On Bons Mots
When I was a graduate student in the last century, I took a course with the distinguished teacher, novelist, essayist, and poet laureate, Howard Nemerov. I hadn’t known anything about him or his work before I became his student but then threw myself into reading his prose and especially his poetry. I ran into him one morning in the hallway of the graduate center. He looked even more glum than usual. I remembered the old joke about Picasso or somebody confronting a downcast Modigliani on a Montmartre street and asking, “Why the long face?” I put more or less the same question to Mr. Nemerov. His reply has proved memorable. “Ugh,” he explained, shoulders slumping, “I’m on my way to my poetry-writing seminar. Trying to teach those kids to write poetry is like trying to teach penguins the Theory of Flight.”
Penguins, of course, are flightless birds. Nevertheless, there might be some who dream of flying, aspire to it, who, tapping into some collective species-memory, will their flippers to grow back the feathers sported by their reptilian forebears, who yearn to and leave the teeming ice sheet, the Charlie Chaplin shuffling, and take off into a clean Antarctic sky. It would be a beautiful daydream but a forlorn hope. Teaching the Theory of Flight to deluded penguins—not to fly but just the theory of how it’s done—this was expression of futility raised to a power.
Mr. Nemerov delivered his simile as if it were spontaneous which made it the more impressive and also flattering, as though he had conjured it up just for me. Later, I wondered if the comment really had been improvised on the spot. It was too good, too polished; it seemed premeditated. Professor Nemerov had seldom offered such obiter dicta in class; in fact, he said rather little. But, what he did share was pithy, and we listened. For example, during a discussion of Mann’s Doctor Faustus he declared, “Eighty percent of all novels is gossip.” I felt sure he had said that before. The line about poetry students and penguins gave me the same feeling. I wondered if he might even had said it to his poetry students—not to flatten them but to make them laugh and work all the harder to win their wings. I doubt he’d have done it, though; I hoped not. If I wanted to think of myself as an eagle, it certainly wouldn’t encourage me to be told on high authority that I was a penguin.
Mr. Nemerov was generous but he had little patience for undisciplined, self-indulgent, formless verse. I remember his mentioning in class that he disliked Archibald Macleish’s “Ars Poetica” which concludes with what became a popular bon mot at the time but one which Mr. Nemerov deemed mal:
A poem should not mean
He found a backhanded way to let us know what he thought of Macleish’s “Ars Poetica”. He said the truth of it was borne in on him during his stint as poetry editor of Furioso. How? When he came into the office every Monday, his desk was heaped high with unsolicited submissions. Macleish was right because “None of them meant anything—but there they were.” In his judgment, hardly any of these poets made it down the runway, let alone into the air.
Howard Nemerov would have mastered the Theory of Flight on the way to winning his own wings. He piloted bombers during the Second World War serving first as a volunteer with the Royal Canadian Air Force then with the U. S. Army Air Force. After the war, he wrote the powerful elegiac poem, “The War in the Air”:
That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness’s sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.
After I learned this history and read that poem, I felt the humorous linking of penguins to The Theory of Flight had a concealed tragic side to it. Perhaps it was that bit of darkness that has made the apparently offhand comment in the hallway so memorable. It wasn’t just a cheap joke at his students’ expense; it had levels of meaning, like one of his poems. It conveyed not only the incapacity of the would-be poets and the frustration of their teacher but also the mastery of the veteran. “Maestria is where you find it,” he says in one of his poems. Mastery can turn up anywhere, but it isn’t found frequently, let alone everywhere, not even among those who struggle for it, like penguins who think they can be ospreys.
As to teaching, Professor Nemerov was as likely to make a joke about himself as his students. Of his profession he once wrote, “[T]eaching has been for me an education (Lord knows what it has been for my students).” This is another well-turned remark, one at which all self-conscious and self-doubting teachers will nod and smile. Those faced with the task of filling fifty minutes as best they can do learn, often out of desperation. That, however, isn’t what they’re paid for; so, for any teacher, it is a question whether anybody else is learning. Both the crack about penguins and the one about who’s learning tell the truth. Set side-by-side, the second may appear to palliate the first, but one comment is as witty as the other, and as ruthless.
A bon mot is a one-liner, a wisecrack, a witticism, a nugget. The same might be said of apothegms and aphorisms, but the bon mot has at least to appear spontaneous and those do not. Because it is conversational, the bon mot has a context while aphorisms appear to stand alone with nothing before or behind them. For all I know, Mr. Nemerov’s line about the students and penguins may have been conceived as a apothegm, thought up in solitude, revised, and recorded in a note-book for later use. However, it was delivered to me one morning in a corridor of the Raab Graduate Center. It was an answer to a question, a far better one than I deserved.
Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka is full of astonishing remarks from the master, many of which begin as what could be called bons mots that emerged from chatting with the son of his colleague but reach far beyond the limits of mere wisecracks. For example, asked about the true way in life, Kafka replied, “Prayer, art and scientific research are three different flames that leap up from the same hearth.” Young Janouch, who presumably thought he understood about prayer and art, asked about science. Kafka replied: “It is the same begging hand as prayer. Man throws himself into the dark rainbow which spans dying and living, in order to offer existence a home in the cradle of his little ego. That is what science, art and prayer all do.” That is sublime and apparently a snippet of an actual conversation, though rather long for a bon mot.
There is, however, a briefer comment, one I’m sure is from Kafka. It has stuck in my mind for years, but I’ve been unable to track it down: “One can extract so many books from life but so little life from books.” To denigrate what mattered most to him and make reproof ring like a self-reproach sounds like echt Kafka, the author who confessed, “All I am is literature, and I am not able or willing to be anything else.”
So many books from life, so little life from books? Kafka’s assertion has remained with me not only because it is from Kafka and so apodictic, so sure of itself, standing with its legs spread wide, almost pugnaciously, but also because I want to argue with it—or, more precisely, I don’t always concur. I certainly wouldn’t have done so as the alienated, bookish high-school senior who was told by his English teacher that he ought to read Franz Kafka. Mr. Hill had asked me about my plans for the future and I said I’d probably be a lawyer because that’s what my father and grandfather were. “Read Kafka,” he said. “He was a lawyer.” I thought the implication flattering, that it was possible to be both a lawyer and a writer.
In those days, I was an insatiable and romantic reader. The longer a book, the better I liked it: all of Thomas Wolfe (whom I’ve never dared to re-read), all of Joyce (save for Finnegans Wake), lots of Faulkner, Hemingway, Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne—and, as part of the prescribed curriculum, the large and small monuments of English poetry from “The Battle of Malden” through “The Waste Land”.
“Read Kafka,” Mr. Hill advised, opening the door to a maze out of which I’ve never wholly emerged or wanted to. Yet Kafka said that there was little life to be found in books, and I found so much in them, infinitely more than I did in the beige suburb to which my parents had moved me, immeasurably more than I found in classrooms or locker rooms, on the basketball court or over the pool table. I didn’t understand Kafka and for that very reason he had authority for me. So, his remark has been hard to dislodge. It felt like a critique of my reverence for books—his own above all perhaps—and I wondered if it were really so, that there was little life to be found in them. But if what I found in them wasn’t life, then what was it?
Nothing sums up everything, not even the best bon mot. Just as Nemerov had more than one thing to say about teaching, Kafka had more to say about literature and reading. His “All I am is literature” rings like a verdict, a judgment—like the one at the end of his breakthrough story whose title is translated as either “The Verdict” or “The Judgment” where father condemns son—or son condemns himself. That story was catalyzed by Kafka’s falling in love, perhaps by a wish to clutch at life and so not to be only literature. Books are a consolation for Kafka, as they were for me as a teenager, though Kafka was a writer and I was merely a reader. I knew there was a gulf between the two conditions, though also that a shaky footbridge connected them.
Kafka’s bons mots about reading tell us not only what reading was for him but what it ought to be for us: “Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” This is not only a good line, a memorable simile, but one that hints at Kafka’s own books. Buried in it is the “unknown nourishment” Gregor Samsa never found and the Castle to which K. never gains entry. Then there is Kafka’s most famous saying about books or, perhaps, about what he wanted his own to be: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Well, I wondered, if that icy ocean isn’t full of locked-up life, why the axe? That oft-quoted sentence concludes a paragraph that begins, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. . .” Stab-wounds and ice-axes—if reading should be like an act of violence then is writing a book also a violent act? And what of books that don’t stab or smash but simply delight? Are they to be dismissed? Tom Jones? Pride and Prejudice? Lucky Jim? Or could it be that the delight those books furnish is just a sort of stabbing?
Kafka’s diaries and letters are chockful of transcendent bons mots. You can find pages of them on the Internet. Most are self-referential, but all have resonance. “Literature is a narcotic,” for example. Reading and writing have the power to put one in an altered state that can be addictive. Kafka is always writing about himself but, in doing so, he speaks to us all. As Camus said, his art is to make us re-read. Between 1917 and 1918 while he was in Zürau on one of his many medical leaves Kafka wrote a string of bons mots that soar into the empty heavens. Max Brod collected them. Together, they are distilled Kafka, or Kafka distilled. They comprise the religion of Kafka, an armful of aphorisms raised to sublime Middle-European Diaspora-Jewish koans, with the forlorn beauty of a whining Klezmer clarinet:
You are the problem No scholar to be found far and wide.
There is a goal, but no way; what we call the way is only wavering.
In the fight between you and the world, back the world.
Kafka’s bons mots are autobiographical but somehow also impersonal. “A non-writing writer is courting insanity,” he keened. These are the words of someone who feels writing alone can excite or calm him, his days, justify his presence in the world. But what blocked writer wouldn’t agree or think Kafka had written about her or him?
Many bons mots appear to be directed at others, especially elegant insults. An aspiring poet asked Howard Nemerov for advice and got this: “Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.” That is a funny put-down, yet one feels the “you” might apply to the famous poet who issued it as well as the neophyte who received it. But I want to resist Nemerov’s sentence as much as Kafka’s saying there’s little life in books and for the same reason: they are contrary to my experience. For me, the platitude about writing what you know is just backwards. I only know something after imagining it, writing about it.
So, having now written these few pages about bons mots, what do I understand about them? That they require wit, brevity, an incisive (stabbing) comment true to the occasion, impeccable sentence structure, and precise diction—these are the qualities that make bons mots bon. “Bon mot” is a belittling term, suggesting French frivolity, something clever but superficial—like many of Oscar Wilde’s sallies (“Ambition is the last refuge of the failure,” “Women are meant to be loved, not understood”). But others are almost sacred texts and so they are called something else. All the same, you don’t have to go along with any of them.
Have I ever achieved a bon mot? Perhaps. When I was a teenager, I made some wisecrack at the family dinner table. I can’t remember what I said, only the reaction. My father’s eyebrows went up. “Gut gezagt,” he declared. My father scarcely ever spoke Yiddish and never to me. I blushed with pleasure. I’d made a bon mot sharp enough that it couldn’t be praised in French, or even English.