A Novel (and Some Aphorisms) by Sara Levine

Aphorism and fiction fans have another reason to be festive this holiday season: Sara Levine, associate professor and chair of the Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a charter member of the World Aphorism Organization, has a novel coming out on December 7! Treasure Island!!! is a satirical novel in which the nameless narrator has a dead end job, a passionless relationship and an incredibly bad attitude. But after reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island on a whim, she decides to turn things around and follow in the footsteps of Jim Hawkins. Her best friend is flummoxed (“Isn’t it a boys’ book?”), her sister horrified (“I hate a book with no girls in it”), and her parents are more than a little confused when she moves back home, with a $900 Amazonian parrot on her shoulder, espousing the novel’s core values: boldness, resolution, independence, and horn blowing. “When someone spikes your rum cocktail, you want it to have the punch and the smooth finish that this novel does,” novelist Alice Sebold says of the book. “Levine is simultaneously politically incorrect yet humane in this wild romp of a modern farce.”

For a flavor of Treasure Island!!!, what follows is a selection of Levine’s punchy, rumbustious aphorisms, taken from the spring issue of Hotel Amerika, an issue entirely devoted to the form:

Brevity is power, so I make my fictions shorter. The novel became a story, the story became a flash fiction, the flash fiction became an aphorism, but it was little more than a spore. At least when brevity is not power, it reduces the duration of your failure.

A series of aphorisms, however well executed, is torture to get through, with the possible exception of books where one aphorism only is printed on each page. Then the field of white space relaxes the eye, and in the luxury of the pause, one realizes how deeply one wants to throw the book across the room.

She was always saying she would be happy to be a vegetarian, if it weren’t for her husband, who had to have his meat. He was always saying he would be happy to give up wine, if it weren’t for his wife, who loved her drink. And so they ate meat and drank wine till the end of their days, each convinced that they lived well only for the sake of the other.

Why do women write so few aphorisms? he asked me. Why do men write so many?

When my husband was a child, his family kept a few farm animals as pets. One day the cow was gone and a steak was on the table. “But Melody would want you to eat her,” his mother said. And so it always is—the winner’s tongue in the loser’s mouth.

If we establish that I’m good for nothing, am I free to do whatever I want?

I tend to choose narcissists as my friends; that way I don’t worry that they’re talking about me behind my back.

I can give you my psychology in a nutshell: me inside a nutshell, listening for the nutcracker’s approach.

Willpower is like Jesus; it dies so it can be resurrected.

Aphorisms by Michael Haaren

Michael Haaren is the CEO of a training company and writes the monthly Rat Race Rebellion (@RatRaceRebels) column for the Dallas Morning News. “I was living in Paris in Edith Piaf’s run-down 20th arrondissement in the 1980s when I published my first aphorisms,” he writes. “They appeared in short-lived U.S. literary magazines, such as Amelia and Light.” Haaren pens that most daring of aphoristic feats: Writing aphorisms about aphorisms. Ambrose Bierce (Geary’s Guide, pp. 356–358) did it  (“Aphorism, n: Predigested wisdom”); Don Paterson (Geary’s Guide, pp. 297–298) does it (“A book of aphorisms is a lexicon of disappointments”); Gabriel Laub (Geary’s Guide, pp. 43–45) did it (“Men appreciate aphorisms because, among other reasons, they contain half-truths. That is an unusually high percentage”); and so did Julien de Valckenaere (Geary’s Guide, pp. 61–62): “The shortest aphorism that makes you think the longest is the best.” Here follows a selection of Michael Haaren’s sayings, taken from the collection-in-progress Quips and Whips.

The difference between the wrong word and the right word is the difference between oceans and continence.

Aphorism (definition): Philosophy and mirth on their way to a funeral.

A popular definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Voting, for example.

The true measure of a man’s mind seldom exceeds six inches.

A good aphorism is like the membrane over a snake’s eye: a thin curtain before a striking truth.

More Aphorisms by Oleg Vishnepolsky

I first blogged about Oleg Vishnepolsky back in 2009, and now he’s back with some more merry musings on art, life, technology and business—which, in Oleg’s case, often end up being (and meaning) the same thing. Russian aphorists typically have a very pronounced streak of black humor in their sayings but, in keeping with one of his own aphorisms, Oleg makes an exception of himself, writing upbeat, optimistic aphorisms that make you laugh as well as think. A selection:

I make mistakes, therefore I am.

Advice is best taken like Russian vodka: in small doses but large quantities.

Out of the ordinary should never be out of the question.

If you say more than you know, pretend that you know more than you say.

When one man sees a dark shadow, another sees the bright light that casts it.

“May ALL your dreams come true” is actually a curse.

It is OK to hide your head in the sand if you keep your mouth shut.

Learning to be patient requires a lot of patience.

You can’t save the present moment for a rainy day.

Cynics are color blind realists.

To innovate, listen and understand all the reasons why something absolutely cannot be done. Then do it anyway.

To close the deficit we need to raise taxes on 5 out of every 4 Americans.

Republicans and Democrats share one thing in common: our tax dollars.

Knowledge is not a sum of facts just like a temple is not a sum of stones.

Silence is a form of communication.

Inspiration finds extraordinary in ordinary. Cynicism finds ordinary in extraordinary.

Never buy a round trip ticket to the point of no return.

We live for the moments to die for.

Your car will last you your lifetime if you keep driving it through red lights.

The book of life has no scrap pages; write with care.

You got it made when you can create rules for others and exceptions for yourself.

You have knowledge when you remember the rules; you have experience when you remember exceptions to those rules.

Aphorisms by Greg Linster

Greg Linster (@GregLinster) presents a dozen sayings that riff off a wide range of fellow aphorists, from Valery (“One never finishes a work of art; one abandons it”) to Groucho Marx (“I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member”). Linster takes gently satirical swipes at academe, marketing, aphorists (yikes!) and, most importantly, himself, deftly demonstrating the aphorism’s crucial role in confronting us with the (not always so pleasant) truth about ourselves and others.

Citing aphorisms rarely signifies intelligence, then again, neither does creating them.

The cheapest is rarely the least expensive.

Amassing an easy fortune often becomes a great misfortune.

Reality wears many different masks.

The trouble with reality is that it doesn’t seem all that real.

When all else fails, wax epistemic.

One never truly finishes an essay, but yet we publish them anyway.

Ambition is the cancer of happiness.

We’re all victims of someone’s beliefs, namely our own.

I don’t want to be associated with any academic discipline that allows people like me to be members of it.

Man is the only beast that tries to deny his beastliness.

Marketing: it gets people to buy new things that look used and used things that look new.

More ‘Abramisms’ by Beston Jack Abrams

I first blogged about Beston Jack Abrams back in 2007 and had the pleasure and honor of meeting him in person around that time in Philadelphia. Mr. Abrams is a 90-something former pharmaceutical executive who indulges his aphoristic gifts to the full in Abramisms: Lives of the Ancient Aphorist, Volumes I and II. “There is a Jewish tradition called ‘Tikkun Olum’, a concept that each of us is obliged to contribute to alleviating as best we can the difficulties of our world,” Mr. Abrams writes. “These short expressions, I hope, deserve to be called ‘aphorisms’ … and will serve in a small way to discharge my obligation. As an aid to your reading, let me share with you some of my beliefs: We should elevate asking sincere questions and focused listening to a higher level; silence is a vastly underused information aid; solitude [especially in the age of the ‘twitter’], is not an affliction but an emotional and intellectual oasis; how we respond to the approach of a strange person or idea measures our courage and capacity to grow, and better information can be acquired by the freer use of doubt and curiosity.” Abramisms: Lives of the Ancient Aphorist contains remarkably wise and funny sayings by an “ancient aphorist” who is still very much in the prime of life. Here are a few…

The ear is a better communicator than the tongue.

If you feel offended you are ready to write an aphorism.

Happiness thrives on a diet of reduced expectations.

To change is difficult; to admit its necessity is more so.

A well conceived conclusion may also be an introduction.

Maturity arrives when we do not feel diminished by what we do not know.

Certainty is a claim not a condition.

The Judaic and commonly ignored remedy for violence is to realize that the hand that holds a book cannot hold a gun.

To walk through the valley of introspection requires courage, to report the results requires even more courage.

At this point I am less concerned about the future simply because there is less of it; and as for death, as with any adversary, fear is reduced as proximity increases.

If we allow ourselves to become inattentive, we will soon be insignificant.

To be a success first show up, pay attention and then show up again.

There is no alchemy that changes opinions into facts; the search continues for an alchemy that allows facts to alter opinions.

The past should be valued as a source of light rather than a place of residence.

Aphorisms by William Shakespeare

It’s always amazing to be reminded of the extent to which Shakespeare (Geary’s Guide, pp. 213-214) is the source of so many proverbial phrases that have entered English. Having recently read Julius Caesar, and watched the riveting 1953 film version with James Mason, John Gielgud and Marlon Brando, I noticed two famous phrases in particular: “let loose the dogs of war” and “the evil that men do lives after them.” Like everything Shakespeare wrote, Julius Caesar is replete with wondrous aphorisms. Here are a few:

The fault … is not in our stars but in our selves that we are underlings.

Rudeness is sauce to his good wit, which gives men stomach to digest his words with better appetite.

The eye sees not itself but by reflection by some other things.

Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, where to the climber upward turns his face: But when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.

Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasm or a hideous dream: The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council and the state of a man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.

When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to Fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.

More Aphorisms by ‘Solomon Slade’

Well, the candy corn and pumpkins are already out in the stores and we all know what that means … it’s almost Christmas! And when Christmas rolls around, of one thing you can be sure: ‘Solomon Slade’, pseudonymous aphorist, will be bringing out a new collection. Solomon delighted us in 2009 and doesn’t disappoint this year, either, stuffing his aphoristic stocking with Solomonic wisdom and festive wisecracks. Here are selections from Solomon’s Mine; what Solomon has mined is now all yours… Have an aphoristic Christmas!

The difference between surprise and suspicion is whether the number of eyebrows raised is even or odd.

Nature never forgets a birthday.

Weightlifters gain muscle with repetition—rumors gain weight.

Accepting blame is often a subterfuge for stopping criticism.

Skyscrapers don’t end till they run out of stories—like tedious people.

Why can’t nature draw a straight line?

Many heroes would not be so if they had lived another hour.

Forgiveness can be a form of retribution.

If our elbows bent the other way, we could constantly pat ourselves on the back, but we wouldn’t be able to masturbate. Tough call.

People with nothing to do need the most rigid schedules.

Lovers walk at slow speed for fear of reaching a destination.

Aphorisms by Yahia Lababidi

Yahia Lababidi (Geary’s Guide, p. 289) was born in Cairo to Egyptian and Lebanese parents. He describes his aphorisms as “the biography of my mental, spiritual and emotional life” and elaborates on that definition in this interview on the blog Arabic Literature (in English). “Proverbs are like coral reef … fossils of philosophies merging with living truths,” he says. “Good aphorisms aspire to this, too.” Here is a selection of Yahia’s latest aphorisms:

Aphorisms are the echoes of our silences.

Bow so low and you kiss the sky.

Infatuation, as any hothouse flower, will only flourish in a climate-controlled environment. A degree more, or less, and it withers.

Our wants tend to scare things off; so that the more desperately we want a thing, the less likely we are to get it.

Our morality is determined by the level of immorality that we can afford to live with.

Those for whom the natural is extraordinary, tend to find the extraordinary natural.

Aphorisms by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just finished reading First We Read, Then We Write by Robert D. Richardson, reflections on the creative writing process gleaned from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and journals. Richardson, who has written fantastic biographies of both Emerson and Thoreau (and William James), does a magnificent job of curating these Emerson quotes. Emerson is a great aphorist (Geary’s Guide, pp. 83-85) and in these observations and analyses he gets at the heart of what it’s like to write and to read…

Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.

The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.

Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.

All that can be thought can be written.

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.

[While you are reading] you are the book’s book.

It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other; and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterwards in the hope of being in Paradise again.

For only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.

There is a great secret in knowing what to keep out of the mind as well as what to put in.

The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.

What we are, that only can we see.

The way to write is to throw your entire body at the target after all your arrows are spent.

Words are signs of natural facts. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is the symbol of spirit. The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.

Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work.

It is the best part of each writer which has nothing private in it.

Language should aim to describe the fact, and not merely suggest it.

Art lies not in making your object prominent, but in choosing objects that are prominent.

[Good style:] Nothing can be added to it, neither can anything be taken from it.

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

If you desire to arrest attention, to surprise, do not give me the facts in the order of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me a cause and an effect two or three times removed.

The moment you putty and plaster your expressions to make them hang together, you have begun a weakening process. Take it for granted that the truths will harmonize; and as for the falsities and mistakes, they will speedily die of themselves. If you must be contradictory, let it be clean and sharp as the two blades of scissors meet.

The power to detach and to magnify by detaching, is the essence of rhetoric in the hands of the orator and poet.

Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes.

I lose days determining how hours should be spent.

The best part … of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him. His firm recorded knowledge soon loses all interest for him, but this dancing chorus of thoughts and hopes is the quarry of his future, is his possibility.

Always that work is more pleasant to the imagination which is not now required.

Our moods do not believe in each other.

Life is our dictionary.

Skill in writing consists in making every word cover a thing.

You must never lose sight of the purpose of helping a particular person in every word you say.

The art of writing consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and cart. Then have we somewhat far more goodly and efficient than either.

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics.

You shall not tell me that your house is of importance in the commercial world. You shall not tell me that you have learned to know men. You shall make me feel that. Else your saying so unsays it.

Art is the path of the creator to his work.

All things are engaged in writing their history. The planet, the pebble, goes attended by his shadow. The rolling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain.

Aphorisms by John Lyly

John Lyly was born in Kent in 1553 or 1554. He was a student of Magdalen College, Oxford and in 1579 published Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, which became one of the very first bestsellers. Euphues is the story of the eponymous hero as he falls in love, betrays his friend to win the girl, then loses the girl to another man, all the while discoursing in high Renaissance style of the relationship between wit and wisdom. The book introduced the literary fad of euphuism (not to be confused with euphemism), the ornate, embellished, verbose style pioneered by Lyly. An euphuism is typically overly-long but also strangely beautiful. If you took a page of euphuistic prose, brought it to a low boil, and let it simmer overnight, you would wake up with an aphorism.Lyly did just that, as these aphorism from Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit attest:

Things of greatest profit are set forth with least price.

Envy braggeth but draweth no blood, the malicious have more mind to grip than might to cut.

In all perfect shapes a blemish bringeth rather a liking every way to the eyes than a loathing any way to the mind.

That wit is the better if it be the dearer bought.

Is not he accounted most wise whom other men’s harms do make most wary?

A fine wit, a sharp sense, a quick understanding, is able to attain to more in a moment or a very little space than a dull and blockish head in a month.

As the sea-crab swimmeth always against the stream, so wit always striveth against wisdom; and as the bee is oftentimes hurt with her own honey, so is wit not seldom plagued with his own conceit.

The vine water with wine is soon withered … yea, man the more witty he is the less happy he is.

The blind man doth eat many a fly.

They commonly are soonest believed that are best loved, and they liked best whom we have known longest.

Sloth turneth the edge of wit, study sharpeneth the mind; a thing be it ever so easy is hard to the idle, a thing be it never so hard is easy to the wit well employed.