Susan Sontag on Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom
By Maria Popova
In devouring the newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), I came across two passages addressing something that concerns me daily — the reckless reduction of complex ideas into sticky soundbites and catchphrases, a practice that in the three decades since Sontag’s writings has become not merely an accepted cultural standard, but a profitable business model in the “ideas economy.” Under such commodification of thought, after a while, all these bite-sized ideas begin to sound, look and, eventually, act the same.
In an entry dated April 26, 1980, Sontag offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking:
Aphorisms are rogue ideas.
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.
To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.
Then, ten days later, on May 6, she continues:
With the (1943) epigraph of Canetti. ‘The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.’
One wonders why. Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics?
The traditional thematics of the aphorist: the hypocrisies of societies, the vanities of human wishes, the shallowness + deviousness of women; the sham of love; the pleasures (and necessity) of solitude; + the intricacies of one’s own thought processes.
Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard …
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a remarkable read in its entirety. Sample it further with Sontag on writing, sex, boredom, and censorship, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated wisdom on art and on love.
Published July 20, 2012