Anyone who knows John F Kennedy’s famous words, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, or Alexander Pope’s, “to err is human, to forgive, divine”, knows an aphorism. According to author and aphorist James Geary, everyone knows at least one aphorism, because these brief, provoking, statements of truth and philosophy are used every day, in every culture. Geary delivered an informative, but amusingly entertaining, talk on this favorite subject of his this past Thursday night, at Grolier Poetry, in Cambridge. A quaint and cozy book shop right next door to the beacon of intellect, Harvard University, the intimate venue was the perfect place to host Geary’s presentation— a brilliant combination of lecture, group discussion, and performance. The show was given in honor of the recent publication of Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, which contains some of Geary’s own aphorisms.
Despite everyone knowing of an aphorism, many might not know what an aphorism actually is. Therefore, Geary started his discussion there, with a brief origin story of aphorisms. He explained how the literary devices are used for a variety of purposes, from moral instruction, to sharing philosophy, to highlighting important truths, or even to merely display wit. The intent of an aphorism when heard, according to Geary, is not “[to] make you feel good about yourself…[but to] provoke you”. An aphorism is supposed to make you think, to argue, to question. Aphorisms require just as much intelligence and creativity from their listeners as they do their creators. They demand wit.
Not only do aphorisms require wit, however, they also need metaphors. Or, perhaps, we are simply incapable of creating any statement without them, aphorism or not. Geary says “we think in metaphors”, an undeniable statement once one acknowledges how illogical half the things we say are if taken literally— instead of metaphorically. On average, Geary told us, people “utter six metaphors a minute”, and to help prove his declaration he had us, his rapt audience, count out the number of metaphors in a single introduction to a news article. 33 words, 9 metaphors. Keep in mind, these metaphors were not all like the type of one was expected to find in a grade school English class, the conspicuous kind that make simple comparisons. Like aphorisms, metaphors can be made using wit too. Mixed metaphors especially, Geary says, are “a great testimony of [the speaker’s] wit”.
But what does Geary mean by “wit”. Today we would assume if something is witty, it must be clever and funny. Although not necessarily wrong, however, wit is more than this. It is, Geary clarifies, actually the skill of “taking what you have and making something out of it… seeing a possibility”. Something that is witty does not have to be funny, or merely funny, as is assumed today, but must be quick, clever, and creative. Wit is a show of intellect, of a fast and innovative mind.
To finish off the night’s discussion, Geary gave us a show by juggling while listing his five laws of aphorisms. Number five was why aphorisms are like jokes:
So, what’s your favorite aphorism?
If you have one, share it in the comments!
BIO: Described as a “playful and profound spirit”, James Geary is a contributor to the recently published Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, as well as author of Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists and I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. He has performed variations of his Juggling Aphorisms and Mixing Metaphors show at TED (see below), along with numerous other venues across the country. A former editor of the European edition of Time magazine, Geary is currently the deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University here in Massachusetts.
WHY APHORISMS: At one point in the night, during what had rapidly devolved into something more akin to a Socratic seminar than a lecture, one of the guests asked when, where, and what had peaked Geary’s interest in aphorisms. He replied with a story of how, growing up, the main source of literature in his house was Reader’s Digest. Geary explained that, at 8 yrs old, he became obsessed with the literary magazine’s “Quotable Quotes” section and began collecting his favorite aphorisms on the backs of the music posters hanging in his room. His first aphorism, he told us, was, “the difference between a rut and a grave, is the depth”. It truly highlights how “aphorisms are witty, but not always funny”.
To learn more about Geary and his work, click here, or check out the links at the bottom of the page.
*If you are interested in seeing James Geary in person, he is giving another talk on aphorisms February 26th at 7:00pm in Brookline.
Can’t Wait Until February? Here’s His TED Talk to Hold You Over:
James Geary, Metaphorically Speaking
- James Geary Website & Blog Links:
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- Grolier Poetry Book Shop Link: