In our eight-part series Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence. The artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
W. H. Auden was a compulsive aphorist. His poems and prose are heavily salted with wise maxims; here’s one from a notebook he kept when he arrived in America, in 1939, published much later as The Prolific and the Devourer:
The image of myself that I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others that they may love me.
It strikes home, yes? Perhaps because, for all my public bonhomie, I have so many more serious things on my mind. Or because the love I want from others will aways have a measure of fear in it, fear of my rigor or my temper—but really, all I want is to bring out the best in them. Or because I am so considerate, so habitually obliging and flexible—but I do have my own views, and when the time is right, I will make them heard. Whoever I am, Auden’s aphorism knows me, certainly better than others do, perhaps even better than I once knew myself.
So what is so convincing about this sentence, what prompts the nod and the wry smile? The word sentence itself used to be reserved for such knowing formulae. It is the English translation of the Latin sententia, the jewel of classical rhetoric, maxims fashioned and gathered by keepers of commonplace books from Erasmus to Lichtenberg to Auden himself. (Auden was a connoisseur: in 1966, with Louis Kronenberger, he published his own selection, The Viking Book of Aphorisms.) The compression of sententiae makes them happy for excerption and for transport. They do not depend on particular people to speak them or times or places to happen; their truth is universal, and they declare it with the same equanimity wherever they are found. Certain formal features bolster this claim to wisdom. Balance, for example. Auden’s sentence folds neatly in half. If you were to suspend it by its “is,” it would hang in empty space like a Calder mobile, the words circling in calm and confident self-constellation. Thrift is important, too. It reuses all its key words, “image,” “myself,” “love,” one of each on each side of its fulcrum.
So the sentence sounds true, true and wise, with the autonomy, the poise and abstraction that wisdom confers. But is it? True? Wise? Consider the following variant: “The image of myself that I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is the shadow of the image which I try to create in the minds of others that they may love me.” The meaning of this sententia is opposite, but it is easy to make it plausible by application. I am full of doubts, but when I see others acquiesce to my assertive bluster, I feel a new self-certainty. Or, fearful, I frighten others, and see my invulnerability in their frightened eyes. And so on: now my private sense of self borrows its form from my public performance. The revised sententia has the same confident posture, poised above the mess of my circumstances. It is just about as balanced, and like Auden’s, it drops “in order” from its second half, just to show that its wisdom isn’t merely mechanical or pedantic. The slight negligent grace only enhances its confidence.
It won’t be news to anyone that the great, leather-bound volume of history’s Complete Aphorisms is full of contradictions. Sententiae end up in those books not for their contribution to a self-consistent moral system but for their sudden, irresistible seduction, the sense—almost as with a new lover—that this, at last, is the one. And yet, Auden’s poise is a detachment, too, the sentence not as the urgent story of anyone in particular but as a fleeting, timeless verity. He knew as well as anyone that a maxim is a mood, the momentary romance of a counter-intuition. The experienced lover of wisdom greets it with a smile and a nod that foresees already the fine thrill of its successor. The wisdom of the aphorist, who believes in a form, is different from the wisdom of the aphorism, which believes only in itself.
Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style, which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, will publish in January.
Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.
Read earlier installments of Life Sentence here.