TED redesigned its website a while back, adding some nifty new features speakers can use to expand on the ideas in their talks. I did my Metaphorically Speaking talk in 2009, when I was neck-deep in the research for what eventually became I Is an Other, and did a two-minute turn on aphorisms at the same event. For those interested in some more information on the backgrounds to those talks, check out my recommended reading list and annotated citations. The talk has been translated into 27 languages, including Hebrew, Persian, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.
In the 1940s, Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983) became an editor at Vogue and for the next three decades or so wrote or edited for most of the big women’s magazines in New York City, including Cosmopolitan, Red Book, Good Housekeeping and Glamour. In the 1950s, she began publishing aphorisms that were later collected in three books—The Neurotic’s Notebook, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook and The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook. The Brabant Press has brought together a new edition of McLaughlin’s wry, mordant observations in Apercus: The Aphorisms of Mignon McLaughlin. The ‘apercu’ in the title is fitting, since McLaughlin reads a little bit like a suburban La Rochefoucauld (Geary’s Guide pp. 131-134) and covers many of the same themes: the fickleness of love, the falsity of social relations, the foibles of the sophisticated. There’s also a hint of Dorothy Parker (Geary’s Guide pp. 296-297) here, less of the word play but the same bitter cynicism. In fact, if Dorothy Parker had a part in Mad Men, she might have come up with witticisms like these. McLaughlin has been largely forgotten. Hopefully, this Brabant edition will rectify that oversight.
The know-nothings are, unfortunately, seldom the do-nothings.
Love looks forward, hate looks back, and anxiety has eyes all over its head.
I am a splendid daughter to the parents of my friends.
Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.
“Pull yourself together” is seldom said to anyone who can.
What you can’t get out of, get into wholeheartedly.
We always prefer war on our own terms to peace on someone else’s.
Most of us would rather risk catastrophe than read the directions.
The time to begin most things is ten years ago.
Everybody can write; writers can’t do anything else.
Much of the time we just tread water, for the raft is too far away and we have got tired of swimming.
A successful marriage requires falling in love many times—always with the same person.
While reading around online about the rhetorical technique of apostrophe, I came across a reference to Stephen Colbert’s 2007 “meta-free-for-all” against Sean Penn, moderated by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, in which the metaphor of George W. Bush’s “soiled and blood-soaked underwear” makes several distinguished appearances and Mr. Colbert defines love as “a full-length mirror.” In 2009, Colbert explored the difference between metaphors and lies with Elizabeth Alexander, who read her poem Praise Song for the Day at President Obama’s first inauguration. Colbert knows his way around a witty metaphor, as evidenced from this excerpt from his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, ‘Oooh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” More Colbert-isms can be found on this page at About.com.
Yesterday came across a copy of Essentials, self-published by Jean Toomer (Geary’s Guide, pp. 203-204) in 1931. Toomer was of mixed racial descent and as a child attended both all–white and all–black schools. His most famous book is Cane, a series of poems and stories about African–Americans and the experience of racism in the U.S. Toomer penned one of my all-time favorite aphorisms:
Man is a nerve of the cosmos, dislocated, trying to quiver into place.
In the mid–1920s, Toomer traveled to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fountainbleau, France to study with the Greek–Armenian mystic Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff was in the habit of inscribing his aphorisms on the walls of the Institute, and it is there that Toomer came across this saying: “Remember you come here having already understood the necessity of struggling with yourself—only with yourself. Therefore thank everyone who gives you the opportunity.” “The saying took hold of me,” Toomer wrote afterward, “found purchase in my very roots … Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily.”
During his own lectures on Gurdjieff’s teachings, Toomer wrote aphorisms on index cards and passed them through the audience, asking participants to discuss the meaning of the sayings. In the late 1930s, Toomer founded his own alternative community, the Mill House Experiment, modeled on Gurdjieff’s Fountainbleau institute, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Here is a selection of aphorisms from Essentials not included in Geary’s Guide…
Science is a system of exact mysteries.
Do now what you won’t be doing an hour from now.
Those who seek peace too often find comfort.
Men are inclined either to work without hope, or to hope without work.
All our lives we have been waiting to live.
Tell me the person’s strongest resistance and I will tell you what he most wants.
Two asses do not make an owl.
Whatever stands between you and that person stands between you and yourself.
Each of us has in himself a fool who says I’m wise.
People are stupid not because they do a thing but because they repeat it.
Basil Gentleman is an aphorist, classicist and fabulist. He has translated aphorisms by Vauvenargues (Geary’s Guide pp. 141-143), Montesquieu (GG pp. 93-94), and by Christina, Queen of Sweden. He is currently preparing a book of his own aphorisms, from which these have been selected:
Fear leaves you at the gate.
When the going gets tough, the leaving gets easy.
We are careful how we lay the table but not careful what we eat.
When a man is at his best, he tells his enemies to do their worst.
Daniel Liebert (Geary’s Guide, pp. 292–293), about whom I blogged back in 2007, 2008 and 2010, sends a sampling of new aphorisms, and a new direction in his aphoristic writing. Inspired by Antonio Porchia (Geary’s Guide, pp. 379-381), Mr. Liebert writes, he has “put aside the wit and word games for a while” and is “wondering if the aphorism can be profoundly serious in my life.” The answer to that is, without a doubt, yes. Read for yourself.
My love-life is over; this is my kindness-life.
I need a brother because I need a father.
Alone, I am neither young nor old—I am alone.
A tree is memory: sapling becomes heartwood.
I hoarded myself in you, yet you leave with nothing.
Here evokes infinite elsewheres.
A meditation must exclude that which would end it.
What I know becomes what I didn’t do.
Not even a hand-hold; a mere breath-hold in this world, is all.
Shame can live for years on its own excrement.
A grass blade hyphenates earth and sky.
Back in 2010, I blogged about The Bed of Procrustes: Practical and Philosophical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. Serendipitous aphorism discoverer Dave Lull recently sent word of new aphorisms by this philosopher of financial markets, which are as ornery as Schopenhauer before his first cup of coffee in the morning. These maxims are aimed squarely at the 1%
Never take investment advice from someone who has to work for a living.
Never get into a business partnership with a retired lawyer unless he has another hobby.
and are almost invariably written as blunt declarative commands (to wit, both of the above aphorisms begin with the word ‘never’ and have an unmistakable tone of scorn and infallibility). But a deep vein of morality, even moralism, runs through them, too, offering a cold, hard look at the human soul’s quarterly performance.
Most mistakes get worse when you try to correct them.
Never rid anyone of an illusion unless you can replace it in his mind with another illusion.
You can almost certainly extract a “yes” from someone who says “no” to you, never from someone who says nothing.
It is a sign of weakness to avoid showing signs of weakness.
Never trust a journalist unless she’s your mother.
You will never know if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich.
The only problem with the last laugh is that the winner has to laugh alone.
We often benefit from harm done to us by others; almost never from self-inflicted injuries.
Real life (vita beata) is when your choices correspond to your duties.
There is this prevailing illusion that debt is a renewable resource.
The only people who think that real world experience doesn’t matters are those who never had real world experience.
Much of the difference between what is heaven and what is hell is branding.
Contra the prevailing belief, “success” isn’t being on top of a hierarchy, it is standing outside all hierarchies.
Thanks to Dan Costinas for bringing to my attention the aphorisms of Valeriu Butulescu, Romanian dramatist, poet, author and journalist whose aphorisms have been translated into more than 40 languages, including this selection in English:
A derailed tram considers itself independent.
Childhood. The only lost paradise.
Whenever I open my eyes, I am guilty of prying.
As a rule, after a high obstacle there comes an abyss.
We idolize eagles, although, hens are much more useful.
Swallows fly away in autumn. Crows remain, overwhelmed with responsibility.
According to his biography on The Academy of American Poets site, Richard Hugo “from a very early age took an interest in books, fishing, and baseball.” Hugo is the author of The Triggering Town, his lectures and essays on the craft of writing poems, a book that has become something of a classic in creative writing courses. These aphorisms come from there.
If you ain’t no place you can’t go nowhere.
Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can’t think small, try philosophy or social criticism.
An imagined town is at least as real as an actual town.
Words love the ridiculous areas of our minds.
If you can answer the question, to ask it is to waste time.
Hope hard to fall always short of success.
Back in 2009 Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sent news of William Stafford’s aphorisms. These are now collected in Sound of the Ax, which brings together for the first time over 400 aphorisms and 26 aphoristic poems by Stafford. A selection:
All events and experiences are local, somewhere.
When the snake decided to go straight he didn’t get anywhere.
There are many of those who have sense enough to come in out of the rain who do not have sense enough to go out in the sun.
Many things true when said, the world makes untrue.
Every mink has a mink coat.
I must see farther, even when no one says, “Look!”
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