Still More Aphorisms by Aleksandar Krzavac

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the formal break up of Yugoslavia; Slovenia declared its independence on June 25, 1991. To commemorate that event, Aleksandar Krzavac sends a selection of “vintage aphorisms” dedicated to that disappeared era of communism-socialism. (For more of Krzavac’s aphorisms, click here, here, and here.) “Comparing that system to today’s globalization is more like comparing different civilizations than systems,” Krzavac writes. “People who once lived in Yugoslavia, Poland, Russia know it well—basic social values, economic relations, interpersonal communication, lifestyles, individual freedoms of thinking and moving were completely different. Therefore, almost all aphorisms written in former communist (socialist) countries are more or less political. People in general—and writers, journalists and university professors in particular—felt the enormous burden of censorship. They feared to openly criticize the government and ruling party. Books were banned as were some metaphors or allegories due to misinterpretation by the ruling party. Now fear of censorship has been replaced by widespread fear of job loss. It sounds bizarre but a recent survey conducted in Serbia showed that people in Serbia are more afraid of job loss than of death. So, even in today’s democracy, writers still have lots of work; only the topics of criticism are different.”

Don’t build prisons; close the borders.

All human organs are biological except the brain, which is ideological.

After arrest, the writer figured out the point of proverb ‘Silence is golden’.

The writer is still at large; the police cannot make out what his metaphors mean.

I think, therefore I am an anachronism.

Ouch, I really hope I won’t be run over by the wheel of progress.

It’s not called a crisis here; it’s called the economic cycle.

Our politicians are very hygienic; they substituted brainwashing for money laundering.

Upon the advice of my lawyer I stopped writing aphorisms.

Aphorisms by John Bradley

John Bradley’s aphorisms are mundanely magnificent and nonchalantly sublime, like cracking open a fortune cookie to find not a saying but a symphony orchestra. Bradley‘s collection of aphorisms, Trancelumination, is out from Lowbrow Press in the autumn. He discovered the aphorism via Antonio Porchia, but says he finds himself “coming to the aphorism at a slant, as I’m a poet greatly influenced by surrealism. Maybe I should call them anti-aphorisms.” There is a definite sense of surrealism here, reminiscent of the fun surrealistic sayings of Paul Eluard and Benjamin Peret (Geary’s Guide, p. 369), which they gave the jocular title 152 Proverbs Adapted to the Taste of the Day. Bradley also invented the Journal of the International Collective of Cosmic Aphorists, a title his publisher likes so much that he now wants to create this very journal. “I feel like I stepped into a Borges short story,” Bradley quips. Step into Bradley’s surreal world of sentences here:

Smoke needs no passport.

Without love or malice, kiss your collarbone at least once a day.

Carry the fruit or the worm, your choice, but carry something.

Rain speaks many dialects, yet no one ever requires a translator.

The sparrow that built its nest inside the fire alarm has no need of a fire extinguisher.

A photograph of an open mouth reminds me of the space between the rungs of a ladder.

I made a list of everything I love. Then a list of everything I find annoying. They were exactly the same.

Metaphor and the Mouth

Tom Jacobs of Miller-McCune reports on more evidence for the biological basis of metaphor—and the surprising effect physical experience can have on our beliefs and opinions. In ‘Taste Buds Reflect Feelings of Moral Disgust‘, Jacobs describes experiments at the University of Illinois in which self-described Christians more often described a beverage as ‘disgusting’ following exposure to the incompatible belief systems of atheism or Islam.

Participants tasted a drink and rated its ‘disgustingness’. Then they read a passage from the Koran, an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and performed another taste test, this time with a drink they were told was different from the first one but was actually identical to it. Participants “showed an increased disgust response following contact with rejected religious beliefs (i.e., Islam and atheism), but not a neutral text,” Jacobs quotes from the study. The researchers’ preliminary conclusion: Contact with distasteful beliefs really does leave a bad taste in our mouths.

The feeling of physical disgust likely evolved as a mechanism for avoiding things (rotten food, decaying bodies) that could harm us. Intellectual disgust likely evolved as a mechanism for avoiding ideas that could do the same, but the experience and expression of intellectual disgust metaphorically piggybacked on those of physical disgust. The researchers noted the disgust effect was eliminated when participants washed their hands after reading the offending passages, a demonstration of the ‘Macbeth effect’ in which a perceived threat to moral purity can prompt actual physical cleansing, just as in Shakespeare’s play Lady Macbeth tries in vain to scrub the stain of murder from her hands. Our bodies dictate our beliefs more than we care to admit. There, I’ve said it. Now I’m going to wash my mouth out with soap.

Even More Aphorisms by Lori Ellison

Lori Ellison’s aphorisms have been featured twice on this blog, once in 2007 and again in 2008. Ellison is an artist as well as an aphorist. Here are some of her latest:

You cannot fold a flood and put it in a drawer.

Falling in love is like a parachute, the plummeting—and then the impossible uplift.

The most sincere are seldom the most frank.

Shoes, art, and behavior should be polished.

Aphorisms by David Mitchell

“So many books, so little time”… That’s always my excuse for not reading more contemporary fiction. Well, last summer I finally got round to reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and this summer I finally got round to transcribing some of the excellent aphorisms embedded in it. Cloud Atlas is a great book—ingeniously plotted and a virtuoso stylistic performance. Mitchell is also an accomplished aphorist. Almost all the main characters, whatever their many and varied tones of voice, have an aphoristic bent, some leaning toward Ben Franklin-esque musings and others toward cynical Parisian salon-style quips. A sampling…

An idler and a sluggard are as different as a gourmand and a glutton.

A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.

Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman.

Prejudice is permafrost.

Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears.

Panickin’ wings your foot but it muddies your thinkin’.

The learnin’ mind is the livin’ mind.

Bein’ young ain’t easy ‘cos ev’rythin’ you’re puzzlin’ ‘n’ anxin’ you’re puzzlin’ ‘n’ anxin’ it for the first time.

A mountain you’re plannin’ on climbin’ ain’t the same as the one you ain’t.

Pretendin’ can bend bein’.

Not knowin’ the worst is badder’n knowin’ the worst.

Travel far enough, you meet yourself.

The sacred is a fine hiding place for the profane.

When your parents die they move in with you.

Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.

One can shut one’s eyes but not one’s ears.

The color of monotony is blue.

What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Metaphor and Science

Just when you thought science was a metaphor-free zone of fundamental laws and precise mathematical theorems, along comes Are We Alone (science radio for thinking species) with its outside the [Rectangular Container] Thinking: “By thinking different, scientists can make extrordinary breakthroughs. Learn about the creative cogitation that led to the discovery of dark matter and the invention of a.c. power grids, disinfectant, and the Greek “death ray.” Also, whether one person’s man of genius is another’s mad scientist. And, the scientist who claims pi is wrong and biopunks who tinker with DNA – in their kitchens and on the cheap. Plus, from string theory to the greenhouse effect – how metaphor sheds light on science. Discover why your brain is like a rain forest (that’s a simile!).” Listen up! (That’s a metaphor!)

Metaphor and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity

Oliver Burkeman alerts me to a fascinating article by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal, Why Are Spy Researchers Building a ‘Metaphor Program’?. According to Madrigal’s piece, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is soliciting proposals for research that will discover what metaphors from non-U.S. cultures reveal about the worldviews of those cultures. The idea is to use brute computing force (analyze that metaphor, IARPA!) to deduce the metaphorical meanings associated with various concepts. The goal: To use the resulting insights as part of America’s overall intelligence effort.

Research into teaching computers to understand metaphors has been ongoing for some time. The most dramatic success to date has been I.B.M.’s Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer Watson, which can process the loose associations, punning relationships, sidelong and sidereal correlations characteristic of metaphors. Madrigal cites the IARPA solicitation brief as follows: “The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture.” If computers become skilled in metaphor crunching, it would have an effect far beyond America’s counter-terrorism efforts. Computers sensitive to metaphorical meanings could be used, to take one example, in medical settings to assist in diagnosing conditions that patients can only describe using the vaguest of metaphors.

But the difficulties computers have had to date with metaphor reminds us of just how marvelous our own innate metaphorical abilities are. There is a subset of metaphors that are unique to individual cultures, metaphors that are impenetrable to people outside that culture unless they are provided with the necessary linguistic or cultural context. But, and here’s the amazing part, given even the slightest clues about an alien metaphor’s context, we can instantly figure it out and provide an analogous metaphor from our own culture. And, for now, we can do that much faster than any supercomputer. Which is not to say that IARPA funding might not lead to a metaphor-making and -understanding machine even more awesome than the human brain. But for the time being, there seems to me to be a much faster, more efficient, and less expensive way to understand the metaphorical worldviews of people from other cultures: Ask them.

Aphorisms by Paul Valery

Every morning just before dawn, in what Paul Valéry (Geary’s Guide, pp. 312-314) described as that “pure and pregnant hour of daybreak,” the French poet and essayist woke up and jotted down in his notebook anything and everything that came into his mind. Valéry believed that the creative process, the actual act of writing, was the most important thing, not the final product. “Nothing gives more boldness to the pen than the feeling that one can defer ad infinitum the time of recasting a phrase in its final form,” he wrote. These notebooks contain Valéry’s best aphorisms on mathematics, science, history, morality and the art of poetry and thinking. Valéry shared Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s fascination with science, and like Goethe devoted much of his aphoristic writing to explorations of art and poetry, to wit:

I have reached the point, alas, of comparing those words on which we so lightly traverse the space of a thought, to light planks thrown across an abyss, which permit crossing but no stopping.

It is not the accomplished work, and its appearance and effect in the world, that can fulfill and edify us; but only the way in which we have done it.

Beauty is what leads to desperation.

Our mind must bestir itself to escape from it stupor and from that solemn, motionless surprise which gives it the feeling of being everything, and the evidence of being nothing.

Lift what is mystery in yourself to what is mystery in itself. There is something in you that is equal to what surpasses you.

One must have some distrust of books and explanations that seem too clear. We are deceived by what is definite.

The reality of a game is in the player alone.

A poem must be a holiday of Mind.

The poet’s brain is a sea bottom on which many hulls repose.

What is done easily is done without us.

Something that is destroyed by a little extra precision is a myth.

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.

Aphorisms by Mark Leidner

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of another of his aphoristic discoveries: Mark Leidner (@markleidner), author of The Angel in The Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press). “Philosophers often use the aphorism as a spur to more fully developed thought,” Jim writes. “Salon wits use the aphorism to score points in bright conversation. Poets, being prone to concision, also have an affinity for the aphorism. But for poets the aphorism is a sine qua non sufficient to itself. It doesn’t have to do anything but be. Occasionally, Mark Leidner repeats some familiar postmodern pieties, but I forgive him for that, because he has the gift of pith.There are some longer entries and a few true poems interspersed in this collection, but here is a selection in the sententious mode from this lovely small book”:

when complex things combine to form something complex, there is no mystery

a win without surprise is a loss worse than loss

the better at listening you are the better at forgetting you better be

what is most strange and what is most common both point at what is most ancient

anything worth doing is worth taking your lifetime to do

weddings before you’re aware of your mortality are farces

the mountain thinks it’s left the earth

history is the first enemy, and in the end, the only companion, of every visionary

missing someone is like what the wind feels like to itself