Aphorisms by Ma Changshan

Ma Changshan lives in Beijing and has been writing aphorisms for more than 20 years. It all started in 1990 when he read Mark Twain’s saying, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” “I was shocked by his paradox,” Ma Changshan says. “That’s when I began to write aphorisms, never stopping. My ambition is to publish 10,000 aphorisms. Hopefully, the 10,000 aphorisms will be finished in 2012.” Ma Changshan’s comments on his audience will not doubt sound familiar to fellow aphorists: “Some Chinese reader understand me, but only a few.”

A great man is one who moves slowly but resolutely and with whom the masses must run to keep up.

Conservatives are a group of people with noble virtues: They leave to others the fun of blazing new paths and leave to themselves the drudgery of passing judgment on the effort.

Human society is organized such that seldom is there a position occupied by one who best suits that position.

Opportunism may yield instant gratification; altruism leads to eternal happiness.

The perfect man is said to have only virtues but not shortcomings. It may be deduced from this that the perfect man is not a complete man.

Those who have suffered know what suffering is like. Those who haven’t can only imagine what suffering is like. Suffering for the latter is more boundless.

Embrace your enemy; this allows you to launch a sneak attack on him.

(English translations by Xiang Hua)

Happiness is everywhere but still in short supply.

I will never join in a chorus, especially the one that has a conductor.

I would rather be seen from below by the public; that way they will never realize I am bald.

(English translations by Feng Tong)

More Aphorisms by Marty Rubin

Marty Rubin is back with some characteristically poignant, Zen-inflected aphorisms. I’ve blogged about Marty’s aphorisms before (click here to read that post) and for more of Marty’s musings, check out his blog: Out Of Context: Pieces of a Life.

No one can think clearly who thinks only with their head.

The moon is always full, though you can’t always see it.

Rain or shine, the cicadas find something to sing about.

When you win an argument, what do you win?

The world makes sense to those who don’t try to make sense of it.

Not trying makes everything easy.

Aphorisms by Christopher Phelps

Christopher Phelps describes himself as “a fledgling poet,” but in these aphorisms he is certainly in full flight. These sayings, which Phelps calls epigrams, play off stock phrases as they slyly subvert and elevate contemporary bumper sticker mentality. “Occasionally in my work I notice that an epigram says more than a longer, more landscaped poem would,” he writes—and he’s right. Enough said.

Is necessity a single mom, or does invention have a dad?

Tides aside, it is also the tears of the boaters that raise their boats.

A poem is, if divinely inspired, humanly proportioned. A poem is spirit and letter sitting together in talks. A poem is graven imagination. A poem is sacrilegible.

In a world of paraphrase—a slope that slips from one end to its opposite—a poem is what remains of the exact quotation.

Outside the box there is a glut of slain dragon, pushing down the price of dragon meat for the rest of us.

“Don’t believe everything you think” is a paraphrase of Aristotle. Bumper stickers: check and source yourselves.

To paraphrase Simone Weil, we all partake of the same hell, but hell pretends we suffer separately. That’s hell’s lie.

To the soul? I don’t know. But our eyes are windows. For the glass to glow, you have to wash the words out.

On Bogus Aphorisms

Great piece in the NY Times by Brian Morton, Falser Words Were Never Spoken, about why the true function of aphorisms is to make you feel NOT good about yourself, not to reassure you that everything will be alright. Aphorisms are irritants, not salves; in (metaphorical) media terms, they are ‘lean forward’ rather than ‘lean back’ experiences. “When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them,” Morton writes. “Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso — all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.” Inspect your coffee mugs today! Dispose of those that don’t unsettle you, as you would expired medicines discovered in a bathroom cabinet.

Aphorisms by Manfred Weidhorn

“After a half century of teaching and writing and after publishing ten books …,” Manfred Weidhorn writes, ” I entered the stage of life in which such matters dwindle in significance and one looks back rather on the road taken. Drawing on all my experiences and gathering the courage or, if you will, lapsing into the folly of hazarding conclusions about the larger picture, I have therefore in the past two years published three books on the meaning of it all.” One of those books is Landmines of the Mind: 1,500 Original and Impolite Assertions, Surmises, and Questions about Almost Everything, Mr. Weidhorn’s collection of astute and occasionally acerbic aphorisms. In the preface to Landmines, Mr. Weidhorn compares writing (and reading) to connecting the dots or, in the case of aphorisms, to not connecting the dots; instead just skipping “from one impression to another.” ‘Impression’ is definitely the right word here, since aphorisms are like pointillist paintings. Close up they may seem like a random collection of unformed, ill-placed splodges. But step back a bit and consider the whole and a definite pattern emerges. I guess we don’t so much connect the dots as linger long enough and pay enough attention to observe the dots connect themselves. Herewith, a few of Mr. Weidhorn’s points to ponder…

If young people should be seen and not heard, old people should be heard and not seen.

Blessed are the fortunate, for they have inherited the earth.

For people in developed countries, life consists mainly of moving from one room to another.

Some people would not be so wicked if the rest of us were not so stupid.

God spoke to you? He spoke to me too and told me to ignore you.

Actually, what does not kill me, often injures me grievously.

More Aphorisms by Sabahudin Hadzialic

I first blogged about Sabahudin Hadzialic’s aphorisms back in 2009. Here is a fresh selection of his mordant black humor, translated into English by Anya Reich with a little idiomatic editing by me…

Socialist thought created a religion of ideology; capitalist thought created an ideology of religion.

In the Balkans, apathy is not the exception that proves the rule, it is the rule that excludes the exception!

Why do we hate each other? After all, we’re just three different tribes of the same people. But which tribe!?

Politicians decided to put an end to organized crime—by committing mass suicide!

Campaigning is when you want to influence the masses; manipulation is when you succeed.

Even More Aphorisms (Epigrams) by Thomas Farber

Thomas Farber, senior lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley, has a new collection of epigrammatic epistles coming out in August: Foregone Conclusions. In the afterword to the book, Farber writes: “Humor. Writing and rewriting these spars and catarrhs, I often laughed. Because of wordplay, of course. But also because I was turning moral blindness, often my own, into recognition of the distance between error and self-knowledge, self-image and fact. If the epigrammist appears to presume himself superior to others, of course he’s implicated in all he perceives. As, when children, insulted, we’d retort, ‘Takes one to know one.’” For some of Farber’s conclusions that have gone before on this blog, click here and here.

Monogamy, so you can each focus on food.

The last two centuries. From village community (gemeinschaft) to atomistic capitalism (gesellschaft). From see to c.c.

Sleepless: nocternity.

When not repeating itself, history stutters.

He found it harder to distinguish between things intended and things done.

If the old ask, “Which way?” graciously explain, “Dead ahead.”

Metaphors in Worn-Out Words

The Ledbury Poetry Festival starts today. Last year, The Guardian asked poets to name their most hated words. For this year’s festival, running until 10 July, the paper asked for ‘worn-out words‘, expressions that have become such cliches that they have lost all meaning. Here are their responses, including my own. You might not be surprised to learn that the expressions are all, er, metaphors…

Aphorisms by Renzo Llorente

A native of Brunswick, Maine, Renzo Llorente lives in Spain, where he teaches philosophy on Saint Louis University’s Madrid campus. In addition to his
academic publications, Llorente is the author of Beyond the Pale: Exercises in Provocation, a collection of aphorisms and fragments published by
Vagabond Voices. Part I of Beyond the Pale contains musings on a wide variety of topics, while Part II consists of brief meditations on political themes. Here are some selections from Part I:

Whence the condemnation of loitering? Why this aversion to what is, after all, the definitive metaphor for “the human condition”? To loiter: to remain in an area for no obvious reason (Merriam-Webster).

To have unclear thoughts is to mumble in silence.

We often praise optimism as though it were a virtue, when it is in fact something of a pathology. To be an optimist is to be metaphysically in denial.

Theology is the pious form of sophistry.

Our regrets never disappoint us: no matter how regularly we frequent them, they always afford us an inexhaustible source of distress.

Aphorisms by Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler (Geary’s Guide pp. 21-24) is the author of one of my all-time favorite aphorisms, an aphorism I first encountered as a teenager when I happened to be learning the very instrument referred to in the saying:

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.

This aphorism has been a fixture of my thinking ever since. I’ve not come across a more apt metaphor for life. I never knew the original source of the aphorism, however, until I recently read a selection of Butler’s essays. It comes from the essay ‘How To Make the Best of Life’, a typically apposite and delightful piece in which Butler argues that we make the most of life only after we’re dead—through the effect of our example and influence on those still living or, if we’re creative, through our art:

He or she who has made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life before it.

Butler is such a perceptive, funny writer that it’s a shame he is not more widely read, especially his Note-Books and essays, in which some of his best aphoristic thinking can be found…

We can see nothing face to face; our utmost seeing is but a fumbling of blind finger-ends in an overcrowded pocket.

When a thing is old, broken, and useless we throw it on the dust-heap, but when it is sufficiently old, sufficiently broken, and sufficiently useless we give money for it, put it into a museum, and read papers over it which people come long distances to hear.

We care most about what concerns us either very closely, or so little that practically we have nothing whatever to do with it.

Scratch the simplest expressions, and you will find the metaphor.

Truth is like a photographic sensitized plate, which is equally ruined by over and by under exposure, and the just exposure for which can never be absolutely determined.