Jul 10, 2013

Everybody Poops and Everybody Aphorizes: Emerson, Thoreau, and James Richardson

“Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better.”  That's from the movie World War Z. The speaker is a brilliant young Harvard M.D., who might seem a more likely savior of humanity than Brad Pitt.  

Lake Michigan, a Little West of Mackinaw Bridge


    1. A pithy observation that contains a general truth.
    2. A concise statement of a scientific principle, typically by an ancient classical author.
               1. A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; adage 
               2A brief statement of a principle.

        Synonyms: maxim, saying, adage, precept, proverb, moral
Amish Buggy, E. of Sault Ste Marie, Ont.

From http://literary-devices.com/:   “An aphorism is a concise statement that is made in a matter of fact tone to state a principle or an opinion that is generally understood to be a universal truth. Aphorisms are often adages, wise sayings and maxims aimed at imparting sense and wisdom. It is to be noted that aphorisms are usually witty and curt and often have an underlying tone of authority to them.”
Blind River, Ontario

  Banjo Reasons for resisting or hating aphorisms:

  1.     I don’t trust certainty.  Basic info is one thing: today is a Wednesday in July of 2013. Okay.    But if someone says he knows the gods, the gods are friends of his, and they want us to eat cotton candy today . . .  because “Wednesday” sounds like “wedding” and we must overeat sugar at weddings . . . when someone starts adding inferred or symbolic meanings, from the clouds or the Academy, our red-flag antennae should start to hum.  
  2.     Almost by definition, aphorisms are condescending. How much should I listen to anyone  speaking from on high to me, at me?  
  3.     Aphorisms are, or sound like, oversimplifications of complex ambiguities.
Rush Hour, I-75, South of Mackinaw Bridge, Northern Michigan
  4.     A bugaboo of our times is our demand for speed; aphorisms pretend to offer high-speed truth, bumper-sticker truth, fortune-cookie truth, although a moment’s thought reveals that most truths worth having do not come in nutshells. 

        Perhaps I'm just aphorizing about aphorisms. Like most people, I think, I sometimes find myself trying to reduce the universe and human experience to my own aphorisms, which might be like trying to write my own Bible.

However, the poet and Princeton professor, James Richardson, in his book Vectors (2001), has made me aware of how un-final, open-ended, subtle, and poetically pregnant aphorisms can be. Here are just two of the briefer examples:

#4.  Despair says I cannot lift that weight. Happiness says I do not have to. 

#6.  Our avocations bring us the purest joys. Praise my salads or my softball, and I am deified for a day. But tell me I am a great teacher or a great writer and you force me to tell myself the truth.

Does any of the above explain my caution—maybe it’s a love-hate response—toward Emerson and Thoreau? They play Daddy to my Child, even when they tell the truth. Yet they knock my brain’s socks off rather often.  

Here’s Emerson (1803 – 1882) at age 61 in a journal entry (an entry that also instructs us about the importance of commas, for his opening word, "Within," is a crucial pause):  

“Within, I do not find wrinkles and used heart, but unspent youth.”

In 1845, “. . . the best part, I repeat, of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers . . . .”   
I like the possibility of ending the sentence there, on the hummingbird note of “hovers,” but Emerson goes on, “that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing, unpossessed, before him.” That’s pretty good too.

What did we all write in our journals today?


Anonymous said...

A well-turned aphorism is one of life's great delights. Think Mark Twain, E.B., Oscar...

Banjo52 said...

I agree, and I do, but the Why? makes me squirm. Do I need symmetry, balance, wit that much? Why? Because I can't find it or create it for myself? Do I want and think I can have instant wisdom from those guys? Maybe I do. I always liked the Twain of Huck Finn and some of Wilde, esp. the Importance of Being Earnest. And I'm pretty sure I'm liking Emerson and Thoreau better now than back in the day. I think the problem is that I don't TRUST them. It's too jaunty--the kind of thing Daisy Buchanan might think and say if she were a little smarter and deeper. :)

Hannah Stephenson said...

I like sound bites that need some unpacking, I think. And I like aphorisms that contain faux-certainty, I think...for example Wallace Stevens:
"A. A violent order is a disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)"

How'd you like the movie? We saw Warm Bodies last night, which was surprisingly funny and interesting!

Brenda's Arizona said...

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. - Twain.

Sounds like what you are thinking, Banjo?

John Evans said...

I like aphorisms for their punch and brevity. Reading can be an effort when the writing's too full of words for what it says.

But the "authoritative" part raises my hackles: "Who sez??"

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, that's some Stevens I've never read! The movie was OK, but for a dumb popcorn movie, I liked White House Down a lot better.

Brenda, I love the Twain line, though it wouldn't have to be an aphorism that was the lightning, would it?

John, welcome. And precisely--on both counts.

So we all like these nuggets. Interesting. I'll stop cross-examining myself, except for my hackles and John Evans' on the authoritative biz.

Also, It's probably phoniness or facile "wisdom" that's made me suspicious over the years, and those can occur with or without aphorisms.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I'm fond of lightning bugs--might even prefer them to showoff lightning. :)

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Aphorisms - "oversimplifications of complex ambiguities"

which makes them perfect when you need a little emotional buoyancy in a pinch.

The one I'm playing with right now is from Joseph Cambell

"Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain."

Banjo52 said...

PA, thanks to all the aphorism support these past few days, I'm softening, but still trying to keep my radar turned on against quickness masquerading as depth, authority, certainty. I like Campbell's idea, want to believe it, don't quite trust it, even though I've tried to use it myself and with some success.

Stickup Artist said...

I often find aphorisms to be intellectual salves for an all too feverish brain. I agree with PA, "emotional buoyancy in a pinch."

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