Les Is No More (Les Coleman, 1945—2013)

Les Coleman (Geary’s Guide, p. 28) died on January 17. He was a kind and witty man, endlessly alert to the surreal and Dada-esque aspects of real life, which he translated into his visual and aphoristic art. I was fortunate to get to know Les over the past few years and on one visit to his South London home bought a work I treasure: a drawing of two goldfish swimming in separate compartments of a water-filled hourglass. “Les Coleman was a rare bird,” according to his friend and fellow artist Patrick Hughes, “a fine artist who devoted himself to comedy. All through his career Les stuck to his vision of art evoking laughter, a grim smile or a subtle grin.” That profound, absurdist comic vision is plain to see in Les’ wonderful aphorisms, of which I’ll never get enough…

A thorough inspection of the birthday suit revealed a number of holes.

True deception goes unnoticed.

Wind supports all flags no matter what the flag supports.

A bridge has no allegiance to either side.

The distance a goldfish swims is not controlled by the bowl.

Audience: play watched from the stage.

The more a ball bounces the less it bounces.

Puppets go to sleep the moment they break free from their strings.

Each page in a book knows its opposite page by heart.

Glass is silent until broken.

Headstone: death’s bookmark.

Metaphor and Innovation

The metaphor-minded, aphoristically inclined Dave Lull sends news of ‘Bad Metaphors, Bad Tech‘ by Rob Goodman in The Millions. “It’s only in terms of what’s old that the newest technologies make initial sense,” Goodman writes, a point also made beautifully by Owen Barfield in his exquisite book History in English Words: “When a new thing or a new idea comes into the consciousness of the community, it is described, not by a new word, but by the name of the pre-existing object which most closely resembles it.” Here’s a central paragraph from Goodman’s piece:

“More than smoothing over progress after the fact, metaphors themselves often drive progress. The insight that turned a balloon into a piece of Baroque art was the same kind of jump that turned a billowing shirt into a flying machine. But if smart figurative thinking can spark and explain new technologies, defective metaphors can do just the opposite. When the words and images we use to familiarize the new become too familiar — when metaphors start to die, or when we forget that they’re only tools — they can become some of the most powerful forces against innovation. It’s not always technical walls that stop change in its tracks. Sometimes, innovation is limited by language itself.”

Aphorisms by David Giannini

Thanks to Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, for alerting me to 42 Aphoristics by David Giannini, published recently in Talisman:

Some echoes are spitefully returned
to themselves unheard

Who marinate in spotlights
are condemned to be burnt

Infinity is the last
of its kind


Let your own arms hold
you first

Down close to certain flowers
all excesses are sufficiencies


Wit defies death
but death defines wit

Aphorisms by David P. Gontar

The indefatigable aphoristic archeologist Dave Lull alerts me to selected aphorisms by David P. Gontar, adjunct professor of English and philosophy at Inner Mongolia University in China and author of Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays. If you want to read more, Gontar’s aphorisms appear in the January 2013 issue of the New English Review. A selection:

Democracy is a brawl settled in advance by counting heads.

The rich man cannot enter the kingdom of heaven because he is already there.

A mystery is a topic about which the more is learned the less is understood.

The seekers of Truth find only each other.

To see things as they are is to see them as they might be.

A little toxin is the best tonic.

Success is not the avoidance of error but the making of the right mistakes.

In the long run there is no long run.

Gun metaphors in everyday language

Fascinating piece in the NY Times, ‘In Gun Debate, Even Language Can Be Loaded‘, on the ubiquity of gun metaphors in daily language: “No wonder it is hard to get rid of gun violence when Washington cannot even get rid of gun vocabulary. The vernacular of guns suffuses the political and media conversation in ways that politicians and journalists are often not even conscious of, underscoring the historical power of guns in the American experience. Candidates “target” their opponents, lawmakers “stick to their guns,” advocacy groups “take aim” at hostile legislation and reporters write about a White House “under fire.”

Back in January of 2011, after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot, I took part in a Takeaway discussion on the influence of metaphor in political rhetoric and imagery.

And, of course, Sartre said: “Words are loaded pistols.”

The ‘black and white’ moral judgment metaphor—in living color

Tom Jacobs of Pacific Standard has uncovered another nifty study of the unconscious influence of basic metaphors of morality, this one having to do with judgments of good and bad, right and wrong: “When faced with an ethical issue, do you tend to come down strongly in one direction or the other? Or do you opt for a more nuanced response? Newly published research suggests the answer may depend, in part, on whether you have been exposed to a metaphorically resonant visual cue. Specifically, it finds greater polarization of opinion among people who have peripherally gazed at a black-and-white pattern.” Read the full article here.

Still more on the ‘fiscal cliff’ metaphor

This time a podcast from Mike Vuolo at Slate‘s Lexicon Valley, ‘Good Is Up‘, which explores how Lakoff and Johnson’s theories illuminate the persistence of this strange economic metaphor, with contributions from yours truly. Be prepared for a thrilling rush of linguistic vertigo!

Confessions of an aphorism writer, by James Guida

James Guida, whom I blogged about in 2010, has written an interesting piece on The Page-Turner section of the The New Yorker website about the strangeness of being a writer of aphorisms. Guida describes the aphorist as “a dweller in the obscure hinterland between poetry and prose” (“The word ‘aphorist’ alone sounds suspiciously like an insult or type of criminal,” he writes) and goes on to engagingly chronicle the various joys and mild indignities of the vocation. He kindly mentions this website, adding that it’s “curiously popularizing, given the tradition,” a characterization with which I must take issue—not with the description of my site as “popularizing” (I would be delighted if it was!) but with the implication that the aphorism itself is an elite, non-popular or otherwise highfalutin form.

There is a widespread and woefully mistaken opinion that the aphorism is some kind of rare, inaccessible and aristocratic art form (the literary equivalent of opera, perhaps) practiced only by independently wealthy misanthropes, twisted cynics and amoral courtiers. I blame La Rochefoucauld, who was all of these—as well as being one of the greatest aphorists who ever lived. La Rochefoucauld has become the archetype of the aphorist, but he is not really representative of the profession at all. In fact, historically, only a tiny fraction of aphorists have been aristocrats, and the aphorism itself is the oldest and most democratic literary art form on the planet. The American aphoristic tradition in particular is keenly anti-aristocratic and anti-hierarchical; see everything by Twain, Franklin, Billings, Bierce and even Emily Dickinson. Indeed, aphorisms began long before literacy was common, as the world’s heritage of proverbs proves, so the form was ‘popular’ (i.e., accessible to and used by lots of people) from the very start. Though few people immediately recognize the term, aphorisms are in daily use by each and every one of us every single day. Some may be more ‘literary’ than others, but they are all aphorisms just the same.

If you’re interested in pursuing this line of argument further, I addressed this widespread and woefully mistaken opinion about aphorisms in this blog post from August. You can also watch this clip from the first (and so far only) meeting of the World Aphorism Organization (WAO, pronounced WOW!) back in 2008 in which A.C. Grayling, John Lloyd and myself debate whether the aphorism is an elitist craft or fit for the masses. (Thanks once again to that perspicacious spotter of the proverbial Dave Lull, who alerted me to James Guida’s piece.)

More on The ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Metaphor

This one is from The Economist: “One month remains in the battle over impending sequestration and tax increases on Capitol Hill, and no one can settle on the right metaphor to capture just what will happen on January 1st if no deal is reached.” The best metaphor for what’s going on in Washington right now, The Economist writes, is a game of political ‘chicken’.  More chicken metaphors can be found here.