Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In praise of epigrams and aphorisms

La Rochefoucauld: "People who are
conceited of their own merit take
pride in  being unfortunate, that
they themselves and others may think
them considerable enough to be the
envy and the mark of fortune."
My Canberra Times column ran today, 'In short, what we need is more wit'.

It was prompted by Tom Farber's excellent collection of epigrams, quips and wordplays, The End of My Wits, coming out on 25th June with Andrea Young Arts/El Leon Literary Arts.

I'm defending the humble epigram as a striking invitation to stop, read, think and feel. A sample:
There is a playfulness to aphorism, which continues from 17th-century France, to the modern German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to contemporary epigrammatists such as Farber. 
Take this, from Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld: ''Old men delight in giving good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples.'' Good fun. 
But a sportive phrase is not necessarily a throwaway one; brevity does not equal triviality. The simplicity of the phrases belie their intricacy and nuance. ''[To] connect the dots - to unpack meaning - the reader,'' writes Farber, ''would have to be alert, rethink or reread a line that had seemed to require only an instant.'' The aphorism or epigram can be an invitation to read carefully, think judiciously, and sympathise more courageously. 
Not everyone will take up this invitation, of course. No work of writing is a straightforward cure for anything, because the work of reading is itself part of the remedy. 
But in an era characterised by equal portions of information and narcissism, these small phrases are a chance to overcome our own pettiness; to give attention, intelligence and emotional maturity to someone's well-crafted words.
(Image: Théodore Chassériau, at Versailles)

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