In these hot days of August, who has energy for anything, including reading? Well, there’s "beach reading" of course, but that’s just the point. People can be induced to read books (novels mostly) that don’t burn up the little gray cells, but if I might hazard a guess, you won’t find many beachcombers reading Kant’s Prolegomena to a Future Metaphysics of Morals . Dick Francis or Elmore Leonard, yes¯but please, hold the Hegel.
Yet I find even police procedurals or Hollywood biographies too taxing in the humidity of August¯and I’ll skip all those books on global warming as well, if you don’t mind. I can maybe take a classroom lecture from Al Gore on our overheating planet in September, when my students have to put up with my own boring lectures. But not in August, please.
Speaking just for myself, about all I can handle in late summer are collections of aphorisms, those M&M’s for the brain. Of course, like a jar of jelly beans atop the conference table, or a bowl of peanuts on the bar during Happy Hour, a few nibbles from the aphorism jar go a long way. Consume too many of these aphorisms in one sitting and you find you’re eating not soul food but junk food.
Still, just a few aphorisms from a master can satisfy for days and get you thinking about the world in ways that a full-scale book could never get you to do. Most of Nietzsche’s books, for example, are lengthy strings of aphorisms. Not suitable for the beach to be sure, but oddly powerful in the way they force the reader to look at life in a new way.
Outside Nietzsche’s example, probably the only writer who managed to gain a hearing solely through the gnomic utterance of the aphorism pure and simple was the lugubrious Franco-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran (see the discussion of Cioran by Zbigniew Janowski in the February issue of First Things ), a chronic insomniac who apparently had no energy left during the day but to write down his mordant observations in lines that rarely exceed three or four sentences. Here are some of my favorites, all dealing with the decadence of European civilization and all from his aptly titled book The Trouble with Being Born :
•All these nations [of the West] were great because they had great prejudices. They now have none. Are they nations still? At most, disintegrated crowds.
•The white race increasingly deserves the name given it by the American Indians: palefaces .
•Progress is the injustice that each generation commits with regard to its predecessor.
I never know what to do with these aphorisms, and August is certainly not the time to work out a philosophy based on them¯or in reaction to them. But they get me thinking. In the case of the three quoted above, my thought is simply this: Has Cioran accidentally stumbled upon the reason why the perfectly sensible cause of human rights has gradually morphed into its own secular religion? Just a thought.
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