Confessions of an aphorism writer, by James Guida

Posted on December 19, 2012
Filed Under Aphorisms, metaphor, wit | 6 Comments

James Guida, whom I blogged about in 2010, has written an interesting piece on The Page-Turner section of the The New Yorker website about the strangeness of being a writer of aphorisms. Guida describes the aphorist as “a dweller in the obscure hinterland between poetry and prose” (“The word ‘aphorist’ alone sounds suspiciously like an insult or type of criminal,” he writes) and goes on to engagingly chronicle the various joys and mild indignities of the vocation. He kindly mentions this website, adding that it’s “curiously popularizing, given the tradition,” a characterization with which I must take issue—not with the description of my site as “popularizing” (I would be delighted if it was!) but with the implication that the aphorism itself is an elite, non-popular or otherwise highfalutin form.

There is a widespread and woefully mistaken opinion that the aphorism is some kind of rare, inaccessible and aristocratic art form (the literary equivalent of opera, perhaps) practiced only by independently wealthy misanthropes, twisted cynics and amoral courtiers. I blame La Rochefoucauld, who was all of these—as well as being one of the greatest aphorists who ever lived. La Rochefoucauld has become the archetype of the aphorist, but he is not really representative of the profession at all. In fact, historically, only a tiny fraction of aphorists have been aristocrats, and the aphorism itself is the oldest and most democratic literary art form on the planet. The American aphoristic tradition in particular is keenly anti-aristocratic and anti-hierarchical; see everything by Twain, Franklin, Billings, Bierce and even Emily Dickinson. Indeed, aphorisms began long before literacy was common, as the world’s heritage of proverbs proves, so the form was ‘popular’ (i.e., accessible to and used by lots of people) from the very start. Though few people immediately recognize the term, aphorisms are in daily use by each and every one of us every single day. Some may be more ‘literary’ than others, but they are all aphorisms just the same.

If you’re interested in pursuing this line of argument further, I addressed this widespread and woefully mistaken opinion about aphorisms in this blog post from August. You can also watch this clip from the first (and so far only) meeting of the World Aphorism Organization (WAO, pronounced WOW!) back in 2008 in which A.C. Grayling, John Lloyd and myself debate whether the aphorism is an elitist craft or fit for the masses. (Thanks once again to that perspicacious spotter of the proverbial Dave Lull, who alerted me to James Guida’s piece.)


6 Responses to “Confessions of an aphorism writer, by James Guida”

  1. Greg Linster on December 20th, 2012 12:00 am

    Long live the aphorism! Thanks for sharing this, James.

  2. Alfred Corn on December 20th, 2012 12:33 pm

    James, Guida’s article mentions “Aforistica,” the Italian website for aphorisms, and I wanted to alert you to the recent translation of mine into Italian there:

  3. marty rubin on December 23rd, 2012 5:40 am

    “La Rochefoucauld has become the archetype of the aphorist, but he is not really representative of the profession at all.” So true, James, and in more ways than one. Thanks for being a defender of the aphorism’s inexhaustible diversity.

  4. Jay Friedenberg on December 27th, 2012 8:42 pm

    Not too many people even know what an aphorism is. When people ask I tell them it is a philosophical statement like a quote or a proverb. I outline the differences between aphorisms and other similar literary forms in Appendix A of my new book “Aphorisms from A to Z: A User’s Guide to Life”. Adage, epigram and maxim are closest in meaning. Axiom derives from logic, dictum and precept from law. Those with religious roots include proverbs, koans and sutras. Ones from populist and political origins are phrase, motto, slogan and watchword.

    Check out my book. It is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and my website: Please feel free to write a review on Amazon!

  5. Bill Andrews on February 9th, 2013 4:06 pm

    It would be nice to be as certain about anything as this poet is about aphorisms.

  6. marty rubin on March 29th, 2013 8:37 pm

    The charm of the aphorism is the room it makes for inconsistency.

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