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.)