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.)

Even More on the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Metaphor

This time metaphor maven himself George Lakoff, on The Berkeley Blog, weighs in (if you’ll pardon the metaphor) on the ubiquitous ‘fiscal cliff metaphor: “There are two morals here. First, metaphors cannot be proposed at will and be expected to work, even if they are intended to fit reality better than existing metaphors. Second, when metaphors are tightly integrated, they are going to be hard to replace and we may have to live by them, as misleading as they may be. The national economic debate will most likely continue to be about the misleading fiscal cliff, not the reality that ‘austerity bomb’ is intended to convey. This is a sad scientific truth.”

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.

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.

Aphorisms (on buses) by Barbara Kruger

This article from the Wall Street Journal outlines how the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District are using the work of Barbara Kruger to address the importance of arts education in Los Angeles public schools. The work of Kruger (Geary’s Guide p. 42 and The World in a Phrase pp. 191–194), including phrases like

Support public art or face catastrophe

Give your brain as much attention as you do your hair and you’ll be a thousand times better off


Belief + Doubt = Sanity

can be seen on 12 public city buses as well as multiple billboards and bus shelters for the next 30 days.