The art of the epigram

July 30, 1996|By Stephen Vicchio

"ANYONE CAN TELL the truth, but only a few can make epigrams."

-- W. Somerset Maugham. The making of a good epigram is like the construction of a ship in a bottle. It has to be small enough to fit in a tiny space, but it should come packing a cannon or two.

A simple theory lies behind my employment of an epigram at the head of my essays: someone has managed to accomplish in 10 or 15 words what I am about to attempt in 750 to 1,000. If the reader cannot discern my purposes in a particular piece, I always provide an epigram, fully aware that sometimes the coming attractions are better than the feature itself.

The first century Roman writer, Martial, was the inventor of the epigram, and perhaps its finest practitioner. Between the ages of 45 and 60 he composed 12 volumes of epigrams. When honored by a friend for the brevity of a particular epigram, Martial commented, "You dear friend have written nothing, so your epigrams are still smaller than my best."

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote marvelous epigrams. They were usually so good, he didn't bother to provide the essays that might have followed them. Consider, for example this bon mot on sadness: "Men of profound sadness betray themselves when they are happy: they have a way of embracing happiness as if they wanted to crush it." Nietzsche suggested that his ambition was to say in a few sentences what other men say, or do not say, in whole books.

Oscar Levant defined an epigram as "a wisecrack that played Carnegie Hall," and H.L. Mencken called it "a platitude with vine leaves in its hair." But both men might have been quicker to point out that they were making an exception to their epigrams about epigrams, thus avoiding the dangers of a self-referential paradox.

The epigram is not like any other literary form. For one thing, there is no such thing as a bad epigram. If it is not short, it is a paragraph, and not an epigram. If it does not have punch to it, then it is a platitude. Epigrams are like most other simple but useful inventions: the rest of us are sorry we did not think of it first.

The real devotee of the epigram is more like a prospector than anything else. Using a book of quotations for finding an epigram is like a '49er walking into a jewelry store to find gold.

In our own time, it is difficult to find a good practitioner of the epigram. In my parents' generation Winston Churchill and Adlai Stevenson were always good for an epigram or two. But more recently, the epigram has fallen on hard times, replaced by the sound bite. Sound bites should not be confused with epigrams; it is not only possible but likely that any given sound bite is a bad one.

Failed sound bites bear the same relationship to epigrams that anti-matter has to matter. Failed sound bites are anti-epigrams. George Bush was, perhaps, the inventor of the anti-epigram, where wit and brevity could not be found within hollering distance of each other. Robert Dole is the most recent practitioner of the anti-epigram. If William Hazlitt was correct that "epigrams tell all at once, or not at all," it is clear Mr. Dole has chosen the latter.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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