The impossible, until it proves possible, will always appear for a time to be wrong or inappropriate . The inappropriate, until it proves wrong, will always appear for a time to be possible. (XXII)
The aphorism is a literary form with a long history, reaching back to Classical philosophy. Over the centuries, the form—a sharp, memorable image speaking to some broader facticity—has appeared in literature, folklore, and scientific and political discourse. It is not enough to be witty and concise, an aphorism must also contain a truth, insight, or a piece of wisdom. It is much easier to describe than to create. But, for many, the aphorism, with a risk of appearing too clever or cliché, has no place in serious writing. What, then, is serious writing? Aphorisms, when well-crafted, hold a lasting appeal and, I would argue, that in a day when truths are suspect, the form is perhaps even more essential as an accessible opening for melancholy reflection.
And so, to my friend Róbert Gál. The Slovak writer has been proclaimed a modern master of the aphorism, a rather heavy mantle that he has worn with modesty for more than a decade. The form finds its way into all of his work, often providing more than a little poetic heavy lifting along the way. Now, with the release of Naked Thoughts from Black Sun Lit, Gál’s unadorned—yes, naked—gift for the form is on full display, presented against some of his idiosyncratic poetic prose.
Divided into five short sections, or three sets of numbered aphorisms set apart by two stylistically distinct interludes, Naked Thoughts begins, not unlike Gál’s recently released fictional work Agnomia, with the question of beginnings and endings. He appears to be setting a grounding principle—Life is a book of record, the first page of which is a stigma—and offering unsettling images of pathways, progress and temporal relativity. Toward the end of the long first entry he says: “To travel in time is pure recreation; to travel through space is an instinct born of a neurotic imbalance.” Where one finds oneself in the process of tracing the thoughts to follow, if in fact one finds oneself anywhere at all, is not prescribed.
While some of his ponderings in the “naked thoughts” segments are slightly longer, slipping into expected philosophical terrain, the brief—frequently sarcastic, wise, even beautiful—entries are, as one might expect, the ones that tend to stand out. These are aphorisms, after all:
He who seeks solutions has knots on his mind. (X)
The best school of life is a life misspent. (XXXIII)
To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately—and thereby go against it. (XXXVIII)
Unspeaking silence supplies an act with its substance. (XLV)
Love is like scales at rest. It weighs nothing, but it carries weight. (LVIII)
The second and fourth sections, in contrast to the numbered aphorisms, are more poetic in form—in the first instance fragmentary, the latter primarily as a set of very short prose pieces—and yet, similar themes and ideas continue to percolate in these breaks. The first of these interludes, titled “in the bosom of indifferent virtues” which features an epigraph from Antonin Artaud, is perhaps the more curiously intriguing. It consists of three sets of fragments, some complete aphorisms, others incomplete thoughts, that have a subtle theatrical resonance. One begins:
She takes her dreams as the one thing that’s sure. And even though this certainty is not of negation, she does occasionally shake her head in doubt.
Within breaks in happiness.
He writes the terrible out of his system, she the beautiful out of hers.
The pros and cons of one con.
A failure is a first draft. And a first draft needs no motives.
This is a small book, a slender, pocket-sized volume, but it is not insubstantial. A thoughtfulness, an attentive sense of thinking out loud welcomes the reader into the meditative experience. Rhetorical inquiries, lexical truisms, wry musings, pointed barbs, and sly juxtapositions play out across the pages. Originally published in Slovak in 2014, translated by David Short, and featuring with the spare designs of Viktor Kopasz, this is the type of book that welcomes rereading, opening up fresh insights with each visit. Sometimes serious, sometimes light, Róbert Gál has the right feel and touch for this type of writing. His experience and comfort with the form is fully evident here in these “naked thoughts.” And, what is the harm in encouraging a little thinking? After all:
The only fear of one who is given to thinking is that he will see the light. (III)
2 thoughts on “Given to thinking: Naked Thoughts by Róbert Gál”
Well, actually, I love aphorisms – the best can stop you in your tracks and really get you thinking. I’ll have to look out for this!
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I love them too. And many philosophers have employed them. But in the wrong type of circumstances, a serious academic essay, I imagine it could strike the wrong note. I was referring to one of those guides to literary terms that I thought was pretty narrow in their views of when some of these time honoured techniques should be used!
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