“There are writers who can express in a mere twenty pages things I sometimes need two whole lines
“For little minds have a terrible dexterity in recognizing in a dictum of richest profoundness nothing
but their own ordinary opinion”.
“The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.”
“….and I kept on stating aphorisms where I was expected to expose affairs.”
Proof of a good aphorism lies in it being widely considered smoke and mirrors, especially in
circles that perceive themselves as intellectual. They might surround its spirit yet approach nowhere
near it. And how could they, the way they enslave language for the digging of trenches instead of
trusting in its true vocation: as a precise guide to the realm of the spirit!
It is not accidental that antipathy towards aphorisms directly corresponds with willful ignorance
of Karl Kraus’s understanding of language. Even confessed fans of Kraus belittle his weakness for the
aphorism as a youthful sin, from which, as he matured, he had weaned himself by World War I. But he
who doesn’t understand the aphoristic Kraus understands little of Kraus altogether!
True to its essence, the aphorism — that “smallest possible whole” as Robert Musil called it —
resists a clear definition. Whether bloated to a short essay or shrunk to an elliptic one-liner, whether
surprising with conciseness or spellbinding with iridescent linguistic playfulness, its underlying
characteristic is its consummately pointed compression of form and content. Ideally, it is a living and
breathing organic system where even tone of voice and cadence carry meaning, and where ambiguity,
exaggeration, wit, allegory, and paradox entangle and interweave, reinforcing each other in a
cornucopia of colors which must remain starkly gray to all who are beholden to binary thinking and
who treat language as a mere means by which to sum up the pros and cons of an argument.
To state in the aphorism’s defense the obvious fact that, just like every other literary genre,
aphorisms come in all possible degrees of quality — from corny calendar slogans to expressions of
keenest wit — is beside the point and beyond the call of duty. Those who are standoffish about the
aphorism will never see more than the old saw in it. Since language, for them, is merely a prefabricated
modular design kit for serving causes, they are constitutionally incapable of seeing the difference
between frippery and brilliance.
And totally beyond the pale of their comprehension is the power of the artful aphorism to
express several meanings simultaneously without drifting into arbitrariness. It is neither a statement of
evident truth nor an expression of obliging opinion, but condensed antinomic reasoning which
purposely eludes analytical explanation. “An aphorism”, aphorises Kraus, “doesn’t have to be true, but
it should outfly the truth. It has to go beyond it in one fell swoop, in one single turn of phrase.”
This surplus of truth, however, is seen as a deficit by those taxonomists who chalk up to
seriousness their own inability to make thoughts sparkle and who are at odds with the ability to distill
truth into a shot glass, since their own publishing careers are based on watering it down by the barrel.
But “He who knows how to write aphorisms”, according to Kraus “should not dissipate himself in
Aphoristic thinking will always remain as alien to certain types of people as the art of seduction
is to the rapist. To old-guard rationalists, for example, who excise aphorisms from the school
curriculum because they can’t be scientifically proven. Or to their now extinct subgroup, the vulgar-
Marxists, who related to language as if to a herd of cattle that had to be requisitioned for the revolution.
Or inhabitants of certain Central European regions who consider the evasively ambiguous playfulness
of aphoristic language a threat to either their Alpine simplicity or their bureaucratic need for
orderliness. The accomplished aphorism, however, results from analytical thought of the highest
concentration. Unlike free-associative play with language, here logic has to be grasped before it can be
stood on its head.
All the less so can the aphorism be dissected on a flip chart or shown on an overhead
transparency. To compel the aphorist to explain the meaning of his aphorisms is like demanding the
public vivisection of one’s own children. Those who don’t understand aphorisms will always consider
them nothing but narcissistic bluffing.
The best aphorisms were penned by La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, Goethe, Schopenhauer,
Nietzsche, Nestroy, Jonathan Swift, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde and Adorno — possibly the sharpest
yet most earnest of the aphorists. He denies himself the wit which Karl Kraus, as a bridge between him
and Oscar Wilde, enlists at all barrel sizes in the service of his social criticism.
Helmuth Arntzen tried in one of his articles to contrast Kraus’s aphoristic output with the mere
“playful paradoxes” of people like Oscar Wilde. Not completely without merit, for nobody had
condemned punning for the mere purpose of amusement more definitively than Karl Kraus:
“…..whoever can be said to have sacrificed an insight for a whim was of a disposition as bad as the
witticism…” However, “A pun, though despicable in itself, can be the noblest vehicle of an artistic
intention by serving as the abbreviation of a witty view. It can be social criticism in the form of an
epigram.” “ Kraus, though, did not fail to appreciate his Oscar Wilde, just as dearly as he did his
Nestroy. To reduce Oscar Wilde to an amusing paradoxist has become a trope of the semi-literate.
Kraus admired the depth and marksmanship of many of Wilde’s aphorisms, and was printing his amusing ideas even when they did not go beyond paradoxical effect and cheerful haughtiness — and did
so with good reason. The egomaniacal attitude (which Wilde never failed to moderate with a wink) is
an appropriate means for provoking the culture of philistinism, which practices false modesty and
exercises misplaced objectivity in order to ensure that all individuals stay within the boundaries of
prescribed mediocrity and none break rank. Krausian aphorisms like, “I no longer have collaborators. I
used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself,” and “Solitude
would be an ideal state if one were able to pick the people one avoids”6 unmistakably show reverence
for the Irish bard.
Even a naked paradox, owing its existence to nothing but sheer pleasure in its creation,
stimulates and electrifies the mind more than all plain truth in formulaic wording. And yet we can
object that not every internally contradictory phrase is in itself brilliant, prompting Oscar Wilde to reply
that the paradox is not an end in itself: “To test reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the
verities become acrobats we can judge them.”
Kraus discovers another master in Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, the calibre of whose breathtaking
linguistic somersaults he was the first to acknowledge, and a writer who taught him that language may
yield “a valuable thought for every cheap phrase.”
What an appealing challenge, then, for the aphorist to, through creative alienation, reanimate
verbal formulas, fixed turns of phrase, and other linguistic carcasses to recruit an assassin for one’s own
cause from within the enemy camp. Nestroy’s “If everything else fails I won’t fail to hang myself” may
still pass as a darkly humorous oxymoron. This flirting with terror gains greater depth of field when
one popular phrase is turned against another: “Legion are those who pound their chests and call suicide
cowardice. Let them try it and report back afterwards!” With “Those who don’t lose their minds over
certain things have none to loose,” the wordplay is already a portentous instance of critical
consciousness. Kraus wrote, “A professor of literature has said that my aphorisms are but the
mechanical inversion of colloquialisms. That is entirely true. He has just not hit upon the thought which
drives the mechanism: That more comes of mechanically inverting colloquialisms than does of
mechanically repeating them.”
Since no linguistic tool is off limits for Kraus in pointing out the limits of the philistine’s
erudition, he relishes souping up pedestrian puns into nimble wit, proving that the joker is generally
cornier than the joke and that even an old chestnut can be nurtured into a tree bearing pointed fruit.
Bottom line: True spirit also enjoys splashing in shallow waters, whereas false profundity manages to
drown in them.
Reconciling archaic luxuriance of imagery with intellectual abstraction
An Iranian cab driver friend of mine teared up when I recited to him one of the aphorisms
attributed to, but not actually from, Kraus: “When the sun of culture is low, even dwarfs will cast long
shadows.” This is not to say that we have a “noble savage” in this cab-driving academic, but that certain
cultures still take language seriously and hold vividness of imagery and power of imagination in high
esteem. Contrary to popular wisdom, the evolution of language does not run from primitive to complex,
from a “blindness of intuitions without conceptions” (Kant) to an increasing conceptual clarity, but
from a rich diversity of poetical forms to the streamlined and mediated idiom of today, which is borne
eloquent testimony by our victimized wordlessness. What language gains through abstraction it gives
up in mimetic richness of imagery. Countless ethnographic examples testify to this, e.g. the Native
American warriors who attain social standing less on account of the numbers of scalped U.S. cavalry
but through the power and vividness of their speech. Or the Inuit of whose language the ethnologist
Thalbitzer had the following to say at the beginning of the 20th century: “In quite another sense than
our languages, the words of the Eskimo are born on the tongue on the spur of the moment. Where we
possess finished, fully developed words or phrases, the Eskimo creates new combinations specially
formed to meet the claim of every situation. In regard to word-formations, the language is incessantly
in statu nascendi.” The increasing turn from oral to written language led to a shelving of its elements,
relieving modern man from shaping it in an active and autonomous manner. Language now, though
close at hand, is no longer grasped but warehoused in a personal library.
Being the dialecticians they were, the aphorists mentioned above did not pit the modern and
premodern worlds against each other, but amalgamated the best of both: image and idea, description
and abstraction. Not by coincidence did they hail from the 17th to the 19th century, a period when both
worlds collided in a fruitful though traumatic way. Nestroy’s success with Viennese audiences in the
Age of Metternich can’t be simply explained by his ability to hide his contradictory punchlines within
light entertainment. No, the brutality of living conditions in early capitalism, together with a linguistic
dexterity that is alien to us now, enabled the audience to follow Nestroy’s “language-besotted wit” to a
An interesting interpretive gray area hovers over Kraus’s pronouncement that “An aphorism
never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.” Is his half-truth
identical with the polemical term semi-truth as commonly interpreted, or could it be read another way:
That however partial a truth, it still has an edge over presuming to verbally grasp a matter in its entirety
as positive statement, as total truth, and over the presumptuousness of those latecomers to Aristotelian
objectivism who believe they are boiling a matter down to its essence when in reality they are
examining a biopsied specimen? Categorizing thought does violence to the flightiness of reality by
pinning it, like a butterfly, to a mounting board, whereas the over- and understatements of aphoristic
thought flit about it with much loving respect, thereby contributing to a deeper philosophical
The aphorism isn’t dead, but merely taking its beauty sleep, and waiting for a time when the value that
language lost to enslavement is returned to it.