Aphorisms by Robert Priest

This just in from Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter: “Many years ago, at the Bowery Poetry Club, I happened to hear Robert Priest give a performance. The ‘poetry reading’ was unusual in that he presented a group of aphorisms. Reading very short material, like haiku/epigrams/aphorisms, is always a difficult thing to carry off, much harder than reading poetry of standard length. Pace and how much silence to leave between pieces is difficult to manage. One needs to gives each piece space enough so that the short texts aren’t run together, becoming part of a longer unintended experience. But one doesn’t want to leave the audience hanging too long, in a pregnant pause, creating a sense of much ado being made over a bit of text, however well said.

And introducing an aphorism, when done at all, must be very delicate. One shouldn’t give a paragraph of intro to an aphorism of a line or two. The successful aphorism doesn’t require the context of an elaborate explanation, nor should it be undercut by amusing asides. I must have been impressed by Priest’s performance, because I bought his book Time Release Poems (Ekstatis Editions, 1997) and had him inscribe the book to me. I recently came upon the small book in my library. Here are some of Robert Priest’s witty and poetic aphorisms…”

No matter which way you turn there’s always something you’re not facing.

Whitewash comes in many colors.

Every little ruler wants a 13th inch.

There is no camouflage like a good philosophy.

The teacher is the lesson.

The edge comes from within.

Good lovers come in pairs.

The most dangerous people are the obedient.

The apology is never as loud as the insult.

Hurricanes at home move faraway sails.

People begin as dreams and end as memories.

You can’t forgive yourself without forgiving others.

Serious times breed comedians.

More on Metaphor and Obama’s Sputnik Analogy

In the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama returned to a metaphor he has used before—the comparison of this moment in American history with the space race of the 1950s and ‘60s. “Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon … But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

As described in my previous post on this metaphor, Obama clearly intended the metaphor to be an inspirational call to entrepreneurship and invention. But Sputnik is not the right metaphor for our current predicament, and it is unlikely to light a fire under the next generation of American innovators.

First of all, Sputnik long ago lost its iconic status in our collective memory. Few younger people today can probably imagine just how great a shock the Soviet launch of Sputnik was—to our national pride, yes, but even more importantly to our national security. That generalized sense of imminent threat from a foreign power does not exist today; it’s been replaced by the much more localized and personal threat of terrorism.

Second, the ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union was very much a competition and very much a race. The two countries were opponents competing head to head. The ‘race’ metaphor was implicit throughout Obama’s speech, most noticeably in the repeated use of phrases like “The future is ours to win” and “winning the future.” Our competitors in this race are countries like China and India, which are out-innovating us just as the Soviets did in the 1950s.

But this isn’t the 1950s, and unleashing “a wave of innovation” and creating “new industries and millions of new jobs” depends more on collaboration than confrontation with countries like China and India. Obama even acknowledged when he suggested that foreign students and the children of illegal immigrants be allowed to remain in the U.S. to start businesses and create jobs. The President, keen to sustain the conciliatory tone he struck at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, was careful to use the metaphor of “family” when referring to domestic issues. But he reverted to an ‘us versus them’ metaphor when talking about the economic threat posed by America’s foreign competitors.

Obama’s Sputnik metaphor isn’t right because today both the stakes and the threats are totally different. We do need to create jobs, get the economy going, and reduce C02 emissions, for sure. But to achieve those goals America needs China and India just as much as it needs investment in alternative energy and infrastructure projects. This race is only won if everyone crosses the finishing line at the same time.

Aphorisms by George Murray

George Murray is editor of the literary website Bookninja.com and author of Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms. There is a sort of casual surrealism about Murray’s aphorisms, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to compare worry, for example, to a playground. The metaphors are both pedestrian and astonishing, reminiscent of aphorists like Malcom de Chazal and Ramon Gomez de la Serna. The deep strangeness of the images and juxtapositions takes a while to sink in, mostly because of Murray’s deadpan delivery. Reading his aphorisms is like talking on a phone with a slight delay; you understand what’s been said a beat or so after it has been spoken. And that split-second delay, filled with thoughts and speculation, is where the wonder lies, of aphorisms in general and these aphorisms in particular. The charm of Glimpse is that so many of the aphorisms in it make you do a double take.

Hindsight is 20/20, but only if you’re looking back.

Depression is insanity without urgency.

The coffin’s satin is life’s pink slip.

Fishermen cast anchors before lines.

Help is what happens to you when your need meets the need of another.

Reading is like taking a poison and its antidote in the same swallow.

Worry is a playground for those with time enough to visit it.

Panic is worry on a tight schedule.

No number of glances can add up to a good look.

There’s not a single thing that couldn’t be, but pretty much everything is next to impossible.

Charity is what we give to make things go away.

Turning forty is like looking up and realizing it’s two in the afternoon.

Metaphor, Palin, and Obama

In his speech at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting, President Obama urged Americans to “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Everyone has experienced the power of words to ease or inflict emotional pain. What is less commonly experienced, consciously, at least, is the powerful way that metaphors in general—and metaphors in political rhetoric and imagery, in particular—influence our attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

It is impossible to attribute a specific act of violence to a general program of political sloganeering, just as it is impossible to attribute a specific extreme weather event to climate change. So ‘Did Sarah Palin’s placement of cross hairs on an electoral map that included Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ district inspire last weekend’s attack?’ is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask, ‘How do metaphors frame issues in ways that either promote engagement and encourage estrangement?’ The political climate, like the physical climate, is something we all create and influence. If it gets too hot, we all suffer.

In contrast to Obama’s conciliatory tone, Sarah Palin came out with all guns blazing in her video message denouncing those who blamed martial political imagery for the violence. In doing so, she used another martial metaphor, accusing the media of using a “blood libel.” The term “blood libel” refers to a piece of anti-Semitic propaganda originating in the Middle Ages in which Jews were falsely accused of using the blood of murdered children to make matzo, or unleavened bread.

Metaphorical phrases like these do not only cause offense; they trigger powerful associations that shape opinions and actions.

Psychologist Thomas Gilovich demonstrated the power of these metaphors in a landmark study in which he asked a group of Stanford undergraduates to imagine that they were high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department. He informed them that a small democratic country of no vital interest to U.S. national security had been attacked by a moderately powerful communist or fascist country and had asked the U.S. for help. What should the U.S. do—nothing, appeal to the United Nations, or intervene?

Gilovich then gave each student one of three different descriptions of this hypothetical foreign policy crisis, each of which contained a few minor associations and a few familiar names designed to trigger different historical analogies. One scenario featured allusions to World War II, another featured allusions to Vietnam, and the third was historically neutral. In the World War II scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in boxcars on freight trains, for example. In the Vietnam scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in small boats up the coast.

These historical cues were, of course, entirely irrelevant to the decision participants had to make. Nonetheless, subjects given the World War II scenario made more interventionist recommendations than the other two. The Vietnam and control groups both tended to recommend a hands-off approach. Gilovich quizzed students afterward, and none was aware of the historical allusions embedded in the descriptions—and all denied that these associations could have influenced their decisions.

Because metaphors frame the way we look at issues, and they do it without our conscious awareness, they also constrict the range of possible responses we can have to those issues. Metaphors trigger largely associations in our minds, and we naturally start to view things within the confines of those associations—even if those associations are irrelevant, or even counterproductive, to the issue at hand. The more the metaphors are repeated, the more propitious or pernicious they become.

In his speech in Tucson, Obama emphasized the metaphor of family. “For those who were harmed, those who were killed,” he said, “they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong.” He even personalized the metaphor by naming individual victims and directly equating them with our own loved ones: “Phyllis—she’s our mom or our grandma; Gabe our brother or son.” Obama metaphorically highlighted the fact that, as Americans, we share one blood; Palin metaphorically accused some Americans of spilling the blood of other Americans.

Which metaphor encourages us to “constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations,” as Obama also said in his speech?

Political crises are not resolved simply by choosing alternate metaphors, of course. But metaphors matter—a lot. Last March, in the midst of the healthcare reform debate, Sarah Palin posted a message on her Facebook page, ostensibly about the college basketball teams competing in March Madness, that re-enforced her martial metaphors: “The crossfire is intense, so penetrate through enemy territory by bombing through the press, and use your strong weapons—your Big Guns—to drive to the hole. Shoot with accuracy; aim high and remember it takes blood, sweat and tears to win.”

This text is strangely similar to George Carlin’s famous routine comparing gridiron clashes with baseball games. “In football,” Carlin noted, “the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go ‘home’ and to be ‘safe’.”

Metaphorical choices don’t just reflect opinions and actions; they help shape them. So it is imperative to carefully and consciously choose the metaphors we use and to be vigilant about those used by others. In confronting intractable political issues, it makes all the difference in the world whether the next step is sudden death or extra innings.

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8.

Metaphor, Political Rhetoric, and Arizona

Listen to The Takeaway for a discussion of metaphor, political rhetoric, and violence… “Back in March Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made a statement responding to Sarah Palin’s anti-healthcare reform campaign, saying, ‘We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun site over our district.’ Could metaphors in that statement have had an effect on who Jared Loughner targeted in Arizona over the weekend? Our guest James Geary, a journalist and author of the upcoming book, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, says that metaphors in political rhetoric and imagery have a profound and largely non-conscious effect on us.”