To revive the epigram in the age of tweets and texts is a Herculean undertaking. Working in the tradition of Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, and Joubert (with side trips from Confucius to Wilde), Thomas Farber brings a twenty-first-century sensibility to the literary miniature. His epigrams are not so much self-contained pearls as the knife-sharp shards of a shattered mirror—in which we make out the shapes of our selves not in the bits of glass but in the spaces between the fragments.
As epigrammatist, Tom Farber’s a doctor making house calls: checking on our human condition. In his black bag, stethoscope, tongue depressor, and reflex hammer for listening and testing. But also—for mercilessly amused diagnoses—scalpel, razor wire, and garrote. Each, handled deftly, not pain-free, but curative.
… does more than compact the world into the essence perceived by its idiosyncratic compositor. It also hints at an expansive hidden narrative of sex, death, joy and despair. In short, as the author presumably prefers all things, it may be an epigramasterpiece.
In short, what we need is more wit
Here is my ambit claim for the year: the public sphere would be smarter and more generous if we read more well-written aphorisms and epigrams - and read them well.
For example: ''His was the anger of those who feel entitled to understand.'' So writes author Thomas Farber in his forthcoming The End of my Wits. Perhaps Farber had a special twit in mind, but his phrase is an uncannily faithful portrait of at least half the internet.
Farber's words are uncanny, not because they are foreign, but because they are so familiar: as if I wrote them myself. In 11 words, he has distilled the currents of a thousand murky online moors into a peaty single malt.
In this, Farber is displaying true wit, as defined by the poet Alexander Pope: ''Nature to advantage dress'd/ What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.'' [Pope was himself the poetic couturier to the 18th-century English.]
But Farber is also, in his epigrammatic style, demonstrating what is missing from so many shoddy internet arguments: precision, patience, doubt. In other words: skill, and the virtues to use it well.
For many, reader responses to news and opinion are part of a democratisation of information and literacy; a freeing-up of the public sphere. And, along with social media such as Twitter, reader comments, videos, blogs and other user content have allowed more voices to be heard.
But all too often these contributions are hasty, narrow or downright cruel. Short, snarky online comments to newspaper columns, for example, are rarely pithy or cleverly provocative. The antithesis of a good epigram, they are written and submitted before reflection, and that hallmark of good writing: editing.
Common to many snippy replies or grandstanding rants is the same anger Farber noted: of those who believe they deserve to comprehend an argument. Not that they might work harder to clarify their own ideas, or better see others; not that they may have imperfect rationality and insufficient goodwill. No, they are perfect, and simply have to put their infallible character into (unenviable) prose.
In this, the epigram, aphorism or quip is an antidote to modern snark. Partly because it requires craft: the serious play of mastering language. But also because it invites serious thought and feeling.
Yes, there is a playfulness to aphorism, which continues from 17th-century France, to the modern German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to contemporary epigrammatists such as Farber.
Take this, from Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld: ''Old men delight in giving good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples.'' Good fun.
But a sportive phrase is not necessarily a throwaway one; brevity does not equal triviality. The simplicity of the phrases belie their intricacy and nuance. ''[To] connect the dots - to unpack meaning - the reader,'' writes Farber, ''would have to be alert, rethink or reread a line that had seemed to require only an instant.'' The aphorism or epigram can be an invitation to read carefully, think judiciously, and sympathise more courageously.
Not everyone will take up this invitation, of course. No work of writing is a straightforward cure for anything, because the work of reading is itself part of the remedy.
But in an era characterised by equal portions of information and narcissism, these small phrases are a chance to overcome our own pettiness; to give attention, intelligence and emotional maturity to someone's well-crafted words.
We are not simply entitled to understand, or to be understood. Understanding this point, though, is a good start.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and author.
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/in-short-what-we-need-is-more-wit-20130422-2iasq.html
A Hostile Act: “A Man and An Epigram Walk Into a Bar,” by Laura Glen Louis
I don’t remember what I was working on when Tom Farber asked if I would write the Afterword to his protean collection of epigrams, The End of My Wits (Andrea Young Arts/El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), but I’m sure it was very important since I told him I didn’t even want to consider it for another two weeks. No pressure. You may not like it. It’s a lot to take on — five previous volumes, twenty years of labor, amusement, mania, of staring into the bowels of human foibles, with passion, with utter clarity, with wit to sheer off the top of your brain — now collected into a snug four hundred pages. How many ways can this book give pause? — Line by line.
Two weeks to the day, Tom delivers the ms. The deadline? One month. I stare across the chill. What’s in it for me? I couldn’t believe I said that. You know, nice Chinese girl, blah, blah. But, this was a high stakes conversation. Stark.
Tom knows I’m slow. That’s probably why he set limits. Publisher, printer deadlines. Do you believe him? Neither did I. Because it was not like Tom to wait till the last minute. Which then begged the question, who else had been asked, had politely declined? Whatever reason Tom had, the only one that made sense was that I was the busiest person he knew.
Besides the aforementioned, so-important-project I can no longer recall, I had another deadline: I was going to Texas in October, to see art. To see the Lucian Freud retrospective at The Modern. Do not shake your head unless you know something I don’t. Michael Auping, The Modern’s curator, had the audacity, the vision to fly to London and persuade Freud to bring the retrospective to The Modern in Ft. Worth, as the only US venue that “could do it justice.”
But, Tom. Epigrams. Tom gave me an out: I’ll take a blurb. If you were to quote a few epigrams, which they would be? I didn’t see that as an out. Can any writer of conscience write a blurbwithout reading the whole book? Can we distill that rich experience into a quintessential line ortwo without mulling that experience over for at least two or three times the hours or days we putinto reading it? But, wise Tom, in giving me room to say no, over and again, he made it easier forme to say yes.
I started marking my favorite of the epigrams, trying not to choke on my sandwich as one amusement after another danced across my line of sight. Two weeks in, I realized I had better start even though I was only halfway through the book. Reading the piths ten, twenty at a time was mania. His mania fed my mania. I wrote non-stop for ten days, continuing to read as I bricked one idea over another, hoping my arguments would achieve some modest structure. I broke for dinner, to swim, to sing, to see friends, but always rushed home to work. I lived and breathed that book for a month. The essay could have become a dissertation. Now comes the irony: I had spent my undergraduate years avoiding writing any sort of paper. I even got away with it. A work of analysis was, I felt, not mine to give.
Joan Didion in The Paris Review interview says about writing that it’s a hostile act. “The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to [her] dream.” It’s a high wire act of persuasion.
Tom’s book? A hostile act. My essay on same? A hostile act. Michael Auping flying to London for an audience with Lucian Freud? A hostile act.
The Who: Thomas Farber. The What: The End of My Wits (so many ways to read that line), from which comes: “Sex, what puts you in contact with people you might otherwise never know.” The How? A lifetime of compression, of poetic attention to the essential, and only the essential. As for the Where and When, see below.
Laura’s “A Man and an Epigram” is the Afterword to The End of My Wits, by Thomas Farber. Michigan Quarterly Review published it online.
Thomas Farber reads
Thomas Farber: Briefs read fast, but are profound
In his 1998 "Compressions: A Second Helping," Thomas Farber describes his epigrammatic writing as "using the enchantment of language to express ... aspects of disenchantment, brief briefs about or against what we profess to hold to be true." Author of more than 20 books of fiction, nonfiction, and writing on photography, Farber recently published his fourth book of epigrams in as many years, "The End of My Wits," and will celebrate the release with a reading Thursday at Mrs. Dalloway's.
A senior lecturer in UC Berkeley's English department, Farber has received much praise for his work, including three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts - for both fiction and nonfiction - and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In Farber's "Foregone Conclusions" (2011), each page has only one epigram, which invites the reader to stop and ponder its implications. The result is a sort of rush, covert osmosis: Though you will find yourself turning the pages faster than you would those of nearly any other book, the lines retain their effects and may linger far longer.
Perhaps that's what Farber means by the title of "The End of My Wits," where the author leaves off and we are to meet him.
Hearing rather than reading such a collection of mostly one-liners is at once more challenging and fun: The words don't have as much time to sink in, but the barrage of them is appropriately acute and offers an enlightening disorientation.