Each of Sarah Manguso’s three previous nonfiction books includes a passage about her utter insignificance in the scope of the universe. In Two Kinds of Decay, her memoir about the paralyzing neurological disease that she suffered in her 20s, she writes: “I tend to forget I’m walking on the surface of a soft mass on fire on the inside, a surface warmed and lit by an explosion taking place ninety-three million miles away…. I tend to forget that I rose out of this explosion and—despite my feeling I am unique from it—will someday fall back into it.” In The Guardians, her account of grieving the suicide of her best friend, she does it again, and even uses the same construction: “I often forget I’m a particle in a cosmic process that has nothing to do with human desire or justice. I forget that the world is chaos, that it is incorruptible.” In Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, her lyrical reflection on motherhood, time, and a life of writing, it’s: “Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”
Manguso has built an oeuvre from the stories of her life, yet she wants her readers to zoom out and acknowledge that her life doesn’t matter in any grand scheme. As Theodor Adorno wrote of Samuel Beckett, “Art can only be reconciled with its existence by exposing its own semblance, its internal emptiness.” At the same time, Manguso has also written often about the moral imperative that drives her work. “The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair,” she wrote in The New York Times last January. “If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.” So, too, in the afterword of Ongoingness: “I realize how grandiose that sounds, but when your job is to think and write about yourself, the stakes start to appear artificially, comically high. And they must, for without them, I wouldn’t write at all.”
Manguso’s conception of her writing as both infinitesimal and infinitely important is the driving force behind her new book, 300 Arguments. It’s a collection of aphorisms, which range in length from one sentence to almost a page. Some read like maxims, some like brief personal essays. At their best they are pithy and wry, with a melancholy undercurrent that takes a beat to set in—like a vaccine whose pinch gives rise to a muscular ache. “There truly are two kinds of people: you and everyone else,” is one.
In large part, 300 Arguments is a treatment of longing and disappointment. Throughout the book, Manguso is preoccupied with romantic love and creative ambition, and portrays them as hungers that can’t be sated. Of sexual desire, she writes: “There were people I wanted so much before I had them that the entire experience of having them was grief for my old hunger.” And of professional aspirations: “The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.” Desire yields dissatisfaction, whether its object is gained or not.
Many of the aphorisms are about writing, which she regards both deferentially and dismissively. On the one hand, she describes the “page of perfect prose I read in a dream” and says, self-referentially, “the smallest and shortest pieces of art strive for perfection.” It is clear from her compressed style that she believes in the absolute value and transcendent power of a good sentence. Yet, at the same time, she writes that “Details aren’t automatically interesting” and “You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would be just exposition.” In her romance with concision, she nearly writes off writing.