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.