Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Writing maxims

Barthes on maxims:
An aphoristic tone hangs about this book (we, one, always). Now the maxim is compromised in an essentialist notion of human nature, it is linked to classical ideology: it is the most arrogant (often the stupidest) of the forms of language. Why then not reject it? The reason is, as always, emotive: I write maxims (or I sketch their movement) in order to reassure myself: when some disturbance arises, I attenuate it by confiding myself to a fixity which exceeds my powers: "Actually, it's always like that": and the maxim is born. The maxim is a sort of sentence-name, and to name is to pacify. Moreover, this too is a maxim: it attenuates my fear of seeking extravagance by writing maxims
Aphorism as joke (one that I wish I had written myself, only I have no gift for jokes, though I can write funny sentences--but they are funny because of surprise, momentum, hyperbole, not because of the structural things that make jokes work), from Roger Smith's essay "The Language of Human Nature" (in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains): "Quoting references to human nature in the eighteenth century is a bit like quoting references to God in the Bible."

I have a longstanding fascination with aphorisms--I love reading them (La Rochefoucauld, Blake, Wittgenstein, Kafka, etc.)--and I am interested in what it takes to write them. A long time ago when I was first teaching I had a funny writing exercise I gave my students which involved reading a lot of different kinds of aphorism and then asking them to write ones of their own, in different styles--the results were both amusing and fascinating--I do think that literature classes might make more use of learning about forms from the inside out, as it were...

("As it were" is a highly aphoristic verbal signal!)

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