Aphorisms by Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Doug Yonson alerts me to the aphoristic abilities of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was once allegedly described by President Richard Nixon as an “asshole”; to which Trudeau is said to have replied: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” This same wit is on display in Trudeau’s aphorisms, which Doug Yonson reports are memorably and widely known in Canada, and perhaps now elsewhere, too…

There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.

Living next to [the U.S.] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast … one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

The essential ingredient of politics is timing.

Life is one long curve, full of turning points.

Canada is a country whose main exports are hockey players and cold fronts. Our main imports are baseball players and acid rain.

Luck is the time when preparation and opportunity meet.

More Aphorisms by Gregory Gash and Aron Vigushin

I first blogged about the aphorisms of Gregory Gash and Aron Vigushin back in March; now they’re back, translated once again from the Russian by Aron Vigushin, with some biographical information and more aphorisms… Vigushin is a civil engineer-designer with some 50 years of experience. He discovered aphorisms early in life “as a convenient short form by which I could record my observations,” he says. “These aphorisms share my thoughts about family, friends and, most importantly, children and grandchildren. The purpose of their creation is to do everything in my power to ensure that children and grandchildren become better human beings and inherit more of our virtues and less of our vices.”

In response to budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel is being switched-off today.

Politicians resort to hysterics to be part of historic events.

Don’t be a small time crook, you’ll just end up in jail; be a big-time crook, you’ll make history.

The sign of a healthy nation is its ability to laugh at itself.

Gregory Gash was born in Minsk but has lived in Israel since 1992. In Minsk, Gash was also a civil engineer as well as a journalist, working for the newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussia (Soviet Belarus). He has published 11 satirical books, including You are Here, Not There and Epigrammy. He regularly appears on Israeli radio and television shows in Israel. In 1993, he won an epigram competition conducted on Russian TV.

Both aphorists and sculptors chop off all unnecessary parts.

Strong expressions compensate for weak arguments.

To give weight to nonsense, whisper it into someone’s ear.

People bump into each other so often because everyone follows their own path.

Biography: what really happened to a person. Memoirs: what the person wishes would have happened.

God created everything from nothing. We are busy doing the opposite.

Aphorisms by and via Aleksander Cotric

Serbian aphorist Aleksander Cotric (see p. 30 of Geary’s Guide) sent me excerpts from Serbia’s Secret Weapon, a collection of Serbian anti-war aphorisms compiled by Slobodan Simi?. “These aphorisms are about the Balkan wars,” says Cotric, also a member of the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle portrayed in the film Goodbye, How Are you?, “wars that were happening in ex-Yugoslavia at the end of the 90s, but the consequences of those wars are still very present in this part of southeastern Europe.” Professor Zack Trebjesanin provides a kind of introduction to the volume, writing: “Aphorisms, just like the humorous, lucid slogans in the demonstrations against the dictatorial regime, were the best defence against the planned massive spread of madness through mythomania, exclusion and fervent hatred … I believe that short, meaningful aphorisms, mercilessly unmasking lies and stupidity, helped many people keep their spirit and a clear head.” Prepare to have your head cleared with a bracing dose of Serbian satire…

What kind of a patriot are you when you are not on the list of war criminals?! —Aleksandar Baljak (see p. 10 of Geary’s Guide)

Would you like the lesser of two evils? Let Serbs choose first. —Rade Jovanovi?

We did not die in vain. Our neighbours rejoiced. —Aleksandar Baljak

Every nation has a right to self-determination until self-destruction. —Slobodan Simic

I, too, would condemn the massacre of civilians, but I don’t want to take sides. —Vladan Soki?

These aphorisms are by Aleksandar ?otri?:

The crazy here are not imagining anything; they really are presidents, ministers, generals…

There was no wandering around. We started going the wrong way right from the beginning.

Sometimes they put people in front of tanks. That’s then called a parade.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. That’s our houses burning.

More Aphorisms by Aleksandar Krzavac

I first blogged about Aleksandar Krzavac’s aphorisms back in November of 2007; a fresh selection is offered below. Krzavac is a member of the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle and some of his sayings are featured in the film Goodbye, How Are You?, which I blogged about yesterday. In these aphorisms, Krzavac turns his clinical, jaundiced eye on the current political/moral/economic state of Serbia… As always with Balkan aphorisms, prepare to wince even as you smile…

We live virtually but die for real.

Morals make saints; breaking morals makes human beings.

Morality is a barrier between men and women.

They lift their foreheads so high in order not to see what’s happening on the ground.

Eternal vigilance leads to permanent insomnia.

As oil prices get closer to the maximum, the value of human lives gets closer to the minimum.

Goodbye, How Are You?

Imagine my chagrin when, three-quarters of the way through Goodbye, How Are You? (a.k.a. Aphocalypse Now), Boris Mitic’s superb “satirical documentary fairy tale” featuring the aphorisms of the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, the following message appeared on my screen: “SKIPPING DAMAGED AREA”. At first, I thought this must be a reference to some dark episodes from Boris’s past, or perhaps to the Balkans itself, which Boris traversed during a three-year, 50,000 km-trip to compile the images for his film and which is still hurting from the 1990s wars. But no, it simply meant that there was something wrong with my DVD, so I have still not seen the end of the film, which somehow seems fitting for a documentary about forsaken hopes and damaged dreams…

Boris himself is most eloquent in explaining the background to his film: “An aphorism, as defined and practiced in Serbia, is a short, sharp, linguistically effective sentence or two which imperatively contains an unexpectedly subversive twist that describes in a most striking, clairvoyant way the hidden truth of some common social matters or states of mind. What makes Serbian aphorisms different from classic proverbs is their killer dose of black humor, satire and merciless sarcasm that still conveys a strong humanistic message.” Some examples from the film’s aphoristic narration, which braids together aphorisms from members of the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle with the tale of “a hero of our time who would die for what he believes in but doesn’t believe in anything anymore”:

When a boomerang leaves this place, it never returns.

The minister is taking the weekend off; that’s his contribution to fighting corruption.

They are taking a stick-and-carrot approach: First they beat us with sticks, and then with carrots.

We wanted to fight til the last man, but there were not enough of us.

At any given moment we know what we want, we just don’t know when that moment is.

The longer the war, the closer the peace.

Not only are the aphorisms great, but the collage of images that make up Goodbye, How Are You? are visual aphorisms in themselves, following all of the Five Laws of the Aphorism: They are short (each image lasts no more than a few seconds but achieves a startling effect by being juxtaposed with other, absurdly apt images); they are definitive (the vignettes are blunt and graphic—a tractor dragging a corpse down a street, a boy resting in an armchair as a village burns around him); they are personal (Boris’s unfailing eye for the surreal aspects of the real is evident throughout); they are philosophical (each image elaborates on the narrated text but also takes it off into different philosophical directions, such as the shot of statues of Snow White and one dwarf decorating a home that slowly pulls back to reveal a statue of the Buddha sitting beside them); and they have a twist (each and every image conceals an “unexpectedly subversive twist”, like the shot of a black cat who had its reputation for bad luck reversed when it got squashed on a busy street).

Aphorisms lodge themselves in our minds through their brilliant, startling imagery and subtle meanings; Boris Mitic’s film will lodge there for exactly the same reasons.

Sephardic Proverbs

Michael Castro calls Sephardic proverbs “the unwritten laws of how to be and how to see”, and a better definition of aphoristic expressions I have not seen. Castro has been collecting these proverbs for years, from books, from friends, from relatives. They are featured in Sephardic Proverbs in Big Bridge (Vol 3, No 3), where Castro writes: “For Sephardic Jews, scattered in insular communities throughout the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and Europe, after the century of persecution and Inquisition that culminated in their expulsion from Spain or Sepharad in 1492, proverbs were an important means of passing on and reinforcing values and identity.” This is, in fact, the function of aphoristic expressions in all places, at all times, and Sephardic proverbs make particularly rich reading… My thanks to the ever aphoristically alert Jim Finnegan (check out his blog, ursprache) for bringing my attention to this unique strand of proverbial literature.

Just let me in and I’ll make my own space.

Do something when you are able, not when you want to.

He who has no home is neighbor to the entire world.

It’s better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a rat.
(Compare Lucifer’s retort in Paradise Lost: I would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.)

He who bows down too low exposes his ass.

A closed mouth, flies cannot enter.

Whoever falls, feels.

By the Skin of Our Aphorisms…

Aphorisms are everywhere, not just in books but carved into buildings and monuments, scrawled on bathroom walls, slapped onto car bumpers and emblazoned across t-shirts and baseball caps—and they are branded onto the skin. In The Word Made Flesh, a piece on literary tattoos that’s part of the Forbes.com special report on Aphorisms, Proverbs, Thoughts and Sayings, Mark Lewis writes: “You need not be a celebrity [like Angelina Jolie] to have your exposed skin admired on the Internet. The hoi polloi can share images of their literary tattoos with Toronto photographer Jen Grantham, who displays them on her blog, Contrariwise.org.”

Contrariwise is worth a look/read for some of the words of wisdom made flesh there, including the mordantly defiant and utterly inspirational:

Defy gravity

which is Kat’s tattoo, from the play Wicked, which she says she wanted “from the moment the show let out, as a reminder to just go for it in life and not let anyone or anything hold me down.”

Then there is Stellar’s tattoo, an even darker take on the defying gravity theme, from Rilke’s Duino Elegies:

Be ahead of all departure.

And then there is the simple word “Unless”, tattooed on the forearm as a reminder of the Dr. Seuss line from The Lorax:

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Aphorisms by and via Bertie Charles Forbes

Bertie Charles Forbes, the man who founded the magazine that bears his name, was also a life-long collector of aphorisms. He gave “Thoughts on the Business of Life”—a smattering of thoughtful quotations—a full page in every issue of the magazine, he said, “to inspire a philosophic mode of life, broad sympathies, charity towards all.” In the introduction to Thoughts on the Business of Life, which now totals some 10,000 sayings, Forbes wrote that he wanted to “have done something towards bequeathing a better world for my four sons and an increasing number of grandchildren.” That motivation puts him in a long line of moralist-aphorists that started with the local Egyptian potentate Ptah-Hotep back in the third millennium BCE…

Forbes.com has just put Thoughts on the Business of Life online, accompanied by a clutch of essays on Aphorisms, Proverbs, Thoughts and Sayings. This special report includes reflections by Karl Shmavonian, the editor of Forbes‘ quotes page; a piece on how sayings evolve by Brian Burrell; a friendly warning to misquoters from Nigel Rees; an anatomy of proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder; a primer on online quotation sleuthing by Fred R. Shapiro; a piece on literary tattoos by Mark Lewis; and a consideration of aphorisms and the Forbes family by me.

Bertie Charles and Malcolm Forbes are part of a small group of aphorists for whom a talent for the form has run in the family. There are only a few other examples of aphoristic family trees. “Fireside Poet” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. passed on some aphoristic genes to his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was a U.S. Supreme Court justice. And, of course, the Roosevelts—President Theodore, First Lady Eleanor (Theodore’s niece) and U.S. President Franklin Delano (Eleanor’s distant cousin and husband)—were consistently aphoristic. The aphorisms of Bertie Charles Forbes tend to be moralistic and civic-minded:

Better to be occasionally cheated than perpetually suspicious.

Those of his son, Malcolm, are more philosophical, even Zen-like:

When you catch what you’re after, it’s gone.

The aphorisms of both men, though, remind us why this intimate, idiosyncratic form is so special. If you’re in search of more reminders, check out Thoughts on the Business of Life.