On One-Hit Wonders

I am up to my eyeballs in aphorisms. As part of the research for my next book, an encyclopedia of world aphorists that’s due out in November of 2007, I am going through every title in the British Library (every title, that is, that’s in a language I can read) that comes up under the keyword ‘aphorisms’. (For the ones that are in languages I can’t read, I get a native speaker to read them…) I get to the library early, which is a very ethereal experience. The angelic, orchestral ping and then the rush of all those laptops launching at the same time must be exactly what it sounds like to ascend into heaven. I’ve had some wonderful revelations amid the stacks of books that have risen and fallen on my desk like so many ancient civilizations; obscure and/or long-dead authors whom I would never have come across any other way. But I’ve also made another discovery: a new category of aphorist, those who have coined only a single truly great (or awful, as the case may be) aphorism. Most aphorists have pretty strong back catalogues: dozens, scores or even hundreds of consistently brilliant and insightful sayings. But there is another group who have just managed to compose the one really majestic maxim. They are the aphoristic equivalents of those benighted bands that have just the one huge hit before disappearing forever from the pop firmament. There is a subset to this group: those aphorists who managed to come up with expressions so excruciating that they too become, in their own way, classics. I present a selection here, which varies wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous . . .

I never knew, for example, that ‘beauty is skin deep’ comes from a poem by Thomas Overbury:

All the carnal beauty of my wife,
Is but skin deep.

Incidentally, this is an excellent example of an aphorism that is evolving into a proverb. The main difference between the two types of sayings is this: people still know who first said or wrote an aphorism. Once no one on the planet any longer knows that Thomas Overbury composed these lines, ‘beauty is skin deep’ will become officially proverbial.

Then there are the classic political sayings by authors who never again said or wrote anything so memorable:

Every country has the government it deserves.
— Joseph de Maistre

Property is theft.
— Pierre Joseph Proudhon

And these scatterings for your aphoristic amusement:

A parent’s food is made sweeter than nectar when his child has toyed with it, dipping his little fingers.
— Valluvar

Reading is thinking with a strange head instead of one’s own.
— I didn’t make a note of the author…

One moment in this world is more precious than a thousand years in the next.
— Nuri, cited in Farid al bin Attar

Aphorisms are chewing gum for the brains.
— Russian, or possibly Lithuanian, author whose name I did not write down…

A real choice is an amputation of which the wound is always open.
— Siegfried E. van Praag

We cannot leave a thought and find it in the same place.
— William King

Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
— Don Marquis

And my current personal favorites, both by R. Paul:

Kiss is the fusion of the brims of the upper crunching spasmodic cavities of two different sexes, governed by the law of attraction and love.

Kiss is a peep into the heart through the mouth.