Aphorisms in Passing

The next time you’re in South Tyrol, consider dropping in on Pension Remichofin St. Josef am See. And when you do, make sure to have a look at the Schaukasten, which features a regular series of aphorisms, this year from German-language aphorist Elazar Benyoetz.

Rosmarie Maran, who runs Pension Remichoff, didn’t plan to have an aphorism showcase at the entrance to her hotel. But when that part of the house was renovated some years ago, the Schaukasten was installed, too. At first, it just featured advertising information about the hotel. “But it soon lost its appeal for us to always say more or less the same thing about our house,” Maran says. “So we thought about a new way to use this little advertising area. And this is what came out.”

“Aphorisms,” Maran admits, “are not at the center of my private interests. I do not really look out for them excessively, and do not try to produce some myself, because too many aphorisms in series always have a somewhat demotivating and paralyzing effect on my mind, even making me a bit sick, like too much chocolate at once.” Still, Maran finds the aphorism postings rewarding: “It really takes time and attention to always find something that is interesting, astonishing, thought-provoking, or at least makes our passers-by smile for a moment.” Guests find it rewarding, too; some regulars make the Schaukasten their first stop on arrival.

Individual aphorisms remain on display for at least one week, sometimes two, before being replaced by a new one. This year, Elazar Benyoetz was the showcased aphorist. Choosing him was not an easy thing, Maran says, “because he is not really funny and many of his aphorisms are deeply philosophical, even religious. He is a real addict of the German language and it is often more the language itself he brings to speech rather than making use of it to express his thoughts.”

You can read a selection below of some of the Benyoetz aphorisms Maran has posted recently. Or better yet, head down to Pension Remichhof and see for yourself…

You have the choice you make. (Man hat die Wahl, die man trifft.)

Your world is only as large as the window you open onto it. (Deine Welt ist nur so groß wie das Fenster, das du ihr aufreißt.)

The time we have is just enough for the moment. (Unsere Zeit reicht für den Augenblick genau aus.)

All understanding is understood correctly, all misunderstanding misunderstood correctly. (Alles Verstehen ist richtig verstanden, alles Missverstehen richtig missverstanden.)

Don’t waste the opportunity your weaknesses offer. (Verscherze dir nicht die Gunst deiner Schwächen.)

You can take any place, but fill only one. (Du kannst jeden Platz einnehmen, nur einen einzigen ausfüllen.)

Thanks to Ursula Sautter, who stayed at Pension Remichoff and told me about the aphorism Schaukasten, who translated the Benyoetz aphorisms in this post, and who also translated from German, Italian, and Spanish for Geary’s Guide.

Aphorisms in Emergencies

I was struck by something Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Obama’s White House chief of staff, said the other day: “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.” With a little editing (”Never let a crisis to go to waste”) this is not only a great aphorism but a great summation of what aphorisms can do for you. There are plenty of crises to go around these days, whether they be personal, financial, professional, psychological, ecological, or otherwise. Aphorisms are designed for use in just such emergencies but, in contrast to the trite platitudes that too often pass for wisdom, aphorisms do not offer solutions.

Aphorisms don’t even make you feel better. Instead, as Emanuel’s quotation demonstrates, they urge you deeper into crisis as the only way to get out of crisis. Aphorisms don’t offer any false sense of hope that things will be easy. It is impossible to be complacent in the face of a good aphorism. What they do offer is a burst of strength, an invigorating injection of confidence and determination to meet whatever challenges face you.

I came across this aphorism via the AfriGadget website:

When you have nothing, anything is possible.

That is not by any stretch of the imagination a comforting saying, but it is inspiring. And in an emergency, inspiration is more valuable than consolation. This saying made me think of perhaps the greatest crisis management aphorism of all time. When you’re feeling hopeless, just break the glass and pull this lever, supplied by the inimitable Winston Churchill:

When you’re going through hell, keep going.

How To Write an Aphorism

There is good news and bad news. The bad news is: ‘How to write an aphorism’ is something that can’t be taught. The good news is: It is something that can be learned. There are three basic methods of composition. There is the ‘spontaneous combustion’ method, in which the aphorism flares out fully formed at unexpected moments, sending the writer scrabbling for napkins, envelopes or any other scrap of paper on which to write it down. Stanislaw Jerzy Lec was a great practitioner of this method:

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Then there is the ‘deliberate composition’ method as practiced by the likes of La Rochefoucauld. He would attend a swanky salon, discuss all manner of subjects, such as love and friendship, then retire for hours to his room where he would produce several sheets of prose, all of which he would eventually distill down to one or two sharp, shining sentences:

In the adversity of even our best friends we always find something not wholly displeasing.

And then there are the ‘accidental aphorists,’ those writers who never intend to compose aphorisms but just can’t help themselves—aphorisms occur naturally within longer stretches of text, such as essays, novels, or poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a classic accidental aphorist:

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.

So, it’s really a matter of finding out which kind of aphorist you are. Then I find it helpful to apply these handy laws—keep it short (after all, only a fool gives a speech in a burning house), definitive (no ifs, ands, or buts), philosophical (it should make you think), and give it a twist. It’s also useful to keep in mind what Gabriel Laub said about aphorisms:

Aphorisms are so popular because, among other reasons, they contain half-truths, and that is an unusually high percentage.

Aphorisms by SRL

SRL enjoys hyperbole, which makes him well-suited to writing aphorisms. The initials SRL are not merely an abbreviation, nor are they a nom de plume. They are, he says, his “shadow”: “The shadow of a name is its initials.” His aphorisms “tend towards bludgeoning critical targets and exposing hollow idols,” SRL says, and he typically addresses psychology, politics, economics, and quantum physics. Propaganda is also a recurrent theme, and the subject of one of his most pointed sayings:

Propaganda: One cannot write about it without producing it.

SRL runs a blog, Maximum Advantage in All Things, and the following aphorisms are from his current work-in-progress, Backlash Papers:

Introversion is not withdrawal; it just looks that way.

Subversion is not advocacy.

Decadence can never be undermined, only eliminated.

Reality represents intrusion by those cocooned within anti-natural concerns: a hungry stomach focuses attention even as it drains the mind.

“Why get my knuckles sore?” I asked the hammer.

One can be well educated and still know nothing.

Aphorisms by the “late, great Aunt Della”

I blame La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Vauvenargues, et al… Ever since the golden age of the French aphorism, which lasted roughly from the 16th to the 18th centuries, aphorisms have had an aristocratic reputation, as if the only people who could write and understand them were wealthy noblemen and disaffected dukes. I’ve always thought that was complete hogwash. Aphorisms are, in fact, the most democratic of all written art forms. They have been written and understood for millennia by absolutely everybody, everywhere, at every time in history. And they can still be found in the most unexpected places—on billboards, in pop songs, and out of the mouths of beloved family members. So I am grateful to Ingrid Hunter for sharing some of the sayings of her “late, great Aunt Della,” who is living proof that aphorisms are alive and well and probably regularly spoken by someone near and dear to you:

A drunk mind speaks a sober thought.

Never count on a dead man’s shoes.

Opportunity has long hair in the front and short hair in the back.

Anything is easy if someone else is doing it.

Very seldom does a leopard change its spots.