An answer in search of its question

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiSep 04, 2015 | 18:21

An answer in search of its question

I am going to keep this short because this month I'd like some brevity, wit and sweetness.

When I think of brevity and wit, I think of Oscar Wilde. I think of Angela Carter. Wit is hard to define but easy to recognise. Everyone knows how the words "brevity" and "wit" are held together; you might want to know how sweetness fits in with them.


In his book The Botany of Desire, the writer Michael Pollan calls sweetness rather eloquently, the "shimmering equal sign [that] denotes a reality commensurate with human desire", claiming that in the classical sense, it stood for fulfillment.

It is in this spacious sense that I use the word this month, to indicate not that which is saccharine, but that right note, that perfect moment: that sweet spot.

If brevity, being the soul of wit, is already perfectly and irreducibly tied to it, sweetness provides the air in this recipe making the whole a thing of lightness. It makes a soufflé out of what might otherwise have been halwa.

Naturally, I am talking about the aphorism. As a literary device, it contains multitudes: it can be axiomatic or prescriptive, it can appear to contradict itself; it can set up a proposition in one sentence and demolish it in the next; it can be mysterious. Above all, it contains a truth that is suddenly recognised as itself the moment the aphorism is complete.

Usually, an aphorism is nested within a larger text, because by the very nature of its form, a surfeit of aphorisms can become tedious to the ear. (You could say that humankind cannot bear very much brevity.)


What one recognises as an aphorism is usually a quotation. I mentioned Angela Carter earlier; these aphoristic quotes are just that - quotations and not the entire thing.

When an entire work consists of aphorisms, it is clear that it is meant to be much more than a passing witticism. Because an aphorism is often memorable, it can be a way to store wisdom that is easily called up. Patanjali's Yogasutras are in the form of aphorisms. The Thirukkural outlines not just a desired mode of behaviour, but is also a handbook for recognising the as-yet-unarticulated moments of life.

In Tamil, each kural is the equivalent of a line and a half. In translation, the kural more often than not becomes a couplet, though not always rhymed. Thiruvalluvar had ten kurals in each chapter and a varying number of chapters in each section. Other aphorists approach the form differently.

Don Paterson, in his Book of Shadows often has aphorisms that are of paragraph length. They are, sometimes, mini stories. One is meant to dip into such a book, savour one or two aphorisms, think about them. These might be harder to memorise or even recall, but some residue is left and works its way into the mind of the reader.


This month, I would you like you to keep it short and sweet. Write exactly  five aphorisms. They can be linked to each other thematically or not; that is up to you. But they should be complete in themselves, as if they were separate from the others.

Each aphorism can contain more than a couple of sentences but be aware that brevity is essential. Rhythm is essential. In an aphorism, sentences that have the same rhythm for the sake of brevity can sound repetitive. Vary the length and think of where the emphasis lies.

Finally, sweetness: remember that this quality is as indefinable as it is necessary. Your aphorisms should contain in very few words, a whole world of the unsaid. The balance between the two, when it is exact and right, is the sweetness that you are looking for.

Send your completed set of five aphorisms to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by September 20. It is not required of you to title your work but titling is an art that you could take this opportunity to practice.

Last updated: September 04, 2015 | 18:21
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