Sunday, 17 April 2011

Writings of Dimech newly discovered (II)

Dimech: Aphorisms
[Continued from here]

During his last four years of exile in Egypt (1917-20), while captive at two different concentration camps, Dimech took up the practice of jotting down philosophical insights in book margins. At least one of these books survived the ravaging of years. It is a manuscript called Annotations.

At some point during those years, Dimech began to transcribe some of his recorded insights in view of publication. After Dimech’s death, this incomplete document came into the hands of Juan Mamo, a Maltese labourer in Egypt who visited Dimech in his captivity. Mamo planned to edit and publish the work, but in the end failed to do so. However, his manuscript survived too. It is called Aphorisms.

Critical quandaries

I came across Aphorisms for the first time while preparing Dimech’s biography, which I eventually published in 2004. Even then, I made some use of the few biographical details it contains.(1) However, since it is clearly a transcript written by Juan Mamo, at the time I could not academically establish any reliable grade of certainty with regard to the authorship of the aphorisms it contains and neither could I determine its precise process of creation.

There were three main reasons for my hesitation. To begin with, it seemed strange that, considering that both Dimech and Mamo were Maltese, the aphorisms were given in English. Were they translations? Secondly, the text includes anecdotes which, from other reliable sources, could certainly be written off as historically misleading or, at least, the result of artistic licence. How much of the document was of the same genre?

Finally, at the time there was no external point of reference to which the document could be compared and verified. How could one support and validate its authenticity and reliability?

Mutual corroboration

Dimech: Annotations
With the discovery of Annotations a few years later, such quandaries dissolved automatically. This document, which is definitely written by Dimech himself, also contains aphorisms written immediately in English. Secondly, it is evident that some aphorisms contained in Aphorisms have been first written down in Annotations. Finally, as an external independent source, this document provides sufficient literary and critical grounds for maintaining that the aphorisms presented in Mamo’s extant text are a word for word rendition from Dimech’s original manuscripts.

Consequently, Dimechian scholars can safely (and, indeed, must) consider Dimech, and none other, as the authentic author of the aphorisms contained in Aphorisms as much as the person responsible of those in Annotations.

As has been noted already, this qualified conclusion has been reached on the basis of a range of incontestable proofs, both direct (from the manuscripts themselves) and circumstantial (mainly of an historical nature). These are adequately persuasive (scientifically and critically) and should suffice to convince any serious Dimechian scholar of the authenticity of their authorship.


Most of Dimech’s aphorisms in both manuscripts are gems of wisdom. Interestingly enough, throughout them Dimech does not dwell, at least directly, on the main philosophical theory elaborated during his public career in Malta. This had been a pragmatic type of philosophy (Dimech called it “ħsieb għall-għemil”; thought for action)(2) which centred on the concept of emancipation.

During his exile, all alone and with the good old days of intense activity behind him, Dimech engages his intellect in a different sort of activity. While being more introspective, he seeks to come to grips with the vicissitudes of life and the harsh realities which beset him. In both periods of thought, however, he never succumbs to fatality. On the contrary, he retains a profoundly free and noble spirit throughout.

As he had done in other difficult periods of his life – like when he was in prison, when he tried to stir up a lukewarm people for political action or when he was plagued with the agony of excommunication and persecution – even in his bleak and cruel misery at Egypt Dimech does not lose hope in the power of the will to overcome all odds.

Ontological aphorisms

On assessment, Dimech’s aphorisms can be grouped around six main themes. Perhaps the most intriguing are those aphorisms which, in line with the Socratic type of discernment, explore the ontological nature of human existence. Here is an example chosen at random:(3)
I am conscious that I, as I see and fancy myself, am not I. I feel that I must be higher, far higher than I am, and that if I am not God (I don’t say a god), this is owing to the fact that there can be no other god than God. I find it hard, nay impossible, to define the sort of a thing that I am; still I doubt not but I am something greatly great, notwithstanding that I am coated over on all sides with the same putrescible material substance that covers asses and hogs.

This is another intriguing one:(4)

The true colour of the sea-water is better seen in a small vessel or in the hollow of the hand than in its immense bed. So likewise we can better see the qualities of a man placed in a narrow place, destitute of all power than on a high place, invested with power, the splendour whereof may dazzle our eyes, and make us see prominent virtues where there are only low vices.

Aphorisms about convention

In another variety of aphorisms Dimech makes incisive observations about human customs and conventions, sometimes giving them a tragico-comic tinge. Years before, when in Malta, he had signalled out harmful social habits as one of the main obstacles to emancipation. Consider this charming aphorism:(5)

The bulk of men are good at rearing beasts, but the bulk of them do not know how to rear children.
Another tongue-in-cheek aphorism of this type would be the following:(6)

Monasticism seems to be a solemn protest against the ignorance of God, who has not been clever enough to reveal to man a religion capable of saving him.

And a further witty one:(7)

The only consolation you can give to a rich miser is to remind him that persons entering hell pay no entrance fee.
Aphorisms concerning literature

A theme close to Dimech’s heart since his earliest years was that connected with literature, its artistic creation and its qualitative excellence. He was himself a poet of possibly relevant talents and also a novelist. On the other hand, he certainly had an eye for literary elegance and refinement. This is one of his striking observations within this genre:(8)

The interval of time that passes between the first and the last word of a sonnet we compose is by far more precious than all the sonnet, yet we do not think of that priceless fragment of the time allotted to us; the loss of so many irrecoverable minutes, hours or days does not concern us: what concerns and interests us very much is the transitory effect our sonnet will produce in those who will read it.

The following aphorism might also be deemed part of literary criticism:(9)

We never read with great interest what does not reflect our own ideas, gratify our desire, or flatter our vanity.




Aphorisms on language

One exceedingly interesting variety of Dimech’s aphorisms concerns language forms. Dimech reflects on human customs and artefact as modes of linguistic expression which, in turn, are specific to limited spatio-temporal settings. For instance, ponder this aphorism:(10)

Trenches, bastions, towers, strongholds, and all kinds of fortified places will speak to posterity in a language that the greatest modern linguist would fail to understand.

Here is another interesting one:(11)

When women wore earrings (I am speaking to another race of men yet to come), a women without those appendages looked plain.
Dimech even considers animal modes of expression, and imagines what it would be like if we humans could understand them. For instance, he writes such things:(12)

If spiders could talk, they would never be heard saying: “Flies are a nuisance.” They would often be heard saying: “Flies are very useful.”

Aphorisms regarding politics

The larger part of Dimech’s aphorisms have to do with political systems and structures. This is to be expected. Not only had he been interested in such a theme since the beginning of his studies and throughout his public career, but his current situation made it more poignant.

Dimech deals with the theme from various aspects. He reflects on unjust political structures as such, on the ways in which powerless people were victimised by such structures, and also on the possibility of the building up of a new world order based on justice, peace, freedom and equality. Here is a taste of his aphorisms on freedom:(13)

Passports, marriage-licenses, stamped paper, and such like nonsense point out that the tree of liberty is not a tree of this world. When I think that flies, mosquitoes, lizards, birds, and all kinds of brutes can travel from one country into another, and cross frontiers without any hindrance, and can marry when they like, I see no reason why we should not do the same, without permission from other men.

The following one is more about the justice promoters and whistle-blowers:(14)

There are thousands of apostles of peace and brotherhood among peoples; but capitalism and speculation, acting in conjunction with vanity and depravity, render the desirable realization of their noble efforts slow [i.e., of the ‘apostles’].
Aphorisms related to eschatology

The final category of aphorisms might be considered to highlight dimensions related to death, the immortality of the soul, and afterlife. At the time, not only was Dimech very much mindful of his precarious physical condition, but also fully conscious of the possibility, alas the increasing probability, of his premature and ill-fated death in exile. Here is one of his aphorisms on the Protestant doctrine of predestination:(15)

A predestinarian is worse than an atheist: the latter does not believe in God; the former believes in an unjust God.

Here is a telling one in this genre, an aphorism which reveals Dimech’s marked dualistic (body-soul) view of the human being:(16)

Epitaph for a stone marking my grave if I shall have one: ‘Manuel Dimech is not here’.


Together with his tens of hundreds of aphorisms and epigrams Dimech also penned some smart anecdotes and a few earnest poems. Here is one delightful anecdote:(17)

Once upon a time there was an old olive-tree in a garden. The quality of olives with which it was loaded was so great as to exceed in number the leaves of the tree. But owing to some unknown cause each olive was full of small worms, to which the olive afforded shelter, food and burial.
The worms within each olive thought and talked just as we do in our big olive called world; but the topic of their conversation was almost always the same: the taste of the olive. The idea that, beside their olive, there were other, and many too, inhabited like theirs never crossed their mind.

One day, as bad luck would have it, one of the worms crept out of the snug little world and, surprised, astonished, astounded, bewildered at the sight of many other globes like his, not having learned from other worms with whom he fell in that those globes were inhabited, hastened back to his native world and began to narrate what he had seen out there.

The other worms obstinately refused to take notice of what he said or attempted to say, and loaded him with all sorts of epithets. They said that he was an arrant liar, an execrable heretic deserving death. In vain did the poor worm try to speak, they did not give him time to utter a syllable, and would have stoned him to death or burned him alive if they had been able to get stones or kindle a fire. They hit him to death.


To date Dimech’s many poems (in Italian, English and Maltese) were never studied thoroughly or put to serious literary criticism. His poetic talent, alas, went largely ignored. Indeed, not only no collection of his poetry has ever been edited and published but, moreover, some of his poems have not even been ever made public. Perhaps he deserves more attention in this respect.

Dimech’s newly discovered manuscripts provide us with some fine examples of his poetic aptitude. Here is just one, which, considering Dimech’s dire circumstances at the time of his appalling exile, is particularly touching:(18)

Ease me of this burden, Lord;
Bid this body leave me free.
Why should I be pained and bored?
Why should I be far from thee?
Flesh and bones I left behind me,
Then why say you that I’m dead?
When I left that heavy burden
From the land of death I fled.
Due acknowledgment

The few examples given above of Dimech’s work as encountered in the manuscripts revealed here offer just a taste of the voluminous number of other aphorisms, epigrams, anecdotes and poems which he composed during his final years. Some of them are sharp, others amusing, a few are to be taken with a pinch of salt, and all are clever.

It is thanks to Juan Mamo that we are in possession of Dimech’s last efforts at literary, artistic and philosophical creation. Owing to the crucial Annotations manuscript, we can rest absolutely assured that, but for the evident addenda ineptly inserted by Mamo, the reflections documented in Aphorisms are the genuine and authentic work of Dimech; certainly not an editorial or hermeneutical rework by Mamo. This is vital for scientific reasons.

It has taken ninety years for these manuscripts to be identified and brought to light. The eventual publication of Aphorisms, especially, due to Mamo’s interpolations, necessitates considerable specialized editorial and critical analysis and redesigning. It now rests on the shoulders of professional scholars to acknowledge the manuscripts as legitimate Dimechian productions and treat them as such.


1 See pages 542, 547 and 548.
2 See, for instance, Il Bandiera Tal Maltin, June 1, 1901, 2b; November 9, 1901, 1a; January 18, 1913, 1a; and April 19, 1913, 1a. See also
3 Annotations [Ann.], 975; transcribed in Aphorisms [Aph.], 19.
4 Ann., 303; transcribed in Aph., 83.
5 Ann., 119; transcribed in Aph., 48.
6 Ann., 166; transcribed in Aph., 104.
7 Aph., 2458.
8 Ann., 14; transcribed in Aph., 20.
9 Aph., 2145.
10 Ibid., 40.
11 Ann., 172; transcribed in Aph., 759.
12 Ann., 208; transcribed in Aph., 101.
13 Aph., 185.
14 Ibid., 2501.
15 Ibid., 108.
16 Ann., 301; transcribed in Aph., 2578.
17 Ann., 422; transcribed in Aph., 2575.
18 Ann., 156; transcribed in Aph., 2641-2642.

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