300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. Graywolf Press. $14.00, 104pp.
“Aphoristic thinking is notebook-thinking,” Susan Sontag observed in her journal in the spring of 1980, “produced by the idea of keeping a notebook.” She had been kicking around the concept of the notebook-as-form for awhile, as well as attempting to locate the defining characteristics of aphoristic literature, while working on an essay about the writer Elias Cannetti, whose aphoristic style she very much admired. That year was punctuated by the death of Roland Barthes, another fiercely epigrammatic writer whom Sontag held in high esteem. In the essay she would eventually publish on Barthes, she wrote: “It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.” The aphorist, for Sontag, is always moving towards the last word, and the aphorism itself an attempt to say all there is on a subject in one fell motion. Aphorisms are effective precisely because they seem to contain the truth in hard, diamond-like kernels; a good aphorism can’t be parsed. Sontag was both attracted to and suspicious of the certainty they imparted. The inherent traditions of the form, she thought, tended toward pessimism, scorn, misogyny. She wondered whether the “literature of aphorisms . . . [as an] abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes”. Most of the great aphorists “are not just condescending to but contemptuous of women,” though “all note the mendacities [and] hypocrises of social life . . . many are fascinated by their own mental processes [and] mental process in general.” The great aphorists, she observed, were almost universally male. Arrogance—and, she worried, misogyny—was inherent in the form. Though her own writing never lacked an authoritative voice, her style became more and more aphoristic as she aged; the most enduring quality of her essays remains the fierce intelligence and natural muscularity of her thought. Yet countering the authoritative nature of her best essayistic assertions was her all-encompassing appreciation for what she called “the wisdom project”. Wisdom was, she felt, the defining characteristic of great literature, and the growth of its project was literature’s main task. Yet she worried, in her journal, that she came off as far more sure of herself than she was: “I must give up writing essays altogether . . . [in them] I seem to be the bearer of certainties that I don’t possess—am not near to possessing.”
Sontag is the writer I most often wish we still had around to sort out the ongoing insanity currently at play on the world stage. No other writer was more incisive when it came to talking about the ways in which language, rather than exposing the truth, can be used to purposely obscure it; no other American critic in the latter third of the twentieth century raised criticism to a higher zenith; no other writer wrote about literature with a sharper eye. Re-reading her journals and later essays, I’m repeatedly struck by the scalpel-like nature of her mind at work on a text, the sinuousness of her syntax. The literature of aphorism was a perfect fit for her: her whole life she had been trying to find the most precise way of speaking, writing, and seeing. Her own notebooks formed the basis for much of her work as a fiction writer and essayist, and her selected journals—edited by David Rieff and published as Reborn: Journals, 1947-1964 and As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals 1964-1980—display a writer both buoyed by her love of literature and racked with the ongoing, incessant doubtfulness brought on by her own rigorous inner skepticism. The act of journaling, or rather notebook-thinking, was for her both a stay against despair and a workbench of the mind. The paradox between the by-definition unfinishedness of the notebook-form and the totality of the aphorism didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest: she was one of the last great writers fully invested in the project of Modernism. Whereas one of her contemporaries, the novelist John Fowles, in his own journals, pronounced that “The aphorism is a generalization, therefore not modern,” one suspects that Sontag, in her ambitions for herself and for literature as a whole, would’ve found Nietzsche’s thinking on the subject more amenable: “A good aphorism,” he wrote, “is too hard for the teeth of time and is not eaten up by all the centuries even though it serves as food for every age: hence it is the greatest paradox in literature, the imperishable in the midst of change.”
One wonders what Sontag would’ve made of Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, which appears on first blush to be almost entirely made up of aphorisms. Manguso, who at the age of 42 has already published seven books including this one, published her first book of poetry, The Captainlands in Paradise at age 28. Since following that book up two years later with another collection of poetry, all of her books have been prose. Two years ago she published Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which was quite literally an exercise in “notebook-thinking”: the book was a meditation on her diaries, which she had at that point kept for 25 years and totaled more than 800,000 words. Her book on this massive document ran to a mere 144 pages. “Write as short as you can,” wrote John Berryman in an early Dream Song (and proceeded to publish 385 of them).
300 Arguments takes Berryman’s advice quite literally. Any worry brought on by the volume implied by the numerousness of the book’s title is allayed by the brevity of its page count (90 pages). The physical book itself, pocket-sized and filled with large print, comes with a set of instructions, printed as an unattributed blurb (it is from Manguso herself) on the back of the Graywolf paperback edition: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” a command not issued inside the book until nearly two-thirds of the way through. One wonders if Graywolf was worried that readers approaching the book without any prior information as to its structure might be confused, or irritated that they had not purchased a more conventional book of either nonfiction or poetry. Manguso is certainly no stranger to the prescriptive voice. In an essay published two years ago she advised would-be writers to “Be relentless,” to “Learn to live on air,” to “Stay healthy; sickness is a waste of time and money,” to “Avoid all messy and needy people including family,” not to smoke, not to drink, not to have a gym membership, not to “give favors to people or institutions that lack authority or consequence,” to “learn graciously to decline,” to “be kind to everyone you meet,” to “become tempered by life,” and to make “compromises for love”. In any case, a writer giving her audience instructions on how to read her work is nothing new; poets have been doing it for centuries. Still, in this reviewer’s opinion, printing the instructions on the very cover of the book is a mistake on Greywolf’s part, as the admonishment on how to think of Manguso’s work seeks to prevent one coming to one’s own conclusions on the matter.
It is worth noting the book’s title, which identifies it not as a collection of aphorisms but of arguments. As I read I tried to think of each disparate section as an argument, but confess I could not. Claiming a thing is an argument, unfortunately, does not make it so. (My reasoning for this may be purely personal—for the past year, the university where I teach first year writing has used a textbook called Everyone’s an Author, a claim consistently refuted by my students in both theory and practice.) The book could just as aptly have been titled 300 Suggestions or 300 Observations or 300 Thoughts but these lack the same punch as 300 Arguments, which suggests one of the book’s ambitions is to serve as a work of incitement. So the book’s title is not a claim as to the nature of either its content or form, but rather an attempt to describe its spirit—which is problematic, like the command quoted on the back of the book’s cover relating Manguso’s desire for the book to be thought of as “composed entirely” of what she’d hoped would be “a long book’s quotable passages.” 300 Arguments is, then, an expression of the author’s desire to be quoted. To be quotable. This renders the book a work of wonderfully audacious, utterly naked ambition. Yet a book ought to be taken to task with a level of critical scrutiny equal to the book’s ambitions for itself; this is not to discourage ambition but rather to honor it. Sometimes Manguso’s book succeeds: it is certainly quotable. The obverse of being quotable is being inane, a flaw to which Manguso only rarely succumbs, or being preachy, producing “arguments” which might fit better on the liberal person’s version of a conservative baby-boomer’s Facebook wall’s inspirational posts, to which she is occasionally prone: “Whatever you’re feeling, billions already have. Feel for them.” The statement is elegantly phrased, but easily digestible.
If 300 Arguments is not purely composed of either arguments or aphorisms, then what? Manguso’s book alternates between several different modes, the first being seemingly straightforward observation. One “argument” reads, simply: “Inner beauty can fade, too.” Others are confessional, alternating between the bracingly personal—these are generally the longest, at times stretching to three or four sentences—and the writerly: “I’ve put horses in poems, but I’ve never ridden one. They just seem like such a good thing to put into literature.” The aphoristic command is another regular feature of the book, and in Manguso’s hands reads like a modern proverb: “You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition”; “Achieve a goal and suffer its loss.”
What seems at first disparate eventually unites into a whole. A deeper through-line emerges that is more theme than argument, more feeling than logic. The book’s closest contemporary cousin is David Markson’s massively under-read “Notecard-Quartet,” which are not quite novels—they feature no characters other than the narrator, ostensibly the same person in each of the tetralogy’s four books, referred to as Reader, Writer, Author, and Novelist—but not quite poetry, either. The books are vast repositories of phenomenally depressing, and taken cumulatively, devastatingly funny, anecdotes. Reader’s Block, the first book in the quartet, names nearly every artist, writer, or musician who was ever an anti-Semite or committed suicide in the past seven hundred years of western culture. Markson’s novels hang together by an intricate inner logic not determined by plot nor by argument but rather by the juxtaposition of disparate, seemingly unrelated facts, which creates theme, adds depth, and explores the morbidly desiccated character of the voice behind each laconic observation. Just as the greatest strength of W.G. Sebald’s novels lies in the way he addresses the devastation of the Holocaust while only rarely taking the subject head-on, Markson’s work dissects the darkest corners of western culture, and human nature by proxy, without ever explicitly putting forth an argument. Manguso’s thematic territory is not so horrifying as the Holocaust, nor as broad as, say, all of western culture, but is rather almost wholly located in the uncanny world of the solitary, thinking self.
Aphorism, for her, is its own argument: “I like writing that is unsummarizable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is.” What cannot be condensed, what is not so much fragmentary but whole unto itself, may contain a breed of truth increasingly uncommon in a world in which truth is more and more subjected to constant corrosion: truth which is irreducible.
The critic Anatole Broyard, writing in the New York Times thirty-four years ago—only three years after Sontag’s notebook-thinking on the subject quoted above—said that “There is something anachronistic about the very idea of aphorisms or maxims. Contemporary culture isn’t stately enough, or stable enough, to support them.” Perhaps he was right. But if so, all ambitious literature is anachronistic, antediluvian, utterly removed from the moment that is now. Yet I’m grateful for Manguso’s reticence to accept now as an ideal. There is a powerful optimism about the capability of language to illuminate the world in which we live in her book, a faith in the ability of the writer to both doggedly seek and find truth, even as that truth is rooted in the essential unknowableness of all things.
“The smallest and shortest pieces of art strive for perfection,” she writes. On the next page, she tells us “I hate wasting time and I hate wasting space. I hate chatting and I hate clutter.” She has written a book devoid of clutter, full of white space, replete with sentences that feel as if they could’ve been written in another time, another decade, century, millennia: “Even if I’m writing for no audience, I’m appealing to the audience . . . of all readers who have ever lived.”
Nathan Knapp’s essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Fanzine, The Millions, Blue Mesa Review, Frequencies, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Oklahoma State and was the founding editor-in-chief of The Collapsar.
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