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In that case, what could virtue possibly be? Virtue, he says, would consist of "unifying opposites," of living in conformity with all the paradoxical exigencies of this truth. Thus virtue means totalizing the untotalizable, obliterating the space of discontinuity and difference across which good and evil flicker, reel, and flounder in mutual contamination, neither one being entirely itself. So real virtue is no more practicable than truth. Practical virtue consists in the The Golden Age of Aphorism 11 acknowledgment and knowledge of truth as virtual rather than actual, self-contradictory by nature.

Au moral et au physique, tout est mixte. Rien n'est un, rien n'est pur" Chamfort, In the moral and the physical, everything is mixed. Nothing is whole, nothing is pure. To live, to observe, to write, no matter how well, is to be caught up in the play of discontinuity, decomposition, corruption, impurity, to be reminded of the radical alterity of truth and virtue. Ce serait une chose curieuse qu'un livre qui indiquerait toutes les idees corruptrices de 1'esprit humain, de la societe, de la morale, et qui se trouvent developpees ou supposees dans les ecrits les plus celebres, dans les auteurs les plus consacres;.

On verrait que presque tous les livres sont des corrupteurs, que les meilleurs font presque autant de mal que de bien. Chamfort, 52 A curious thing indeed would be a book which indicated all the corrupting ideas of the human mind, of society, of morality, which are developed or supposed in the most famous writings, in the most consecrated authors;. One would see that almost all books corrupt, and that the best do almost as much harm as good.

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Practical virtue consists in the recognition of corruption, contamination, everywhere. The man who looks to reason to save him is "like a sick man poisoned by his doctor. Nothing is what it claims or seems to be, including this practical virtue. To live in perpetual awareness of the virtuality and paradoxically of one's own pretenses, designs, aspirations, machinations, is to forgo all possibility of conventional contentment.


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There are, says Chamfort, only two ways to achieve any happiness. The first and more common way is by a "willful paralysis of the soul" Chamfort, This is the bliss of laziness and mediocrity. The result of the other way bears no resemblance to what is usually conceived as happiness, and is to be achieved only by wholly purging oneself of hope.

Hope is nothing but a charlatan who dupes us without cease; and for me happiness has begun only when 1 have lost hope. I would happily place on the door to paradise the verse which Dante placed on that of Hell: Abandon all hope, you who enter here. It is by trying to look beyond the corruption, to an impossible conclusion, hoping for an end to it, that we make our virtuality unbearable. To live comfortably within it, we have to forgo the desire to conclude. Nor does reason offer a third possibility of happiness.

The man who would have reason lead him to contentment is like the one who has his mattress cleaned so often that he wears it out and winds up having to sleep on the floor: He who submits all pleasure to analysis ends up without any Chamfort, Because every aspect of our daily lives is paradoxical and virtual, we live shrouded in illusions. Practical virtue consists in not trying to put them off, which would be impossible, but in recognizing them as illusions. Life, the disease for which sleep is a palliative and death the only cure, is this play of illusoriness, this reading of masks, the moralist's perspective on men and events as theatrical, as masks see Van Delft.

The genealogy of the genre includes the medieval Church's belief in the events of this life as representations, rehearsals of the higher life of the soul Huizinga, La Rochefoucauld cast doubt on the spiritual level, the Logos of such a system, but tried to reinvent a morality that could do without it. All his successors in the French tradition accepted this premise, but all until Chamfort struggled to put something on the empty throne of Truth. Chamfort, however, is not interested in truth and says so.


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He has turned the old notion of the moralist as interpreter and critic of the human spiritual drama on its head. The moralist chases after the masks in the drama as avidly as if he believed that there were faces behind them, but does not turn away when the masks reveal themselves as concealing—signifying—nothing. II y a des homines a qui les illusions sur les choses qui les interessent sent aussi ncccssaircs que la vie.

Quelqucfois cependant ils ont des apercus qui feraient croire qu'ils sont prcs de la verite; mais ils s'en The Golden Age of Aphorism 13 eloignent bien vite, et ressemblent aux enfants qui courent apres un masque, et qui s'enfuient si le masque vient a se retourner. Chamfort, There are men for whom illusions concerning everything that interests them are as essential as life. Sometimes, however, they may have insights which would make one think they were close to the truth; but they quickly run from it, and are like children who run after a mask, and run away if the mask turns toward them.

Attainment of truth means the loss of illusion, and that is equated by Chamfort with the death of the soul: "la perte des illusions amene la mort de Tame, c'est-a-dire un desinteressement complet sur tout ce qui touche et occupe les autres hommes n'est-ce pas? Those who have not perceived the death of the soul, to whom illusion is too necessary to be seen as illusion, who believe in a truth short of death, will hide their faces or take refuge within masks of their own, when the masks they have been pursuing fall away to reveal nothing except perhaps more masks.

The pursuit of these masks is a game of boxes within boxes; there is always another box within the one we have just opened, the one we see.

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There is nothing to win, nothing in the boxes but other boxes—no soul, no Logos, no transcendental signified. This death of the soul is not an event or a thing, but an emptiness, an absence which precedes our perception of it. Death is not totalization within the system of signifiers, or masks, but the end of wishing to totalize. It is not the end of life, but that which entirely exceeds the disease of life, its absolute other, the other of life-asdying. It is the unqualifiable alterity of this mediated existence, death as death, rather than death as life, death-as-dying-as-life.

It is what we do not and cannot say. This disinterestedness is virtual, of course, and can be approached only asymptotically. For life, the disease, is interest. The only completely disinterested subject is a dead one. The disease, the madness of imagining faces where there are only masks, is the madness of imputing life, reality, a signified to a text, suspending disbelief, disinterestedness, and sanity long enough to believe in the illusion of words, to allow the imagination to conjure images of reality from a series of verbal masks. In this sense, everyone is reading all the time.

For Chamfort the virtuous man, the moral man, is the one who tries not to forget that he is mad, diseased, chasing a mask with no face behind it, writing virtuous books which can only corrupt because they depend on the very madness they attempt to surmount; without that madness they could never be read or written. The reader, in his purest state of delusion, is like the lover who has made up the object of his passion out of his own need to be loved, out of the insanity which is his own being, projecting his own fantasy behind the mask, the epidermis, of the beloved: L'amour, tel qu'il existe dans la societe, n'est que 1'echange de deux fantaisies et le contact de deux epidermes.

Chamfort, Love, as it exists in society, is nothing but the exchange of two fantasies and the contact of two epidermises. II semble que 1'amour ne cherche pas les perfections reelles; on dirait qu'il les craint. II n'aimc que celles qu'il cree, qu'il suppose; il ressemble a ces rois qui ne reconnaissent de grandeurs que celles qu'ils ont faites. Chamfort, It seems that love does not seek real perfections; one would rather say that it fears them. It loves only the perfections it creates, which it supposes; it resembles those kings who acknowledge only the greatnesses which they have created.

On dit communement: "La plus belle femme du monde ne peut donner que ce qu'elle a; ce qui cst tres faux: elle donne precisement ce qu'on croit recevoir, puisqu'en ce genre c'est 1'imagination qui fait le prix de ce qu'on regoit. Chamfort, ; see also maxims and , pp. The Golden Age of Aphorism 15 But if the lover, like the simple-minded reader, unaware of his own suspension of disbelief, seems ridiculous, it is only as a somewhat more feverish, delirious victim of the same infection.

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Love is more fun than marriage, says Chamfort, in the same way that novels are more fun to read than history Chamfort, The conventions governing the latter are more confining, more sober, but both are texts. The difference is merely one of conventions which govern composition and interpretation.

Similarly, the man in love is like a reader of fairy tales, while the "reasonable" perhaps married man is like a reader of history Chamfort, Both are readers, and history, for being more credible, is no less a text, a mask, an illusion, than the fairy tale. The lover and the reader of fairy tales merit attention, because they are caricatures of the reasonable man and the reader of history.

The latter, insofar as they believe their illusions, are even more ridiculous for being less obvious.

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The reasonable man's sensibility may be less distorting, less inflamed than the lover's, but it works by the same principle. The difference is one of convention and intensity. The following pensee, for instance, might appear to apply only to the lover. Toutes les fois que je vois de 1'engouement dans une femme, ou meme dans un homme, je commence a me defier de sa sensibilite. Cette regie ne m'a jamais trompe. Chamfort, Every time I see infatuation in a woman, or even in a man, I begin to mistrust his or her sensibility.

This rule has never misled me. Yet there is not for one moment a man or woman entirely free of some kind of infatuation. Stripped of all others, there would still remain the infatuation with self that is the basis for life. The reader of history is still a reader. If some sensibilities are more suspect than others, all are suspect.

Chamfort wrote in his Eloge de Moliere that the comedy of character was no longer possible, for character, as theatrically understood, was no longer possible: "les caracteres ont ete detruits par 1'abus de la societe poussee a 1'exces" The precept of conformity had replaced character with mask, turned the theater of society into a mere masked ball in which everyone wears more or less the same disguise.

Now, says Chamfort, it is all too apparent that the observer of society faces masks rather than characters. This is no grist for the dramatist's mill, but rather for the moralist's. But not for the moralist who would find truth or character behind or among the masks—such naive philosophers reminded Chamfort of African natives scouring the bushes for souls. J'ai lu, dans jc ne sais quel voyageur, que certains sauvagcs de 1'Afrique croient a I'immortalite dc Fame. Sans pretendre expliquer cc qu'cllc devient, ils la croient errantc, apres la mort, dans les broussaillcs qui cnvironncnt leurs bourgades, et la cherchent plusicurs matinees de suite.

Ne la trouvant pas, ils abandonnent cette recherche, et n'y pcnsent plus. C'est a peu pres ce quc nos philosophies ont fait, ct avaient de meilleur a faire. Chamfort, 56 I have read in some traveler or other that certain savages in Africa believe in the immortality of the soul. Without claiming to explain what becomes of it, they think it wanders, after death, in the bushes around their villages, and they look for it several mornings in a row. Not finding it, they abandon the search and think no more about it. This is just about what our philosophers have done, and they had much better things to do.

The moralist, as Chamfort understands him, does not search for anything. He neither wishes nor expects to turn up any valuable quarry during his forays into the societal bushes. He watches others, the searchers and the lookers, the savages, and reflects their striving and their obliviousness as passively as a mirror. He sheds his observations, his reflections of them, like a snake in perpetual molt, having no body to which the words might adhere, no Logos to give them closure.

Chamfort, as Poulet has written, finds a duration of renewal in a constantly reenacted refusal of the present, a perpetual annihilation of present and self, a repeated self-execution. Thus what appealed to him about the French Revolution was its destructive potential, not its promise of progress. The moral stance is one of violent passivity. This strategy relies on a consciousness of death as process, a progressive and constant degeneration which denies any integrity, any character, to self and society, and which acknowledges that deathas-process is not the end of philosophy, the purest and most passive independence and refusal of time, death itself, but rather life.

Thus the moralist is like the dying man who, in order to avoid receiving the sacraments, adopts the strategy of "pretending not to die. His work is a lie against death, which it nevertheless looks to, reflects, and is. As life consists in pretending not to die, writing maxims consists in pretending not to lie, pretending that there is a truth where there is none, that there are faces where there are only masks, that there is life where there is only death. And yet, virtue consists in the self-knowledge of the pretense, in not believing one's own lies and not pretending to believe them.

So it is that, with Chamfort, the maxim becomes a game of language played for its own sake, the poetic taking precedence over the referential and the metalingual. It is he who first exploited those qualities, innate in the genre, which Starobinski and Lewis somewhat misleadingly discover in his predecessor, La Rochefoucauld. It is in Chamfort that the moralist gives up all of the judge's claim to authority, to being a duly constituted interpreter of the law—all, indeed, but the judge's mask. So he becomes something like the lunatic on the streetcorner who claims to be a judge but knows he is not, declaiming to mostly heedless, occasionally frightened passers-by on the uselessness of his and their own endeavors.

As Poor Richard, Franklin did not compose maxims of his own so much as recast and refine what others had written, freely plundering contemporary anthologies of the genre as did other printers of the day. His goal in so doing was not at all literary renown but profit. Amid a wealth of astronomical, astrological, and meteorological information were sprinkled epigrammatic verses and improving aphorisms: "moral Sentences, prudent Maxims, and wise Sayings.

A rather grim wisdom it was, based on thrift, caution, an obsessive hankering for self-sufficiency. Countless school children have been nurtured on such maxims as "God helps them that help themselves," "For want of a Nail the Shoe was lost," or "The sleeping Fox catches no Poultry," indoctrinated whether they knew it or not with all the virtues that "make Fortune yield. Lopez and Herbert, In fact, the proportion of Richard's maxims dealing with money is relatively small, but it is for them that the almanacs, and Franklin as a writer of maxims, are remembered.

It is those particular maxims, many of which were collected in Richard Saunders' most popular work, The Way to Wealth, that elicited the most enthusiastic response in the American mind of the day. Franklin made his living as a printer and a popular writer. The method by which he had learned to write well anticipates Poor Richard's practice as the American La Rochefoucauld: Meeting "with an odd volume of The Spectator," Franklin "thought the writing excellent and wished if possible to imitate it. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same The Golden Age of Aphorism 19 import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.

This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. Autobiography, 19 The passage is significant because it exposes Franklin's pragmatism. He shared with the French writers of maxims a preoccupation with style, with literary manners, but he did not arrive at such an attitude by exhausting the possibilities of a morality within manners, and so he never used his manners, his style, to represent that exhaustion of truth as the French did.

Franklin could not have been less interested in the epistemological obstacles to representing the Good. This is not to say that he did not believe in the congruence of truth and form, but rather that he never became sufficiently aware of the problem to be concerned about it. It would be more accurate, though, to say that he assumed such a congruence rather than that he actively believed in it.

Style as a reflection of truth was not what mattered; making money was. Good style was important because to Franklin the printer it was a commodity. It sold books. This meant that good style was defined much as the American literary canon Strunk and White defines it still—simple, easy of consumption, and accessible to as great an audience as possible, but not to an audience defined by noble status, wealth, a great deal of leisure time, and an overwhelming metaphysical and literary self-consciousness.

Poor Richard Saunders declares frankly his reason for undertaking to write an almanac: "The Printer has offer'd me some considerable share of the Profits. Of course, as already mentioned, Poor Richard is remembered for nothing so much as his contributions to the popular wisdom concerning money. Words make money, in this case, by reinforcing an early and cherished tenet of bourgeois morality: that it ought not to be spent except on making more. This, one supposes, is what justifies spending money on an almanac: that it tells how to make more. Money becomes a material metonymy for moral uprightness and must be retained and increased.

A loose pocketbook connotes loose morals. When you incline to have new clothes, look first well over the old ones, and see if you cannot shift with them another year, either by scouring, mending, or even patching if necessary. Remember, a patch on your coat, and money in your pocket, is better and more creditable, than a writ on your back, and no money to take it off.

When you incline to buy China ware, Chinees, India silks, or any other of their flimsy, slight manufactures, I would not be so hard with you, as to insist on your absolutely resolving against it; all I advise is, to put it off as you do your repentance till another year, and this, in some respects, may prevent an occasion for repentance. Literature, and in fact morality too, are pragmatically subordinated to a principle of wealth. Neither the literature nor the morality, the manners nor the morals, the forme nor the fond, can be allowed to question its own rhetoric, because this would make it less salable, more effete, less accessible to the buying public as well as less useful in the life of business and the business of life.

In this text the apocryphal aphorist hears himself quoted at great length by an old man whom he stumbles on quite by chance. Won't these heavy Taxes quite ruin the Country? How shall we be ever able to pay them? What would you advise us to?


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If you'd have my Advice, I'll give it you in short, for a Word to the Wise is enough, and many Words won't fill a bushel, as Poor Richard says. More interesting than anything he says is Richard's conclusion. Thus the old Gentleman ended his Harangue. The People heard it, and approved the Doctrine, and immediately practised the contrary, just as if it had been a common Sermon; for the Vendue opened, and they began to buy extravagantly, notwithstanding all his Cautions, and their own Fear of Taxes.

I found the good Man had thoroughly studied my Almanacks, and digested all I had dropt on those Topicks during the Course of Five-and-twenty Years. The frequent Mention he made of me must have tired any one else, but my Vanity was wonderfully delighted with it, though I am conscious that not a tenth Part of the Wisdom was my own which he ascribed to me, but rather the Gleanings I had made of the Sense of all Ages and Nations.

However, I resolved to be the better for the Echo of it; and though I had at first determined to buy Stuff for a new Coat, I went away resolved to wear my old One a little longer.

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Reader, if thou wilt do the same, thy Profit will be as great as mine. I am, as ever, Thine to serve thee. Papers, VII, In this one paragraph the difference between Franklin and the French aphorists appears with glaring salience. We have already seen how the French maxim depends on an acute tension between particularity and universality, a tension which must always install a distance within the maxim between observation of detail and pretention to truth, a distance which is always a potential source of irony and in Chamfort is fully realized as such.

This ironic distancing is not inscribed within Franklin's aphorisms, but rather between them and their author, and between them and their readers. This irony is reflected, repeated, in the response of Father Abraham's listeners to his advice, a response which Richard represents as normal and even predictable. The pleasure which these consumers find in aphoristic discourse has very little to do with acting upon the truth it pretends to adumbrate, or with believing in such a truth.

What sort of pleasure can it be, then, if not the linguistic sort which is at the heart of the French practice of the maxim as a literary genre? Such pleasure is achieved through irony, through a distance of paradox within the fragmentary text, and yet the irony and the paradox of Franklin's aphorisms are repressed in the texts and exiled to an imaginary and ironic space between author and fictive persona, between fictive persona and mimetic reader, in the discrepancy between the readers' listeners' pleasure in the aphoristic text and their flagrant disavowal of its content by their acts.

Poor Richard celebrates hearing his own words parroted words which he admits are not his by affecting momentarily, and against his first intention, to act as though he believed them. His last statement is in fact far more ironic than any overtly ironic formulation could be, because the subject of its irony is precisely whether or not it is ironic: "Reader, if thou wilt do the same, thy Profit will be as great as mine. What is to serve the reader—the example of the aphorism's content, or the example of Poor Richard's successful sale of the example of the aphorism's content by enveloping it in a marketable style?

This essential ambiguity between the reader's profit and the author's is the basis for the entire industry of self-help books today. The irony so evident in the maxims of the French is here displaced outside the aphorism to create a distance between author and text, reader and text, a distance mediated only by profit, and by a very ironic equation of the author's profit with the reader's. The linguistic play, the irony, on which the maxim must depend is transposed into a principle of profit, which was never a significant variable in the genre's history in France.

Poor Richard might thus be read as ancestor of the most consis- The Golden Age of Aphorism 23 tently successful of all American genres: the self-help book. The almanac, in fact, is nothing if not a financial, psychological, and spiritual self-help book—Louis Ruykeyser, Dr.

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Joyce Brothers, and Norman Vincent Peale all in one. All three must share, as authors of popular books proclaiming new and useful truth, Richard's implicit equation of the individual and public good with financial emolument. Joyce Brothers ; Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness—the list goes on at length. The preoccupations reflected—money, law, and sex—would seem to make the average American book buyer into the most unabashed and zealous materialist therefore Marxist imaginable.

The titles listed above give some idea both of what a different direction the genre of moralism has taken in America, and of what the difference between Franklin and Chamfort must have been in order for such evolution to occur. Since Franklin, the fragment in America has divorced itself entirely from any pretense of exploring or seeking metaphysical truth. It survives, however, as the huge industry of the self-help book and also as an obsession with trivia. Such volumes as the Wallaces' Book of Lists are a contemporary analogue of Richard Saunders' fragmentary wisdom which, because of the nature of the almanac as repository of useful information, often tended to degenerate even in the eighteenth century into mere fragmentary data.

Witness, for instance, Poor Richard's versified listing of conditions necessary for a legal transfer of land to occur. And that no Woman to it doth lay claim. Know if bound or free The Tenure stand, and that from each Feoffee It be released: That the Seller be so old That he may lawful sell, thou lawful hold.

Have special Care that it not mortgag'd lie, Nor be entailed on Posterity. Then if it stand in Status bound or no: Be well advised what Quit Rent out must go; What Custom, Service hath been done of old, By those who formerly the same did hold, And if a wedded Woman put to Sale, Deal not with her, unless she bring her Male, For she doth under Co vert-Baron go, Altho' sometimes some also traffick so. If Richard Saunders were alive today, he would doubtless include the same sort of aphoristic but hopelessly trivial observations in the style of Ripley's "Believe It or Not" as these, all culled from the Wallaces' book: A herring once lived to be 19 years old.

In a recent poll of human fears, twice as many people were afraid of speaking in public as they were of dying. Making love uses up less calories than throwing a frisbee. There is in all these clipped observations a deference to fact, to data, to the materially real, which never allows any doubt of the metaphysical grounding of such reality, which never accounts, for instance, for the subjectivity of data or the relativity of perception. This concern with fact ignores, then, the conclusions of Einstein and Heisenberg within the very realm of science, esteemed by pragmatic Americans as the only "real" realm of truth since Franklin's day let us not forget that Franklin considered himself first and foremost a man of science, and is remembered first by every American schoolchild as flying a kite in a thunderstorm in order to experiment with electricity , not to mention the more pertinent doubts of Paul The Golden Age of Aphorism 25 de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.

At the same time, the data cited above owe their punch to a certain wry, aphoristic pithiness which implies assumption of and allusion to a certain essence of bedrock truth. The truth implied would, however, have to be rather hopelessly, if not diabolically, banal, to infer from such trivial fragments as the following, which, like the ones cited above, are taken from the back jacket cover of the Wallaces' Book of Lists: Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, John Ruskin, all had one thing in common—they died virgins.

The trend since Franklin's day has obviously been away from the generalization of the maxim, its pretense to unite the universal and the fragmentary, and toward an obsession with the most recondite particularity. But the bizarrerie of detail charms because it seems to partake of a pattern of truth—truth as data, as matter, as palpably real, not metaphysical. It is here that the self-righteous and firebreathing Marxist becomes identical with the most plumply selfsatisfied bourgeois—which may explain why so many American critics, comfortably nestled all their lives in the bosom of American materialistic bourgeois culture, have sought refuge from de Man and Derrida in a reaction to bourgeois culture which calls itself Marxism but which in fact is nothing but a negative duplication of bourgeois materialism.

The trend which Franklin began as a gleaner, rather than creator, of truth continues. The truth is not a matter of formulation. It exists; it needs only to be cast in a salable style and format. What Poor Richard defined as the essence of morality in the eighteenth century—health, wealth, and wisdom, with a liberal accent on the middle term—has been amended only slightly since the eighteenth century to include sexual well-being. This may explain why the aphorism as high literature could not be written in America until recently, when, because of a general failure of positive metaphysical truth, of truth as it had been understood before in the West, an antimaxim came into being see chapter 6.

In the meantime, serious moralistic discourse hid itself in other genres, from the corners and crevices of which, maximlike pronouncements grin and leer like gremlins. We shall see how and try to know why. We will now for a while read the Former of these Books, 'twill help us in reading the Latter: They will remarkably assist one another. Garland of the Supreme Path. For more information, email mollytupper mac. Routledge, London, UK carp exists subsequently space local with this attribution? It will maintain either 2 ll to spend in.

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