The Aphorism’s Story: 4 Questions for Yahia Lababidi

When Egyptian poet, essayist and aphorist Yahia Lababidi began working with “the brief arts” 20 years ago, he said, they seemed to be an artistic from from a previous era. Only a few practitioners, like James Richardson, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Alfred Corn, worked seriously with aphorisms.

But these days, perhaps because of new social media and perhaps because of a renewed hunger for distilled wisdom, the aphorism is undergoing a revival.

Lababidi has just wrapped up an appearance at the 2011 Neustadt Festival, where, as a judge for the 2012 prize, he presented and read.

ArabLit: How do you define them? How are they different from proverbs or maxims? Or poetry? Or cliches? Do you agree with James Geary’s “five rules”?

Yahia Lababidi: I think of aphorisms as ‘what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.’

How are they different from proverbs or maxims? To my mind an aphorism can be a maxim (if it is wise, universal and intended for instruction). A cliche… I hope not! Cliches are what’s nearest at hand, tired truths that have lost their sheen, vitality and the power to shock us into recognition. Aphorisms reach further, to try and breathe new life into an old truth. An aphorism is a proverb with a name tag (proverbs tend to be nameless).

Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. Wit was sport, and a kind of national pastime, at the time of my youth. Never mind that over 50 percent of the population was actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).

Which is to say, proverbs served as street poetry as well as philosophy. They were oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insight from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observation. Proverbs are like coral reef, that way, fossils of philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this, too.

Lately, in the US at least, there seems to be a Renaissance of aphorisms, something I would have never dreamed of when I began writing them (anachronistically, I felt) nearly 20 years ago. The practitioners of the (American) aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. (I’ve just discovered recently that aphorisms are also a serious business in Romania).

Geary is a great collector, and popularizer of the form and I’m indebted to him in many ways… But, frankly I don’t much care for rules and think to define is to limit.

AL: Do you situate yourself in a history and context of aphorisms? Wikipedia calls the hadith “aphorisms.” Do you trace an Arabic-language history of aphorisms? English? Other traditions?

YL: Well, I think I’m more related to the aphorists I grew up reading than I am to modern ones. In that I began writing aphorisms, as a kind of response to my Masters: Gibran, Wilde, Nietzsche, Blake, Kafka, Pascal, Schopenhauer, La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg. These were the ones that formed/deformed my mental landscape and whom I’m still speaking to in my heads. Which, obviously, is not to say my aphorisms are on par with these giants; only that I’m in conversation with them & am mad enough to consider them spiritual ancestors).

The hadith I’m reluctant to comment on – but I would say it is closer to maxims, or wisdom writing in general than merely aphorisms. I’d place it alongside crafted utterances by wise men, such as Confucious, or Solomon for example. I’m afraid I don’t really know the origins of the aphorism, but when in doubt I tend to attribute such things to the Ancient Greeks – who were responsible for that immortal coupling: Know thyself.

AL: Do professional aphorists make use of Twitter? I have noticed Alain de Botton around, spinning what I would consider to be aphorisms. Do you think Twitter offers an interesting new venue for aphorists, a reason why the art might find new legs? 

YL: Another good and meaty question. I am fairly new (and ever so slightly wary of) of Twitter, but yes, there are floating around the Twittersphere some very accomplished practioners of these brief arts. Alain de Botton, whom you mention is one. I first approached him over 10 years ago with my aphorisms and he mentioned to me that he writes them too. I must add that he was very encouraging and generous, to the point of sharing to with me his agents/ contacts in an effort to help me get my first book of aphorisms published. (Alas, the time was not right and, my aphorisms took nearly 10 years to find their way into the world, when American poet, Douglas Goetsch, published them through his Jane Street Press).

So, there’s Alain out there, and there’s also a couple recent discoveries (for me): one Bo Fowler, who’s an (Englishman) Existentialist type of aphorist and, one of my happiest discovery of the past year or so, George Murray, a Canadian poet and an enviably good aphorist.

Other strong contemporary aphorists whom I admire, and count as friends, are American poets James Richardson and Alfred Corn (to my knowledge they’re not on Twitter though). There’s also Jim Guida, another recent discovery, and the only aphorist I know younger than myself (so, I’m keeping a close eye on him;) but I don’t believe that he’s on Twitter either.

Now, onto the more challenging part of your question: might Twitter usher in new aphorists?

I suspect Bo Fowler might thinks so – he finds it congenial enough and suggests Nietzsche would have loved it.. But, I’m not so sure. Brevity is only part of wit, and you can make people count their letters, but you can’t make them think… Then again, I think it’s good exercise in summarizing, considering, and distilling matters down to their essences. But, as with other forms of writing, you have to have something to say first… and talent helps.

AL: Where do people interested in aphorisms find them? What do you think is the best way to give and receive them? Should they be read aloud in a performance, printed in a book, seen on Twitter amongst all the clutter, printed out and turned into art on the wall?

YL: Well, of course there are the classic anthologies, put out by Oxford or Penguin. For a contemporary update, Geary is inescapable, I think. Weekly, he seems to be discovering new/old aphorists on his blog: for a while was also a great online source of aphoristic writing… But, they also seem to be cropping up everywhere lately. For example, Hotel Amerika, a respected American journal dedicated an entire issue this year. So, those who seek in earnest, shall find.

As far as delivering them out loud, I’d never dared, until a few weeks ago. I was asked earlier this month to inaugurate a local Arts Festival, HearArts, where I read some of my poetry alongside a wonderful Egyptian music ensemble, Insijam (there was even a belly dancer!) When I was done with my poems, I hazarded some of my aphorisms, and I daresay they were quite well-received.

Yes, I love to see them out in open space. (Even on the page, I think they benefit from space around them, to breathe, and so that we might ruminate & better digest them). On a recent trip to Greenville, S. Carolina, I was thrilled to find aphorisms on cobblestones in their old-style downtown area and nearly tripped over my feet trying to read these delightfully witty, wise sayings.

Also, I’m happy to see them turned into art on the wall as you put it, on the side of schools or art galleries, and love the idea of the outdoors as a giant open book and space to think, (what aphorisms nudge us to do).

Yahia Lababidi (author page at Amazon) is an internationally published aphorist, poet, and essayist, with work appearing in such publications as World Literature Today,Cimarron Review, AGNI, Rain Taxi, and Philosophy Now. He is the author of a new poetry collection, Fever Dreams (Crisis Chronicles Press), an essay collection, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, and a collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press), selected as a 2008 Book of the Year by The Independent (UK). Lababidi’s work has appeared in several anthologies, including the best-selling Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists. His writing has been translated into Arabic, Slovak, Dutch, Swedish, Turkish, and Italian, and he was chosen as a juror for the 2012 Neustadt Prize for International Literature. (updated 6/2011)

Read Alex Stein’s “The Prayer of Attention: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi,” an AGNI Online interview excerpted in Harper’s Magazine’s “Links”for April 21, 2010.

Read more about aphorisms:

Wall Street Journal: Puncturing Our Pretensions

James Geary’s All Aphorisms, All the Time

Question: Do you have a favorite Arabic-language aphorist?