The Meaning of the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Metaphor

The BBC website has a great meditation of the meaning of the ‘fiscal cliff’ metaphor: “The phrase “fiscal cliff” is now part of the American lexicon, describing the looming deadline when tax cuts expire and spending cuts kick in. But where did the term come from and is the image a helpful one?” For those overcome by vertigo when they hear the phrase, some useful alternatives include … fiscal slope, fiscal hill, fiscal diet, fiscal fast and, my personal favorite, fiscal curb.

Even More Aphorisms by Richard Krause

I’ve blogged about Richard Krause’s aphorisms twice before, first here and then here. His collection of epigrams Optical Biases is recently out from EyeCorner Press. Here’s what professor of American studies Camelia Elias has to say about Krause’s work: “Optical Biases makes us redesign our way of asking questions. [Krause’s] epigrams invite us to reconsider the significance of knowing the difference between what we want and what we need, what we ask for and what we get, and what we are and what we think. Optical Biases dislodges our perspectives and we catch our eyes gesturing at life’s movements and rhythmical patterns. We wink at our thoughts that celebrate us.” And here’s an epigram to get you started…

When you get old enough youth is beauty.

Roger Scruton on Aphorisms

The omniscient aphoristic archeologist Dave Lull uncovered this article by Roger Scruton in The American Spectator about “false aphorisms.” Scruton delivered a version of this piece at the first (and so far only) meeting of the World Aphorism Organization (WAO, pronounced WOW!) back in 2008. You can see a clip of his talk here and a debate on the aphoristic form among Scruton, John Lloyd and myself here. And lest we become too certain of our own opinions, Scruton quotes Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the brain:

An apparatus with which we think we think.

Aphorisms and Epigraphs

The omnivorous aphoristic hunter-gatherer Dave Lull flags up this piece in the Wall Street Journal by Rosemary Ahern about her book The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin. “The epigraph may pay tribute to a favorite writer or be the product of a chance encounter with a particularly resonant snippet of poetry or prose,” Ahern writes. “But it’s also an act of literary semaphore: an author signaling his themes and sensibility to readers inclined to respond to both.” Ahern gives three tips for choosing appropriate epigraphs: Be brief, be funny, be wise—not bad advice for composing aphorisms, either. And, of course, there are many aphorisms among the epigraphs she cites in her essay, including:

The secret of being a bore is to say everything. —Voltaire

All seats provide equal viewing of the universe. —Museum Guide, Hayden Planetarium

To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruit of your passion and learned your place in the world. —Santayana

Begin, be bold and venture to be wise. —Horace

Wit and Aphorisms

Check out my piece in The Indie on Sunday, The wit of the wise beats any number of sermons

In this age of austerity, where would we be without Robert Frost’s

A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain

In this post-party conference, pre-US presidential election period of political posturing, where would we be without the Polish dissident Stanislaw Lec’s

Politics: a Trojan Horse race

In this era of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, where would we be without Jean Cocteau’s

Mirrors would do well to reflect a little more before sending back images

And in this steady state of economic uncertainty, where would be we without Winston Churchill’s

When you’re going through hell, keep going.

How To Write an Aphorism

There is good news and bad news. The bad news is: ‘How to write an aphorism’ is something that can’t be taught. The good news is: It is something that can be learned. There are three basic methods of composition. There is the ‘spontaneous combustion’ method, in which the aphorism flares out fully formed at unexpected moments, sending the writer scrabbling for napkins, envelopes or any other scrap of paper on which to write it down. Stanislaw Jerzy Lec was a great practitioner of this method:

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Then there is the ‘deliberate composition’ method as practiced by the likes of La Rochefoucauld. He would attend a swanky salon, discuss all manner of subjects, such as love and friendship, then retire for hours to his room where he would produce several sheets of prose, all of which he would eventually distill down to one or two sharp, shining sentences:

In the adversity of even our best friends we always find something not wholly displeasing.

And then there are the ‘accidental aphorists,’ those writers who never intend to compose aphorisms but just can’t help themselves—aphorisms occur naturally within longer stretches of text, such as essays, novels, or poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a classic accidental aphorist:

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.

So, it’s really a matter of finding out which kind of aphorist you are. Then I find it helpful to apply these handy laws—keep it short (after all, only a fool gives a speech in a burning house), definitive (no ifs, ands, or buts), philosophical (it should make you think), and give it a twist. It’s also useful to keep in mind what Gabriel Laub said about aphorisms:

Aphorisms are so popular because, among other reasons, they contain half-truths, and that is an unusually high percentage.