Death by aphorism

January 16, 2023 Comments Off on Death by aphorism

I read a book of short stories last year by Denis Johnson and they were first rate, especially the one about the guy with the knife stuck in his eye. For Christmas I received one of his novels, “Tree of Smoke,” a literary compendium on acid of The Things They Carried, The Eye of the Needle, The Winds of War, Heart of Darkness, The Naked and the Dead, and A Farewell to Arms, all built on a cockeyed skeleton resembling what Gravity’s Rainbow would have looked like if it had been written in monosyllables.

So I looked up Denis Johnson on the Wikipedia and he had the best recommendation a very good writer can have, that is, he was dead, and more than that, the fact that he had distilled the craft of writing into three aphorisms:

  1. Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
  2. Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
  3. Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Now there is a lot to complain about in that short list, not least of which is that it should have simply been “Write naked, in blood, in exile,” and then you let the reader figure it out. There are other problems, too, like inconsistent form. The first two rules are two sentences each, the third one a single line. Maybe I could also point out that the explanations for #1 and #2 are incomplete sentences, and that in #3 he probably should have said “recall” instead of “call back.”

These pithy aphorisms also suffer from being fake and wrong. No one writes what they would never say, especially him. Writing improves not when you write what you’d never say, but when you write what other people would never say. Unfortunately, with the Internet, well, everything unutterable has already been said unless you’re on Twitter, where everything loathsome gets said over and over, mostly by the same people.

“Write in blood” is also silly since we write with a computer instead of a pen. Nothing is cheaper or worth less than computer ink and no one ever can or ever will treat type as if it’s rare like blood. It would make sense to say “Write less!” and leave it at that, but since Johnson’s big novel “Tree of Smoke” broke the book binding at over 700 pages, it’s for sure one of those injunctions honored in the breach. If economy is the soul of literature, Denis Johnson’s opus was pulp fiction.

The third commandment, “Write in exile,” is unclear even on the sunniest of days. So what if you’re never going to get home again? Don’t we have iPhones, Facetime, Facebook, Google images, and mega-ultra-terabytes of memory at the squelch of a haptic? And what does it even mean? That writing should be fine-grained with the recall of every detail? Doesn’t that cancel out commandment #2?

It’s a silly little exercise, Johnson’s crash course on how to write greatly, but it catches your attention the first time around because it’s wisdom wrapped up in a Pithy McNugget, something that you can remember, chew over like a chunk of long-boiled fat sliced from a pork shoulder, and somehow feel mentally nourished, never mind that it’s nothing more than a spoonful of literary white sugar. This is the magic of the aphorism, appearing to hold truth but in fact only saving you the trouble of having to chew through ten miles of shit for a fractal of wisdom.

Back in the day when everybody died, sayings and pithy folk wisdom were a kind of icing on the bitter cake of life. People experienced and observed much, with little time to watch it on YouTube a thousand years ago, and since the end was certain and coming soon, if it hadn’t already happened, concise summaries helped you avoid making mistakes until after you’d already made them as opposed to now, when the aphorism helps you avoid making mistakes in a life you never intend to actually go outdoors and live. In short, the aphorism was the domain of the old and wise, those who had seen a lot of life, which is to say they’d made it to their mid-30’s.

The wise sayings of yore remain but they are pearls before swine, which is why we forget them as soon as we hear them. Who needs the wisdom of generations when all we do anyway is look at a screen, buy some useless shit with a credit card, and then slow-roast our bodies and brains in a retirement community prior to being poured into a nursing home?

Yet the urge to sum everything up so that you don’t have to actually learn anything yourself remains, and the aphorism has adapted to the Internet and mushroomed in the form of the listicle, a bastardization of the process that began with writing itself and that led to analysis, that odd form of human behavior in which we vainly try to explain what it is that we see. Having neither the efficiency of the list nor the insight of analysis, the listicle is a kind of aphorism with lipstick, a gussied up slug of faux knowledge/wisdom/insight/truth that makes you think you’ve actually read something, digested it, shit out the chaff, and meaningfully internalized what you just read.

It’s easy to curse the listicle as a kind of digital intellectual piracy where complex concepts are boarded, raped, held hostage, or thrown overboard in the process of acute oversimplification, but in fact the listicle is the least of our worries, if it’s even a worry at all. You see, our brains crave data yet they also crave efficiency. We’ll cruise through 500-600 hours per year of news because it’s so empty and easy to understand, rather than spend 30-50 hours reading, say, Foucault’s “The Order of Things,” even though that particular book will radically expand your ability to understand, classify, and sort through everything else.

In the past, whenever that was, people had to choose between some form of intellectual effort and not having access to data. For example, “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens, now considered a rather difficult literary read and consigned to obscure college course syllabi, was first published serially in the newspaper, and by the final installment was selling 40,000 copies. In order to access the data, you had to know how to read and you had to know how to follow an extended written train of thought. It sounds simple, but Twitter and the listicle prove that this basic skill is anything but. Moreover, in Dickens’s day, the readership consisted of largely “uneducated” people, those who’d never had formal schooling yet had acquired the ability to read easily what we now consider high literature–and clamor for more.

Nor was this a one-off. When Lincoln and Douglas had their seminal debates, each clash was reproduced in the newspaper and avidly read, dissected, discussed, and argued about by a populace that by today’s standards was wholly uneducated. The first debate? Over 16,000 words long, no lists, no video, no photos, and no summary on Twitter. Like the Pickwick Papers, today no one reads these debates unless it’s their job, or something close to it.

It’s not that people are lazier, dumber, and more willfully ignorant than they used to be: that point has been argued and conclusively proven for decades. It’s that information ever more closely resembles the medium, and the medium becomes the message, with a twist. The message doesn’t become the medium of Twitter, YouTube, or the listicle, the message becomes the underlying medium, which is simply a series of 1’s and 0’s. The stark simplicity of digital media conspires with efficiency, laziness, and stupidity to reduce every message to its absolute simplest construction. That’s why the inanity of Twitter is the new high priest of information. Nothing is so complex, abstract, or evolved that it can’t be explained, debated, an analyzed in 280 characters.

And don’t think, not for a second, that this represents the endpoint. Aphoristic thought reduced to digital media will eventually boil down to far fewer than 280 characters. We’re only a couple of decades away from being able to compress written messages into only a handful of symbols. How do I know? Well, if you’d told Chaucer that all human thought could be reduced to “1” and “0” he would have scoffed, even though he was the guy who invented the word “algorithm.”

But why not? Energy has a limit, but sloth does not. Efficiency always trends towards zero because the most efficient action is no action at all.

Write naked, in blood, in exile. Or in a 700-page book. As the Old Dogs say in “You’re Still Gonna Die,” which is still the best country music tune ever, “Eventually the story ends … the same.”


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