Poussin's paintings, Shakespeare's epitaph, Thom Gunn's existentialism, and many other things animate the elegantly written essays in Alfred Corn's new collection of prose, Arks & Covenants. As fascinating as the essays are, though, my favorite part of the book is its collection of aphorisms. There have been times and places when collections of maxims and bon mots have been expected from writers—but our time and place is not one of them. This makes me love them all the more. Here's what I said about Corn's aphorisms in an essay called "Without Trumpets" that serves as an afterword to the book:
Corn’s own eccentricities include his commitment to the aphorism as a literary form. The aphorism, of course, has an ancient and distinguished tradition: for centuries, any French writer without a book of maxims would have to make excuses for the omission. But, as Corn points out in the introduction to the collection of his own aphorisms included here, the form has passed from fashion, and has difficulty finding a publisher and an audience. Corn’s aphorisms certainly deserve an audience for their exemplary mondanité. For the present context, though, it is interesting to note how many of his aphorisms turn upon observations on the same themes around which his criticism revolves. When, for example, Corn writes this observation about dogs, we are back in the realm of cultural influence and transformation: “Dogs outside their masters’ houses at night inspire each other to ‘speak.’ One bark sets off another, and so on until all within earshot wake up and join in. The same with literary folk.” Similarly, when Corn writes ““Insofar as the author’s task is to find speech capable of communicating what can’t be said, writing resembles the Incarnation, in which ineffable deity becomes visible flesh and audible word” we are returning to his obsession with Christian forms of the sacred. And how can we read “Humility is not the same thing as humiliation, but if you’ve never been humiliated you probably won’t attain it” without feeling Corn’s compassion for the social outsider?Arks & Covenants is available here.