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Nov. 7 2009 - 3:39 pm | 45 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

On James Guida’s Marbles and the Aphorism

James Guida's Marbles. Image via Turtle Point Press

James Guida's Marbles. Image via Turtle Point Press

In the very first issue of Nature, which came out on November 4, 1869, T.H. Huxley, an English biologist, published translations of 28 aphorisms by the great German poet and polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Huxley, a staunch advocate of the emerging theory of evolution and a supporter of Darwin’s work, was asked by the editor of Nature, Norman Lockyer, to contribute to the new journal. His first instinct was to submit Goethe’s aphorisms for publication in English.

Goethe’s aphorisms on nature are packed with quizzical observations and testimony to the overwhelming awe he felt toward his subject matter. Nature perplexed and inspired him, and the translated aphorisms published in Nature dovetailed chronologically with the growing Romantic movement in England. A few examples:

She is ever shaping new forms: what is, has never yet been; what has been, comes not again. Everything is new, and yet nought but the old.

NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

The one thing she seems to aim at is Individuality; yet she cares nothing for individuals. She is always building up and destroying; but her workshop is inaccessible.”

Goethe’s words had been written forty years before T.H. Huxley’s translations published, but the aphorism had not lost any of its luster. In the same century Nietzsche would adopt the form for many of his thought experiments in philosophy and on human nature. (“Sensuality often hastens the growth of love so much that the roots remain weak and are easily torn up.”) For the thinking man, the aphorism was a ripe fruit. When written exactingly, it can polish the everyday observation. And it can break in many different directions. Aphorisms can be quiet soliloquies; they can wield frankness dangerously; and they can build humor in 15 words or less. When they work, and they work hard, though they’d never let that show, they have the ability to mark an occasion or a moment with indelible concision.

This brings me to James Guida’s Marbles, a recent collection of aphorisms out from Turtle Point Press, which revives the ancient literary form and sheathes it in contemporary environments–there are, for example, aphorisms about hip-hop, skateboarding, and text messaging. (Full disclosure: James Guida is an acquaintance whose book I believe warrants attention.) In Marbles, Guida has provided fertile nesting ground for the aphorism to multiply on the page, thus rebuking the neglect the aphorism has incurred in the last century or so. And though the aphorisms may not recognize their new surroundings, they are at home in Marbles, finding themselves intact and as effective as their lineage suggests. A few examples:

The magpie with no eggs to protect swoops most viciously of all.

Music might be seen as man-made weather.

There are no edges or grooves on the man’s face, nothing at all on which to hook a gaze.

In binding and gagging platitudes and pleasantries, people sometimes go so far as to wrench the life out of the actual things connected to them. I sometimes weary of remarking on the weather too, but I wouldn’t for a second pretend it’s boring in reality.”

What we discover in reading aphorisms is there are innumerable quandaries that for the aphorist seem to float by, ready to be plucked from the ether. Part of this effect is the remote magic of the aphorism itself. It’s short, but reveals so much. With a few refined sentences the aphorism upturns the intangibility of existence. The voice is often such that one imagines the author in action behind it. In fact, the aphorism seems tailor-made for acting out, for striking a finger to the air in excitement, or for humbly propositioning a moment of an audience’s attention. James Guida tells us with Marbles that he is a contemplative observer of the small stuff and the big stuff, that he is the character who sits silently and notices what most pass over. But his aphorisms don’t relate detachment from society. They are involved, intentionally touching and engaging contemporary orthodoxies from the inside rather than the outside. Marbles is condensed wisdom that feels light and digestible, sweet on the tongue with the occasional biting dash of pepper to straighten the spine. Some of the material draws on human relationships and reactions, some apply a quirky coat of paint on literary history–Gogol and Calvino are conjured, and there are reductive excerpts of conversation at which Beckett might have had a chuckle. Overall, Marbles releases. That is the sense one gets from reading through it. Its small packages are arrows fired in a multitude of directions: at society, at people, at the broad landscape of the human condition, at the peculiarities and distinctions of the sexes, at truth, and at the self, the reader or Guida, or however one might interpret the first person in an aphorism. But the arrows do not pierce or harm. They merely deposit themselves in the psyche one strike at a time, each one having made their own pattern in the air and at the same time alluding to the spectres of the form that thrived for centuries before them.

via Turtle Point Press.


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    I am a Brooklyn-based writer and editor covering arts and culture. I was an editor at Art & Antiques magazine, an editor at Picador USA, and an editor for a magazine about coffee and tea. On the best of days, I get to write about art, or work on fiction. My writing can be found on the Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and in Art & Antiques, Art in America, Tin House, Willamette Week, San Francisco magazine, Food Network Magazine, and Fresh Cup magazine. I also write about and promote the arts for Columbia University in New York.

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    An essay on the painter Robert Vickrey for The Rumpus.