The Return of the Epigram


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People find a great deal of satisfaction worrying about attention span, at least for a little while, and especially in the realm of popular culture. Twitter is the latest culprit. It’s recent importance in organizing Iranian street protests notwithstanding, the 140 character posting limit on Twitter makes a certain kind of person nervous. Such persons (such as Baroness Susan Greenfield, a scientist at Oxford University) wonder whether tweeting and other such activities “encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centered.” She goes on to say, “My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and live for the moment.”

Unfair to the inherent joys of buzzing noises and bright lights, the statement is particularly galling to those of us who are rather fond of the moment, and living therein. One wonders during which time period the Baroness would prefer we live. I will leave wholly without comment the fact that Baroness Greenfield is also a Patron of Dignity in Dying.

But even those of us not rushing headlong toward the solemnity of the grave might still be given pause by the empty and surface blathering of so many tweets. Here’s Ashton Kutcher from July 5, 2009: “I just did a google news search for ‘injured in fireworks accident’…. WTF…. people make me laugh.” And here’s Ashley Simpson from June 16, 2009: “going to sleep. whitebutterflies to all ur dreams…” Easy targets, no doubt, but it is no less difficult to find billions of irrelevant tweets from millions of people telling us where they are, what they are about to buy, or something pithy about the weather. There is little doubt that we’re a flighty and superficial race; tools like Twitter don’t always help the matter.

Though Twitter may be guilty for promoting (or at least encouraging) a short attention span, forced brevity is not entirely a bad thing. Humans have been perfecting the art of keeping it short since the beginning of literature. I, for one, am starting to see Twitter as a modern day epigram generator.

The whole point of an epigram is, in fact, brevity. The goal is to grab one thought, one witticism, one idea, one event, one impression, and be done with it. As Coleridge put it (in an epigram):

What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

The greatest epigrams do their damage quickly; they hit and recede. But they linger. The ancient Greek poets did some good work in the area of short, clever poems, but it was the Romans who blew the game open. Martial (first century A.D.) was the acknowledged master of the epigram. He was never afraid to communicate the mundane. But he always managed to put some crackle in it. As Martial himself said, “It is disgraceful to make trifling stuff difficult, and hard work on frivolities is stupid.”

A lot of his work reads like the diary entries of a vain man practicing witticisms for the next party. That assessment probably isn’t too far off the mark. Most of the time, Martial is making fun of someone (he seems to pick random names when doing so), often he is downright wicked, as you can see in my translations from the Latin:

That little dog of yours licks your lips, Manneia
I’m not surprised, he loves to eat shit.

Say what you like, there is art in such stuff. I think of it as “one twist” writing. You’ve got just enough time, in an epigram, to set it up and then knock it down. The epigram is thus the greatest enemy of narrative. Narrative is about threes: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Birth, life, death. And so on. We like it in threes.

But a good epigram dispenses with the middle altogether, it completes a thought even before it has gotten started. Voltaire once said “a witty saying proves nothing.” Exactly. Proof, like narrative, is a creature of triples; premise, argument, conclusion. Wit is a cheater. Wit sidesteps. Epigrams try to steal a sliver of truth without having earned it. Witticisms look for knowledge on the cheap.

This makes me wonder if “epigram” is simply a fancier name for “one-liner.” The two are certainly related. The epigram must surely be the great grandfather of the one liner. But there is one difference. The one-liner relies heavily on delivery, on the personal timing, style, charm, etc., of the person telling the one-liner. Epigrams are a broader category. They work just reading them off the page. That’s why Martial is still good 2,000 years later. The Latin is nice and clean (in composition, if not in content).

You pluck your chest hairs, your legs and arms, Labienus. Everyone knows you shave your pubes for your girl.
So why, again, do you pluck your asshole?

This brings us back to Twitter. Twitter is a natural vehicle for that same, Martialian, epigrammatic mindset. Fragments of experience, half-baked witticisms, clever, if momentary insights, this is the stuff of an interesting tweet. You’ve got one twist and you better make the best of it.

Here’s something by badbanana from June 18, 6:26 a.m.:

The restaurant across the street has gone out of business. I will miss wondering how it stays open.

Or this from a tweet purported to be by Christopher Walken, later discovered not to be:

There’s a kid on a Pogo stick in front of my house. It’s nearly midnight so let’s assume he’s been drinking. This should end well for him.

Or this, in fine Martialian put-down style, from hotdogsladies on June 28, 2008, 6:49 a.m.:

Oh, no. Don’t “leave Twitter.” But, if you must, for the love of God, PLEASE post a long explanation. So our children can know your story.

Or this from Tina Fey on June 10 at 6:03 p.m.:

Oh you kids these days. I can’t tell which one is a hipster and which one’s a hobo. You’re all wearing beards, plaid, and riding a bike.

Martial would have liked them all. He would also have appreciated the mandatory length-limit on Twitter. It forces everyone to think in two steps instead of three. The change of pace keeps you moving, dancing even, at least bouncing around a little bit. It favors immediacy. Sure, the longer story is important, too. But in the long run we’re all dead. Dorothy Parker, a modern heir to Martial if ever there was one, sums it up nicely:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live

And it comes in at 140 characters exactly. •