Aphorisms by David Mitchell

“So many books, so little time”… That’s always my excuse for not reading more contemporary fiction. Well, last summer I finally got round to reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and this summer I finally got round to transcribing some of the excellent aphorisms embedded in it. Cloud Atlas is a great book—ingeniously plotted and a virtuoso stylistic performance. Mitchell is also an accomplished aphorist. Almost all the main characters, whatever their many and varied tones of voice, have an aphoristic bent, some leaning toward Ben Franklin-esque musings and others toward cynical Parisian salon-style quips. A sampling…

 

An idler and a sluggard are as different as a gourmand and a glutton.

 

A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.

 

Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman.

 

Prejudice is permafrost.

 

Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears.

 

Panickin’ wings your foot but it muddies your thinkin’.

 

The learnin’ mind is the livin’ mind.

 

Bein’ young ain’t easy ‘cos ev’rythin’ you’re puzzlin’ ‘n’ anxin’ you’re puzzlin’ ‘n’ anxin’ it for the first time.

 

A mountain you’re plannin’ on climbin’ ain’t the same as the one you ain’t.

 

Pretendin’ can bend bein’.

 

Not knowin’ the worst is badder’n knowin’ the worst.

 

Travel far enough, you meet yourself.

 

The sacred is a fine hiding place for the profane.

 

When your parents die they move in with you.

 

Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.

 

One can shut one’s eyes but not one’s ears.

 

The color of monotony is blue.

 

What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Metaphor and Science

Just when you thought science was a metaphor-free zone of fundamental laws and precise mathematical theorems, along comes Are We Alone (science radio for thinking species) with its outside the [Rectangular Container] Thinking: “By thinking different, scientists can make extrordinary breakthroughs. Learn about the creative cogitation that led to the discovery of dark matter and the invention of a.c. power grids, disinfectant, and the Greek “death ray.” Also, whether one person’s man of genius is another’s mad scientist. And, the scientist who claims pi is wrong and biopunks who tinker with DNA – in their kitchens and on the cheap. Plus, from string theory to the greenhouse effect – how metaphor sheds light on science. Discover why your brain is like a rain forest (that’s a simile!).” Listen up! (That’s a metaphor!)

Metaphor and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity

Oliver Burkeman alerts me to a fascinating article by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal, Why Are Spy Researchers Building a ‘Metaphor Program’?. According to Madrigal’s piece, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is soliciting proposals for research that will discover what metaphors from non-U.S. cultures reveal about the worldviews of those cultures. The idea is to use brute computing force (analyze that metaphor, IARPA!) to deduce the metaphorical meanings associated with various concepts. The goal: To use the resulting insights as part of America’s overall intelligence effort.

Research into teaching computers to understand metaphors has been ongoing for some time. The most dramatic success to date has been I.B.M.’s Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer Watson, which can process the loose associations, punning relationships, sidelong and sidereal correlations characteristic of metaphors. Madrigal cites the IARPA solicitation brief as follows: “The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture.” If computers become skilled in metaphor crunching, it would have an effect far beyond America’s counter-terrorism efforts. Computers sensitive to metaphorical meanings could be used, to take one example, in medical settings to assist in diagnosing conditions that patients can only describe using the vaguest of metaphors.

But the difficulties computers have had to date with metaphor reminds us of just how marvelous our own innate metaphorical abilities are. There is a subset of metaphors that are unique to individual cultures, metaphors that are impenetrable to people outside that culture unless they are provided with the necessary linguistic or cultural context. But, and here’s the amazing part, given even the slightest clues about an alien metaphor’s context, we can instantly figure it out and provide an analogous metaphor from our own culture. And, for now, we can do that much faster than any supercomputer. Which is not to say that IARPA funding might not lead to a metaphor-making and -understanding machine even more awesome than the human brain. But for the time being, there seems to me to be a much faster, more efficient, and less expensive way to understand the metaphorical worldviews of people from other cultures: Ask them.

Aphorisms by Paul Valery

Every morning just before dawn, in what Paul Valéry (Geary’s Guide, pp. 312-314) described as that “pure and pregnant hour of daybreak,” the French poet and essayist woke up and jotted down in his notebook anything and everything that came into his mind. Valéry believed that the creative process, the actual act of writing, was the most important thing, not the final product. “Nothing gives more boldness to the pen than the feeling that one can defer ad infinitum the time of recasting a phrase in its final form,” he wrote. These notebooks contain Valéry’s best aphorisms on mathematics, science, history, morality and the art of poetry and thinking. Valéry shared Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s fascination with science, and like Goethe devoted much of his aphoristic writing to explorations of art and poetry, to wit:

 

I have reached the point, alas, of comparing those words on which we so lightly traverse the space of a thought, to light planks thrown across an abyss, which permit crossing but no stopping.

 

It is not the accomplished work, and its appearance and effect in the world, that can fulfill and edify us; but only the way in which we have done it.

 

Beauty is what leads to desperation.

 

Our mind must bestir itself to escape from it stupor and from that solemn, motionless surprise which gives it the feeling of being everything, and the evidence of being nothing.

 

Lift what is mystery in yourself to what is mystery in itself. There is something in you that is equal to what surpasses you.

 

One must have some distrust of books and explanations that seem too clear. We are deceived by what is definite.

 

The reality of a game is in the player alone.

 

A poem must be a holiday of Mind.

 

The poet’s brain is a sea bottom on which many hulls repose.

 

What is done easily is done without us.

 

Something that is destroyed by a little extra precision is a myth.

Aphorisms by James Richardson

Back in 1993, James Richardson (Geary’s Guide, pp. 302-303) was reading Michel de Montaigne as part of his research for an essay-in-progress. A footnote referred him to François de la Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, an encounter that both delighted and provoked him. Soon he began scribbling ripostes and revisions to La Rochefoucauld’s cynical sayings—and thus his affection for aphorisms was born. Richardson calls his maxims “literary Doritos, a vaguely guilty pleasure, like playing video games or eating corn chips.” He likens aphorisms to wisecracks: “They give you the turn without the long straightaway, the take-off without the mile of runway.”

Richardson shares a mystical streak with Antonio Porchia. Both men chronicle their spirituality through small domestic natural wonders. And both men’s aphorisms have the knack of revealing the marvelous in the mundane. Richardson’s sayings, published in his books of poetry, can also often be read as compact morality tales, like those of Marie von Ebner–Eschenbach.

Richardson is a master of The Observation, one of the eight types of aphorism. Normally formulated as simple declarative sentences, these seemingly superficial statements contain hidden depths. At first sight, they can often be mistaken for truisms. But in the hands of a master, this type of aphorism is always acutely and astutely observed. These Observations come from Richardson’s latest book, By the Numbers, a finalist for the National Book Award.

 

Nothing dirtier than old soap.

 

When it gets ahead of itself, the wave breaks.

 

Snakes cannot back up.

 

Listen hardest to the one you hope is not telling the truth.

 

Tragedy and comedy ended with death or marriage, but our shows, mystery and sitcom, begin with them.

 

A knot is strings getting in each other’s way. What keeps us together is what keeps us apart.

 

Closing a door very gently, you pull with one hand, push with the other.

Aphorisms by Mark Leidner

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of another of his aphoristic discoveries: Mark Leidner (@markleidner), author of The Angel in The Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press). “Philosophers often use the aphorism as a spur to more fully developed thought,” Jim writes. “Salon wits use the aphorism to score points in bright conversation. Poets, being prone to concision, also have an affinity for the aphorism. But for poets the aphorism is a sine qua non sufficient to itself. It doesn’t have to do anything but be. Occasionally, Mark Leidner repeats some familiar postmodern pieties, but I forgive him for that, because he has the gift of pith.There are some longer entries and a few true poems interspersed in this collection, but here is a selection in the sententious mode from this lovely small book”:

when complex things combine to form something complex, there is no mystery

 

a win without surprise is a loss worse than loss

 

the better at listening you are the better at forgetting you better be

 

what is most strange and what is most common both point at what is most ancient

 

anything worth doing is worth taking your lifetime to do

 

weddings before you’re aware of your mortality are farces

 

the mountain thinks it’s left the earth

 

history is the first enemy, and in the end, the only companion, of every visionary

 

missing someone is like what the wind feels like to itself

Metaphors on The Apprentice

The good people at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, makers of Metaphorical English Month, sends news of this BBC piece featuring some of the best metaphors contestants on The Apprentice have used to advertise their business acumen and selling skills. Last year, Stuart Baggs described himself not as “a one-trick pony, I’m not a 10-trick pony. I’ve got a field of ponies waiting to literally run towards this job.” This embellishment of a metaphorical cliche is brilliant in and of itself, but its luster is enhanced by the metaphorical use of the word ‘literally’, which is increasingly deployed to emphasize that what is being said is absolutely not meant literally at all, resulting in a kind of metaphorical double negative, which I suppose makes this linguistic use alright.  Here are some other classic metaphors from the BBC piece:

 

Business is the new rock ‘n’ roll and I’m Elvis Presley. —Philip Taylor

 

Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there’s footsteps on the moon. —Melody Hossani

 

My first word wasn’t mummy, it was money. —Shibby Robati

 

For related metaphorical shenanigans, check out this piece from Forbes on the greatest advertising taglines of all time…

Aphorisms by Michael J. Carter

Michael J. Carter sends a handful of aphorisms in the grand tradition of the moralists, aphorists who use the form primarily as a tool for moral instruction. This is, in fact, one of the oldest forms the aphorism takes, dating back to the earliest recorded examples of written literature, from the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. Carter also taps into an ancient metaphor in the second aphorism below: ‘money is a flowing liquid’…

 

Compassion is the acceptable way of showing someone you are better off than they.

 

Money flows from the ugly to the beautiful.

 

Two kinds of leaders: those who look behind and those who look ahead. Beware those who look ahead.

 

One’s dislikes are strongest for those closest and farthest.

Aphorisms by Isaac David Garuda

A reader in Madrid sends news of Casitodo El Mundo Esta Chiflado: El Ingenio y Saber de Isaac David Garuda Un Pequeño, Libro Rojo Para No-Maoistas (a.k.a. Most People Are Nuts: The Wit & Wisdom of Isaac David Garuda, A Little Red Book For Non-Maoists), a small English-Spanish book of aphorisms published by Hapi Books in Manzanares El Real, Spain. October, 2010. Isaac David Garuda is new to me. Here are some of the non-Maoisms from his little red book:

 

A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. A sage is a philosopher who lives the wisdom that he/she loves.

 

The great paradox of human existence is this: On the one hand, we are 100% accountable for everything that happens, and on the other, we have no control over anything.

 

Religion is for people who are afraid to burn in hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve already been there, done that.

 

Life is like a joke. You don’t understand a joke; you either get it or you don’t.