Short forms and aphorisms

‘Women are made to be loved, not understood’ said Oscar Wilde. In fact, it is one of a number of things Wilde – or his characters – had to say about women, along with, ‘There is nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman. It is a thing no married man knows anything about’ and ‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.’

Oscar Wilde (along with luminaries such as Nietzsche and Pope) was a master of the aphorism. Dr Ben Grant, a lecturer in English Literature at OUCDE, who has been studying aphorisms, says that misogyny is often a key characteristic of the form. ‘It seems that in itself – to be able to come up with these misogynistic aphorisms – was a sign of your mastery of the form.’ 

So, what exactly is an aphorism? While it’s true that most of us would recognise one if we saw it, a definition is hard to pin down. ‘The basic definition would be something short and pithy and memorable, and wise – usually with quite an enigmatic quality to it. Something that encapsulates the truth,’ he says.

That could perhaps apply to proverbs too, but the essential difference is that proverbs are anonymous, whereas aphorisms have an author. Sometimes an aphorism can pass into the language to the extent that we forget where it originated. Take ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’ suggests Dr Grant. It may sound like a proverb, but the words were originally written by Alexander Pope. 

Although the word itself derives from the Ancient Greek, aphorisms are found in many cultures. Dr Grant’s book, The Aphorism and Other Short Forms, takes a wide-ranging and scholarly look at the aphorism, including how it relates to other short forms such as the haiku, and at how it is used by authors as varied as La Rochefoucauld, Blake and Barthes. ‘Literature,’ Dr Grant notes in the book, ‘is a particularly fertile ground for aphorisms’. Statements such as Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ or Scarlett O’Hara’s ‘After all, tomorrow is another day’ have an aphoristic quality. ‘Aphorisms,’ he writes in the book, ‘are also at the heart of philosophical and religious texts, and we associate them with the names of the great sages and philosophers’. 

His aim in the book was to take ‘the essential attributes of the form and then each chapter looks at it from a different angle.’ So chapters have titles such as Brevity, Wisdom and Authority. One chapter, entitled Enigma and Paradox relates to the fact that often a good aphorism isn’t just witty, but contains a surprising or unexpected truth. Again, Wilde is the most noted exponent of this, with examples such as ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ or ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’
If the most famous aphorists are men, and the aphorism is a largely male form, where do women come in? Dr Grant argues that writers such as Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf sought to redefine the aphorism. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf made her famous observation: ‘Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.’

Dr Grant also mentions an example from Northanger Abbey, where Austen is amusingly satirical about the way the main character Catherine Morland regards herself as ‘in training for a heroine’ and so spends her time reading quotation books and memorising sayings such as ‘Many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its fragrance on the desert air.’ Austen herself wrote countless aphoristic sentences on the subject of relations between men and women, perhaps the most famous being, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’

The key feature of Austen’s aphorisms is their ironic tone, and Dr Grant believes that many of the best aphorisms are subversive, particularly in relation to the traditional wisdom of proverbs. Blake’s Proverbs of Hell are very interesting in this regard, he argues, because although they present themselves as proverbs, they subvert the proverbial saying. ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ is one of Blake’s, as is ‘If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.’

In the age of social media, do platforms like Twitter, which demand brevity, lend themselves to aphorism?  Dr Grant isn’t convinced. ‘Certainly there is brevity in Twitter and people circulate quotations and aphorisms on Twitter,’ he says. But he thinks that there is so much information trying to grab people’s attention that an aphorism can easily be swamped.  Paradoxically, the prevalence of the short form may lead to the disappearance of an aphorism’s defining quality. ‘How would an aphorism perform that subversive function today,’ Dr Grant asks, ‘when so much [of what is published] is short snippets of information?'


Find out more information on our website about Dr Ben Grant and his research and our courses in English Literature.

Published 11 July 2019