Aphorisms by Alex Stein

The motto of the spontaneous aphorist (i.e. those who practice the ‘spontaneous combustion’ type of composition, in which aphorisms appear unedited and fully formed) might be, ‘First thought, best thought.’ That was the case for Alex Stein, whose collection of aphorisms, Weird Emptiness, was published by Wings Press in 2007. Stein sent an entirely different manuscript to Roberto Bonazzi, then an editor at Wings Press, who pointed out three pieces he thought were worthwhile. “Curiously,” says Stein, “the three pieces he pointed out were each (and even more tellingly, the only) pieces I had culled, unedited, from the notebooks that have unceasingly attended my efforts at fiction and poetry. Notebooks in which, with utter self-absorption and a transparently deluded sense of my own importance in the larger context of Literature, I had been commenting on my process, aesthetics, mentorship, artistry, and creative life.” These pieces, along with more like them, became Weird Emptiness, from which I spontaneously append a selection below:

Bridge or a Wall. If you write in order to develop a relationship with your fellow human beings and your writing becomes the sole constitution of that relationship, is your writing, then, a bridge or a wall?

The Holy Bible. Perhaps The Holy Bible was written in “the final days” of its world. A memorial, of sorts, as opposed to a visionary work. The only inspired aspect of it being that revolutionary style which makes it such a compelling read. Would it really be so strange to live in a world for which a Bible had not yet been written? Or, rather, say we have no need of prophecy in this age, having at hand so much of history for reference.

The Mystic. When the mystic stares into the eternal, he becomes the eternal. This is neither an act of will, nor a voyage of self-discovery. It is an acknowledgement of the inwardness of outwardness, which is to say it is an acknowledgement of the fact that no division exists.

Conscience. Everything I write is completely personal, as well as utterly disengaged. The issues of form, for me, always supersede the specificities of content. I draw entirely from my own life because I do not believe it is polite to speculate upon the inner world of anyone but myself. One would have to be both clairvoyant and magnanimous to do otherwise with anything like a clear conscience.

Poetry is a surprising sport. One often flushes the jester from the meadow when one is chasing butterflies.

A poem should be no longer than the person who writes it.

Aphorisms by Church and State

A fascinating congruence of aphorisms described in this New York Times piece about the aphorism by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, “Never let a crisis go to waste” appearing on the signboard outside the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan. I blogged about this aphorism in November (Aphorisms in Emergencies) and now, to see it featured in a church signboard, recalls an even earlier series of blogs about this very public display of affection for the aphoristic form (More of God’s Aphorisms, Make Your Own God’s Aphorisms). The original post in this series, God’s Aphorisms, seems to have gone missing in last year’s catastrophic crash of this site, so I’m still waiting for God’s Aphorisms to rise again… Anyway, I thought the appearance of Emanuel’s aphorism in this context is a neat demonstration of the way aphorisms cross church-state boundaries, and how sayings evolve, change, and gain unrelated accretions as they become introduced more widely. Interestingly, the name Immanuel means, “God with us.”

This just in: God’s Aphorisms have risen again, here. Sadly, all the comments are well and truly gone…

Aphorisms by Marty Rubin

Marty Rubin explains the point of his aphorisms (as well as the point of aphorisms in general) very well, so I hereby quote him at length: “Since childhood I’ve been intrigued by the question: What is happiness? And also: What is death? The answer to these two questions sent me down the road of philosophy. That road I’ve found, at least for me, is not a serious but a whimsical one, full of ironies, jokes, contradictions, fragmentary thoughts, clever, perverse, mystifying, exasperating, irreverent and playful reflections. Writing aphorisms I am able to participate in this delightful game, pursuing freedom and wisdom down all the blind alleys of language and thought toward that inevitable dead end.” If we are indeed headed inevitably down a dead end at the dizzying speed of thought, then we might as well enjoy the ride. So here are some of Marty Rubin’s clever, perverse, mystifying, exasperating, irreverent and playful reflections:

Language—a mirror in front of a window.

Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If there’s war in heaven and peace in hell, then hell’s the place to be.

If you need a second to think, it’s too late.

Loud applause is enough to make any speaker doubt himself.

Rain is the picnic when it rains.

Aphorisms by Gregory Gash and Aron Vigushin

Aphorists are everywhere, at work in every language, in every culture. But they often labor on the fringes, since aphorisms are still largely an unheralded literary genre—despite the fact that everybody uses aphorisms every day. It’s especially difficult to get hold of aphorisms written in other languages. Yes, La Rochefoucauld has been translated into zillions of foreign tongues. But what about contemporary practitioners who can’t find foreign publishers for their latest aphoristic blockbuster? It’s always a pleasure to present aphorists working in languages other than English. So without further ado, here are two contemporary Russian aphorists for your delectation. All aphorisms translated from the Russian by Aron Vigushin.

By Gregory Gash

Work—the only bad habit people want to get rid of.

Stupidity is like an umbrella; touch it and it opens.

By Aron Vigushin

Truth—a provisional agreement between opposing sides.

Resume—a lie that lands you a real job.

Advertising—bragging for which the buyer pays.

History—a science that describes past events from the present point of view.

Arabic Proverbs

J.L. Burckhardt was a Swiss traveller and Arabic scholar with a passion for proverbs. He travelled extensively in the Middle East in the early part of the 19th century, a time when doing so meant disguising himself as a Muslim merchant so that he wouldn’t be spotted as European. He visited the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the guise of a pilgrim. When travelling, he was known as “Shaikh Ibrahim”. He began collecting proverbs during his journeys; he was particularly fond of common expressions used in everyday language and used to jot these down whenever he heard them. He added his own acquisitions to a collection made nearly a century earlier by Sharaf ad-Din ibn Asad to produce Arabic Proverbs, or The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Omitted from this wise, insightful compendium were those sayings that, Burckhardt confessed, were “so grossly indelicate that he could not venture to lay them before the public, although it must be acknowledged that they excelled in wit.” Below are a few of the sayings Burckhardt felt could safely be laid before the public…

My thanks to Nadeem El Issa of Joppa Books for alerting me to Burckhardt, sending me a copy of Arabic Proverbs, and translating many of the same.

The hasty and the tardy must meet at the ferry.

Cat’s dreams are full of mice.

There are no fans in hell.

Whatever is in the cauldron must come out with the ladle.

These sayings are from A Thousand and One Arabic Proverbs, by Dalal Khalil Safadi:

Stretch your feet to the edge of your rug.

He who is ahead of you one step will be ahead of you all the way.

Today’s news costs money; tomorrow it will be free.

A knife’s wound will heal; a tongue’s wound won’t.

And these sayings are among Nadeem El Issa’s favorites:

The eye will never rise above the eyebrow.

If you beat someone, make them hurt; if you feed someone, make them full.

Farts don’t fry eggs.

Aphorisms by Thomas Farber

Thomas Farber sums it up well, the paradox of writing aphorisms, a process that involves attempting to write something very very big in a format that is very very small: “Such an odd form: to strive for compression, verbal surprise, paradox, shock, rueful acknowledgment, or revelation of moral blindness may bring out one’s own oddities … Focusing, laser-like, on a single line—erotics of the irreducible; or working on a tiny canvas, like the 1970s artist who painted imaginary postage stamps.” Farber crams a lot into his own sayings, which he refers to as epigrams more often than as aphorisms. Many are miniature novellas—a glimpse of some hinted-at encounter, a one-sided dialogue with characters only known as ‘he’ or ‘she’. Farber is a senior lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment,Rockefeller, Fulbright, and Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor fellowships. His sayings can be found in the books Truth Be Told and The Twoness of Oneness.

Old age. Farewells-in-progress, some not articulated. Oneself in the mirror: person to whom you must be sure to say goodbye.

“Who gives a shit?” the asshole asked, neglecting to wipe his mouth.

“I might…” Maysayer.

Writer: someone who can’t go without saying.

Material times: the going rate of self-interest.

Raised voices (should) raise skepticism.