Aphoristic Autobiographies via Smith

“Legend has it that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. His response? ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Last year, SMITH Magazine re-ignited the recountre by asking our readers for their own six-word memoirs. They sent in short life stories in droves, from the bittersweet (’Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends’) and poignant (’I still make coffee for two’) to the inspirational (’Business school? Bah! Pop music? Hurrah’) and hilarious (’I like big butts, can’t lie’).”

This is the introduction to the Six-Word Memoirs section of Smith, an online magazine designed “to be a place for storytelling, with a focus on personal narrative.” These six-word memoirs make fascinating and compulsive reading. Smith does not refer to the pieces as aphorisms, but the most moving and insightful of them are indeed aphorisms. They are great examples of the ability of the aphorism to compact so much—an entire life even—into so few words. The six-word memoirs are the bonsai trees of autobiographical writing: constrained by their miniature containers, these reflections are all the more powerful for forcing all of their blossoms into such a tiny space. Reading them, you get a very clear and poignant sense of the life behind the writing, sometimes funny, sometimes bitter, sometimes tragic. I’ll say no more. Read for yourself:

Bad beginning makes ending look good.

A smile can change a life…

Never underestimate the power of snuggling.

Born, published, now out of print.

Life-reflected in my sons’ eyes.

Not worth even six words.

Aphorisms via Samuel Arthur Bent

Samuel Arthur Bent was an author, lawyer and editor of a delightful anthology of quotations called Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. First published in 1882, the book is arranged alphabetically by writer and is absolutely crammed with aphorisms, anecdotes and biographical tidbits. Bent even includes parallel lines, in which he lists similar sayings by other “great men.” Bent’s selections and editorial remarks can seem stodgy to the 21st century reader, but his brilliance, erudition and eccentricity are evident throughout. And despite the sexism of the title, Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men features plenty of female aphorists, such as Madame du Deffand, an 18th-century French wit, salon hostess, and friend of Voltaire and d’Alembert. Bent recounts the story of one Cardinal de Polignac, who described to Madame du Deffand the martyrdom of Saint Denis at Montmartre and how, after his decapitation, the freshly minted martyr walked all the way to the distant village where a cathedral was built in his name holding his severed head in his hands, whereupon Madame du Deffand replied:

The distance is nothing; it is only the first step that costs.

Bent also tells the story of a certain Sir Hercules who, when asked if he had polished off three bottles of port without assistance, replied: “Not quite: I had the assistance of a bottle of Madeira.” Bent died in 1912, after collapsing in the lobby of a Boston hotel. You can download his obituary from the New YorkTimes. Some sayings via Bent to keep you on the straight and narrow:

Religion converts despair, which destroys, into resignation, which submits. —Lady Blessington

Go on, and the light will come to you. —Jean D’Alembert

Flowers are the sweetest things that God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into. —Henry Ward Beecher

So order your affairs as if you were to live long, or die soon. —Bias

Be old when young, that you may be young when old. —Richard Whately

On Tears

Tears leave the body at a temperature of 98.6 degrees. It is difficult to experience this from the tear rolling down your own cheek. But stand close to someone who is weeping, let a drop fall onto your arm, your wrist, and you feel the sudden heat immediately. We are, in fact, continually weeping. The eyes are bathed in tears that protect, cleanse, lubricate. Crying anoints the cornea in holy oils, keeps the lens bright, rinses dust from the eyes. This veil of tears is anatomically correct. Tears always appear at the extremes, greasing the joints between pleasure and pain. Unlike grief, tears have extraordinarily short half-lives. No sooner are they shed than they begin to fade, evaporate, to disappear. “Nothing dries sooner than a tear,” Benjamin Franklin once observed. Which is why we all have an endless supply.

This abbreviated essay originally appeared in the March issue of Ode, on sale now.

Axioms by Anthony W. Shipps

Anthony W. Shipps wrote a book called The Quote Sleuth, which contains tips on “the tools and methods used in the identification of the sources of quotations” and is really the definitive work for anyone serious about tracking down the correct attributions for all kinds of sayings. The book is an exhaustive how-to guide for tracers of lost quotations, and Shipps includes lots of examples of puzzling quotations and how he managed, with a lot of persistence and ingenuity, to finally pinpoint their original sources. Towards the end of the book, Shipps lists some axioms for would-be quote sleuths that occasionally approach the aphoristic and which I hereby excerpt:

Time spent looking for quotations is never wasted.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a book of quotations.

You should get ready for quotation problems long before they happen.

Solutions that you cannot find sometimes find you.

Aphorisms by Vasil Tolevski

Vasil Tolevski is from Macedonia, where he has already published an anthology of Montenegran and Serbian aphorisms and is preparing an anthology of Macedonian aphorisms. Like his fellow Balkan aphorists, Tolevski’s sayings are darkly satirical, with a fierce cynicism about politics and politicians. Most of the political disputes in the region involve Balkan nations arguing (or fighting) amongst themselves. Macedonia, however, has an additional squabble with Greece, over who has the right to the name “Macedonia.” Some of Tolevski’s grimly humorous reflections on the state of his nation:

Without people, whips would be useless.

The Devil has gone; even he couldn’t stand this hell.

They promised to pursue justice and they kept their word: They pursued it right out of the country.

The first sign that you have sunk to the bottom is when everyone around you is as silent as fish.

In politics, ecology is observed: Political wastes are always recycled.