300 arguments- a commentary

I recently read Sarah Manguso’s “300 arguments”- a series of 300 aphorisms by the author. A lot of the aphorisms were extremely good, some were things I’d expect any moderately intelligent highschooler to know, but that is always true of collections of aphorisms. The brilliance was exceeding and the time required was extremely modest, go buy a copy. What I’ve gathered here is not a collection of the best aphorisms, but rather a collection of the aphorisms I was compelled to make some sort of comment on.

300 Arguments - Pan Macmillan AU
  • It isn’t so much that geniuses look easy, as that they make it look fast

I remember a story. A man teaches two pottery classes. The first class he instructs to make pots as quickly as possible. The second class he instructs to make pots slowly, taking great care. By the end, the first class has made far more pots, but they have also made better pots being that they had more practice.

I remember another story. I was talking about writing with my supervisor, a famous philosopher of biology. I told him that Bertrand Russell had written two thousand words a day. With some gentleness, but also a little scorn he told me “you are not Bertrand Russell”.

I think about both these things often, as poles in conflict.

  • You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would be exposition.

I did this once, to a handsome fellow at a party I quite wanted to bed, years before reading this book. At first he told me it wasn’t that bad, then he slowly grasped what I had told him. He didn’t talk to me much for the rest of the evening. Don’t take the advice in aphorisms too literally.

To put it in terms of the author’s metaphor there’s a reason why the modern style of cutting as much exposition as possible is an acquired taste.

  • A great photographer insists on writing poems. A brilliant essayists insists on writing novels. A singer with a voice like on an angel insists on singing only her own terrible songs. So when people tell me I should write this or that thing I don’t want to write, I know what they mean.

This frames it like it’s just stubbornness, but the trouble is it’s very hard to know whether you’re the photographer or the poet, the essayist or the novelist.

  • It can be worth forgoing sex for marriage, and it can be worth foregoing marriage for sex

I think part of the tragedy of our culture (or possibly even the tragedy of our biology) is the expectation that we combine the two.

  • At faculty meetings I sat with people whose books had sold 2 million copies. Success seemed so close, just within reach. At Subway benches I sat next to people who were gangrenous, dying, but I never thought I’d catch what they had.

There are more places at the bottom of the pyramid than the top. Playing the numbers then, we’re more likely to descend than ascend. Yet we’re all temporarily embarrassed pharaohs when it comes to this pyramid. Who am I, the (?)man who dreams of being read by millions, to mock the man who thinks he’ll one day be a medium sized business owner with a yacht, and think of him as one of Steinback’s temporarily embarrassed millionaires? Why don’t we scoff at the temporarily embarrassed best sellers?

  • What’s worse, offending someone or lying to someone? […] tell me which, and I’ll tell you your problem

Offending them, 100%. I recognise my response is blatant, unqualified, but we tend to pretend words and offences hurt a lot less than they do. If you don’t lie to yourself about how much you can hurt others with a few words, you’ll see that you sometimes have to lie to other people.

  • The trouble with comparing yourself to others is that there are too many others. Using all others as your control group, all your worst fears and all your fondest hopes are at once true. You are good, you are bad, you are abnormal, you are just like everyone else.

One of the wisest comments so far. I think of long, pathetic hours on Wikipedia reading the biographies of people who have done the things I want to do, looking at their ages and trying to decide whether I still have a chance to get anything done. It’s also worth remembering that we tend to compare ourselves to single facets of others, some corner of intellect, some smidgen of character. We see that at every single point there are many greater. but people are matrixes of attributes, not lists.

  • Some people ditch friends and lovers because it’s easier to get new ones then resolve conflicts with the old ones. Particularly if resolving a conflict, requires one to admit error or practice mercy. I am describing an asshole. But what if the asshole thinks he’s ditching an asshole.

I often feel terrified of how mean the world is. Then I feel terrified of perception because what kind of person sees assholes everywhere? An asshole.

No answer for it but to give up the game of assessment and try to love others. Regardless of the possibility that you might be an asshole and so might they.

  • I’ve put horses in poems, but I’ve never ridden one. They just seem like such a good thing to put into literature.

I’ve put exchequers in. What the fuck do I know about exchequers?

  • Within a gesture of apparent perfection, a mortal heart must beat

Apotheosis, the moment of rising, is almost always more captivating than descending from heaven, though both are splendid.

  • Biographies should also contain the events which fail to foreshadow

Unfortunately, we forget them.

  • “There truly are two kinds of people: you and everyone else.”

I guess all my life I’ve been in a struggle to supress the tendency to see this way. On the whole I still think that’s the beginning of wisdom -denying your own separateness-, but maybe I fought so hard to supress this way of seeing that I forgot there’s a grain of truth here.

  • When a student surpasses my expectations, I feel proud and betrayed.

I remember when @Sufjansimone wrote poetry as good as anything I’d written the first time he put pen to paper at my request. I still remember it vividly for a reason.

  • Sometimes ill-informed choices have good outcomes.

But crucially they were still ill informed

  • Great talents encourage great incapacities, but maintaining an inability to cook an egg or drive a car won’t make you into a genius.


  • My long romance with efficiency has made me miserly.

Also guilty!

  • A non specific wish to change the world isn’t about the world, it’s about you.

And once more, I’m guilty.

  • (Paraphrased) having a romantic type is an expression of grief for an original loss

What is this, an arraignment? Stop pinning me down like this.

  • Someone I knew prevented me from getting a job. I fantasized about his death. Years later, he was fired publicly and shamefully. Then he was divorced. Then he developed a disabling illness. With each of his new misfortunes I’m punished further, with secret guilt, for wishing all of it on him, long ago.

If that is so, did you really ever wish death on him?

  • Having a worst regret betrays a belief that one misstep caused all your undeserved misfortune

My G-d I am sorry.

  • Horror is terror that stayed the night” & “After I stopped hoping to outgrow them, my fears were no longer a burden. Hope is what made them a burden”

I don’t want to overemphasise this, and it may not be the best strategy for everyone,but one of the best tricks I ever played against my OCD was domesticating it.

  • Bad art is from no one, to no one

I don’t know whether I agree but this seems like a good one to think about

  • I write in defence of the beliefs I fear are least defensible. Everything else feels like homework.

One of the very nicest types of conversation you can have is with a person you trust well enough to admit this to- about yourself, about your writing or advocacy.

  • Our fifth grade class assembled cat skeletons […]

How come every author I admire remembers their school years so much more vividly than me? Am I a freak for treating the first eighteen years of my life as uninteresting and blank?

  • With great and solemn portent my teacher announced she would tell us something that her teacher had told her, and that her teacher’s teacher had told him, and so on, back to Yeats. “The thing to remember is that no one ever finds out that you don’t know what you’re doing[…]

In modern wisdom literature, this is one of the most common sentiments. People repeat it endlessly in various ways. Someone could write an essay on why we so desperately need to hear this and repeat it so frantically.

  • A woman starts a rumour that I slept with a man in another woman’s bed. Fifteen years later I look her up on the internet and find three DUI mugshots. IN the first she’s the pretty redhead I remember from college. Maybe a few cracks in the veneer. But in the last one she’s obese, ruined. I still don’t forgive her. I pity her, but I won’t forgive her just for being pitiful. Hating her is an act of respect.

Suppose that instead of later becoming an obese drunk driver she had been a person with great problems in living at the time she’d started that rumour. Suppose she was confused and embittered by the world in various ways, holding onto sanity by her fingernails. Suppose that she made up her rumours in a spirit of desperation. Under those conditions would it have been more merciful to attribute to her the agency necessary to be hated, or to withhold that?

  • I’d like to meet someone whose passage through life has been continuous. Whose life has happened to an essential self, and not been just a series of lives happening to a series of selves.

I think this is part of what makes people love everything from those “which Harry Potter character are you” quizzes to conceptualising their own mental illnesses. Trying to squeeze down the river of consciousness till under pressure the water becomes ice. Part of the terror is, I think, that if you are not a one thing, you can’t be a unique thing- you’re just like all the other multifarious, situationally defined people.

  • Who seems a harmless fool to those above him, is a malevolence to those beneath.

Indulgence of this sort of thing feels kind to the superior, because you see the harmless fool- you don’t see those beneath. Lenience is to be dispensed only to those who don’t hold a great deal of power, at least not anymore.

  • Interesting people aren’t interested in appearing interesting

I think this might be the author having a dig at herself. If so, she’s being too harsh.

  • I want to ask the happiest person in the world whether it was worth it, all the sacrifices he made in order to become so happy.

Contrast John Stuart Mill where he says that the happiest people spend almost no time thinking about happiness, and may not even be aware that they are happy. They certainly will not have made sacrifices for the sake of happiness. The author seems to agree later “happiness begins to deteriorate as soon as it is named”.

  • Whatever you’re feeling, billions already have. Feel for them.

In the case of some of my more odd fears, this isn’t quite true, but certainly millions, probably hundreds of millions over the grand sweep of history. One of the things I realised about my OCD- whatever paths I walk down, however alien seeming, I am not alone. For every fear there are at minimum hundreds who have shared it, as I found in long hours on OCD forums. Realising that was and is at least 40% of recovering.

  • “There were people I wanted so much before I had them, that the entire experience of having them was grief for my old hunger” & “Achieve a goal and suffer its loss”.

There are many other aphorisms of the author’s that get at the same point as this one. She’s right, fundamentally what we want is not fulfillment, is a very specific kind of longing. Often when I was depressed what I wanted more than anything was to badly want something.

  • I don’t think the lover ever forgets who started out as the beloved.

I am assured by many wise people that in more or less every relationship there is a slight flaw. One or the other party loves the other more than they are loved. Sometimes not by very much, but noticeably. I think that, on a long enough time span, this might destroy every relationship, but we’re human, we’ve only got several decades.

  • I like writing that is unsummarisable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it.

There are two ways to be unsummarisable, one usually good and the other often, but not always, bad. 1. Be extremely compact. 2. Be vague, so you or someone else can always claim that a summary didn’t quite land.

  • After a friend dies young, the story of her life becomes the exposition to a tragedy. This is the central problem of biography.

The tendency to see endings as a summary- as if we were essays- does violence to the person. But as Aristotle observed, art must be a unity. So are we to do violence to the person or to the art?

  • Those without taste smugly praise the thrice belaureled. Poor taste is something else.

I think the reason this seems tasteless is because it seems dishonest and plagiaristic, like they’ve gotten their opinions from a conversation guide. Nothing to fear about praising Shakespeare so long as it’s genuine praise.

  • In a description of some annoying rich kid room mates, Manguso mentions their “inane preppy Marxism”.

I think this is an interesting trap. There’s a lot of very useful and basic truths in Marxism, and it’s easy to get caught on them and substitute them for an intellectual personality. Marxism isn’t the only thing which can do this, but it’s probably the perfection of the form. Other examples include neo-classical economics, linguistic structuralism, psychoanalysis etc.

  • You aren’t the same person after a good night’s sleep as you are after a sleepless night. But which person is you?

I think most thinking people can eventually grasp, at least intellectually, that they are both people. What’s harder to grasp is that other people you meet are also both people. Rarely do people wear masks, they’re just different in different situations. The fundamental attribution error and all that makes it hard for us to see that other people don’t have essences (at least simple essences) than to see it in ourselves.

  • I’d never have guessed which people I’d still know by now.

Same. If you’re older than about 24, write down a list of your 10 closest friends and acquaintances who aren’t family. Check whether this is true for you.

  • I don’t miss the city, I miss the place it was in the 90’s, when everyone else was also 22 and broke.

I don’t so much miss the university. The university I went to doesn’t exist anymore, and I miss that it isn’t available to the next generation. I do miss being young though- being young enough that I could live that life again without it being weird, lol.

  • Instead of pathologizing every human quirk we should say “By the grace of this behaviour, this individual has found it possible to continue”.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian MacLaren

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s