Aphorisms on Pinterest

This article from the New York Times details the fascinating trend of “hyperlinked homily” on Pinterest: “The explosively popular image-sharing site has fallen under the spell of words — that is, quotes from the great minds that offer lessons to live by.” Some sayings selected in the article:

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to no one. —Shakespeare

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. —Einstein

Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together. —Elizabeth Taylor

Don’t hate what you don’t understand. —John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Some people look for a beautiful place, others make a place beautiful. —Hazrat Inayat Khan

Aphorisms and Definitions

Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley has published The Ultimate Dictionary of Wit and Wisdom, a comprehensive collection of definitions by a panoply of personalities, including (to start with the As)…

Ambivalence: watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac. —David Mamet

Avant-garde: French for off-Broadway garbage. —Dick Van Dyke

Avoidable: what a bullfighter tries to do. —Norm Gilbert

Gerd invited me to write a brief intro to the volume, which follows in full:


Dictionaries are, by definition, not definitive. We cannot really say with complete precision what something is. Words are too mercurial, and our own perceptions too partial, for that. Insights slip and slide; connotations come and go. We can never dip into the same meaning twice because words, and the thoughts they carry with them, are always flowing on. The ‘last word’ on any subject cannot be spoken because language itself withholds it. The best we can do are approaches, approximations. So, for me, the most accurate definition of ‘definition’ is by English novelist Samuel Butler, who wrote: “A definition is the enclosing of a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” This definition comes close to definitiveness by recognizing its own inadequacy, by acknowledging that the most fertile ideas inevitably outgrow any attempts to confine them by defining them. To open Gerd de Ley’s monumental, magnificent dictionary is to enter a garden of definitional delights where, within the space of a few imperfect words, we encounter the wildest reaches of the human mind and heart.

More Aphorisms by Jay Friedenberg

I first blogged about Jay Friedenberg earlier this year and am doing so again because he’s just released Aphorisms From A to Z: A User’s Guide to Life, a collection of original aphorisms plus ruminations on the form and Q&As with some leading practitioners and connoisseurs.

There is an enlightening Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, author of the memoir An Open Book (2004) and of four collections of essays, including Readings (2000)  and Classics for Pleasure (2007). Here is a particularly nice exchange:

JF: Have aphorisms influenced the way you interpret or write literature? Brevity is stressed in journalistic writing, so it seems natural that you might appreciate short form literature. Do you see other connections between aphorisms and journalism?
MD: Journalism requires writers to cut away the fat, and go directly for the facts.  (Hey, that’s almost an aphorism.)  At the same, reporters are always trying to get a bit of zing into their prose. I remember  my former colleague Curt Suplee describing novelist John Irving, who was then very much into wrestling, as having “ a hard gym-like frame.”  The description works on its own, but when you know Pater’s “hard gem-like flame,” it becomes brilliant.

JF: History is full of writers who became avid aphorists. What is it that separates these writers from the rest? Is there a particular type of personality that gravitates toward them?
MD: I suppose that an aphorist is a failed poet with the temperament of worldly philosopher. Beyond that, one must hate fuzziness in writing and aspire to clarity, conciseness and beauty.

Sara Levine, chair of the Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and charter member of the WAO, makes a characteristically witty appearance:

JF: You teach a course on aphorisms at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What is the content of this course? How do you teach it? How do the students react?
SL: I teach the aphorism as part of a graduate course called Short Prose Forms. I ask each student to write an aphorism on an index card and pass the index card to the person on his left; we tweak, we tinker, we try to improve. A skeptical student objects: Can one write an aphorism by committee? “You inhabit another character’s imagination when you write a novel,” I answer. “So write an aphorism for a character who isn’t you.” But it always proves harder than it sounds. When the work is done, we spread the index cards out on a table and discover they resemble, not a page from Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, but a row of hospital beds. Sentence after ailing sentence: punctured paradoxes, sprained metaphors, hobbled clauses, a ward of amputees! Luckily, I love failure as much as I love the aphorism. Each time your aphorism lands with a thud, you come closer to understanding the form. The feelings of inferiority or humility that come along with the experience of writing a truly lousy aphorism are nothing—well, not nothing, but fiddlesticks—compared to a sharper understanding of how Dorothy Parker packs a big idea into a carry-on bag. The aphorism is, in essence, a crash course in
prose style.

JF: What are your aphorisms like?
SL: Solitary, poor, nasty, funny, and short.

And then there are, of course, Jay Friedenberg’s own aphorisms, over 2,500 different ones on more than 600 topics, precisely observed sayings that manage to be both clinical and sympathetic. A small sampling…

Common sense is knowing how to act effectively in a situation for which you have not already prepared.

If you can’t live up to your expectations, lower them.

Grandchildren are a parent’s best revenge.

Deal with the biggest threats first.

There are many kinds of strength, some disguise themselves as weakness.

Aphorisms by Peter Schmidt

Thanks to Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, I read Peter Schmidt’s The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts, just published by Mindmade Books. The German-English artist Schmidt co-authored the enigmatic aphorisms of Oblique Strategies (Geary’s Guide, p. 233) with Brian Eno. According to Mindmade’s Guy Bennett, “In 1970 Peter Schmidt created this mixed-media work by combining extant prints from his studio and aphoristic writings mined from his journals. Sets of 55 ‘thoughts’ were assembled onto thick card stock, boxed, and given away to friends, family, and colleagues, such as Jasia Reichardt, Robert Wyatt, and Brian Eno. In exploring the pathways leading to the creative process, they constitute a sort of ante-ars poetica, and in so doing strongly prefigure the Oblique Strategies, which Schmidt later created in collaboration with Brian Eno.” Schmidt’s Thoughts are a bit more ethereal than Oblique Strategies but have the same kind of surreal practicality, as applicable to daily life as to artistic dilemmas. A sampling is below. Order the chapbook here.


You don’t save time
by going faster

Depression is a form
of cowardice

The scales are good
if you know how they err

Avoid misplaced hungers

You cant keep stopping
all the time just to be

More Aphorisms by Irena Karafilly

I blogged about Canadian author and journalist Irena Karafilly back in 2007. Karafilly has a novel, The Captive Sun, coming out and a new website, which includes a page with some of her aphorisms. Here’s a sample to get you started:

The only power you have over people is the ability to do without them.

The really amazing thing about history is not that it so often repeats itself, but that it fails to bore us.

How metaphors shape our view of the economy

Heard this segment yesterday on NPR’s Marketplace about how metaphors shape our view of the economy and was astounded to learn of the existence of the Phillips Machine, a hydraulic machine designed by New Zealand economist Bill Phillips in the 1940s that models economic activity by pumping water through a series of chambers and pipes. Economics is, of course, drenched in metaphors of money as obeying the laws of fluid dynamics. Liquidity is the ability to quickly convert assets into cash. A firm is solvent when it has plenty of liquid assets. Cash flow occurs at the confluence of revenue streams. A company floats shares in an initial public offering. Dark pools are platforms that allow share trading without revealing prices, even to the participants, until the trades are completed. Banks get bailed out when they are too big to fail. (Consumers don’t, alas.) Governments prime the pump by pouring money into the economy (er, except in the euro zone…). When you need money, you can tap a friend, sponge off relatives, dip into savings or—if you’re prepared to be unscrupulous—skim a little something off the top. When growth is buoyant, a rising tide lifts all boats. When options are underwater, though, checking your investment portfolio feels like snorkeling into a shipwreck.

Amazing to learn how Phillips literally embodied these metaphors in his machine. This description from the Wikepedia entry gives an idea how it works:

The machine “consisted of a series of transparent plastic tanks and pipes which were fastened to a wooden board. Each tank represented some aspect of the UK national economy and the flow of money around the economy was illustrated by coloured water. At the top of the board was a large tank called the treasury. Water (representing money) flowed from the treasury to other tanks representing the various ways in which a country could spend its money. For example, there were tanks for health and education. To increase spending on health care a tap could be opened to drain water from the treasury to the tank which represented health spending. Water then ran further down the model to other tanks, representing other interactions in the economy. Water could be pumped back to the treasury from some of the tanks to represent taxation. Changes in tax rates were modeled by increasing or decreasing pumping speeds.”

Here is a link to a demo of the Phillips Machine in action, by Allan McRobie of Cambridge University.

Even More ‘Abramisms’ by Beston Jack Abrams

“There is a Jewish tradition called ‘Tikkun Olum’, a concept that each of us is obliged to contribute to alleviating as best we can the difficulties of our world,” Beston Jack Abrams writes in his latest volume of “Abramisms”. “These short expressions, I hope, deserve to be called ‘aphorisms’ [a venerable literary form], and will serve in a small way to discharge my obligation.” Mr. Abrams has discharged his obligation twice before on this blog, in 2007 and in 2011. Here is another dose of his Abramic wisdom…

Proposals to change the status quo rarely come from those in power.

Old age: gratitude for the good fortune to have achieved it is more becoming than the use of disguises to hide it.

If we don’t accept reality today, it will not disappear but will return tomorrow as myth and legend.

There is a tendency to elevate to a ‘right’ something we simply want to do.

If passions are subject to facts we are more secure than if facts are subject to passions.

Education is not symmetrical; it has a beginning but no end.

Listening is a most powerful when unimpeded by our own thoughts.

Grace is to win without bragging; lose without excuse; live without complaint and share without regret.

Even More Aphorisms by Marty Rubin

I’ve blogged about Marty Rubin’s aphorisms twice before, in 2009 and in 2011. Marty needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog, so I’ll let his sayings speak for themselves. For more of Marty’s musings, check out his blog: Out Of Context: Pieces of a Life.

Unless you’re walking your thoughts will get you nowhere.

Information is what you put in empty heads to keep them empty.

If you want to set your life in order, consider it already done.

What does introspection mean? It means you’re looking in the wrong direction.

Being awake is no different than sleeping if all you do is dream.

Digging, one finds more rocks than gold.

The sea is captive in a drop of water.

More Aphorisms by Gregory Norminton

I first blogged about Gregory Norminton’s aphorisms back in 2010. In September, he publishes The Lost Art of Losing, in the preface to which he writes of the aphorism: “Other forms possess, like Claudette Colbert showing her leg in It Happened One Night, assets worth slowing down for: the absorption of narrative, the imprint of facts. The aphorism, exposing its slender thumb to traffic, has little to recommend it save brevity and concision. But these are qualities with cachet, too often absent from baggy novels or hackneyed journalism.” Norminton’s aphorisms are worth slowing down for; in fact, you might want to just park the car and walk the long way home. More info is to be had on Norminton’s website and How to be Awake.

Prone to sudden enthusiasms, I leave the main work undone. The pursuit of novelty is the evasion of effort.

The truth may set you free but it’s cold outside.

Perhaps thunder is the sound of God slapping His forehead in pure disbelief.

The skeptic’s burden is always lighter.

A question mark is an exclamation mark that stoops to inspect itself.

The past is a work in progress.

Some things must be seen through to be seen.

The shallowest minds go off the deep end.

What we think we understand of science is really only its metaphors.

The tragedy of sleep is that we cannot be awake to appreciate it.

The body has wits that the conscious mind lacks. Pure intellect can’t dance.