I find myself thinking a great deal lately about Mary Svevo, the character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind who has had her memory erased but who loves quotations. She rattles off lines from Bartlett’s compendium when she has nothing else to say. These quotations cling to her cortex, forming a bridge between confusion and clarity. By repeating the wisdom of others, she manages to reconstitute some sense of holistic identity. Everyone in the film believes that her obsession is silly; but is it? A mind in need of answers seeks them out in small kernels that it can repeat, build upon, and constitute itself around.
The technical definition of an aphorism is a “pithy observation that contains a general truth,” and it is the pith that gets us more than the truth; it is the tone that seals the writer to the words. The voices of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker and Benjamin Franklin still feel electrically alive to us because they managed to bake their personas into their brief observations. While proverbs and adages (cousins of the aphorism, to be sure) often lose their authorship and become orphaned—think about how many times someone has mentioned “an old Irish saying” without knowing anything about its actual provenance—aphorisms stay tethered to their creators, dragging their voices along through history.
Aphorisms are linguistic memes. They were, in essence, an attempt by Greek philosophers to go viral 2,500 years before the internet existed. Hippocrates, who is credited with originating the genre, understood that his best hope for immortality would be to fling self-contained thoughts into the future, little literary vessels that could travel independently across borders and generations. Aphorisms migrate to places where bigger books cannot, and most stay more or less intact over time.
300 Arguments, a collection of new aphorisms by the essayist Sarah Manguso, performs much of the same feat: Manguso ties her eccentricities to brief statements that are intended to outlive her. Her book is only 90 pages long, and can be digested in a single sitting, but it also beckons the reader to return, to read a sentence, and put it down again. Each argument is meant to stand alone, yet there is an arc: This is a woman grappling with heartbreak and ambition and deception and through it all, questioning her own decision to write so concisely. Are such small writings enough? Perhaps she is demonstrating that despite her inner emotional turmoil, she is able to exercise some level of control over her prose. Perhaps it is about mastery over chaos and how to find it—harness the lines first and then the self.
The aphorism has come back into vogue, or at least into the cultural conversation, because we are currently enmeshed in short-form writing, which is flourishing on Twitter and in the proliferation of political sound bites, both true and false. We are engaged in big cultural battles for truth and where to find it, and we are all searching for verified phrases that we can repeat over and over in order to maintain a sense of sanity as facts shift beneath our feet.
Some of Manguso’s arguments are only one sentence long, and these read like ancient koans. “Vices have much in common with their corresponding virtues,” “People congregate according to their relative levels of luck,” “Happiness begins to deteriorate once it is named,” “Worry is impatience for the next horror.” These statements feel like they have maybe always existed; like they came from an oracle. What makes Manguso’s book feel so surprising, however, is that she quickly veers away from these more decisive observations into idiosyncratic personal memories: “I fret about my lost scarf. Then I miss my flight. The scarf is no longer a problem.” Or: “I’ve taken on bad habits in order to grow closer to certain others—watching an inane television show, playing a video game, drinking. The habits lasted, but I never minded because they weren’t mine. They were just affectations of other people’s.”
Manguso is not on Twitter, and this is a conscious choice. As she wrote in an essay in Harper’s last year, “The brevity of fragments, scraps, the collective brain lint of the internet, is one thing; the brevity of the best aphorisms, which are complete in themselves, quite another.” Twitter was perhaps intended to foster lucid nuggets, our best selves boiled down, but sometimes it can feel like a jumble of incomplete thoughts by incomplete souls. Which, of course, we all are. Faced with the 140-character container, which is inherently social but also fragmented, Manguso chooses an alternate form that is, as she puts it, more complete.
Some may see this as a turning away from the world—a cloistering of the self—but I see it as Manguso’s attempt to communicate with her readers outside of the chattering and often heart-numbing melee of the web. 300 Arguments is one of many short, intensely personal works by women that have in recent years blurred the boundaries between poetry and prose—Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me come to mind. The phenomenon of women writing in short form is not new: The remaining fragments of Sappho’s works show that she wrote brief odes, built to travel the seas of time. But this new crop of writers brings to the form an unusual urgency and density. Their works are short but saturated with research and references and layers of experience. In Bluets, Nelson chronicles her descent into madness following a breakup by charting the aesthetic and literary history of the color blue, which she has become fixated on as a palliative idea. In Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit weaves her own stories of being talked down to by pedantic men with stories from myth, the scandal around Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the words of Virginia Woolf.
These are expansive narratives, but ones that take place inside compact vessels. It is as if these writers feel they need to pack as much into as little space as possible. It can be powerful to grab a form of condensed wisdom—one that is, however, often full of cliché—and attempt to infuse it with a new resonance and weirdness, with something human and desperate.
“A fair number of aphorisms seek to justify or explain the form itself,” Manguso observes in her Harper’s essay, defending her preference for the short. She notes throughout that concision has been her obsession since she was a child; she has always been preoccupied with cutting the fat. Yet she also acknowledges this need to pare down has been the cause of her anxieties and depressions. “I used to write these while playing hooky on what I hoped would be my magnum opus,” she writes. “Assigning myself to write 300 of them was like forcing myself to chain-smoke until I puked, but it didn’t work. I didn’t puke.” Her arguments, which are crystalline and often walloping, were not meant to be Manguso’s great work. She thought her calling was elsewhere, and these were just distractions.
But what if the small work is the great work? As Manguso writes, “I’m weary of the American idea that unless one is reaching toward the next, greater goal, one is effectively choosing failure. This cultural pressure to think big—to equate size with ambition—is especially burdensome for writers who cannot follow, or choose not to follow, in the footsteps of Great Men.” This is not to say that Manguso— and Nelson, and Solnit, and writers of their ilk—are not writers of tremendous ambition; there is ambition leaking out of every page of 300 Arguments. But it is this ceaseless desire to be great, to reach the other shore, that keeps us ceaselessly borne back. It is a very individualist and deeply ingrained cultural desire, this need to capture the entire world in a book, to straddle it with one’s words.
Manguso is, instead, a memoirist who works in miniature. Before 300 Arguments, she wrote four much-admired short books about segments of her life, including The Two Kinds of Decay, which explored her years-long battle with a debilitating autoimmune disorder, and Ongoingness, the story of the journals she has kept for years. Compulsively recording her experiences in a diary became an unmooring compulsion, but the book itself rescues aphoristic fragments from the whole. In it, she writes looping, cryptic sentences such as, “I reread my favorite books to make sure they’re still perfect, but rereading them wears away at their perfection.” She is always mining her own experiences for material, but she is not confessional; she uses terseness and brevity as weapons. If no word is out of place, then it is much more difficult to question or undermine her truth.
If there is any point at which I bristle at Manguso’s lifelong enthusiasm with being brief, it is that she regularly equates excess with vulgarity. She talks often about “rescuing sentences” from bloated books, and refers to her own project as “a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” There is a romance in this—the perfect book, with no gristle on it—but also it implies that there is something obscene about writers who choose to give in to their hunger and go long on a subject. It can be daunting to read a book like Manguso’s, because you walk away from it thinking, I am almost certainly doing too much.
Manguso’s need to write short has sharpened her lines into diamonds, but it has also driven her slightly mad, and it has caused her to perseverate over words to the detriment of her happiness and, as she admits, her health. These arguments are forged out of hard work and sustained effort, and also out of pain. It is impossible to read them without feeling for her; for what it took to write on such a tight leash.