The house of our consciousness is made of words. The place we live and the windows we look through are language-woven artifacts. Living in tense times, as we are, words nowadays especially count. A tweet can reverberate with unsettling waves across the planet. Words, magnified wildly on the Internet, can drive one to suicide, cause a riot, inspire murder, even trigger a civil war.
Language shapes experience through the rainbow of its infinite meanings. I am, consequently, drawn to the books of poet, photographer, and master anthologist, Phil Cousineau. Cousineau cares deeply about words and always writes from a soulful perspective. The author’s recent—he has written many books—is a meditation on the love of language and on the art of writing.
Here’s the Rabelaisian title in full: The Accidental Aphorist: A Curiosity Cabinet, Aphorisms, Maxims, Epigrams, Laconic Lucubrations, Fragments from the Notebooks, Back Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Sisyphus Press, 2017).
So this is a book composed from a miscellany of notes, unused or early fragments of thought, sundry observations, gathered together under the rubric of the term aphorism. An element of chance permeates the structure of this cabinet of curiosities, and the title takes us into a world of accident and contingency: a book of aphorisms clustered around themes that range from the flights of sport to the flights of mysticism.
Ordinary experience is like a cabinet of curiosities, a stream full of unpredictable transitions and dreamlike disruptions, bubbling up from our subliminal selves or else descending on us from the world outside. A strip of accidental aphorisms is perhaps a more accurate portrait of a mind than a well-crafted narrative with beginning, middle, and end.
An anthology of aphorisms is like a mirror of life, a broken mirror perhaps, with glittering shards and splinters in seeming disarray. A moment of articulate existence, an aphorism must be brief, but also complete. A few examples:
“Live for the chase with the hell-hounds for the unachievable meaning of the world, the hunt for the deeply real, it being just enough to give you a ferocious sense of purpose.”
“Beware of the soul eaters. They’ll have your wife for breakfast, your children for lunch, and you for supper.”
“Coming around to the lacerating possibility that the source of depression is not being who we really are.”
The ineffable, consumption, depression—not obviously connected themes, but in each a depth of utterance, and a note of finality—or a point of departure. Such is the aim of the aphorism; it must fulfill itself in the short compass of its life. So in a sense every aphorism is a parable of life.
It implies that we are strong enough to celebrate the closure of existence—that one can say: I have lived my moments, moments that were full and perfect. I have touched divinity and dreamt the impossible. I have made my marks, traced the tracks I left, and leave to you these aphorisms of my journey.
Cousineau has formed a book from asides, excesses, trains of inventiveness that crystallized but ended by the wayside. The beloved rejects, the discards that pulsed with unrealized life—a region of himself haunted by residues that might with a touch spring to new life. They lay there poised, isolated, disconnected; afloat among the sleeping shadows of the subliminal mind, waiting to be evoked.
Perhaps in every soul lay images, feelings, tones, defined but undirected, in states of uneasy indetermination. They have no pattern and no firm purpose, but they are part of us, dormant yet restless, the neglected wellspring of our inner aphorist.
Aside from the metaphysical leitmotif of a book of aphorisms, Cousineau’s is both memoir and manual of instruction on the art of writing. One salutary effect is a quickened desire to select, shape, reshape, condense. In a good aphorism, the things adroitly left unsaid excite the imagination as much as what is said.
Another effect of aphoristic practice, induced by Cousineau’s craft, is a feeling of lightness of mind. The body of our thought is words; that body can be agile or leaden, slender or obese, light-footed or dragging and ponderous. Aphorizing is thus a type of exercise meant to enlighten our minds as well as our discourse.
But it’s not easy, as Chuang-Tzu knew who wrote: “Joy is feather-light--but who can bear it?”
I’ve commented on the aphorism as a literary form. The offerings in this book vary in range from playful to mythic. On the same page, for example, we find: “The function of the mind is to identify; of the imagination, to strangify.” This is playful and invents a useful word. Souls are dying from the familiar, and there’s a whole poetics of strangeness here, but delivered with a light touch.
Just below, on the same page in this novel of bright moments, follows an aphorism that we could call a short short story: “I have always lived with a stranger in my soul. I can’t get him to leave. So I’ve been building a room for him in the attic. It’s taking forever.” One could write a long commentary on this, but saying so will have to suffice.
Phil Cousineau has turned the aphorism into a spiritul exercise. By pruning our verbal mass, he seems to be saying, we may graduate to a new lightness of being, and with practice maybe even learn to levitate on the wings of our prose style.