Aphorisms: From Ideas to Action

Over the past few months, I had the great good fortune to devise and teach a course called Aphorisms: From Ideas to Action at Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action. This was a special experience for me, since it was from here that I graduated in 1985, here that I included a collection of aphorisms as part of my senior thesis, here that I started doing my ‘aphorisms in the globe’ shtick, and here that I met my wife. The experience was all the more special because of the great group of students I had in my class. We read and talked about aphorisms in every possible permutation during the course of the term and, of course, we wrote aphorisms, too. Some students opted to write a collection of aphorisms as their final paper, but we all composed aphorisms (sometimes inadvertently) as part of the course. The students’ work was exceptional. Below is a selection of some of the aphorisms they came up with over the past 13 weeks…

For the sake of the writers’ ideas, ‘less is more’ is a proverb to be applied to candy and glue, not to aphorisms. —Catherine Lentini

Aphorisms help you overhear yourself thinking. —Molly Case

I cannot see past myself, yet all that I see is beyond me. —Silas van der Swaagh

To rebel one must wear the right uniform. —Devan Marques

Be your own definition. —Amanda Haggerty

Secure your own mask before helping others. —Jan-Erik Asplund

There’s no point criticizing the rules of a game you can’t change; you’ve just got to learn them and play them as best as you can. —Corey Ecay

You can only understand the power of language once you have lost it. —Lauren Glading

Sometimes a dumb thing is a thing worth saying. —Alan Dupont

College is a place where the people who need it least are told things that the world needs to know. —Dylan Scott

Jealousy is affinity plus allergy. —Emma Schmelzer

The constant is that things are always being torn down. —Samuel Mayer

Visit a city to observe the behavior of animals. —Anna Eckert-Kramer

First impressions are the last chance to impress. —Lila Cutter

Even the most sophisticated dinner party has trouble under its tabletop. —Hannah Davidson

More Aphorisms by Richard Krause

I first blogged about Richard Krause’s aphorisms back in 2009, noting that his “aphorisms often take the form of ‘proverbial play’; i.e. the core of the aphorism consists of a well-known proverbial saying or familiar expression, which the aphorism then tweaks through some ironic reversal or witty gloss.” This is still Mr. Krause’s modus operandi, luring readers into a psychological double take when the expected meaning of the immanent truism is suddenly upended, which leaves you invigorated if slightly uneasy about many of the sayings’ darker undertones…

You take people’s word and soon find that you’ve appropriated their whole vocabulary.

The fear of falling in love with yourself is that you will displace no one.

When you are washed up you never realize the extent of shoreline you have to yourself.

The faith you lose in people is almost enough to start a religion elsewhere.

Too many women around a man always camouflages his inability to make friends.

No matter how we talk a thing to death, death always has the last word.

What we want to hear determines almost everything people say.

You get carried away less often the older you get despite being closer to ending up on a stretcher.

We are always at the mercy of our inability to give it.

Murmurs often appear in those hearts that have no say.

That life is almost meaningless in its brevity naturally shortens the attention span.

Brilliance turns into glare when it loses its timing.

A person’s pride is accountable for almost all their loneliness.

What you love never leaves you, who you love always does.

You are all that is left of your childhood.

“The Mind Is a Metaphor” Database

Dave Lull alerts me to The Mind is a Metaphor database, “an evolving work of reference, an ever more interactive, more solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics,” as it assembler and taxonomizer Brad Pasanek of the University of Virginia describes it. “This collection of eighteenth-century metaphors of mind serves as the basis for a scholarly study of the metaphors and root-images appealed to by the novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers, belle-lettrists, preachers, and pamphleteers of the long eighteenth century. While the database does include metaphors from classical sources, from Shakespeare and Milton, from the King James Bible, and from more recent texts, it does not pretend to any depth or density of coverage in literature other than that of the British eighteenth century.” Next time you’re in search of an eighteenth-century metaphor, browse on by here…

A dry gleam of light is the wisest and best soul. —Heraklitus

When a human embryo is seven weeks old, / the brain shines through its forehead, a cloud / of light, belly-deep and breathing, / the whole, luminous mass cabled and alone. —Sam Witt

Curiosity is the thirst of the soul; it inflames and torments us, and makes us taste every thing with joy, however otherwise insipid, by which it may be quenched. —Samuel Johnson

A beauteous face may be the index of a beauteous mind. —James Miller

Aphorisms by Ljupka Cvetanova

Ljupka Cvetanova is a Macedonian aphorist who has published widely in print and online satirical magazines in the Balkans. History never ended in the Balkans like it was supposed to in other places in the world. If anything, history sped up there. Cvetanova’s aphorisms are informed by recent Balkan history but, like all good sayings, also transcend their immediate instigation to achieve a wider application.

Men like women with a past, but they don’t want to build future with them.

Before you criticize a woman, try walking in her high heels.

Strong women are those who do not do everything they can.

Men see themselves in women’s eyes; women trust the mirror.

People who argue whether the glass is half empty or half full are probably not thirsty.

Some answers need to be questioned.

You have to bow to reach the top.

People drown in shallow thoughts.

The global awakening failed because of the different time zones.

The bottom line is determined by those at the top.

It’s easy to write history. All the eyewitnesses are dead.

If we give our best, they’ll take it.

Small fish live in shallow water.

History is most important to those without a past.

Aphorisms and Poetry

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, altered me to ‘Making a Space for Aphorism: Exploring the Intersection between Aphorism and Poetry‘ by Sharon Dolin from Poets.org:

“In the last few years, I have been drawn to writing aphorisms, which I think of as small journeyings between poetry and prose. Too short, usually, to be considered prose poems, they nonetheless often have the pith and compression of poems. Yet how do they differ? In my American Heritage Dictionary, an aphorism is defined as “A terse statement of a truth or opinion; an adage.” The word comes from the Greek aphorismos, meaning “to delimit” or “define.” An aphorism draws a ring around—and then occupies—a very small territorial space.”

Click here to read the whole piece.

What happens when the real-life inspiration for a metaphor dies…

From the great PRI program The World’s ‘The World in Words’…

“The Forth Bridge, just outside Edinburgh, was opened in 1890. Opened but not really completed. In fact, it seemed as though it would never be completed. The paint would flake off, and just as soon as one part of the bridge was repainted, another would need a touch-up. And so a metaphor was born: like painting the Forth Bridge, or that’s a Forth Bridge paint job. Brits used it to describe arduous, unending tasks. Memorizing multiplication tables. Preparing your tax return. Attending a Grateful Dead concert. But now, the endless paint job has ended. The paint is hardier these days—so much so that the bridge won’t need another coat for about 25 years. For the first time in the bridge’s history, “there will be no painters required on the bridge,” beams Colin Hardie, the construction superintendent of the paint contractor Balfour Beatty. “Job done.” Hardie gets into murkier water with this declaration: “The old cliché is over.”

Click here to read/hear the whole piece.

Cree Proverbs

Good fortune and bad fortune arrive in the same canoe.

Follow one elk at a time.

Words are strong, brevity stronger, silence strongest.

Trust life, especially when you cannot see around the bend where she leads you.

Ask the flint-maker about flint.

A tired hunter cannot aim.

Fire in the hands of a fool becomes prairie fire.

For the man in a trap, everything is a trap.

Illusion makes the path very rocky.

The bird that flies straight is the first one to be struck by an arrow.

The log used to cross a river is left behind.

When incomprehension is great, violence is near.

Aphorisms by Peter Yovu

“My life has always occurred at the nexus of psychology, spirituality, and art,” writes Peter Yovu, and that’s exactly the spot his lines hit with unerring aphoristic accuracy. There are several other aphorists who have occupied a similar space. Antonio Porchia, a long-time Yovu favorite, is a master of Zen-like pronouncements such as

The loss of a thing affects us until we have lost it altogether.

Yovu strikes similar wistful, though haiku-inflected rather than koan-ish, note:

If you wish to give me something I’ll keep, you’ll have to steal it from me first.

Yovu also has a sharp, serenely surreal eye (and a sense of humor!):

A jellyfish is one of the sun’s muscles.

that partakes of Malcom de Chazal’s painterly observations:

Space is the widest open of all mouths.

But Yovu’s voice and perspective are uniquely his own. He has published a couple of books of haiku-influenced poems, “but the aphorisms go in a different, though sometimes not too different direction,” he says. “I love paradox and a poetic/spiritual quirkiness.” The quirk is, in fact, the elementary particle from which all true aphorisms are made. Like neutrinos, quirks stream through and around us, though we can’t see them and rarely even detect them. Only sayings of the finest mesh capture their fleeting spark. Peter Yovu has spread his net of quirkiness wide and come up with some remarkable catches.

Always leave your glasses where you can see them.

The more I try to escape, the more the arrow of Everything considers me its bull’s eye.

When a tiger attacks you, become a jungle.

It is often not what you take off that leaves you naked, but what you take on.

A celebrity is everyone but himself.

An introvert is happy to be no one. To be someone requires the consent of too many people.

I’m well over sixty. That’s not always true. Sometimes I’m fairly ill over it.

The sky never quite recovers from a fallen tree.

I only write the lines I would highlight in a novel or essay. Why bother with the rest?

There are no right angles in the brain, though there may be wry tangles.

A book, lying unopened on the bed: a stack of horizons.

It will soon be over is the longest thought.

What is foreign to you can only increase your vocabulary.

The only true loss is trying to remember what it was.

The darkness lies under me. My face is the hull of a great ship.

Like a razor a mirror is dulled by too much use.

I wish to develop all my senses, and there are, of course, many more than five. A sense of the absurd, for example, the organ for which is found in many a church.

There are senses I do not wish to lose—sight, certainly, or hearing. But equally I would not wish to lose my sense of the absurd. What would be the name for someone who lost his sense of the absurd? I can think of two: blind, deaf.

Aphorisms by Jay Friedenberg

Jay Friedenberg is professor of psychology and chair of the Psychology Department at Manhattan College, where he founded and directs the Cognitive Science Program. His research interests are in vision (symmetry detection, center of mass estimation, and art perception) and has written books on cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and non-linear dynamics. Though plenty of scientists/inventors have been aphorists, there are not a lot of aphorisms about technology itself. Alfred North Whitehead’s

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can can perform without thinking of them

is one of the few sayings that directly addresses technology. “Moore’s law” (the number of transistors on a circuit doubles roughly every two years) doesn’t count, since that’s an axiom not an aphorism. Friedenberg’s sayings occupy a niche within that science-technology-aphorism gap, a place where psychology and biology rub shoulders—with surprising results…

Some people fall in love with themselves and then suffer a broken heart.

The mind is what the brain does.

Wine in, whine out.

Arrogance: being wrong in a loud voice.

The more complicated something is the greater the number of ways it can break down.

Buy what you need and you will never want. Buy what you want and you will forever be in need.

Aphorisms by Ville Hytönen

Finnish aphorist Ville Hytönen is a poet and co-founder/director of Savukeidas, a publishing house focused on Finnish and translated poetry and essays. Hytönen spent his youth in Turku but now lives in Tampere. Hytönen’s poems have been translated into thirteen languages, including Georgian and Udmurt. He’s translated Mark Twain and Albanian poetry into Finnish. “I am trying to open up aphorism,” he says, “shatter its traditions and discuss what kind of short sentence we can actually write in the future.” Here, from the bilingual collection Distantly Lyrical published by Oasis of the Smoke Press,  is a glimpse into that future of short, shattered sentences, written in a quintessentially sparse Finnish fashion: an unmistakably dark heart surrounded by the kind of blank white light that produces stark, revealing contrasts….

You can close the door if you know where you’re going.

You can open to door if you know where you’re coming from.

When you are free to choose, the choice is compulsory.

What doesn’t kill, oppresses.

When I fall asleep beside you, you are condemned to resume my life

light is the exponent of form

time erodes everything; it’s a builder

fault in form is an example of the unique

distance means possibilities

form still remembers every cut

only self-confidence doesn’t need to prove anything

searching for work is unpaid work

Listen and you learn how to lie. Lie and you forget how to listen.

I found out how to lie to hacks: I told the truth and nobody believed that.