Chapter OneGuessing Is More Fun Than Knowing
The Confessions of an Aphorism Addict
IF NOT FOR AN APHORISM by W. H. Auden, I might never have met my wife.
I was in my final year at university, studying a haphazard mix of poetry, philosophy, and literature. Since the college I attended placed special emphasis on the performing arts, I periodically staged little happenings based on things I was writing or thinking about at the time. One of these performances involved lugging about a dozen extremely large and heavy stones into the dining hall during dinner one evening and heaping them into a small cairn. I stood on top of the cairn, tapped a fork lightly on the rim of a glass until I had the room's attention, and spat a handful of smaller stones from my mouth. Then I lugged the big stones back outside again. It sounds absurd now, but at the time I thought I was making a pretty profound statement-in that enigmatic and grandiose way only undergraduates can-about the stubbornness of language, the impossibility of ever really saying what we mean.
It was at a similar event that I first encountered the woman who would become my wife.
For this performance, though, the only thing I carried into the cafeteria was the world itself-in the shape of a desktop globe from which I had neatly excised the Arctic Circle, so that the top of the earth came off like the lid of a cookie jar. I had dropped dozens of little slips of paper into the globe, each one bearing an aphorism-either one I had composed myself or one from a famous writer. As I strolled through the dining hall, I approached people as they ate and asked them to reach in and pick a phrase from the globe. The only catch: Everyone had to read the aphorism aloud. I wouldn't leave the table until they did.
I was an aspiring aphorist at the time, so the globe contained what I considered some of my best lines:
Never trust an animal-no matter how many legs it has. Young people should picnic in active volcanoes. There are certain mistakes we enjoy so much we are always willing to repeat them. There is not much room for error in an eggshell. Not many people live in the desert.
And, my personal favorite:
Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough.
But the globe also contained lots of great aphorisms from my some of my favorite authors, including this one from W. H. Auden: Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing.
My wife-to-be-whom I had never actually met at this point-picked this saying from the globe and, after some initial hesitation and embarrassment, read it aloud. Then I moved on to the next table and distributed about two dozen more aphorisms before the performance ended.
The next day, I found a little slip of paper in my mailbox. It read:
In some cases, knowing is much more fun than guessing.
That was it. The scrap of paper, torn from a larger sheet, bad no name and no other message. But I remembered who had selected the W. H. Auden saying, and later that day spotted my wife-to-be in the hallway on her way to class. I was waiting on the landing for my class to begin and she was walking down the stairs. As she passed, I leaned over the railing and said: "You're right. In some cases, knowing is much more fun than guessing." She blushed a bit, and kept on walking. But that evening, she appeared unannounced in the doorway to my room-and the rest is history.
Aphorisms have changed my life, and not just because I have one to thank for meeting my wife. I've been inspired and enthralled by aphorisms since I was about eight, when I first encountered the form in the "Quotable Quotes" section of Reader's Digest.
My parents were faithful subscribers to Reader's Digest, and I would often find back copies of the magazine lying crumpled and slightly damp on the bathroom floor. Quotable Quotes are brief inspirational sayings-usually by celebrities, television personalities, or statesmen, but often by authors and sometimes by ordinary people-that dispense advice about things like overcoming adversity, dealing with disappointment or grief, and coping with family life. This one, by TV counselor Dr. Phil McGraw, culled at random from a recent issue of the magazine, exemplifies the style:
If you marry for money, you will earn every penny.
I was just starting to become a serious reader, so these tidbits were exactly the right length for my preadolescent attention span. At the time, of course, I didn't know an aphorism from an aphrodisiac, but there was something about these brief, unusual sayings that attracted me. I loved the puns, paradoxes, and clever turns of phrase. And I was amazed at how such a compact statement could contain so much significance. Reading a really good Quotable Quote was like looking into a kaleidoscope; after twisting it around in my mind for a while, I was surprised at how many different meanings I could find.
The best quotes were powerful, majestic, inspirational, and faintly oracular. And they were funny, too, even though the topics they dealt with often involved some kind of personal tragedy. These really were words to live by, and when I was about thirteen I started collecting them.
In the beginning, it wasn't immediately clear to me how to collect aphorisms. You either have to have a very good memory or make some note of the sayings as you read them. I opted for the latter method. I took down the poster of George Harrison on my wall-the one from All Things Must Pass with him wearing a big floppy hat and looking very hirsute-flipped it around, hung it back up, and started writing the aphorisms on the back. As a collector, I was very much like the person described by the eighteenth-century French aphorist Nicolas Chamfort:
Most collectors of verses and sayings proceed as though they were eating cherries or oysters, choosing the best first, and ending by eating them all.
My appetite for aphorisms was enormous, so when the George Harrison poster filled up I moved on to David Bowie and Pink Floyd. The collection grew until I was in my early twenties, when I developed a taste for collecting books instead. But the posters still hang on the wall of my study. The paper is browned and cracking now, the corners torn away by attaching and then removing so much cellophane tape. Quotations crowd into every available space. The earliest entries, written in red ink in my neat but jagged teenage script, are so faded with age now that they're barely legible.
Reading these posters today is like traveling back in time, like leafing through a scrapbook of intellectual snapshots. Each quote triggers a host of memories and associations about where I was when I first read it, what I thought and believed at the time, who I was trying to become.
The George Harrison poster, for example, has lots of extracts from books by Ayn Rand, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Henry David Thoreau. This was my alien-hermit phase when, like Thoreau, I would spend long summer days communing with nature and my own socially inept self at my version of Walden Pond in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Pink Floyd sports mostly William Blake, John Keats, Aldous Huxley, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke, plus a nice little quip from Don Staley, my high school English teacher. This was my romantic-solipsist stage, when my sole aim was to plumb the depths of my emotions and storm the stubborn doors of perception. And Bowie has such heavy-weights as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the occasional Zen koan-my existentialist-nihilist period, when I rashly imagined I'd seen through the world and to prove the point put on philosophical stunts like spitting a handful of stones from my mouth.
Some of these aphorisms seem a little shallow now. Ayn Rand's exhortations about the virtues of selfishness, for example, no longer move me. But others are still as compelling as when I first copied them down. I still refer to them in times of trouble, doubt, or crisis. They pop into my head when I least expect it. And they still retain their power to inspire and amuse:
Mirrors would do well to reflect a little more before sending back images. -Jean Cocteau
Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. -Samuel Butler
I have often been forced to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that there was no place else to go. -Abraham Lincoln
I never let school interfere with my education. -Mark Twain
The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise. -Gerard Manley Hopkins
And this phrase, which has become a constant refrain in my head, recurring every morning as I walk to work:
The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.
This aphorism, from a somewhat improbable source-Gerald Burrill, once the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago-has been a fixture of my thinking ever since I scrawled it on the back of that George Harrison poster almost thirty years ago. It's a chilling phrase-a graphic warning that hebetude is the enemy of joy, that drudgery is habit-forming-and it's suddenly there in my mind as I make my daily pilgrimage to the Underground station.
As a teenager, this saying appealed to me because it summed up my aversion to constricting social conventions, to the way my peers and I were funneled through church and school into narrow lifestyles and deadening careers. Today it still keeps me looking for less trodden paths. As I trudge to the Tube every morning, this aphorism reminds me that my job, however fun, frustrating, exhausting or exhilarating, is not my life, that less-traveled roads offer the most stunning views, that open minds invite surprise.
To make sure I really walk the talk, though, I regularly vary my route to work. I skip my usual Tube stop and get off somewhere else; I take a different path to the office; or I simply walk on the other side of the street-small alterations that keep me off the well-worn path and change my point of view. Fresh perspectives can squeeze through even the slightest breaks in routine.
This little morning ritual is one reason I love aphorisms, and why I believe they can change your life. Aphorisms are not the warm and fuzzy phrases found in greeting cards. They are much more brusque, confrontational, and subversive. You don't curl up with a good book of aphorisms; they leap off the page and unfurl inside you.
Aphorisms aren't meant to make you feel good about yourself, either. More often than not, they are cynical and acerbic, an antidote to the bland, relentlessly upbeat nostrums in self-help guides and inspirational literature. They definitely do not cheer you up. Instead, aphorisms fulfill a much more difficult and important task: They make you question everything you think and do. Aphorisms deliver the short sharp shock of an old forgotten truth. They keep your mind in shape by making you wonder every morning whether you're simply walking to work or digging your own grave.
Aphorisms are spurs to action. It's not enough to just read one and murmur sagely to yourself, "How true, how true." Aphorisms make you want to do something; admiring them without putting them into practice is like learning to read music but neglecting to play an instrument.
This is how aphorisms can change your life. But how do you recognize an aphorism when you read it? And what makes an aphorism different from other types of sayings, such as adages, apothegms, axioms, bromides, dictums, epigrams, mottoes, parables, platitudes, precepts, proverbs, quips, quotations, sound bites, slogans, truisms, and witticisms?
Ironically for the world's shortest form of literature, a compact definition of the aphorism is impossible. There are, however, five laws an aphorism must obey to make the grade. By these signs shall ye know them.
The Five Laws of Aphorisms
The philosopher J. S. Mill once observed that there are two kinds of wisdom in the world: "In the one, every age in which science flourishes surpasses, or ought to surpass, its predecessors; of the other, there is nearly an equal amount in all ages." The first kind of wisdom is scientific. It consists in what we know about the world and how it works, and how we put that knowledge to use through technology. Since the Industrial Revolution at least, each age has surpassed the scientific achievements of its predecessors with astonishing speed.
Mills calls the second type "the wisdom of ages," a somewhat exalted term for what we've collectively learned about human nature through the experience of individuals across thousands of years of history. This kind of knowledge is unsystematic, consists in psychological rather than empirical facts, and is present in more or less equal amounts in every historical period. So Dr. Phil McGraw potentially has just about as much-or as little-of this kind of wisdom at his disposal as the Taoist sage Lao-tzu, who lived in China about six hundred years before Christ. "The form in which this kind of wisdom most naturally embodies itself," Mill concludes, "is that of aphorisms."
Why aphorisms? Because they're just the right size to hold the swift insights and fresh observations that are the raw data of the wisdom of the ages. Aphorisms are literature's hand luggage. Light and compact, they fit easily into the overhead compartment of your brain and contain everything you need to get through a rough day at the office or a dark night of the soul. They are, as the nineteenth-century author John Morley observed, "the guiding oracles which man has found out for himself in that great business of ours, of learning how to be, to do, to do without, and to depart."
Here, then, are the five laws by which an aphorism performs its oracular work.
I. It Must Be Brief
If brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare observed in one of his many aphoristic insights, then concision is the aphorism's heart. Aphorisms must work quickly because they are meant for use in emergencies. We're most in need of aphorisms at times of distress or joy, ecstasy or anguish. And in cases of spiritual or emotional urgency, brevity is the best policy.
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual instruction manual written by an anonymous English monk in the latter half of the fourteenth century, knew this when he advised his students:
Short prayer penetrates heaven.
The Cloud of Unknowing was composed as an aid to contemplation, and it's packed with sound spiritual guidance and sweet admonitions for young men just entering the monastic life. The book is made up of seventy-five very short chapters, with amusing and sometimes impenetrable titles like "The Three Things the Contemplative Beginner Must Practice: Reading, Thinking, and Praying" and "A Man's Outlook Is Wonderfully Altered through the Spiritual Experience of This Nothing in Its Nowhere." Each chapter is written in very simple, direct prose, in an avuncular tone that highlights the author's wisdom, equanimity, and good humor.
The book's title refers to our imperfect knowledge of God, but the author urges his readers to "hammer away at this high cloud of unknowing" through meditation and prayer. The Cloud's language mostly clings very close to the ground, however, and the book is replete with down-to-earth tips on how monks should pray silently to themselves throughout the day and how they can find the sacred in the most mundane daily chores.