Sticks and Stones may Break your Bones, but Aaron Haspel Draws Blood: A Review of Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

“I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out. That this is no way to get to the depths, to get deep enough, is the superstition of those who fear water, the enemies of cold water; they speak without experience. Oh, the great cold makes one fast! And incidentally: does a matter stay unrecognized, not understood, merely because it has been touched in flight; is only glanced at, seen in a flash? Does one absolutely have to sit firmly on it first? Have brooded on it as on an egg? Diu noctuque incubando, as Newton said of himself? At least there are truths that are especially shy and ticklish and can’t be caught except suddenly—that one must surprise or leave alone.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)

41XBc2HTu0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In a letter to a friend, Nietzsche maintained that the only readers who could really claim to have understood his Zarathustra (1891) were those who were, at times, profoundly wounded by it. I couldn’t help but think of this remark as I read Everything (2015). Although this book is quite short and extraordinarily clear, it’s not an easy read. Far from it actually. Haspel says that he asks but “one thing of literature: that it draw blood.” And he delivers on this score, again and again, with aphorisms like the following: (i) “Whatever you think you like — are you sure you like it? Or do you like being the sort of person who likes it?” (ii) “Whatever you have done, you are the sort of person who would do that.” (iii) “It never seems to occur to the teacher who complains of inattentive students that he may not be worth attending to.” (iv) “If you want to destroy your marriage talk about it.”

But these are only some of the most obviously challenging aphorisms contained in this volume. The more insidious ones are like time-bombs or retroviruses: I rarely “get” them the first time I read them. Don’t even necessarily get them when I’m reading them. Instead, something happens or someone says something, days or even weeks later, and a bell goes off in my head and I think “a-ha”—that’s what he meant! For instance, this aphorism (which I posted the other day on Facebook) is loved at first for almost all of the wrong reasons: “If it has never crossed your mind that you might be stupid, you are.” People who’ve been (like me), at times, painfully aware of their inadequacy, read this and feel smart. Until, that is, they realize, a few days or weeks later, that although failing the aphorism’s test proves that you’re stupid, passing it doesn’t prove that you’re smart. A week or two later, however, it gets worse: the self-congratulatory glow loses all of what’s left of its luster when you realize that you can be stupid and know you’re stupid.

Some of Haspel’s aphorisms are laugh-out-loud funny, such as: (i) “Passion, n. An overwhelming urge to spend your life at something you don’t do especially well.” (ii) “The ideal work environment for a writer is jail.” (iii) “Blaming an actor for being a narcissist is like blaming a tiger for being a carnivore.” (iv) “It is when we recognize our hopeless inadequacy at everything else that we discover our vocation.” And some of them are straightforwardly brilliant, such as this one, which is, to my mind, the best summary of the Socratic way of life I have ever read: “A grudging willingness to admit error does not suffice; you have to cultivate a taste for it.”

Still, if you’re looking for the kind of writer beloved of avid readers of The New Yorker—the kind who knows how to make his educated liberal audience feel superior to all of those yahoos in the sticks who hunt, pray, vote Republican, and believe in weird stuff—don’t buy this book. Seriously, don’t. Because you’ll hate it. Haspel holds up a mirror, and, trust me, you’re not going to like everything you see. I know I didn’t. If Haspel has an overarching message that he wants to impart it’s that we’re not exempt from the follies of our day, even (and perhaps especially) when we think we are: “We are more like our contemporaries than we imagine, and less like our ancestors.”

I read a great deal (probably more than I should), and I’ve been a great lover of the aphoristic genre for over twenty years. Yet never before have I encountered so many aphorisms written by a contemporary of such a high quality: Haspel is in a league of his own. At his best, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorisms in The Bed of Procrustes (2010) rival those of Epicurus (e.g., “Love without sacrifice is like theft” is something I wish I had written). But my fellow Canadian, George Murray, probably deserves the prize for second place. His most recent collection of aphorisms, Glimpse (2010), is often outstanding (e.g., “Rubble becomes ruin when the tourists arrive”). Even so, the collection is scandalously uneven, and it really doesn’t hold a candle to Everything. To wit: Aaron Haspel is the greatest master of the aphoristic form writing in English today. It’s always hard to know which books will stand the test of time, which books will be read 300 years from now. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet on Everything.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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