I wouldn’t exactly call myself a hypomnematamaniac, or anything. Actually, I just discovered the concept of hypomnemata quite recently -a few days ago, in fact. I had a bit of time on my well-washed, socially distanced hands, I suppose, and the thought occurred to me that I had never read all of Plato’s Republic, nor had I ever completely conquered Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, although I had heard interesting things about him when I was in university. Imbued with the same spirit, I thought I might even tiptoe past the first page in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and see how far I could get.
But let’s face it, even assuming I had been able to accomplish these things, and that any of my friends had ever heard of the authors -or actually cared- would I be any better off? Sometimes, even if you’re terminally bored, you just don’t want to read the entire 2000 word magnum opus by some philosopher with an unpronounceable name -especially when, with a little luck, there’d be a three or four sentence synopsis of their thoughts in Wikipedia. You don’t always have to confess your sources to impress people…
At any rate, it got me wondering about the primacy of message over methodology. Do we enjoy poetry for its information or its enchantment; Shakespeare for instruction, or pleasure? Is there, in other words, something greater than plot -the messenger looming as large as the message?
There was a pre-internet time, millennia ago, when a younger me was enamoured of the précis. It first occurred to me when a friend reminded me that we were supposed to hand in a book report the next day on some assigned reading in my first year university English Lit course; I had been busy with other of my own reading. She recommended her copy of the Classic Comic Book version that managed to reify the story. Why in the world would I try to read something as unreadable as Spencer’s The Faerie Queene when somebody had already done it for me -even if it was only Book 1? It was my first hypomnema, I suppose -although it was not really a series of notes, or observations on the story, as much as a plot summary… Okay, a cheat-sheet. But any port in a storm, eh? And anyway, you have to start somewhere.
But the years have changed me -or perhaps it’s merely my reading material; I am now as impressed with the presentation as with the point it’s trying to make. The realization that I am the messenger of my own story is sobering. And, as with most stories, there are parts of it that might themselves be singled out for further study, lessons that could be learned even while the narrative continues apace. In fact, analyses of these snippets might well presage the conclusion -point to where it might all end up.
Indeed, the rather pedestrian thought occurred to me that these clues are embedded in most stories -it’s how they progress. So it was with some relief to find that I wasn’t alone in this line of thought -although in a way I hadn’t anticipated. In his essay, Andrew Hui, an associate professor in literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, suggests that much of the historical development of philosophy may be reducible to a series of short aphorisms describing their tenets: https://aeon.co/essays/aphorisms-tell-philosophys-history-as-fragments-not-systems
He rather likes the tidiness of aphorisms and asks ‘What if we see the history of philosophy not as a grand system of sustained critique but as a series of brilliant fragments?’ Why indeed? Much as I enjoyed all of my university philosophy courses, there were only so many insights I could take home with me each night. Only so much wisdom I could store, let alone retrieve over the years.
So, the packaging was important; aphorisms are only lightly wrapped. And after all, even ‘science turns what is a mere aggregate of random thoughts into something coherent.’ But you have to start with the thoughts, the ideas, the intuition before coherence develops. And they may not all overlap. We, the beneficiaries can only hold so much.
I suppose I took what I thought was important from all and sundry: Descartes, no matter how many other fields he influenced, started me thinking with one simple aphorism: ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. Or Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’; Plato: ‘Time is the image of eternity’; Aristotle, Plato’s pupil: ‘What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies’; Thomas Huxley: ‘Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.’ But, although the list seems endless, whatever I quote still requires examination -the aphorism is merely the gate to a further field of thought -the fence only holds the idea, it does not describe it. That is the recipient’s duty. ‘Good aphorisms demand to be interpreted. And in their interpretation is an invitation for the readers to engage in their own philosophical enterprise – to do philosophy themselves. Aphorisms, then, are at once before, against and after philosophy.’
And yes, I imagine there is certainly a benefit for someone disciplined enough weld these pithy statements into lengthy profundities -organizing them much like putting similar essays in one box. I cannot argue that. But how much of that discipline would accompany me through the years? Only the wisdom, probably; only the succinct observations.
There was, of course, a time when I was closer to the source -a time when I was still in university and trying to decide what to do with my life. I had been asked to consider an academic career, and I think the idea probably went to my head; Margaret was not pleased, to say the least. At any rate, it resulted in the woman with whom I’d been in a rather tenuous relationship deciding to leave me. It was the 60ies, and the second wave of Feminism was crashing into the Vancouver beaches. I’m not sure whether that played a role in her decision, but she quoted Simone de Beauvoir at me on that fateful night in a West End restaurant, I remember.
I had just attempted to congratulate myself for being considered for the academic invitation with a toast. Perhaps I initiated it too loudly, though, because several people in the restaurant turned around to stare at me. Margaret, clearly embarrassed, scowled at me, gathered her coat, and stood up to leave. When I stared at her, wondering what I had done, she wrinkled her face, obviously furious, and hissed at me – “Qu’est-ce qu’un adulte? Un enfant gonflé d’âge”. We were both in the same philosophy courses, so I recognized it as a Simone de Beauvoir quote from her Woman Destroyed: ‘What is an adult? A child blown up by age.’ It hurt, and yet, as sometimes happens with a remark made in anger, she was right… How could I forget it?
I thought about her accusation for years after we parted company, even though I declined my professor’s offer and wandered elsewhere instead.
And so, along with the likes of Santayana, Spinoza and Sartre, the aphorisms of Simone de Beauvoir have also accompanied me into old age. Not their entire oeuvres, mind you, just the important bits of their thoughts: hypomnemata -much like another fragment that has wedged itself in my head from the poet Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
I would not have it any other way…