Interview with an Aphorist

Image courtesy 50watts.com

Image courtesy 50watts.com

Christopher Spranger aphorizes.  And he does it quite well.  In fact, he is the world’s greatest ‘living’ aphorist.  He lives and thinks and aphorizes[1] in Santa Barbara, California, a place where the weather is always perfect.

A few of the more famous dead aphorists are E.M. Cioran, Joseph Joubert and Karl Krauss.  Christopher is their equal, and, in my humble opinion, their better.  Cioran can be depressingly morbid.  Joubert often verges on the flighty.  And Krauss gets bitterly snarky.  On his part, Christopher hits just the right note.  I don’t know what that note is, but it rings clear.

An aphorism, according to my dictionary, is “a short, concise statement of a principle; a short, pointed sentence containing some important truth or precept.”  Which is a good definition, but perhaps a little lofty.  Try it this way:  an aphorism is “truth in a nutshell.”  Not necessarily the Truth, sometimes it’s simply a truth.  And – this is the point – they are extremely hard to create and then write down on paper.  Why?  Because they are a mixture of rocket science and art.  In other words, you don’t just sit down and say, “I think I’ll write some aphorisms while I’m waiting.”  It’s not like doing a crossword puzzle.  It’s more like literary alchemy, where instead of turning lead into gold, one transmutes ideas into magical, metaphysical expressions.

Let me give you a couple of examples.  Here are two aphorisms that Christopher conjured up. 

1.    “It is probably best to remain silent in the presence of an exquisitely beautiful woman – unless, of course, you are capable of paying her a compliment that tops the Trojan War.”

2.    “One is never so close to joining a monastery as at the moment of leaving a brothel.”

It takes genius to come up with reflections like that – mirrors that make you stop and say to yourself, “Yeah.  I know just what he means, because I’ve felt that way too.”

What Christopher Spranger does in his aphorisms is verbalize feelings and half-thoughts that we’ve all had. 

When I interviewed Christopher, I thought I’d ask him some regular questions and he’d respond with regular answers.  Boy was I wrong.  My questions are regular enough, but his answers are extraordinary.

Christopher has had two volumes of his aphorisms published:  The Effort to Fall, published by Green Integer, which publishes very avant garde, intellectual books.  This book is so good I own three copies of it and have given it as Christmas and birthday gifts.

His second book was released in 2007, published by Leaping Dog Press, which specializes in distinctive, literary books.  Entitled The Comedy of Agony:  A Book of Poisonous Contemplations.  And like his first book, it is a gem too precious to sell.

Interview: 

Could you provide a little background information about yourself?  Where you work, what you do, education?  Very little bio information is available about you.  Perhaps you prefer it that way.

The time I spent incarcerated in schools is not at all relevant to my intellectual development. I never nourished any academic goals and I’m pretty much allergic to institutions of learning. My method--if it can be called that--has always been the same: what seems to me important I pursue on my own, with a passion bordering on mania. I am suspicious of any kind of “learning” that is not voluntary and developed in accordance with the needs of the individual doing it. Compulsory education is a diabolical idea--but the emotional numbness of many worked in concert with the Satanic possession of a few, and so it came about. Now combine this with the prostitution of schools to the leviathan of business--their debasement into “career training” centers—and what comes into view is an absolute travesty which brings disgrace upon our time. As for what I do--well, I write. But can that be considered work? I suspect not. In any case not legitimate work--despite Rimbaud’s assertion that “the hand which holds the pen is as good as the one which holds the plow.” Didn’t Rimbaud himself kick literature aside in favor of the far more respectable profession of gun-running? Perhaps writing is something more akin to a crime. And, indeed, the writer, although not quite so capable of bewitching the romantic imagination as such lively characters as the whore, the hustler, and the loan-shark, nevertheless inhabits his own little underworld.

What do you do for fun?  In other words, what gives you pleasure as an intellectual human being? 

What I like best is reading before the fire and I wish that all of life were just a long winter’s night which I could spend in this way.

Do you have any hobbies?

I try to have hobbies but higher forces seem bent on interfering! For awhile I grew chile peppers, but it was terrible to watch as each year they were stripped of their leaves by some indefatigable pest I never managed to defeat. Other disasters took place as well—for example, once a huge piece of palm fell down and cut one of my plants in half. Schopenhauer insists on seeing the plant as “wholly content” with existence, while Voltaire envisions the garden as a place of refuge from the misfortunes reigning in every other sphere of life. No gardener would be capable of advancing such wildly romantic views.

How in the world did you ever come to write aphorisms?  What process led you to aphorisms?

Faced with a huge bunch of words, I feel a bewilderment bordering on vertigo. I write in constant fear of being submerged beneath a tidal wave of words. The more sentences I produce, the more menaced and overwhelmed I feel; and so, to get relief, I venture into that dense forest and begin hacking away. This in conjunction with the fact that I’m allergic to the cult of greatness in all of its forms (I have always preferred the small and insignificant to the great and important) no doubt explains why everything I write tends toward the infinitesimal.

How do you write your aphorisms?  In a technical sense?  Do they just come to you?  Or do you slowly piece them together?

Some immediately present themselves to my mind in their final form. Others develop more slowly, over a period of months, or years.

The Effort to Fall is a brilliant book, ranking with Joubert and Cioran in my opinion.  What was the impetus behind the book? 

I wrote it out of a desire to be free—I mean internally, not externally. I don’t think writing is a solution to any sort of external problem; on the contrary, unless one has the good fortune to find oneself in an environment favorable to one’s personal development it is extremely risky if not completely suicidal to commit oneself to any kind of spiritual task. He who goes ahead and does it anyway will have to make countless sacrifices and learn to exist in a situation where his sanity is always in jeopardy. But the beautiful thing is that the book you write is completely your own. It constitutes your own space which you can populate in any way you like—where you can let whatever you want which is within you unfold. What’s more, this space is basically inaccessible to all but those who have had experiences similar to yours and so are capable, on some level, of appreciating what is being communicated. Those who would criticize a book are barred entrance to it by their very attitude; they remain always on the outside without seizing the essence. The space of the book is hence a sacred space which cannot be profaned.

More practically, how did you ever get it published?  Was it rejected multiple times, or did Green Integer immediately pick it up for their list?

If a book as out of tune with the times as The Effort to Fall found a publisher it was pretty much totally due to the persistence and dedication of one person who prized this record of my madness and wanted it to be known to the world. I had very little to do with it. Now, when the book first appeared the title under which it was listed was The Effort to Fail, and the genre generated enough perplexity that it started getting classified under “self-help.” Human error? Perhaps. Though I prefer to see this as a piece of humor—or should I say insight?—on the part of Providence.

Some of your theological aphorisms indicate, perhaps, some type of religious background.  Is that true?

I definitely feel a greater affinity with religious thinkers than with philosophers. There are some philosophers, like Plato, whom I still frequent with enthusiasm, but my concerns are basically religious in nature. I have always been addicted to religious ideas and there are some books I read pretty early on which made a powerful impression that hasn’t faded a bit, like Genesis, Job, and Ecclesiastes. I am on a continual tour of the literature of the different traditions and always come upon things there which completely blow me away. In the Middle Ages I’m sure I would have been a priest; but the present epoch has conferred on me the privilege of being something which is--in my view--even more elevated: a “slacker.”

Do you write in any other genre?  Is a novel perhaps in your future?  Or a history?  Or a biography?

I don’t seem to have the knack of adjusting myself to genres. The book I’ve been laboring over lately, for example—which began developing as I was putting the finishing touches on The Effort to Fall—refuses to fit neatly into any existing genre. I know it should be finished by now yet I feel I’ve just begun. Well, I guess that’s what I get for galloping into an unknown province without a map!

At times, there's a wonderful, gloomy humor in your work.  Is that deliberate, or does it simply flow out? 

To tell the truth I always start off intending to communicate with unprecedented dourness the fundamental horror of conscious life. But as time passes my doubts about the solemn nature of such an enterprise multiply until at last I am overtaken by an irresistible desire to corrupt my own design. By this route humor creeps into my work.

Creative people often explore other disciplines, such as music or art.  Do you paint or write poetry or compose piano concertos? 

Were I ever tempted to do something so foolish as to compose a piano concerto I’d think of Nietzsche’s works for piano and be cured of the total craziness of such an aspiration at once. Here is someone who must have had a hundred times more talent as a composer than I do but I doubt the history of music will ever recover from his “contribution”! For an author, isn’t just changing genres a perilous undertaking involving terrible risk? Look at Cicero: a prose writer without parallel, yet he insisted on venturing into poetry--and his poems are one of the great disasters of literature. Even if they had been packed full of personal jabs, I bet Antony wouldn’t have ordered his hands cut off for those! Mediocrity has the gift of making men more tolerant.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?                                                                                   

I am profoundly susceptible to many forms of music, as that image of devastation, my audiogram, unfortunately proves. It would no doubt behoove me to temper my ardor before the onset of permanent deafness, but I find that hard to do, as I have always desired to be absorbed and dissolved into a massive blast of melodic sound. I like Portuguese Fado, Bulgarian folk, traditional Chinese music—the list goes on and on. I agree with Mozart that the organ is the queen of instruments: any instrument that becomes a permanent part of the structure of a cathedral must be on a plane of its own. Above all I like the Baroque, particularly Vivaldi, especially his Gloria, the Et in terra pax of which could only be adequately intoned by a chorus of ghosts. Trabaci I also like and few pieces of music have moved me so much as his Consonanze stravaganti--though his Canto fermo del secondo tono is equally mind-blowing. I could listen to either one of those without tiring until the end of time. But for me the summit of music is Bach’s Passacaglia. I am awestruck by the manner in which Bach cosmically transforms Buxtehude’s material. The level of elevation attained in this piece of music is unwonted--almost terrifying. Listening to it I feel the foundations of Being shake! From the Passacaglia I have learned that this universe is not the limitless soup of galaxies it seems but rather something more akin to a trembling leaf on a great tree that a violent storm will some day rip up by the roots and hurl over a cliff into the ocean. My only hope is that I can be here, in media res, when that happens.

What do you read? 

I’m basically all over the place and quite mercurial. I can’t keep to a single disciplined path like an ant does. But I always return to the same books: my favorites. I finish one of these, and then after a more or less long pause, begin it again--so there is something of eternal recurrence in my reading habits, perhaps. I do sometimes read a book simply for research purposes, but rarely: that is the scholar’s method, not mine. As a general rule, I read only what I feel driven to read. I have always associated reading with survival: for me it is a matter of life and death. I reach for a book in the same way as a carbon monoxide victim reaches for an oxygen mask.

What are you reading now? 

Lately I’ve been rereading The Human Age, by Wyndham Lewis.

What's your favorite book of all time? 

The Daodejing, perhaps. Or The Blue Cliff Record. Or Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. Or . . . How can I decide? There are so many books that have made it a little easier for me to breathe. Without them this world would seem to me a wasteland for sure.

What kind of people do you enjoy?  Do you hang out with only writers?  Or are you socially eclectic, finding joy in many different types of people?

I’m a hermit who loves to socialize. But most of the time I lack the opportunity to do so. Other times I have the opportunity but lack the energy. (For me socializing is like running a marathon: after the first five minutes or so I’m ready to collapse, yet the race continues!) Conversation has a catastrophic effect on my nerves: I prefer to be in the company of someone with a pacified will with whom I can tranquilly drift through silence in a semi-conscious state. Why talk? Why think? Why do anything at all? During this long, uncomfortable trip to Nowhere which is life the sort of person I’ve come to appreciate most is the one who, like an airline stewardess, offers me, in passing, a pillow on which to rest my head.

_____

[1] Since one aphorizes aphorisms, which may also be called ‘maxims,’ it would be safe to say he “maximizes.”  Which makes it sound like he expands things, like inflating balloons.  Whereas in fact, he makes things smaller, reducing entire philosophies to one sentence.