Metaphorically Speaking, Annotated

TED redesigned its website a while back, adding some nifty new features speakers can use to expand on the ideas in their talks. I did my Metaphorically Speaking talk in 2009, when I was neck-deep in the research for what eventually became I Is an Other, and did a two-minute turn on aphorisms at the same event. For those interested in some more information on the backgrounds to those talks, check out my recommended reading list and annotated citations. The talk has been translated into 27 languages, including Hebrew, Persian, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

Aphorisms by Mignon McLaughlin

In the 1940s, Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983) became an editor at Vogue and for the next three decades or so wrote or edited for most of the big women’s magazines in New York City, including Cosmopolitan, Red Book, Good Housekeeping and Glamour. In the 1950s, she began publishing aphorisms that were later collected in three books—The Neurotic’s Notebook, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook and The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook. The Brabant Press has brought together a new edition of McLaughlin’s wry, mordant observations in Apercus: The Aphorisms of Mignon McLaughlin. The ‘apercu’ in the title is fitting, since McLaughlin reads a little bit like a suburban La Rochefoucauld (Geary’s Guide pp. 131-134) and covers many of the same themes: the fickleness of love, the falsity of social relations, the foibles of the sophisticated. There’s also a hint of Dorothy Parker (Geary’s Guide pp. 296-297) here, less of the word play but the same bitter cynicism. In fact, if Dorothy Parker had a part in Mad Men, she might have come up with witticisms like these. McLaughlin has been largely forgotten. Hopefully, this Brabant edition will rectify that oversight.

The know-nothings are, unfortunately, seldom the do-nothings.

Love looks forward, hate looks back, and anxiety has eyes all over its head.

I am a splendid daughter to the parents of my friends.

Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.

“Pull yourself together” is seldom said to anyone who can.

What you can’t get out of, get into wholeheartedly.

We always prefer war on our own terms to peace on someone else’s.

Most of us would rather risk catastrophe than read the directions.

The time to begin most things is ten years ago.

Everybody can write; writers can’t do anything else.

Much of the time we just tread water, for the raft is too far away and we have got tired of swimming.

A successful marriage requires falling in love many times—always with the same person.

Stephen Colbert on Metaphor

While reading around online about the rhetorical technique of apostrophe, I came across a reference to Stephen Colbert’s 2007 “meta-free-for-all” against Sean Penn, moderated by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, in which the metaphor of George W. Bush’s “soiled and blood-soaked underwear” makes several distinguished appearances and Mr. Colbert defines love as “a full-length mirror.” In 2009, Colbert explored the difference between metaphors and lies with Elizabeth Alexander, who read her poem Praise Song for the Day at President Obama’s first inauguration. Colbert knows his way around a witty metaphor, as evidenced from this excerpt from his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, ‘Oooh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” More Colbert-isms can be found on this page at

Aphorisms by Jean Toomer

Yesterday came across a copy of Essentials, self-published by Jean Toomer (Geary’s Guide, pp. 203-204) in 1931. Toomer was of mixed racial descent and as a child attended both all–white and all–black schools. His most famous book is Cane, a series of poems and stories about African–Americans and the experience of racism in the U.S. Toomer penned one of my all-time favorite aphorisms:

Man is a nerve of the cosmos, dislocated, trying to quiver into place.

In the mid–1920s, Toomer traveled to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fountainbleau, France to study with the Greek–Armenian mystic Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff was in the habit of inscribing his aphorisms on the walls of the Institute, and it is there that Toomer came across this saying: “Remember you come here having already understood the necessity of struggling with yourself—only with yourself. Therefore thank everyone who gives you the opportunity.” “The saying took hold of me,” Toomer wrote afterward, “found purchase in my very roots … Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily.”

During his own lectures on Gurdjieff’s teachings, Toomer wrote aphorisms on index cards and passed them through the audience, asking participants to discuss the meaning of the sayings. In the late 1930s, Toomer founded his own alternative community, the Mill House Experiment, modeled on Gurdjieff’s Fountainbleau institute, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Here is a selection of aphorisms from Essentials not included in Geary’s Guide

Science is a system of exact mysteries.

Do now what you won’t be doing an hour from now.

Those who seek peace too often find comfort.

Men are inclined either to work without hope, or to hope without work.

All our lives we have been waiting to live.

Tell me the person’s strongest resistance and I will tell you what he most wants.

Two asses do not make an owl.

Whatever stands between you and that person stands between you and yourself.

Each of us has in himself a fool who says I’m wise.

People are stupid not because they do a thing but because they repeat it.