“How inspirational guff invaded our lives”

Posted on November 19, 2014
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Paula Cocozza of The Guardian writes, “Inspirational quotes are everywhere. What’s going on? And do they really help?”

Inspirational quotes operate as currency on social media – not only in terms of the way their wisdom is handled and passed on, but because motivational tweets have become a key indicator of a person worth following. In 2013, Forbes ran a list of the most influential people on social media. (There is no escape: clicking that link will activate a pop-up “Quote of the Day”. Enjoy!) Haydn Shaughnessy compiled the data, and noticed that the most influential people on Twitter offered a stream of motivational content. “When we looked at leading social media influencers in 2012, they were all people who created a lot of content. By 2013,” he says, “it was much more likely that a top influencer would be tweeting inspiration instead of creating separate content. The reason? People probably don’t read content anyway, they just share it.”

Read the rest of the piece here.

A Metaphorical Hat Trick

Posted on October 17, 2014
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The metaphorically minded, aphoristically inclined Dave Lull sends links to three recent pieces on your favorite topic and mine: metaphor…

First, a nice overview of ‘metaphorical effects’, “instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality,” writes Lisa Wade in Pacific Standard, including becoming suspicious when the odor of fish is present.

Second, an exploration of whether the brain notices, or cares, about the differences among literal, metaphorical, and idiomatic expressions, by Michael Chorost in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Third, a critique of Chorost’s piece by Micah Mattix in The American Conservative.

Still More Aphorisms by Beston Jack Abrams

Posted on October 15, 2014
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I first published some of Beston Jack Abrams’s Abramisms in 2007, then again in 2011, and once more in 2012. Having come to aphorisms late in life, Mr. Arbrams is nothing if not prolific. He returns here with more astute observations on silence, solitude and setbacks…


Nothing causes greater adherence to an opinion than opposition to it.


As adversity recedes so does innovation.


Small steps are as valuable as big ones: in the end they bring us to the same place.


It is clear we agree that truth is beauty; therefore it must also be clear that untruths are ugly.


Opinions are robust: they persist without support.


Few silences are unbiased.


Silence is a portable sanctuary.


The first impression reveals as much about the observer as the observed.


Death can be defined as the exhaustion of our options.


Contentment wears slippers; curiosity wears boots.


Unsuccessful people are essential since without them how would we know we are superior.

Metaphor and Vaccination

Posted on October 13, 2014
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On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss is an investigation into and rumination upon vaccination, the cultural myths and fears surrounding it, and the deliberations new parents must make when deciding whether they should or shouldn’t vaccinate their children. The book was inspired by the birth of Biss’s first child, but it is also deeply informed by Biss’s engagement with metaphor. “The British call it a ‘jab,’ and Americans, favoring guns, call it a ‘shot,'” she writes. “Either way, vaccination is violence … The metaphors we find in this gesture are overwhelmingly fearful, and almost always suggest violation, corruption, and pollution.” If you’re looking for a smart analysis of the confluence of metaphor and medical decisions, this is it. Here’s a review from the LATimes, an interview from NPR and a sneak peek from publisher Graywolf.

Schopenhauer and “the art of not reading”

Posted on October 12, 2014
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During an afternoon of reading and writing, came across this timely rumination by Leland de la Durantaye in the Harvard Review, “The Art of Ignorance: An Afterword to Ludwig Börne.” The article features a translation of Börne’s prescient essay “The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days”, about which I blogged back in 2006, and goes on to consider Börne’s influence on Freud and Schopenhauer’s typically ornery take on a world in which there is too much to read because too much is published. Sound familiar?

Schopenhauer is , of course, author of one of the best aphorisms about reading:

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

An excerpt from de la Durantaye’s short piece follows, but the article is worth reading in full.

“In 1851, towards the end of a long life of reading, Schopenhauer wrote of the “high importance” of “the art of not reading. This was a response to new developments—what he called “the literature which in our days is spreading like weeds.” This “Unkraut der Literatur” that, in his view, threatened to overrun the age is what he was seeking to address. His dialectical mind was not long in finding the means to this end.

If there was too much to read, the solution was to not read. For Schopenhauer, a singular danger awaited those who did not cultivate this “art of not reading.” This was that the clever minds of the day might become “der Tummelplatz fremder Gedanken,” the “playground of others’ thoughts.”

To make the matter clear he offered a comparison. Just as in physical matters when someone never walks but only ever rides, he will sooner or later lose the ability to move of his own accord, so too, he reasoned, must things proceed in mental matters. Given the profusion of things to read, he worried that his age would “read itself stupid.” It was to counter this danger that he recommended his special art.”

The Many Metaphors for Ebola

Posted on October 8, 2014
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“Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? Is Ebola the Boko Haram of AIDS? Is Ebola the al-Shabaab of dengue fever?” Teju Cole wonders in this hilarious New Yorker post

Metaphorically Speaking, Annotated

Posted on June 19, 2014
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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.

Aphorisms by Mignon McLaughlin

Posted on June 14, 2014
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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.

Stephen Colbert on Metaphor

Posted on June 8, 2014
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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.

Aphorisms by Jean Toomer

Posted on June 6, 2014
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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.

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