The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel


Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is also much more. In this exploration of the shortest literary works- wise sayings, proverbs, witticisms, sardonic observations about human nature, pithy evocations of mystery, terse statements regarding ultimate questions- Gary Saul Morson argues passionately for the importance of these short genres not only to scholars but also to general readers.

We are fascinated by how brief works evoke a powerful sense of life in a few words, which is why we browse quotation anthologies and love to repeat our favorites. Arguing that all short genres are short in their own way, Morson explores the unique form of brevity that each of them develops. Apothegms (Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, Wittgenstein) describe the universe as ultimately unknowable, offering not answers but ever deeper questions. Dicta (Spinoza, Marx, Freud) create the sense that unsolvable enigmas have at last been resolved. Sayings from sages and sacred texts assure us that goodness is rewarded, while sardonic maxims (Ecclesiastes, Nietzsche, George Eliot) uncover the self-deceptions behind such comforting illusions. Just as witticisms display the power of mind, "witlessisms" (William Spooner, Dan Quayle, the persona assumed by Mark Twain) astonish with their spectacular stupidity.

Nothing seems further from these short works than novels and epics, but the shortest genres often set the tone for longer ones, which, in turn, contain brilliant examples of short forms. Morson shows that short genres contribute important insights into the history of literature and philosophical thought. Once we grasp the role of aphorisms in Herodotus, Samuel Johnson, Dostoevsky, and even Tolstoy, we see their masterpieces in an entirely new light.


“All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy’s famous aphorism has long led a double life. Those who have read Anna Karenina remember it as the opening sentence of a great novel about love and families. But many who could not locate its source still recognize the line.

We all know countless aphorisms or famous short expressions of various sorts: ringing pronouncements, dark sayings, witticisms, maxims, proverbs, and many more. We browse anthologies and encyclopedias in search of them. We repeat witty responses made on the spur of the moment by Churchill, Shaw, or Dorothy Parker. Conservatives cite the wisdom of Burke and Hayek, liberals know inspiring lines of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and radicals can quote Marx and Engels. Graduate students in literature acquire famous sayings by Nietzsche, Freud, Derrida, and others, while philosophers learn to recognize the best-known aphorisms from Wittgenstein. People who rarely read long books, or even short stories, still appreciate the greatest examples of the shortest literary genres.

I have long been fascinated by these short genres. They seem to lie just where my heart is, somewhere between literature and philosophy. It may seem odd that someone could have written a book on War and Peace and yet be fascinated by the shortest literary genres, often no longer than a line. But both great philosophical novels and aphorisms work simultaneously as literature and philosophy, and each demands both literary and philosophical analysis to . . .

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