Aphorisms by Gerd de Ley

During my research for Geary’s Guide, I came across the name Gerd de Ley quite often when I was reading Dutch- and Flemish-language aphorists. It seemed there was not a Flemish aphorist to be found for whose books De Ley had not written the introduction or done the editing. So it was a delight to come across Gerd de Ley himself on a recent chilly, rain-soaked afternoon in London.

Gerd de Ley has written or edited hundreds of collections of sayings over the past 40 years or so. He has published more than 300 small and big books filled with one-liners, aphorisms, and quotations. For more than a decade, he has worked closely with linguist David Potter to translate these sayings into English. “Many of our translated authors are Dutch and Flemish aphorists and hardly known outside their own countries,” De Ley says. De Ley also edited the complete works of Julien de Valckenare (see pages 61–62 of Geary’s Guide), in my opinion the best Dutch- or Flemish-language aphorist ever. De Ley is currently compiling two books in Dutch: 35,000 Citaten (”35,000 Quotations,” from ancient times until 1999) and The 21st Century Quotation Book (sayings from the first ten years of this century). In his spare time, De Ley runs his own theater company.

In Aforistisch Bestek 1944–1974, published in 1976, De Ley provides a brief history of the aphorism in Dutch/Flemish as well as some ruminations on the aphorism as an art form. The book is remarkable in that it is a personal manifesto, a concise anthology of Dutch/Flemish aphorisms, and a detailed bibliography all at the same time. De Ley even suggests some of his own ‘laws’ of the aphorism: It must be short, independent (as in standing apart from any other text), subjective/personal, and use such devices as paradox, antithesis, and humor. He says that an aphorism inhabits a mental and literary space defined by three points: poetry, philosophy, and cabaret. The inclusion of cabaret may sound strange to non-Flemish readers, but the kind of cabaret De Ley has in mind is unique to the Low Countries and is a mix of stand-up comedy, Sunday sermonizing (without the preachy-ness), and musical theater. “The aphorism is a parasite,” De Ley writes. “It finds its nourishment, roots itself in and grows from thoughts and experiences.”

A selection of De Ley’s own aphorisms, from Undictated Thoughts (translated by David Potter):

Some dignitaries look like they last laughed fifteen years ago and still regret it.

Theft becomes property.

He who is looking for a donkey always will find a mirror.

He who really deserves his medals never wears them.

When you deserve applause there is rarely an audience.

Praise is meant to be accepted, not to be confirmed.

The lightest will float the longest.

He who has more memories than plans is old.