This should be the golden age of the aphorism. Constrained as we all are by time, attention and social media platform character limits, when we pull out our smartphones and stare into their illuminated fields we can take in only so much. Shouldn’t those words be perfectly chosen to vibrate with hidden meanings?
An aphorism has a way of bending you to its hidden truth, changing your way of thinking not with a 20-page document of well-reasoned arguments, but with just a sentence or two. The Roman Stoics used aphorisms to build fortitude. Consider Marcus Aurelius: “No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” Or Seneca: “He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a man who is alive.”
These are things you can imagine guys in the gym muttering between gritted teeth as they watch themselves flex in the mirror. These are mantras, or aspirational sayings, and repeated enough you could make yourself believe them. Zen monks used koans to bring clarity through confusion. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” someone asks you, to be a jerk. You laugh it off. But then as you walk down the noisy streets, as you try to find strawberry jam in the supermarket, as you wash your dishes, you wonder. You try it out, slapping your hand against the air. What is the sound, what is the sound. Philosophers like Simone Weil, E.M. Cioran and Friedrich Nietzsche used the aphorism to reveal deep truths. Weil’s Gravity and Grace is a series of bite-size meditations on the workings of humanity, God and the universe, doling out insights like, “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise,” which could be a warning against false seers, advice to a woman who keeps believing her lover will leave his wife or a tweet aimed at those who wholeheartedly thought Robert Mueller was going to save us from the Trump presidency.
Wits like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde used short bon mots to slice open our social ills, personal despair and sexual politics. “Beauty is only skin deep,” Parker said, “but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
Poetry already has much in common with the aphorism, using structure, rhythm and metaphor to say something essential in a deceptively simple way. But somewhere along that road with the Instapoets, aphorism got confused with affirmation.
Who are the aphorists today? Many have tried to fill that role, maybe none harder than the so-called Instapoets who publish ultrashort, free-form poems on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
Poetry already has much in common with the aphorism, using structure, rhythm and metaphor to say something essential in a deceptively simple way. But somewhere along that road with the Instapoets, aphorism got confused with affirmation — those things you tape onto your mirror to remind yourself not to text your ex. The purpose of the aphorism is to bring unexpected perspective. The affirmation, however, only reinforces what we think we already know.
Rupi Kaur is the queen of such writers. She is one of the best-selling poets of our moment.
“I do not need the kind of love / that is draining,” she wrote in a 2017 poem. “I want someone / who energises me.”
Or consider her fellow Instapoet Atticus, who wrote, “you are in everything / I see.” Nothing troubles us quite like love. But this poetry just tells us, “Yeah, love is great, we should find some,” rather than testing our assumption that we need it.
The book that marked our entry into the age of the aphorism, and not in a great way, was David Shields’ Reality Hunger, a 2010 collection of age-old aphorisms, inspirational quotes seemingly cribbed from Reader’s Digest and sentimental scribbles from Shields himself, all tossed together without attribution. Did Shields write it? Did Emily Dickinson? Who can tell? (You can tell.)
But for all its shortcomings, Shields’ book anticipated how quotes would get misattributed or passed around without attribution all the time on social media. Just type it in a script-y font, slap it over a sunset and post it on your feed. It doesn’t matter if you confuse Sun Tzu with Coco Chanel, or Coco Chanel with Abraham Lincoln. The core meaning won’t change. And we get to pretend that we sifted through the coal mines of a writer’s oeuvre to find this shining diamond, that we live by this undeniable truth.
The only true aphorist
Perhaps the aphoristic writer for our age is Susan Sontag, who wrote essays, not aphorisms, but whose work has been thinly sliced into out-of-context quotations. Each of her sentences rings as a proclamation, fooling us into thinking all of them can stand alone. “Today everything exists to end in a photograph” — people place that quotation of hers under their selfies, photos of cupcakes and sunsets, portraits of Sontag herself. Read this way, Sontag becomes less of an intellectual and more of a motivational speaker. On the website Brain Pickings, which “curates” content from writers and philosophers you don’t have time to read, you used to be able to buy a poster of Sontag’s “most poignant, most private meditations on love,” things like: “Being in love means being willing to ruin yourself for the other person.” That’s the stumble between inspirational quotation and aphorism. When you reach for an idea that can speak to everyone, something truly universal that reaches across time and language, you end up with a greeting card
The only true aphorist of our time, I contend, is Dril. Dril is an anonymous writer behind a Twitter account (@dril) that uses absurdity to speak to how completely online we all are now. Dril’s tweets, brief and usually scattered with intentional typos and profanity, reveal something about the online human condition that no one else has been able to so deftly capture. And in true universal form, Dril’s posts are redistributed in response to every new psychotic online phenomenon, from President Donald Trump’s tweets (“and another thing: im not mad. please dont put in the newspaper that i got mad.”) to anti-vaxxers and red pillers (“oh, youvve read a few academic papers on the matter? cute. i have read over 100000 posts.”) to the new art of the public apology (“issuing correction on a previous post of mine, regarding the terror group Daesh. you do not, under any circumstances, ‘gotta hand it to them’”).
With our highly divided attention, it is perhaps only humour that can provide us with a moment to pause and reflect, making Dril the philosopher we most need now, even if we don’t deserve him or her. You know what they say: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
George Bernard Shaw said that. Or maybe it was Franklin Roosevelt. Does it matter?
Jessa Crispin is the host of the podcast “Public Intellectual” and the author of “The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries.”