Aphorisms by Sami Feiring

Sami Feiring is a Finnish aphorist, a teacher of aphoristic technique, president of the Aphorism Association of Finland since 2005, and a founding member of World Aphorism Organization. He curates the Finnish Aphorism site, where a selection of Finnish aphorisms is available in translation in several languages. He also compiled an index to Geary’s Guide, in which aphorists can be searched for by country. (You can download the index from Sami’s ‘Modern Gnomologists’ listing on the What Is Gnomology? page.) Sami shares with many of his aphoristic compatriots a focus on social and political issues; a concern for social justice and political rectitude runs through many Finnish aphorisms. And, of course, there is always that tinge of existentialism around the edges. Reading these aphorisms you get the sense that the extraordinary lurks behind the everyday, that a leaky faucet may be a prelude to the Flood…

God rested on the seventh day. Do skeptics get a day off?

Power-hungry politicians eat their words.

Knowledge is power, especially when you conceal it.

The biggest lies come in the most attractive packaging.

When politicians stumble, soldiers fall.

If nature could speak, it would remain silent.

Uniforms are body bags.

The Flood will dry our tears.

If Hell went bankrupt, Heaven would have fewer customers.

Dreaming opens your eyes.

Aphorisms by Mason Cooley

Alfred Kelly alerts me to the aphorisms of the late Mason Cooley, a professor of literature at the College of Staten Island and Columbia University, who died in 2002. There is not a lot of info about Cooley online, but the Cooley listing on poemhunter.com runs to over 200 pages and, by Mr. Kelly’s count, contains some 1,500 sayings. Cooley published a series of collections called City Aphorisms, which seems to have run at least for nine separate “selections.” Wikiquote also has a compact list of Cooleyisms. Cooley has a number of aphorisms on aphorisms, including

In an aphorism, aptness counts for more than truth.

The laughter of the aphorism is sometimes triumphant, but seldom carefree.

Writing an upbeat aphorism is a temptation, but decorum forbids.

A selection of his other sayings follows. My thanks to Alfred Kelly of Hamilton College, one-time academic haunt of the great aphorists Josh Billings and Ezra Pound, for alerting me to Mason Cooley.

Wisdom remembers. Happiness forgets

Reality is the name we give to our disappointments.

The Insignificance of Man is a congenial theme; my own insignificance is a sore point.

Passion impels our deeds; ideology supplies the explanations.

By multiplying ironies, I evade commitments.

Don’t tell me it’s raining when you’re peeing on me!

Aphorisms by Nick Piombino

Nick Piombino is a poet, essayist, psychotherapist, and aphorist. In Contradicta: Aphorisms, he has written sayings that “replicate some aspects of psychoanalysis in which two individual viewpoints are juxtaposed, working together to achieve understanding and insight.” Aphorisms themselves can be considered a kind of reading cure, if not exactly a talking one. Reading a good aphorism is a mini-psychotherapeutic session, in which the aphorism asks you often uncomfortable questions and you have to come up with the answers. Not something to take lying down, but definitely something to make you sit up and look around with a new perspective. The brief selection of aphorisms below is culled from Piombino’s blog; he also tweets. My thanks, as usual, to Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, for alerting me to Nick Piombino’s aphorisms.

Even time stops for a moment, to bow, astonished, to real happiness.

The best winners learn much when they lose, the great discoverers are challenged when lost, to know having is to feel deeply when bereft.

If memory is the cake, nostalgia is the icing, the icing that no one can resist licking off their fingers.

Success consists of 1% holding forth and 99% holding back.

More Aphorisms by Steven Carter

You’ve read his oxymorons, you’ve read his parables, and you may well have read a previous selection of his aphorisms (but, alas, I can’t provide a link since that post disappeared in a catastrophic site crash), and now you can read more of Steven Carter’s aphorisms, from his New Aphorisms and Reflections, first and second series. “My own definition of an art form … is that it ought to permanently alter your way of looking at yourself and the world,” Carter writes by way of introduction. “This is a tall order, but it’s happened to me after looking at many Picassos, attending and teaching many plays by Shakespeare, viewing many films by Ingmar Bergman—and, yes, reading many aphorisms by authors like Francois, duc de la Rochefoucauld, Joseph Joubert, Blaise Pascal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, E.M. Cioran, Karl Kraus, Vilhelm Ekelund, and Fernando Pessoa.” I, of course, couldn’t agree more. So here’s another opportunity to permanently alter your way of looking at yourself and the world…

Not only can you argue with success, you should argue with success—as with an adversary.

Opportunity doesn’t knock. It’s slipped under the door surreptitiously, like a billing statement in a hotel.

Babies are born bald and serious. They know what’s coming.

Language is what happens when love and war fail.

Only aphorisms which famish fill us up.

Aphorisms and Metaphors by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution is Randall Jarrell‘s novel of academic farce. The book is supposed to be based on Jarrell’s own experience teaching at a progressive New England girls’ college in the 1950s. The novel is not really a novel at all, but a series of witty and cutting character sketches, very much in the vein of Characters by Jean de la Bruyère. Bruyère was a close observer of 17th-century French court life, and all the pageantry, pettiness, and political intrigue provided him with ample material for his Characters. Jarrell was a close observer of mid-20th-century academic life, and keenly skewered all its political intrigue and pretentiousness.

Pictures from an Institution is rife with epigrams, aphorisms, and brilliant metaphors. Jarrell’s metaphors, in particular, are excellent case studies in the power of figurative language to convey the most precise image of a thing by describing that thing in terms of something it is not. For example, the unctuousness and politically correct blandness of the president of Benton, the fictitious college at which the book is set, is deftly conveyed by the following:

His voice not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable … Not to have given him what he asked … would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supply of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars.

Jarrell is also extremely skilled at deploying metaphor to create a kind of emotional valence around his characters, as in these descriptions of one of Benton’s teachers:

She was a bow waiting, in dust and cobwebs, for someone to come along and string it; and no one came, no one would ever come.

Somehow, after almost sixty years in it, the world had still not happened to her, and she stood at its edge with a timid smile, her hand extended to its fresh terrors, its fresh joys—a girl attending, a ghost now, the dance to which forty years ago she did not get to go.

Among the all-time greatest descriptions of physiognomy, surely this line must find a place:

Mr. Daudier had been pushed up and down New England several times, head-first, by a glacier; this face was what was left.

Plus, Pictures from an Institution is just strewn with excellent aphorisms:

In a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful for what is there and what cannot yet be there.

Strangers are best to fool, but home-folk are the nicest to show off to.

People eat and sleep and live all year, but they are educated only nine months of it.

Nostalgia is the permanent condition of man.

The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine.

A way of life is a way of escaping from perception, as well as of perceiving.

It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.

Aphorisms by Brian Jay Stanley

Brian Jay Stanley is a practitioner of the long-form aphorism, a strand of aphoristic technique pioneered by people like Balthasar Gracian and Arthur Schopenhauer, a variant that borders on the parable but pulls up well short of the essay. Mr. Stanley’s Aphorisms and Paradoxes are outstanding examples of the form. An interesting aspect of the long-form aphorism is that the complete text, in Mr. Stanley’s case, usually around a dozen sentences in length, is inevitably studded with discrete individual aphorisms that could easily stand on their own. Ralph Waldo Emerson did this all the time; he actually wrote full-length essays, but the essays themselves were accumulations of self-contained aphorisms. Mr. Stanley’s “Fellowship or Freedom” is like this, too, by my count consisting of at least a half a dozen good aphorisms:

Human nature needs both fellowship and freedom, but usually we must choose. The more we encircle ourselves with others, the more we handcuff our will. Ask for help on a project at work, and it will not be done exactly how you want. Marry, and your holidays will be spent at in-laws’. Have children, and you will listen to their music in the car instead of yours. But worship your freedom, and you will be an empty temple. A bachelor’s life resembles a widower’s. Write, sing, or paint the way you please, disregarding the market’s demands, and you will be your own and only audience. Travel wherever you want, whenever you want, and you will go alone. Fellowship imprisons us, freedom exiles us.

Just as often, the long-form aphorism has the same delivery mechanism as a joke: a fairly long build-up followed by a concise punchline. Take Mr. Stanley’s “Against Living in the Present” as a case in point:

Poets exhort us to savor life by forgetting the past and future and living wholly in the present. Yet I find that living in the present is precisely what hinders appreciation. During the week, I live solely in the present. I eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. My world is circumscribed by my commute; my mind’s range is limited by my body’s. Do not animals live wholly in the present? In the weekend’s pause, I read a Balzac novel and emigrate to history for an afternoon. I think of the great populace of the dead, see my life in the context of Life, gain depth of emotion through breadth of imagination. As travelers in foreign countries think fondly of home, we must be conscious of other times to love our home, the moment. Living fully in the present requires living partly in the past.

These kinds of long-form aphorisms are like holograms: The whole picture can be reconstructed from any single part of it. In this case, the entire aphoristic essay is contained in the last line.

Mr. Stanley works as software developer and has master’s degrees in library and information science as well as theology. His aphorisms tell it like it is, both the long and the short of it.

A Hobby is Work for Work’s Sake

To know someone truly, look at what he does when no one is paying him. My wife makes jewelry, my father gardens, I write, my grandfather cleared brush from the woods by his house. Seeking the common core of varied hobbies, I notice in all a devotion of effort toward a self-imposed goal. To accomplish something is every hobby’s purpose, but what is the purpose of the accomplishment? We are less interested in the accomplishment than the accomplishing. Hobbies express an entrenched urge to create, to add patches of order to the universe. In our hobbies as in our careers, we stack the world’s raw scraps into meaningful shapes—arranging dirt into flower beds, stones into necklaces, words into paragraphs. We curse a Saturday that sees no progress on our projects, not because anyone needs what we produce, but because we need to produce. At work we long for leisure; in leisure we keep working.

We Were Gold Medalists in the Sperm Olympics

A man ejaculates around 300 million sperm in sexual intercourse. That means on the night each of us was conceived, 299,999,999 other sperm were vying for the finish line with the one sperm that became us. A wrong turn down the fallopian tube, a faulty flip of the tail, and one of the hordes of barreling competitors would have outswum us, won the trophy of our mother’s egg, and would now be living our life instead of us. How easily this planet might have been home to a completely different set of inhabitants!

Nothing we will ever accomplish in life—not if we win a Heisman trophy, a Nobel Prize, or the presidency—can compare to the improbable victory we achieved to get here.

Luxury is Multiplying the Basics

Most people daydream of wealth as a marble staircase to happiness, but on a recent tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I was disappointed to discover that money does not buy a different life, but a larger portion of the same life—a somewhat roomier finitude. Instead of two or three bedrooms like most homes, the mansion has thirty five. Yet still, what can one do in them but sleep? By the time I had seen the fifth sitting room, each with innumerable chairs and sofas of countless shapes and upholsteries, I realized that wealth gives no help for ennui except a choice of which chair to be bored in.

Morning Depression

My mornings begin with fifteen minutes of depression. Startled from slumber’s nothingness by my alarm, I see what I must do today, but not why I must do it. My mind is as calm as a Buddha’s, examining my planned activities with passionless clarity, surveying life without yet quite belonging to it. All my business has an air of empty busyness. Toasting breakfast, commuting to work, responding to emails—all normalcy seems a costume of the preposterous.

By the time I step from my shower, my philosophic why? has given way to what order should I run my morning errands? Practicality clouds my clairvoyance, curing my depression not with hope, but a to-do list. Small thoughts rescue me from large thoughts.

Metaphors by Mario de Sá-Carneiro

Mario de Sá-Carneiro was a Portuguese poet who died in 1916, at the age of 25, after swallowing strychnine. He attended law school in Coimbra, where he met and became close friends with fellow Portuguese poet (and aphorist) Fernando Pessoa. Both Sá-Carneiro and Pessoa were loners given to melancholy and depression. Pessoa’s sense of angst is expressed in a great aphorism:

We never know self–realization. We are two abysses—a well staring at the Sky.

A reader brought Sá-Carneiro to my attention with a stanza from one of his poems, a few lines that echo Rimbaud’s “I is an other” saying, which I used as the title for my book about metaphor in daily life:

I’m not me nor am I the other,
I’m something intermediate:
Pillar of the Tedious Bridge
That goes from me to the Other.

Aphorisms and Metaphors by Francis Ponge

The French author Francis Ponge, who died in 1988, practiced a kind of writing that occupies a space somewhere between definition and description. He wrote what he called “proems,” prose poems in which he contemplates and conjures ordinary objects, sometimes everyday things like cigarettes, soap, and doors, but usually aspects of the natural world like snails, pebbles, and shrimp. Each text is a meditation on and minutely detailed description of the object in question and, at the same time, an elaborate extended metaphor for the experience of writing. The novelist Tom McCarthy recently wrote a very nice appreciation of Ponge and his unique approach.

In a preamble to the proem “The Lizard,” which, like so many Ponge texts, turns out in the end to be a metaphor for the writing process itself, Ponge describes his method like this: “This unpretentious little text perhaps shows how the mind forms an allegory and then likes to resorb it. A few characteristics of the object first appear, then develop and intertwine through the spontaneous movement of the mind thus leading to the theme, which no sooner stated produces a brief side reflection from which there at once emerges, unmistakeably, the abstract theme, and during the course of its formulation (towards the end) the object automatically disappears.”

Though Ponge is not primarily an aphorist, his technique (brief, vivid descriptions; lots of compressed metaphors) and his form (the abbreviated essay) naturally produce aphoristic lines. He has a sensitivity to the natural world similar to that of Malcolm de Chazal; their descriptions of things are always meticulously precise. Ponge, for example, describes a butterfly as “a flying match whose flame’s not contagious” … “like a maintenace man it checks [the flowers’] oil one after the other.” De Chazal writes:

Light shining on water droplets spaced out along a bamboo stalk turns the whole structure into a flute.

Like De Chazal, Ponge also had a relatively brief flirtation with the surrealists, though the work of both men is, if anything, hyper-realistic rather than surrealistic. This is a quality they both share with another oddball aphorist, Ramon Gomez de la Serna. Gomez de la Serna had an acute eye for the slightly absurd aspects of nature:

The giraffe is a horse elongated by cursiousity.

And so did Ponge:

The horse … is impatience nostrilized.

Ponge also shared a sensibility with another wonderful French author who spent a lot of time pondering the writing process, Paul Valery. Valery observed:

A cyclone can raze a city, yet not even open a letter or untie the knot in this piece of string.

Ponge noted:

A wind strong enough to uproot a tree or knock down a building cannot displace a pebble.

Ponge’s goal, in his own words, was “by a manipulation, a fundamental disrespect for words etc. [to] give the impression of a new idiom that will produce the same effect of surprise and novelty as the object we are looking at.” Indeed, the surprise and novelty of his proems, like that of the world he contemplated, are remarkably fresh.

A mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances.

Liquid, by definition, is that which chooses to obey gravity rather than maintain its form.

(A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts. —Malcolm de Chazal)

Stone, which does not regenerate, is the only thing in nature that constantly dies.

It is always towards the proverbial that language tends.

Beauty is the impossible which lasts.

True poetry is what does not pretend to be poetry. It is the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking the new encounter.

There is something excessive about a rose, like many plates piled up in front of a dinner guest.

More Aphorisms by Thomas Farber

Thomas Farber returns with a new collection of epigrams, Hesitation Marks, from Andrea Young Arts. Farber also returns in excellent aphoristic form, with more mordant and amusing musings on sex, death, and … well, that just about covers it, sex and death being two inexhaustible subjects about which to commit “epigrammatics,” as Farber describes his excursions into the short form. And he also delivers a thoughtful epilogue to the book, in which he responds to readers who ask the inevitable, Why epigrams? “Well … occasionally, they ensue from hearing a word or phrase as if for the first time, awakening to sound, layered meaning,” Farber writes. “Revealing or explicating latent or forgotten life in language … Sometimes, however, the impulse is a hunger to get at what’s going on in our behavior, conviction it must be got at.”

He also includes a nice citation from William Matthews: “The best epigrams, like the endings of great poems, shimmer and twist. Little is ended. There’s much to think and feel. The rhetorical pleasure of an epigram may be its conclusiveness and concision, but the soul of its brevity is a long thoughtfulness.”

But, of course, every aphorist will recognize and agree with Farber’s formulation of the true and real motivation for our obsession with the form. “Finally,” he writes, “there’s thrill in working so unmarketable a form. Think of, say, how skateboarding used to be, endless repetitions to achieve proficiency lacking dollar value in a culture that’s all about dollars.”

Here are selections from Farber’s unmarketable but remarkable Hesitation Marks:

Jealousy’s geometry: no right triangles.

Tango, envy: it takes two to.

Not just fat: full of himself.

Constipation. Sit-down strike.

The young: surprised when the body doesn’t work.

The old: surprised when it does.

Middle v. old age: out living v. outlived.

Why Are There Fewer Female than Male Aphorists?

This question was prompted by a reader who recently raged at the absence of women in The World in a Phrase. There are 40-odd aphorists in that book and only four of them are women. (In my own defense, may I say that there are many more women, and many more aphorists in general, about 350, as I recall, in Geary’s Guide…) This reader wondered whether there was some prerequisite that female aphorists had not managed to fulfill and so were disqualified from inclusion in my book. She vented on the phone with a female friend who, without skipping a beat, replied:

When a woman is an aphorist, they call her a mother.

This reader urged me to “write a book showing that women who are aphorists have a much more practical view of the world than men. Most of the succinct instructions on how to live must, of necessity, come from women.”

There are several possible explanations for the comparative scarcity of female aphorists—and, in fact, having a more practical view of the world than men might just be one of them.

In researching my books, I was acutely aware of the preponderance of male aphorists. But I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for it. The obvious explanation is: For centuries women were discouraged from pursuing literary careers, or any careers at all, so that’s why there are fewer female aphorists.

Then a philosopher friend of mine suggested that evolutionary biology might offer another explanation. Aphorisms are displays of linguistic opulence, she said, a showing off of a person’s wit and verbal dexterity, like a male peacock’s plumage. In the animal kingdom, males typically use ostentatious displays like this to attract mates, so male aphorists might be doing the same with their witty sayings. Females don’t feel the need to do this, she argued, hence the dearth of female aphorists.

Then while researching my book on metaphor, I Is an Other, which includes a chapter on metaphor, proverbs, and parables (and, by extension, aphorisms), I came across a fascinating study. Psychologist Daniel Stalder asked university students to read stories in which they took part in behavior—engaging in unsafe sex, wasting hundreds of gallons of water during a drought, or joyriding in a stolen car—that contradicted their personal values. After reading the story, some participants then read a short list of irrelevant proverbs (e.g., An apple a day keeps the doctor away), some read relevant proverbs (e.g., Everybody makes mistakes), some read a mix of relevant and irrelevant proverbs, and the rest didn’t read any proverbs at all. Those who had read relevant proverbs expressed fewer feelings of regret and guilt than those who had read only irrelevant proverbs or no proverbs at all.

But, Stalder found, this effect was evident only in men. He concluded that men were quicker to use proverbs to excuse their behavior because the sayings placed their actions in the context of a social norm—After all, everybody makes mistakes now and then. What’s the big deal? Women, in contrast, did not accept that the proverbial social norm, however reassuring, offered justification for their actions.

So, could the explanation for the preponderance of male aphorists lie in the fact that men are more eager to find excuses for their bad behavior and therefore are more active in inventing the very sayings that they can later rely on for justification?

I don’t know. But I do know that there are plenty of great female aphorists and if/when I write a revised and expanded edition of The World in a Phrase the following females and their succinct instructions on how to live will be prominently featured in it:

Baldness is the gradual transformation of the head into an ass; first in shape, then in content. —Faina Ranevskaya

It takes less courage to be the only one to find fault than to be the only one to find favor. —Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Wit lies in recognizing the resemblance among things that differ and the difference between things that are alike. —Baroness de Stael-Holstein

When women go wrong, men go right after them. —Mae West