Excerpt: 'Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit'
Silence, Waterfall and Forest, Arthur Bowen Davies, 1862-1928
From Forging words from Silence by Yahia Lababidi:
I first began experimenting with silence in university. I would go on fasts for days at a week at a time, rationing words, and speaking only when I must – perhaps a mouthful in class, or if someone absolutely needed to hear from me. Otherwise, friends understood that I’d ‘gone under’ and only the very committed continued to leave me voice messages or, braver still, tagging along, noiselessly.
The idea at the time –more inner imperative, really, than any sort of formulated thought- was to sound my depths and think things through. This was my first taste of freedom as an adult, and that is how I chose to exercise it. It was as though, suddenly and without explanation, I was taken in for questioning, and I had to play both parts: officer and suspect. Who was I, What did I know, Why am I here, and Do I have an alibi?
Typically, I’d walk around all day in a semi-trance talking back to the books I’d read, lost in the echo chamber of my head. I read a great deal more those days, again out of an inner imperative, but hardly the assigned work. My self-imposed reading list was a volatile cocktail, unequal parts literature / philosophy, and the discovery of those great contrarians, Wilde and Nietzsche, made my world spin faster. Unaware of it then, this obsessive reading was in fact teaching me how to write. The rhythms and cadences of my Masters insinuated themselves into my style, just as their stances and daring were persuading me to distrust ready-made ideas and try to articulate better questions.
It was out of these silences and (attendant) solitude that I began writing what would become my first book of aphorisms – by transcribing the heady conversations that I was having with myself at the time. My ‘method’ in writing these aphorisms was simply to jot down on a scrap of paper (the back of a napkin, receipt, or whatever else was handy) what I thought was worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.
If ever I tried keeping a notebook, the thoughts would hesitate leaving their cave – sensing ambush. So, by night I kept bits of paper and a pencil by my side, just in case. And, when something did occur to me, I feverishly scribbled it down in the dark, without my glasses, out of the same superstitious cautiousness of scaring ideas off.
These aphorisms were to reveal me to myself and would serve as the biography of my mental, spiritual and emotional life. I read as I wrote, helplessly, in a state of emergency; and, in my youthful fanaticism, I was convinced that I was squeezing existence for answers, no less. I felt then one should only read on a need-to-know basis, and write discriminatingly, with the sole purpose of intensifying consciousness.
Strangely, during these years of white-hot inspiration, I discovered that when I returned home to Egypt (for the summer, Christmas, and eventually following graduation) I was unable to write aphorisms. No longer the master of my environment, and forced to accommodate the interruptions that make a life, I gradually realized that because I had lost my silences, I had lost my Voice… Which is to say, I composed the bulk of the aphorisms in my book, Signposts to Elsewhere, between the improbable ages of 18-21.
It would take me several years to begin writing again and, out of this unsettling early retirement, two new forms were born: poetry and, eventually, essays. Then, after around a decade of aphoristic silence, these brief arts returned with increasing force, so that now I am almost secreting them out of my pores. Not surprisingly, I and the aphorisms have changed since my teenage years.
I cannot fully comment on this mysterious process, as I seem to be still undergoing transformation; but I can say I am less enamored of the life of the mind (and its chew toys), and helplessly drawn to that of the spirit. This time around, I would like to think I am getting slightly better at stepping out of my own way, and trusting in longing to sing itself.
Impulses we attempt to strangle only develop stronger muscles.
The small spirit is quick to misperceive an insult,
the large spirit is slow to receive a compliment.
Time heals old wounds only because there are new wounds to attend to.
A good listener helps us overhear ourselves.
Envious of natural disasters, men create their own.
Spiritually occurs at the boiling point of religion, where dogma evaporates.
Pleasure may be snatched from life’s clenched fists, not joy.
We are no more related to our past selves than we are to our future selves
To be treated with mercy, some of us must reveal our handicaps, others must conceal theirs.
Truth can be like a large, bothersome fly – brush it away and it returns buzzing.
With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer each time we ask her the same question.
Things are at their most comfortable before they collapse – be they armchairs or relationships.
Alienation: the crippling conviction that one is a minority of one.
Ambiguity: the bastard child of creativity and cowardice.
Arrogance: the vain, younger sister of confidence.
Chemical warfare: psychiatry’s answer to the battlefield of the mind.
Contradictions: the curse of the clever.
Despair: an early surrender, where the spirit dies before the body does.
Discipline: the backbone without which potential cannot stand.
Dreams: what get us through the night, and oftentimes the day.
Hope: the refusal to accept things as they are.
Ideals: maps that omit practical details – like mountain ranges.
Liar: one who claims to tell the truth, always.
Life: a midway point between two unknowns.
Morality: only permitting others to behave as we behave, when we behave.
Nostalgia: the familiar pinch of that outgrown garment.
Self-consciousness: a weed in the garden of self-awareness.
Uncertainty: the starting and ending point of Knowledge.
War: the side-effect of nationalism.
Exceroted from Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, edited by James Lough and Alex Stein, published by Schaffner Press, Inc., November 2015.