Aphorisms by James Guida

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of James Guida, an Australian aphorist who now lives in New York City: “His aphorisms show the marks of having studied both philosophy and literature. A collection of his aphorisms, Marbles,was published by Turtle Point Press in 2009. It took me a while to engage James Guida’s aphorisms. At first, I found them a bit slack for a form that often relies on one line pulled taut. Too many were built with two sentences when it seemed one would do. But a third of the way into the Marbles, my opinion shifted and I felt myself becoming more attuned to Guida’s wry sensibility and his casually self-revealing voice. Also, I realized the two-sentence approach was not always doing the same thing; it was working things out in different ways. Sometimes the second sentence was reflection, sometimes an elaboration, sometimes an inflection of the first line. Here few from his collection:”

There is after all a criminal aspect to Solitude. It too would like to snuff out the witnesses.

How incredibly little a person has to know in order to live, and how incredibly much he has to know without knowing it.

Perfectly good fruit, simply in being bumped about by chance, indifferently sniffed at, idly handled and overlooked, is sometimes gradually made unfit for those who would otherwise choose it. So it is with lovers.

I’ve noticed that I rarely make the same mistake twice. I make it a little differently each time.

Few things disclose a person’s own colors more than their behavior with those they consider a little green.

Nothing less interesting than the conversation meant to be overheard.

Some people are distinguished by the fact that, meeting them alone, it’s impossible to imagine what their spouses look like.

Metaphors via Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer–Lytton, an English novelist, playwright, politician, and pretty respectable aphorist, is famous for composing what has come to be universally regarded as the most awful opening line of any novel ever written: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” This is the opening of Paul Clifford, published in 1830, and the inspiration for the Bulwer–Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual competition organized by the English Department of San José State University to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The latest winner (sic) is:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss—a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil. —Molly Ringle

Mixed metaphors and outlandish metaphors may be stylistic faux pas, but they are nevertheless brilliant examples of metaphorical thinking. They give so much pleasure because of the joy we find in making sense of seeming absurdity. However far-fetched these comparisons may seem, we can still make sense of them. And because we have to work so much harder to do so, they deliver even greater pleasure. So feast your eyes and minds of some of the other awful first lines honored by the Bulwer-Lytton judges…

She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so. —Steve Lynch

Elaine was a big woman, and in her tiny Smart car, stakeouts were always hard for her, especially in the August sun where the humidity made her massive thighs, under her lightweight cotton dress, stick together like two walruses in heat. —Derek Renfro

The Zinfandel poured pinkly from the bottle, like a stream of urine seven hours after eating a bowl of borscht. —Alf Seegert

Cynthia had washed her hands of Philip McIntyre – not like you wash your hands in a public restroom when everyone is watching you to see if you washed your hands but like washing your hands after you have been working in the garden and there is dirt under your fingernails—dirt like Philip McIntyre. —Linda Boatright

And finally this one, from an author in Drexel Hill, PA, where I was born and raised (must be something in the water):

Leaning back comfortably in a plush old chair, feet up, fingers laced behind his head, Tom Chambers inventoried his life and with a satisfied grin mused, “Ah, marlin fishing off the coast of Majorca, a bronze star for that rescue mission in Jamir, the unmatched fragrance of pastries fresh out of the oven at Café Legrande, two sons who would make any father proud … I’ve never done any of that.” —Ernie Santilli

Aphorisms and Metaphors by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution is Randall Jarrell‘s novel of academic farce. The book is supposed to be based on Jarrell’s own experience teaching at a progressive New England girls’ college in the 1950s. The novel is not really a novel at all, but a series of witty and cutting character sketches, very much in the vein of Characters by Jean de la Bruyère. Bruyère was a close observer of 17th-century French court life, and all the pageantry, pettiness, and political intrigue provided him with ample material for his Characters. Jarrell was a close observer of mid-20th-century academic life, and keenly skewered all its political intrigue and pretentiousness.

Pictures from an Institution is rife with epigrams, aphorisms, and brilliant metaphors. Jarrell’s metaphors, in particular, are excellent case studies in the power of figurative language to convey the most precise image of a thing by describing that thing in terms of something it is not. For example, the unctuousness and politically correct blandness of the president of Benton, the fictitious college at which the book is set, is deftly conveyed by the following:

His voice not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable … Not to have given him what he asked … would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supply of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars.

Jarrell is also extremely skilled at deploying metaphor to create a kind of emotional valence around his characters, as in these descriptions of one of Benton’s teachers:

She was a bow waiting, in dust and cobwebs, for someone to come along and string it; and no one came, no one would ever come.

Somehow, after almost sixty years in it, the world had still not happened to her, and she stood at its edge with a timid smile, her hand extended to its fresh terrors, its fresh joys—a girl attending, a ghost now, the dance to which forty years ago she did not get to go.

Among the all-time greatest descriptions of physiognomy, surely this line must find a place:

Mr. Daudier had been pushed up and down New England several times, head-first, by a glacier; this face was what was left.

Plus, Pictures from an Institution is just strewn with excellent aphorisms:

In a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful for what is there and what cannot yet be there.

Strangers are best to fool, but home-folk are the nicest to show off to.

People eat and sleep and live all year, but they are educated only nine months of it.

Nostalgia is the permanent condition of man.

The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine.

A way of life is a way of escaping from perception, as well as of perceiving.

It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.

Metaphors by Mario de Sá-Carneiro

Mario de Sá-Carneiro was a Portuguese poet who died in 1916, at the age of 25, after swallowing strychnine. He attended law school in Coimbra, where he met and became close friends with fellow Portuguese poet (and aphorist) Fernando Pessoa. Both Sá-Carneiro and Pessoa were loners given to melancholy and depression. Pessoa’s sense of angst is expressed in a great aphorism:

We never know self–realization. We are two abysses—a well staring at the Sky.

A reader brought Sá-Carneiro to my attention with a stanza from one of his poems, a few lines that echo Rimbaud’s “I is an other” saying, which I used as the title for my book about metaphor in daily life:

I’m not me nor am I the other,
I’m something intermediate:
Pillar of the Tedious Bridge
That goes from me to the Other.

Aphorisms and Metaphors by Francis Ponge

The French author Francis Ponge, who died in 1988, practiced a kind of writing that occupies a space somewhere between definition and description. He wrote what he called “proems,” prose poems in which he contemplates and conjures ordinary objects, sometimes everyday things like cigarettes, soap, and doors, but usually aspects of the natural world like snails, pebbles, and shrimp. Each text is a meditation on and minutely detailed description of the object in question and, at the same time, an elaborate extended metaphor for the experience of writing. The novelist Tom McCarthy recently wrote a very nice appreciation of Ponge and his unique approach.

In a preamble to the proem “The Lizard,” which, like so many Ponge texts, turns out in the end to be a metaphor for the writing process itself, Ponge describes his method like this: “This unpretentious little text perhaps shows how the mind forms an allegory and then likes to resorb it. A few characteristics of the object first appear, then develop and intertwine through the spontaneous movement of the mind thus leading to the theme, which no sooner stated produces a brief side reflection from which there at once emerges, unmistakeably, the abstract theme, and during the course of its formulation (towards the end) the object automatically disappears.”

Though Ponge is not primarily an aphorist, his technique (brief, vivid descriptions; lots of compressed metaphors) and his form (the abbreviated essay) naturally produce aphoristic lines. He has a sensitivity to the natural world similar to that of Malcolm de Chazal; their descriptions of things are always meticulously precise. Ponge, for example, describes a butterfly as “a flying match whose flame’s not contagious” … “like a maintenace man it checks [the flowers’] oil one after the other.” De Chazal writes:

Light shining on water droplets spaced out along a bamboo stalk turns the whole structure into a flute.

Like De Chazal, Ponge also had a relatively brief flirtation with the surrealists, though the work of both men is, if anything, hyper-realistic rather than surrealistic. This is a quality they both share with another oddball aphorist, Ramon Gomez de la Serna. Gomez de la Serna had an acute eye for the slightly absurd aspects of nature:

The giraffe is a horse elongated by cursiousity.

And so did Ponge:

The horse … is impatience nostrilized.

Ponge also shared a sensibility with another wonderful French author who spent a lot of time pondering the writing process, Paul Valery. Valery observed:

A cyclone can raze a city, yet not even open a letter or untie the knot in this piece of string.

Ponge noted:

A wind strong enough to uproot a tree or knock down a building cannot displace a pebble.

Ponge’s goal, in his own words, was “by a manipulation, a fundamental disrespect for words etc. [to] give the impression of a new idiom that will produce the same effect of surprise and novelty as the object we are looking at.” Indeed, the surprise and novelty of his proems, like that of the world he contemplated, are remarkably fresh.

A mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances.

Liquid, by definition, is that which chooses to obey gravity rather than maintain its form.

(A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts. —Malcolm de Chazal)

Stone, which does not regenerate, is the only thing in nature that constantly dies.

It is always towards the proverbial that language tends.

Beauty is the impossible which lasts.

True poetry is what does not pretend to be poetry. It is the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking the new encounter.

There is something excessive about a rose, like many plates piled up in front of a dinner guest.

What is Churchillian Drift?

I was reminded of “Churchillian Drift” while reading the comments on Aphorisms by Ben Franklin. Churchillian Drift is a precursor to Anatole’s Axiom (scroll down the Corrections & Clarifications page for a short discourse on the subject) devised by British gnomologist Nigel Rees, and explained by him in his piece ‘Policing Word Abuse’: “Long ago, I coined the term ‘Churchillian Drift’ to describe the process whereby the actual originator of a quotation is often elbowed to one side and replaced by someone more famous. So to Churchill or Napoleon would be ascribed what, actually, a lesser-known political figure had said. The process occurs in all fields.” Churchillian Drift bobs up among some of the biggest names in the aphorism business, not just Churchill and Napoleon but Einstein

Not everything that counts can be counted


Be the change you wish to see in the world

and Lincoln

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The thing is, though, you do not find yourself the target of Churchillian Drift unless, like Churchill himself, you are already a damn fine aphorist. Part of the reason it’s so easy to mis-attribute brilliant sayings to great aphorists is that they have already coined so many brilliant sayings themselves. Which is also why, I guess, they might feel occasionally justified in purloining an orphan phrase to make it their own. After all, Franklin may or may not have originated the aphorism

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

but he never said anything against being a plagiarist…

Aphorisms by Anna Kamienska

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of the “aphoristic entries (or ‘entreaties’?)” of Anna Kamienska (1920-1986), from the June 2010 issue of Poetry, translated and introduced by Clare Cavanagh. “Many of [Kamienska’s] aphorisms are infused with grief at the loss of her husband to cancer at an early age,” Jim writes. “And evidently his death prompted her to come to terms with God and renewed her interest in prayer and religious ritual. Some of her aphorisms relate to the struggles involved in writing poetry in the modern world. And a good number are about the shared experience we call life.” From In That Great River: A Notebook by Anna Kamienska, Selected and translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh:

The sunrise observed in a puddle—a great metaphor.

Better if only the young and beautiful would love. But love in those aging aspics, those monstrous, flopping bodies, desire housed in the bodies of cripples, the legless, the blind—that is humanity.

We don’t realize that we live atop a quagmire of cults. Every gesture, understood rightly, has its roots in some sacred archetype. How much of me is that primeval man yearning for heaven, waiting for some sudden opening of the skies and another, true time, in which everything remains and nothing passes?

Art relies on the conversion of even flaws and defects into positive aesthetic values. It is a strange hymn to stupidity.

The curse of man: everything he makes outlives him.

Music teaches us the passing of time. It teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value. And it passes. It’s not afraid to go.

Father J. tells me about his theory. Every time he has an inner question, it is always answered unexpectedly by someone entering the room, by an overheard conversation.

Collecting pebbles for a new mosaic of a world that I could love.

We create eternity from scraps of time.

We always receive more than we desire. We receive what we ask for, but sometimes in a different currency, a currency that turns out to be of greater worth.

Aphorisms by George Santayana

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of a new book on philosopher-aphorist George Santayana: The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States. This article from City Pulse describes the book, a collection of scholarly essays, and includes the Santayana sayings listed below. Santayana (pp. 346–347 in Geary’s Guide) led a life completely dedicated to literature, thanks in part to a hefty inheritance from his mother. He studied and taught at Harvard, where William James was a fellow student and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens were his pupils. An atheist, he spent the last decade of his life in a convent in Rome, cared for by the nuns. I recently came across Atoms of Thought, an aphoristic compilation of excerpts from Santayana’s books, published in 1950. It’s a kind of anthology, with the excerpts arranged under key categories and themes. Santayana is distinctive for having coined several phrases that have become proverbial, like

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

But my favorite Santayana-ism is:

The God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men’s minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them.

Here are the aphorisms quoted in the City Pulse piece:

A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.

America is a young country with an old mentality.

Fun is a good thing but only when it spoils nothing better.

History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.

The Bible is a wonderful source of wisdom for those who don’t understand it.

Metaphors, Aphorisms, and Volcanoes

There is a metaphor and an aphorism for everything, including volcanic eruptions.

In thinking about the eruption of Iceland’s volcano, I was reminded of The Prose Edda, the 13th century Icelandic epic by Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda is a handbook for aspiring poets and, according to Snorri, by far the most important thing for poets to know is how to make a proper kenning.

A kenning is a metaphor that replaces a proper name with a poetic description of what that person, place or thing is or does. For example, in ancient Icelandic verse, a sword is not a sword but an “icicle of blood”; a ship is not a ship but the “horse of the sea”; eyes are not eyes but the “moons of the forehead”.

Though invented by ancient Icelandic bards, kennings are still quite common. We use them every day. Simple phrases such as ‘brain storm’ and ‘pay wall’ are basic kennings, as is ‘pain in the ass’ as in you are not you but ‘a pain in the ass’.

Kennings are often among the first metaphors children produce. I remember standing at a window with my eldest son, Gilles, when he was about two. We were looking at a rainbow. He pointed to the sun streaming from behind some dark clouds and blurted out “big sky lamp”, a classic kenning if there ever was one.

So in honor of the Icelandic volcano, it seemed only natural to come up with some appropriate kennings.

Pliny the Younger, writing about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, described the volcano’s plume as “a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches’.” So in kenning form, this eruption could be described as ‘a giant tree of smoke and ash’.

The thing about kennings, though, is that they inevitably reveal our true feelings. If you want to know what you really think of someone or something—your significant other, maybe, or your job—try coming up with some relevant kennings. You might be surprised.

The most appropriate kennings for this eruption, which is overwhelmingly seen in the context of personal inconvenience and financial damage, are good examples of this. So better perhaps than ‘giant tree of smoke and ash’ are kennings like ‘nightmare of air travelers’, ‘disrupter of business meetings and state funerals’, ‘bankrupter of airlines’ maybe, and ‘windfall for train, bus and ferry operators’ certainly.

For me personally, living as I do under one of the flight paths for Heathrow, the best kenning is: ‘silencer of the skies’.

Which is another interesting thing about kennings: They often highlight some seemingly insignificant aspect of an event that later turns out to be decisive. Who could have predicted that, for me at least, the biggest impact of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano would be a few days of peace and quiet?

The eruption of another Icelandic volcano in 1783 is believed to have been one of the causes of the French Revolution, because the ash cloud led to a poor harvest in France and that, in turn, led to even more public unrest. Who can say what the ultimate consequences of this eruption will be?

In all the commentary around the eruption, the most insightful comment I’ve heard came from an Icelandic meteorologist. I doubt he intended this statement as an aphorism, but it certainly is. “Something is happening,” he said, “but we don’t know what it is.”

(Presented at the TED Salon, London, 21 April, 2010)

Aphorisms by Rabbi Rami

Rabbi Rami describes himself on his website as a “holy rascal”, and that seems to me a wholly accurate description. This rabbi’s aphorisms have something of Rumi and Khayyam in them, the whiff of incense mixed with the laughter of the spiritual trickster. Rami, an adjunct professor of religion at Middle Tennessee State University, teaches writing—specifically, aphorism writing—as spiritual practice in the university’s certificate program in writing and at Path & Pen, an annual writers’ conference held at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville. Rami is one of only two other people I know of who teach aphorisms: One is a high school teacher who uses aphorism writing in one of her classes and the other is Sara Levine; you can find out how she uses aphorisms in teaching by watching her presentation at the 2008 aphorism symposium in London. Rami says the goal of his course is “to get people to notice and think about the power of brief writing in their daily lives; to understand how this writing is constructed and how/why it works; and to encourage students to create aphorisms of their own.” To see how Rami achieves all three of these goals in his own writing, read the selection of his aphorisms below. If you want more, as you surely will, follow Rabbi Rami on Twitter.

“Emotions are choices.” Just not ones you get to make.

“In reality nothing is born and nothing dies.” Stop wasting money on birthdays and funerals.

“The only way to see the whole is to step outside of it;” at which point, of course, it is no longer the whole.

Be willing to let anything happen, even if what is happening is that you aren’t willing.

If you think that it’s the thought that counts, try remembering your anniversary and then doing nothing about it.

Detachment is the key to enlightenment, but who cares?

“Don’t allow people to push your buttons.” Wear your clothes inside out.

The difference between being alive and being dead is being able to tell the difference between being alive and being dead.