On A Painting Falling Off the Wall

It happened again: a splash of glass somewhere in the house. It was a loud, strangely metallic sound, like the crash of a wave hurling sunken cutlery against a tin cliff. But we couldn’t locate the noise. Was it upstairs or down? Did it come from the next room or some more obscure corner of the house? It’s an uncanny feeling, when something shatters near you and you can’t even figure out what or where it is.

There is an initial confusion caused by any sudden disaster, however small in scale. For a moment, you’re disoriented. Something out of the ordinary has happened and it takes a while before you recover your balance, look around and start methodically trying to discover what it was. Suddenly, the most trusted, familiar settings seem suspiciously calm. Something just broke with a bang; how can everything seem so undisturbed, so much the same? Maybe that’s the biggest shock of all: your inability to spot the difference after drastic change. Anyway, we finally found out what it was: A painting in the hall had fallen off the wall.

The painting is of three stick-like figures, in poses that could be dance movements or the leisurely leanings of casual conversation. It hung above the light switch in the hall, a heavily trafficked area of our home. The adhesive backing that held the piece of string that held the painting on the nail that held it to the wall had peeled off. When it gave way, the whole thing clattered to the ground. We cleaned up the shattered glass, saved the painting and the frame for later repair. We still haven’t fixed it or hung it back up, though. So every time I walk down the stairs, I see the spot where that painting used to be. The space is now an empty white rectangle in a frame of light black dust. When you keep one thing in the same place for a long time, it cannot fail to leave an impression—even if the thing itself goes long unnoticed. That is true of this painting. I had seen it so often that I stopped seeing it. When I picked it up off the floor, being careful not to step on any glass, I had a good, long, fresh look at it. I still liked it. Its downfall was sudden, but the adhesive backing must have been coming apart for a long time. Hidden from view, the very thing that held picture and frame together was slowly coming unglued. With the painting on the floor, the wall seemed unnaturally white, painfully bright. Remove a painting from the wall and you see the wall for the first time; take away something you take for granted and you see the blank space it leaves behind.

On Proverbs

Proverbs are not aphorisms. Or maybe I should call them fossilized aphorisms, since the only one of Geary’s Five Laws of the Aphorism that proverbs do not obey is: It Must Be Personal. Proverbs were personal when they were first coined, but that was so long ago that the identity of the author has long since worn away through constant use. Proverbs can petrify into cliche over time, but the best of them still glimmer with a shine that comes from the continual polishing they receive rolling off so many tongues. Since proverbs are not aphorisms they fall outside the scope of my present research and writing, but I still encounter them everywhere. Among the many great pleasures of working on my encyclopedia of aphorists is all the old anthologies of proverbs I dig up.

The Book of Merry Riddles is a delightful late medieval anthology. Published in 1660, it was written as an entertainment, something to do with friends and family around the fireplace on a long winter’s night. The book consists of a series of slightly goofy riddles, the answer to each of which is some proverb. Then there is The New England Primer, a mix of catechism and textbook that was compiled by the early English settlers in America. It contains an amazing illustrated alphabet in which each letter is used to launch a rhymed proverbial couplet. The New England Primer also contains this touching dedication:

I leave you here a little booke
For you to looke upon,
That you may see your father’s face
When I am dead and gon.

My favorite proverb collection is George Herbert’s Jacula Prudentum(Outlandish Proverbs). Herbert was one of the great English metaphysical poets as well as an accomplished proverb connoisseur. His anthology is a refreshing read because he juxtaposes serious, spiritual sayings with funny, cynical ones. One that has been stuck in my head since I first read it weeks ago is:

When you finish the house, leave it.

It’s also fascinating to read proverbs from other nations and cultures, since a country’s character can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the sayings it chooses to keep in circulation. Here is a selection of proverbs from Arabic and Chinese:

Arabic Proverbs

I shall not kiss a hand that deserves to be cut off.

A peacemaker receives two-thirds of the blows.

What you write is the truest thing that can be said of you.

A book is a garden carried in the pocket.

He who receives the strokes is not like he who counts them.

The day on which a journey is begun half the journey is done.

You are not learned except that you can carry it about you, and produce it at will.

Chinese Proverbs

Deviate an inch, lose a thousand miles.

Better go than send.

Falling hurts least those who fly low.

Better to do a kindness near at home than to go far to burn incense.

Think twice—and say nothing.

It is a little thing to starve to death; it is a serious matter to lose one’s virtue.

On One-Hit Wonders

I am up to my eyeballs in aphorisms. As part of the research for my next book, an encyclopedia of world aphorists that’s due out in November of 2007, I am going through every title in the British Library (every title, that is, that’s in a language I can read) that comes up under the keyword ‘aphorisms’. (For the ones that are in languages I can’t read, I get a native speaker to read them…) I get to the library early, which is a very ethereal experience. The angelic, orchestral ping and then the rush of all those laptops launching at the same time must be exactly what it sounds like to ascend into heaven. I’ve had some wonderful revelations amid the stacks of books that have risen and fallen on my desk like so many ancient civilizations; obscure and/or long-dead authors whom I would never have come across any other way. But I’ve also made another discovery: a new category of aphorist, those who have coined only a single truly great (or awful, as the case may be) aphorism. Most aphorists have pretty strong back catalogues: dozens, scores or even hundreds of consistently brilliant and insightful sayings. But there is another group who have just managed to compose the one really majestic maxim. They are the aphoristic equivalents of those benighted bands that have just the one huge hit before disappearing forever from the pop firmament. There is a subset to this group: those aphorists who managed to come up with expressions so excruciating that they too become, in their own way, classics. I present a selection here, which varies wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous . . .

I never knew, for example, that ‘beauty is skin deep’ comes from a poem by Thomas Overbury:

All the carnal beauty of my wife,
Is but skin deep.

Incidentally, this is an excellent example of an aphorism that is evolving into a proverb. The main difference between the two types of sayings is this: people still know who first said or wrote an aphorism. Once no one on the planet any longer knows that Thomas Overbury composed these lines, ‘beauty is skin deep’ will become officially proverbial.

Then there are the classic political sayings by authors who never again said or wrote anything so memorable:

Every country has the government it deserves.
— Joseph de Maistre

Property is theft.
— Pierre Joseph Proudhon

And these scatterings for your aphoristic amusement:

A parent’s food is made sweeter than nectar when his child has toyed with it, dipping his little fingers.
— Valluvar

Reading is thinking with a strange head instead of one’s own.
— I didn’t make a note of the author…

One moment in this world is more precious than a thousand years in the next.
— Nuri, cited in Farid al bin Attar

Aphorisms are chewing gum for the brains.
— Russian, or possibly Lithuanian, author whose name I did not write down…

A real choice is an amputation of which the wound is always open.
— Siegfried E. van Praag

We cannot leave a thought and find it in the same place.
— William King

Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
— Don Marquis

And my current personal favorites, both by R. Paul:

Kiss is the fusion of the brims of the upper crunching spasmodic cavities of two different sexes, governed by the law of attraction and love.

Kiss is a peep into the heart through the mouth.