The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

by Gary Morson

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Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is also much more. In this exploration of the shortest literary works—wise sayings, proverbs, witticisms, sardonic observations about human nature, pithy evocations of mystery, terse statements regarding ultimate questions—Gary Saul Morson argues passionately for the importance of these short genres not only to


Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is also much more. In this exploration of the shortest literary works—wise sayings, proverbs, witticisms, sardonic observations about human nature, pithy evocations of mystery, terse statements regarding ultimate questions—Gary Saul Morson argues passionately for the importance of these short genres not only to scholars but also to general readers.

We are fascinated by how brief works evoke a powerful sense of life in a few words, which is why we browse quotation anthologies and love to repeat our favorites. Arguing that all short genres are short in their own way, Morson explores the unique form of brevity that each of them develops. Apothegms (Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, Wittgenstein) describe the universe as ultimately unknowable, offering not answers but ever deeper questions. Dicta (Spinoza, Marx, Freud) create the sense that unsolvable enigmas have at last been resolved. Sayings from sages and sacred texts assure us that goodness is rewarded, while sardonic maxims (Ecclesiastes, Nietzsche, George Eliot) uncover the self-deceptions behind such comforting illusions. Just as witticisms display the power of mind, "witlessisms" (William Spooner, Dan Quayle, the persona assumed by Mark Twain) astonish with their spectacular stupidity.

Nothing seems further from these short works than novels and epics, but the shortest genres often set the tone for longer ones, which, in turn, contain brilliant examples of short forms. Morson shows that short genres contribute important insights into the history of literature and philosophical thought. Once we grasp the role of aphorisms in Herodotus, Samuel Johnson, Dostoevsky, and even Tolstoy, we see their masterpieces in an entirely new light.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A book remarkable for its originality, breadth, insight, and engaging style . . . Succeeds not just in making readers think more clearly about the nature of the short genres and how they relate to each other, but also in showing how they can inform and even help structure longer works."—Barry Scherr, Slavic & East European Journal

"Among living American Scholars of Russian literature, Gary Saul Morson has earned a reputation as one of the most thoughtful and productive among us. . . Morson's book is fun to read. It is thought-provoking and illuminating but delights over and over again with its sparkling specimens, culled from the whole literary heritage of man-kind, chiefly western, but with a few Asian gems from Confucius and Lao Tzu thrown in. . . Morson writes well, vividly, and without jargon. . . I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have been enlightened by it."—Hugh McLean, Slavic Review

"Morson's delightful study, which aims to classify and examine [aphorisms], is both a work of serious scholarship and a feast itself . . . The Long and Short of It leaves readers illuminated and humbled, amused and enlightened and with their sense of literature's richness—its ironies and foibles, its mysteries and truths—enhanced."—Fernanda Moore, Commentary

"This shrewdly analytic, generously appreciative inventory of a dozen microgenres breaks lots of new ground. Morson not only discriminates dictum from witticism, maxim from summons and thought, but also shows how aphorists in a wealth of cultures have invoked generic tradition and infighting to score points. He furthermore illuminates the role played by aphorisms, and the outlooks they epitomize, in the narrative shaping of works from Oedipus and Job to Middlemarch and Boswell's Johnson."—Herbert Tucker, University of Virginia

"Gary Saul Morson has created a passionate, imaginative book, full of energy and wisdom. The Long and Short of It is an exciting, horizon-opening essay on literary short forms that provide an interface between literature and philosophy."—Thomas Pavel, University of Chicago

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Stanford University Press
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Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8051-3

Chapter One


Genres and species

Like anything else, literary works may be classified in many ways. It is not difficult to discover a large number of sensible orderings of works by genre.

Consider the analogy of species. By the eighteenth century, it was clear that any classification system assigning a single, agreed-upon name to a given group of organisms was better than no system at all. Researchers could then be sure that their terms had the same referent. The same logic applied to groups of species, and to groups of groups of species, in an ascending hierarchy. Systems also recommended themselves by ease of use.

These two criteria—consistency of terms and ease of use—allow for an indefinitely large number of classification schemes. But it was also felt that classification ought somehow to conform to nature itself. Presumably, this third criterion could single out a best system.

Linneaus hoped to develop a nonarbitrary classification system for plants and animals. He wanted not only to give each species an unambiguous designation but also to discover the order genuinely present. Such a "natural" system would reflect the way species are arranged in the mind of God. What exactly that meant was not especially clear.

Reflecting on the history of classification, Darwin remarked, in the first edition of The Origin of Species, on the vagueness of the ideal of a natural system:

From the first dawn of life, all organic beings are found to resemble each other in descending degrees, so that they may be classed in groups under groups. This classification is evidently not arbitrary like the grouping of stars in constellations. ... Naturalists try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System: But what is meant by this system? ... [M]any naturalists think ... that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is added to our knowledge.

Evidently the Creator, too, could have classified his creations in different ways depending on the principle he chose. Unless we know that principle, nothing is gained by appealing to His mind.

Resemblance by itself is not an adequate principle, since organisms resembling each other in some features differ in others. Mere counting of common features will not do inasmuch as some features seem much more important than others.

Nature loves to hide.

Darwin argued that there actually is a natural classification system and that Linneaus, by instinct and experience, came pretty close to it. The "natural system," Darwin argues, is "genealogical" and so "community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking" (Darwin, 420). In referring to species as "related," Linneaus thought he was speaking metaphorically, but he needed to take the metaphor literally. Today if someone should ask, why is the chosen system better than any other?—what purpose does it serve better than the alternatives?—an answer is ready: it illuminates the structure, habits, and distribution of organisms by tracing their history.

Genres Differ from species

No biologist today would use any other system. But there is no equivalent natural system of literary genres, nor is it likely there ever could be. Unlike organisms, significant literary works rarely, if ever, display a single line of descent. Parentage is multiple.

No animal descends from sheep, trout, and sparrow, but it is not hard to find compositions that descend from epic, romance, and novel. Fielding famously called Tom Jones a comic epic in prose. The subtitle of Gogol's Dead Souls is "Poema" (a poem), but the narrator also calls it (or alludes to it as) a satire, a romance, a novel, and a comedy modeled on Dante.

When species die out, they are extinct forever, but extinct genres rise again.

In a way that has no biological analog, the names of genres may shape their development. Animals do not evolve depending on our nomenclature, but a period's definition of epic may shape the "epics" it produces. Classifiers shape facts for later classifiers to arrange.

Most important, no single overriding purpose, such as the one Darwin discovered, guides our efforts. We approach products of culture in different ways for different reasons. No one has ever found, nor will anyone ever find, the natural classification system for cultural objects.

Some literary classification systems rely on one or another principle (in most cases, formal) used consistently. Others seem entirely ad hoc, with apparently different criteria used genre by genre. As a rule, logical or structural ways of thinking favor consistency of criteria while historical approaches, which trace the actual rise and fall of genres, necessarily reflect the contingencies and inconsistencies that govern developing cultural practices. Epics were once long poems in dactylic hexameters (and so Lucretius's versified treatise On the Nature of Things was for the ancients an epic), but as time went on, many thematic criteria, often inconsistent with each other, came to seem at least as important. Works as diverse as Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, Byron's Don Juan, and the Cantos of Ezra Pound have been plausibly classified as epics. Unplanned systems do not fit a geometrical grid, and the boundaries of literary genres grow asymmetrically.

Despite these difficulties, critics frequently find it useful to approach a given work as a representative of its genre. But how should they do so if classification is arbitrary?


The question, what is the correct classification system to use?, cannot be answered because it is incomplete. It is something akin to demanding a solution to a single equation with two unknowns. Another piece of information is needed for a solution to be possible.

That missing piece of information is purpose. As you cannot hand someone the "right" tool until you know what is to be accomplished, you must first identify the problem a genre theory is to illuminate before the most appropriate one can be selected.

For all their impressive symmetry, structural approaches do not offer much help in describing, let us say, the rise of the realist novel in the En glish eighteenth century. By contrast, something more closely resembling the structuralist's favorite metaphor, Mendeleev's table of the elements, might illuminate logical possibilities. Tzvetan Todorov's famous distinction of "the fantastic" from "the uncanny" and "the marvelous"—each resolves a narrative's suggestion of supernatural causation differently—depends on no particular historical situation.

Depending on one's purposes, different combinations of structural or historical, formal or semantic, and cultural or cross-cultural considerations might be suitable.

Classification by Worldview

Much of the appeal of aphorisms derives from the wisdom they contain. We may learn from them or marvel at what others have found worth learning. For thousands of years, proverbs have been collected in treasuries of wisdom, along with the sayings of sages and the dicta of philosophers or lawgivers. In a rather different spirit, people have delighted in witticisms, epigrams, or sardonic maxims for their sly insights into human nature. Mystical apothegms lure us into the ineffable.

Aphorisms fascinate me, as they have fascinated others, as repositories of wisdom. Different kinds of aphorisms convey specific views of life and experience. If we are to understand these diverse views, it makes sense to classify them accordingly. Approached in this way, each genre suggests a distinct sense of life as a whole. The world of the prophet differs from that of the wit. Given this purpose—to recover distinct kinds of wisdom and senses of experience— I classify aphorisms in terms of worldviews.

That was the approach to genres adopted by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin worked as both a literary critic and a philosopher, and he accordingly developed a method to grasp each literary genre as an implicit philosophy, or what he called a "form-shaping ideology." He meant that each genre proceeds from a particular worldview ("ideology") generating appropriate forms of expression. For his opponents, the Russian Formalists, forms define genres, but for Bakhtin they instead result from a defining ideology or sense of experience.

Bakhtin cautions that even "ideology," or the various synonyms I have used, does not quite capture what he means. A genre resembles an entity less than it does an energy, an impulse to apply a certain way of seeing to surprising circumstances with which it interacts and, as a result, changes. Genres are restless, some more so than others.

Moreover, a genre's take on life cannot be reduced to a set of philosophical premises. For one thing, any reasonably complex genre's sense of experience is ultimately inexpressible. It may be partly "transcribed" as a set of propositions, but such transcriptions will always prove too simple. For another, the genre always contains potentials for development in more directions than are apparent. Until the genre dies, its wisdom is never complete, and if resurrected, it can develop still further.

A genre is a moving target.

As a genre seeks out forms, it also discovers appropriate occasions, which, like forms, reflect its worldview.

Transcribed Wisdom

Although the transcribed wisdom of genres does not match the genre itself in richness, it often contains enough insight to stimulate thought. For Bakhtin, criticism, properly performed, gives us these transcriptions. So understood, criticism contributes to the development of thought.

Bakhtin's understanding of literary criticism reflects its role in nineteenth-century Russia, where speculation about philosophical, social, and psychological questions often took the form of essays explicating great works. If you wanted to advance a theory of motivation, you might publish on Dostoevsky; skeptical approaches to knowledge might arise in a discussion of Tolstoy.

In Bakhtin's view, great literature does not sugarcoat philosophy. On the contrary, it develops ideas that subsequent philosophy or social science transcribes. The eighteenth-century novel of education as Bakhtin understood it pioneered the ideas about temporality that obsessed nineteenth-century thinkers. Far from exhausting pioneering literature, such philosophy represents the mere "sclerotic deposit" of the genre's energy.

Intergeneric Dialogue

Great writers change the genres they use. Genres also evolve in response to changing social experience. And they interact with other genres in dialogues that alter participants. Genres argue, parody each other, and parody opposing parodies.

Among longer forms, utopias, which claim to know the true answer to all social problems, mock and are mocked by skeptical realist novels. In much the same way, the wise sayings of sages and the dicta of philosophers have faced the skepticism of sardonic maxims (such as those of La Rochefoucauld). Proverbs and witticisms dispute the motives of human behavior.

It would probably be possible to narrate literary history as the story of such intergeneric dialogues. Sometimes genres explicitly mention or quote their antagonists, as Don Quixote constantly cites romances and proverbs. At other times, the alternative is merely suggested by signs that, though clear at the moment of authorship, may eventually fade.

Works of one genre may include heroes typical of another. Utopias depict skeptics who appreciate novels and novels depict utopian ideologues, each with hostile intent. War and Peace respectfully argues with the epic worldview as its hero, Prince Andrei, gradually learns that real heroism does not lie in glorious exploits. In much the same way, the prologue to Middlemarch establishes the book's heroine as an expatriate from a saint's life. Wisdom argues with wisdom as genre disputes genre.

Intergeneric dialogues typically focus on a given aspect of life understood by each genre in its own way. Love in romance differs from love in realist novels, as Anna Karenina learns; the goodness of a saint, a prophet, or a utopian preacher does not resemble the goodness of ordinary people in Dickens, George Eliot, or Trollope. Reading such works requires our understanding of the opposing genres they evoke.

Short genres also evoke their antagonists to express their values.


When a writer chooses a genre, he or she creates an encounter between its vision and his or her own. This encounter generates its own special form of dialogue. The genre "remembers" its history, and the author adapts what he or she finds for his or her own purposes. Richness derives from a process of negotiation that readers can sense.

At any point, many different authors have contributed to a genre's resources of thought and expression. Particular masterpieces may therefore be interesting in two distinct ways: in their own right and as exemplars of the genre. We may read the fiction of Turgenev and Trollope as individual works or as representatives of the realist novel. There is Milton's Paradise Lost and epic's Paradise Lost. It is as if George Eliot wrote one Middlemarch and the genre of the realist novel wrote a double. The two works, though verbally identical, may differ in meaning. Sometimes this difference may itself be part of an author's plan. Short genres display the same kind of doubling.

Changing Forms and occasions

Because a genre's wisdom evolves, the forms that express it may also change over time and across cultures. So may the occasions in which it is characteristically set.

Depending on period or culture, the witticism may favor the salon, the gallows, or the hustings. For obvious reasons, deflating comments addressed to political orators occur more often in England than in Russia, which specializes in the political joke told in private settings. The power of such jokes depends on the risk of telling and hearing them, and their forms convey a shared sense of danger.

The summons to courage usually seeks the battlefield just before combat or the graveyard where the hallowed dead now lie. But as the sense of heroism changes, it may abandon combat altogether for scenes of temptation or martyrdom. Not just Achilles but also Saint Anthony may define the heroic and, in a later age, so may Florence Nightingale or even Dorothea Brooke. In Tolstoy, we encounter heroines of the nursery.

Depending on age or culture, wise sayings may reflect the labor of the scholar, the adroitness of the thinker, or the inspiration of the poet. One culture may ascribe them to a ruler (Solomon or Solon), another to a philosopher (Socrates or Epictetus), a third to a scientist (Galileo or Einstein). Paintings of sages, such as Raphael's "School of Athens," Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Socrates," or Murillo's portrait of Galileo in his cell, may depict the circumstances giving rise to their sayings. Such art offers a setting to inspire future sayings of a similar sort.

Ascribing Antithetical Genres

Sometimes readers can plausibly ascribe a work to more than one genre. Each ascription may suggest a different meaning. If some readers take a work as an epic and others as a mock epic, their interpretations may contradict each other. Disputes over genre may also create less dramatic differences. Sometimes works switch genres from age to age and from culture to culture depending on the other masterpieces with which they are grouped.

Depending on the genre readers ascribe to a work, they may interpret it according to different conventions. Our assumption that a work belongs to a given genre often shapes our understanding from the outset. That is one reason authors often seek to preclude misunderstanding by indicating genre in the title, subtitle, or other material that appears before the text. Nevertheless, the genre of works, whether long or short, is frequently uncertain.


Excerpted from THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT by GARY SAUL MORSON Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary Saul Morson is the Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. He has published nine books on major Russian authors, the human experience of time, and the cultural role of quotations, most recently The Words of Others: From Quotation to Culture (2011). Morson received a lifetime achievement award by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages and his Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (1994) won the René Wellek Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association.

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