Aphorisms by Mikhail Turovsky

The hyper-aphoristically alert Dave Lull once again lulls me into a true sense of complicity with this review of an exhibition of the work of Ukrainian-born artist Mikhail Turovsky, in Books & Culture, A Christian Review. Turovsky is an aphorist and painter. His book Itch of Wisdom was published in Ukranian in 1984 and translated into English in 1986. Here is Itch of Wisdom in Ukranian.

In the Books & Culture review, the author, Alissa Wilkinson, writes: “Neither aphorisms nor small works on paper are meant to be full-sized expositions of a complex theme. They are breaths, quotations, thoughts, and—on the surface—less complex than a complete work. Yet there is something about a small work—a drawing on paper or an aphorism—that makes us stop and think about it. It requires its audience to take it slowly, to chew and digest. What it says on its surface is only the beginning. So when Turovsky writes,

Broken wings fit more easily in standard-size boxes

I cannot quickly pass on. I require a moment to mentally conjure the image, then understand what it really means. ” Wilkinson is on to something here, how the brevity of aphorisms forces us to slow down and think rather than gloss quickly over and move on, a point I was trying to make in my post explaining why I disagree with Susan Sontag’s opinion of aphorisms.

I have been unable to locate a copy of Itch of Wisdom in English, but Turovsky’s Wikipedia page contains a tantalizing sampling of his aphorisms. His paintings can be seen on his personal website.

The first ape who became a man thus committed treason against his own kind.

Man is afraid of prison although he himself consists of cells.

When your legs get weaker time starts running faster.

Death is so preoccupied with life, that is has no time for anything else.

If you have got a fulcrum, there is no need to turn over the world.

The longer a dead-end, the more it looks like a road.

Susan Sontag on Aphorisms

The ever aphoristically alert Dave Lull directs me to a recent post on Maria Popova’s excellent Brain Pickings site with extracts from Susan Sontag’s newly released volume of diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. Popova highlights an entry dated April 26, 1980, in which Sontag, Popova writes, “offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking.” I reproduce the extract below and explain why Sontag’s—and Popova’s—understanding of aphorisms is wrong.

“Aphorisms are rogue ideas. Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.”

First, aphorisms are not “the ultimate soundbitification of thinking.” Soundbites are, in fact, not aphorisms at all; they are wispy slogans, empty sententious suits, Kraft’s Velveeta to the real cheese of aphorisms. A soundbite is just something somebody said. Aphorisms have a verbal facility and philosophical depth soundbites seek to avoid, because soundbites are designed to evade critical thinking while aphorisms are designed to elicit it. The soundbite misses the all-important Fourth Law of the Aphorism: It must be philosophical. For more thoughts on the difference between aphorisms and other forms of short sayings, see the Frequently Unasked Questions (FUQs) page on my website.


Aphorisms are indeed “rogue ideas” but they are not “aristocratic thinking.” Aphorisms are, in fact, the oldest and most democratic form of written literature on the planet and the only form of oral literature still practiced in every country and every culture around the world. Proverbs are distinguished from aphorisms only by the fact that aphorisms still have identifiable authors, while the identities of proverbial authors have been worn away by centuries of use. Everybody still uses proverbs all the time; just pay close attention to ordinary conversation, whether oral or written, and you’ll find proverbs embedded everywhere. The ‘aristocratic’ stigma adhered to aphorisms in the 17th and 18th centuries, when actual aristocrats like La Rochefoucauld started using the form. But these sophisticated thinkers were building on a tradition of aphoristic thinking and writing that predated them by millennia, a form of thinking and writing deeply rooted in quotidian, collective wisdom. The American aphoristic tradition, in particular, is a gleefully anti-aristocratic one; just read Twain, Bierce, Franklin, Billings, Parker, or Mae West.

Sontag writes “the reader is expected to get [an aphorism] fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument.” While aphorisms do revel in brevity, aphorisms are not drive-thru windows of the soul. An aphorism is the first link in a long chain of thought, a chain of thought that can stretch across a lifetime. The best aphorisms are, in fact, the shortest ones that make you think the longest. Precisely because aphorisms are philosophical and resist the comfy cliches of soundbites, they continue to provoke long after they have first been read. A really good aphorism becomes a fixture of thinking, one that can alter your outlook as it enhances introspection.

And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply the other side—which is why aphorisms are a ‘lean forward’ reading experience and soundbites are a ‘lean back’ reading experience.

Popova also quotes an entry from May 6, only part of which I reproduce below:

“… Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics? … Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard.”

Sontag correctly notes that aphorisms tend toward pessimism, but I would argue that aphoristic pessimism is a kind of inverted optimism. Aphorists do tend to see the dark side of things, but they see it and say it with a humor, insight and ebullience that is inspirational. In this respect, aphorisms are like vaccinations: They introduce a bit of the disease into your system so that you are better able to resist it when you encounter it full force later. Aphorists are realists, another characteristic that distinguishes them from purveyors of nostrums, platitudes and soundbites.

Finally, aphoristic thinking is not “impatient thinking.” I’m still thinking about the very first aphorism I ever read, in a copy of Reader’s Digest when I was eight year old:

The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

And as far as composition is concerned, what Yeats writes of composing poems applies to aphorisms, too:

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been for nought

If you don’t believe me, try writing an aphorism. You will learn—very quickly—just how patient you must be.

Aphorisms by Norton Juster

Last year, The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster celebrated its 50th anniversary, as commemorated in this article from The New Yorker. Somehow, I got through my Dr. Seuss-infused childhood without ever reading the book, an omission I only recently rectified. I wish I had read this book as a kid, but it still speaks powerfully to me as an adult, because of its generally madcap manipulation of language and its frequent aphoristic acrobatics. The Phantom Toll Booth mixes the Marx Brothers’ anarchic humor with an Alice in Wonderland-like glee in violating the laws of logic and of physics. I assigned a chapter from it for my Aphorisms: From Ideas to Action course as an example of the linguistic tricks at play in aphorisms … to wit:

You often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.

What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.

So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

There’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.

Many of the things which can never be, often are.

The most important reason for going from one place to another is seeing what’s in between.

It’s just as bad to live in a place where what you do see isn’t there as it is to live in one where what you don’t see is.

Aphorisms by John Drybred

John Drybred is a retired journalist who worked for his hometown daily newspaper in Lancaster, PA. He has published aphorisms, quips, and assorted one-liners in the Wall Street Journal, Saturday Evening Post, New York Times News Service, National Enquirer, Catholic Digest, Quote Magazine, (Bob) Orben’s Current Comedy and, he adds, “several other now-defunct humor newsletters once subscribed to by comedians, disc jockeys, political and corporate speech writers. Also wrote for comedians performing at local comedy clubs serving locals and tourists to the surrounding Amish country [in Pennsylvania] and wrote for nationally recognized cartoonists.” Mr Drybred has also published in Reader’s Digest, where, in fact, his affection for the form began—on the “Quotable Quotes” page. “Through an intense interest, and a lot of trial and error (still proceeding),” he says, “I was able to publish a few nuggets from among untold tons of silt, learning along the way that widespread subjectivity among readers results in one person’s silt being another person’s nugget.” Panning through Mr. Drybred’s sayings turns up plenty of nuggets, especially of the chiasmus type, in which a reversal of terms reveals an unexpected meaning (as in Mae West’s “It ain’t the men in your life that matter, it’s the life in your men”). Mr. Drybred accomplishes this linguistic and logical pirouette with aplomb, always landing on his feet even as he turns the expected meaning on its head.

You don’t know if you’re coming or going till you decide whether or not you’ll go back for what you forgot.

We’re in an information economy in which there isn’t much of an economy and about which we don’t have enough information.

Someone’s beauty is often the only thing you’ll take lying down.

The time to take a stand is when you’re walking on eggs.

Answers are elusive to the exact degree and at the identical speed as they are pursued by questions.

The cell phone is the Swiss Army Knife of the Digital Age.

Who tells you it’s a matter of opinion usually thinks there’s something the matter with yours.

They’re trying to put the middle class to bed with a shovel.

To make good money today, you need to be a CEO or a counterfeiter.

The reason for it all is to enable us to wonder if there’s a reason for it all.

You usually have to do over what you were doing when you overdid.

The best thing you can do is believe you can do.

Old habits die hard, like the habit of trying hard not to die.

You get to where the only new ground you’ll break will be in a cemetery.

There isn’t anyplace in it with an economy worth thinking the world of.

How much you drink can determine whether trouble is brewing or brewing is trouble.

What you need most in the free world is money.

If a tree that money does grow on falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does the money talk?


If you can’t do one other thing, do two.

You’re never too old to wish you were young.

It’s easier to keep a straight face after Botox paralyzes it.

Try not to fall in the drink. Or after it.

Creative accounting is putting your eggs in whichever basket fits your need to have them counted as egg salad, eggs benedict, or eggnog.

Hip waders are needed for listening to any candidate for or holder of public office.

As they age, humans can lose density in every bone in their body except the crazy bone.
Discoverers of the God particle have the devil to pay.

Aphorisms by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White, remains a model of style and brevity, especially the last chapter, on style, which is studded with memorable aphorisms on the art and craft of writing:

The first principle of composition is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

Brevity is a by-product of vigor.

Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.

Creative writing is communication through revelation.

The mind travels faster than the pen.

The practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.

The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.

Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.

When you say something, make sure you have said it.

The longest way round is usually the shortest way home.