A one-day conference at the University of York aims to rehabilitate the miniscule literary genre of the aphorism, and for the first time showcase its complex development in the long period of Modernism. Keynote speakers include Dr Mark Sandy (Durham University) and Dr James Williams (University of York). For more information, see the conference website.
‘You cut life to pieces with your epigrams’, says Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray to Lord Henry. His statement is itself an adept epigram, encapsulating a particular kind of aphoristic writing which is pointed and authoritative, yet retains a hint of frivolity. Although aphoristic and epigrammatic writing hails from antiquity and has always been a diverse and popular literary genre, the final years of the Victorian era saw a surge in the popularity of the aphorism. As the rhythms of life and industry accelerated, along with the consumption of information, aesthetic fashions followed suit, and the aphorism came to encapsulate the condensation, spontaneity and fragmentation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernity. As Henry James’ epigrammatic assessment of the Victorian novel implied, ‘loose, baggy monsters’ were out, economy of language was in, and the art of aphorism was revivified.
Along with its subgenera, such as the epigram, the witticism, and the apophthegm, the aphorism expresses the kernel of a truth in surprising ways, while playfully destabilising it––a duality embodied by Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human (1878), one of the first modern works to undermine the systematised nature of western philosophical thought by employing aphoristic writing. On a more quotidian level, with advances in modern media drawing the cult of celebrity into the literary world, modern and modernist writers became celebrated for their bon mots. Accordingly, the nimble one-liner popularised by Wilde and Mark Twain was taken up and turned to different purposes by later public figures such as G.K. Chesterton, Winston Churchill, T.S. Eliot, and Dorothy Parker. As this diverse company suggests, the aphorism can assume as many styles and modes as possible themes, while its airtight economy squeezes and condenses meaning rather than whittling it. Like a quaint contraption ingrained with cryptic clues that slowly spool out meaning, the modern aphorism is ‘neither a truism on the one hand, nor a riddle on the other’, as the late-Victorian journalist, John Morley put it.
This one-day conference aims not only to showcase the distinctive character of aphoristic writing in modernity, but also to rehabilitate the critical status of this miniaturised, ephemeral literary genre. We invite 20 minute papers and panel proposals on any of the following variations upon this theme (although respondents should not consider themselves restricted to these topics):
- Aphoristic subgenres (epigram, apophthegm, maxim, proverb, sententia, etc.)
- Aphorisms and politics
- Celebrity and sound-bites
- Paradox and/or self-contradiction
- Technical ingenuity and/or innovation of thought
- Aphorisms and modernism
- Aphorisms and decadence
- The stylistics of aphorisms
- Witticisms and quips
- Earnestness and irony
- Quibbling and wordplay
- Management of meaning: ambiguity, multiplicity, denseness
- fel vs mel epigrams
- The practice of quotation
- Epigraphs, dedications and other paratextual fragments
- Aphorisms implanted within larger texts
- Aphorisms and literary theory
- Modern aphoristic writing as influenced by antiquity and the Renaissance
- Anti-aphorisms: platitudes and commonplaces
- Anti-aphorisms: parody and nonsense aphorisms
- Conversational and anecdotal aphorisms
Panels will follow the format of three 20-minute papers followed by questions. Abstracts of no more than 250 words are invited by 1st May 2015 (extended deadline). Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The conference organisers are Dr Michael Shallcross and Dr Kostas Boyiopoulos.