A phrase came to me in the night: Frank Sinatra is a disease for which Americans may never find a cure. It then occurred to me that this was not only a thought-provoking phrase, it could serve as a template for any number of aphorisms. For example: Computers are a disease for which human beings may never find a cure.
It was a quick step from there to the realization that many other aphorisms could easily serve as templates. Almost a decade ago I wrote:
Where were my parents when I was growing up? Talking on the telephone? What did I learn as a result? That love is words, and for telephones.
In 2014 this proved easy to update: What did my parents do? They texted. What did they teach me? To text. Or: What did my teachers do? Checked their messages. What did they teach me? To check my messages.
Examples from other writers’ aphorisms:
- From Brecht’s character Baal: “I always believed in myself. But one could become an atheist.” In the wake of the news of the extent of child sex abuse by priests: I always believed in the sanctity of the church. But one could become an atheist.
- From one of Harry Zohn’s translations of a Karl Krauss one-liner: “I trim my opponents to fit my arrows.” Or, if one prefers: I carve my opponents to fit my arrows. (Ich schnitze mir den Gegner nach meinem Pfeil zurecht.) A second derivative, we might call this: She arranged her friends’ kind words to fit in her vase.
- Opportunities to quote La Rochefoucauld should rarely be passed up. « Nous pardonnons souvent à ceux qui nous ennuient, mais nous ne pouvons pardonner à ceux que nous ennuyons. » We often forgive people who bore us; those we bore—never. A variation: We forgive our children their transgressions; other people’s children—not quite so often.
A few more of my own aphorisms which seem ripe for adapting:
- If we had better memories would we be less destructive and less hopeful?
- I have not lied on my résumé—does that make me untrustworthy?
- “Please” can express hostility, and “thank you” grab power.
- Some of Karl Kraus’s aphorisms, as translated by Harry Zohn: Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms. Photograph above is of Kraus, who deserves more quoting (with help from Zohn): “Sexuality poorly repressed unsettles some families; well repressed, it unsettles the whole world.”
- A debt is owed here to Kenneth Koch’s wonderful and tremendously influential book on teaching poetry to children, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children.
- For more of my own aphorisms click here.
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