3 mar. 2011

La Rochefoucauld

I've always loved La Rochefoucauld. I say "always," because I know that I knew about him at least in high school (before college), because I wrote a poem in which I used his name. I might have come across his name in a poem by Ashbery, or in French class, I don't really know. Later I'm sure i studied Barthes's great essay on La R.

The idea behind the maxims is a kind of base-line cynicism. Good deeds can flow from less than noble motives, or vice-versa. Self-regard or pride (amour-propre) is the main human motivation. Humans act in a way that seems paradoxical but is not once you uncover their motives.

"Il y a des méchants qui seraient moins dangereux s'ils n'avaient aucune bonté." (There are evil people who would be less dangerous if they didn't have a little good in them.)

"La clémence des princes n'est souvent qu'une politique pour gagner l'affection des peuples." (The leniency of princes is often nothing more than a policy to win the affection of populations.)

"La vertu n'irait pas loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie." (Virtue wouldn't get very far without vanity to keep it company.)

"L'intérêt parle toutes sortes de langues et joue toutes sortes de personnages, même celui de désintéressé." (Interest speaks all sorts of languages and plays all sorts of characters, including the character of "disinterested.").

I guess all this cynicism could get tiresome, were it not for the wonderful stylistic balance of the sentences:

"Tout le monde se plaint de sa mémoire, et personne ne se plaint de son jugement." (Everyone complains about their bad memory, nobody about their bad judgment."

So LaR, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Ramón Gómez de la Serna. Nick Piombino. Who are the great aphorists?

3 comentarios:

Jordan dijo...

I like Jim Richardson a lot. I have hazy memories of thinking Oscar Vladovich de Lubicz Milosz wasn't bad, and there are a couple of Antonio Porcha's one-liners I keep in my Every Day Carry. Joubert. Lichtenberg. Paul Valery.

Was Kenneth Koch an aphorist? In "My Olivetti Speaks" he usually deploys a brief setup. Elsewhere, he spins perfectly good aphorisms ("A serious moment for the water...") into an entire poem.

Are you going to announce your CUNY talk here?

Jonathan dijo...

Valery and Koch for sure. I don't know the others.

I will announce my CUNY events closer to the dates.

Jordan dijo...

OK -- I just noticed it on a March events flier.

Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human has a few aphorisms worth keeping.

Jim Campbell of the TLS has a test for aphorisms -- I believe he discounts any phrases that prompt the "That is so true" reaction.