The Fall, even in its domestic settings. Its metaphysical concerns are there in the opening words: “Consciousness is the turn the universe makes to hasten its own end.” There is a Calvinist haar over much of this, with the humour as a bitter spike lacing it, as in “To a poet, a friend is just an inconvenience standing between them and a decent elegy.” This, I know not to be true: I am sure Paterson would destroy every line of his elegy to the poet Michael Donaghy to bring him back. At its best, and most of it is very good indeed, it becomes both sly and profound. “Snakes cast the least shadow” was a particular favourite; but “She called me from the morgue to assure me. ‘Yep: he’s definitely dead.’ ‘How does he look?’ ‘Exactly like himself, minus himself” is close to perfection. A few of them are too gossipy about the aggravations of the publishing world, but they will raise a smile and then a sigh at the same time.
Where Epics Fail is indubitably written in good faith, and yet I often paused and thought “that is a load of first-rate codswallop”. Take for example, “Forgive them: damaged people can hardly imagine the pain they inflict on others”. That’s a good one for the “what-about-Hitler?” style of response. Or “I do not think, therefore I am”. Neat reversal of Descartes, but if you’re not thinking, how did that even get typed? Or “Cynicism’s knowingness cheats itself out of true knowing”. One might as well say “Pessimists are rarely disappointed” or “Being arch is always being angry” or “It’s nice to be nice”. Despite the Sufist tradition from which the best of these come, there is a Hallmark quality about them that irritates. One minute there is a strained glimmer of profundity: “No matter how we dream or scheme, being born is always a surprise” And the next, pure pabulum: “We cannot know ourselves without knowing the natural world.” The repetitive beat of “spirit”, “inspiration”, “divine”, “silence”, “poetry” and the slightly pompous “G_d” so as not to say the name aloud becomes, in a way, tawdry.
Sufism is, in some ways, a praxis and not a lexis. Maybe someone can meditate to this stuff, but I, as a good Calvinist, challenge, challenge and challenge again. It’s why we have knights and they have gurus. What’s the point of an aphorism? The rest is silence.
The Fall At Home: New And Collected Aphorisms, by Don Paterson, Faber & Faber, £16.99. Where Epics Fail: Meditations To Live By, Yahia Lababidi, Unbound, £9.99