by Leonard Bishop
I collect collections of clever, astute, amusingly wise sayings by past and currently notable people. They are enjoyable and instructive. Example: Not many people realize that the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” does not come from the Bible. It was said by Benjamin Franklin. And it was not George Washington who, after carelessly dropping his wooden teeth into the fireplace said, “aaaayyyyyyayyyyyyyyayyyyyeeeeeee!” It was Johnny Weissmuller, playing Tarzan.
I’m looking forward to the time when some of my astonishing wisdom’s are put into quotation collections. I did not state, “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs.” (Christopher Hampton), but I did write, “Sometimes my most humiliating experience is being me.”
Robert Benchley, a critic and author, once wrote, “It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.” There is a song title (author unknown) that always makes me smile. “I Don’t Know Whether To Kill Myself Or Go Bowling.”
Quite often as the conversation filler, or to span an interval of dead, have-nothing-to-talk-about silence, I’ll state a quotation like, “An atheist is a man who believes himself an accident.” (Francis Thompson). Or one by Emily Lawton like, “A converted cannibal is one who, on Friday, eats only fishermen.” But I’m never certain if I am citing a maxim, or an aphorism, an adage, a saw, or a proverb. They all seem to mean the same.
The dictionary defines them with such similarity that distinguishing the difference between them is almost impossible. Mark Twain said: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Was he citing an aphorism (a concise statement of a principle?) Was Richard Diran offering a proverb (an adage, a maxim) when he said, “I have a rock garden. Last week three of them died.” Did Abraham Lincoln coin a saw (a saying, maxim, or proverb) or a proverb (adage, maxim) by saying, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”
Some sayings, because they are stated by people of authority and esteem, can be corrupting or just stupid. “What is moral is what you feel good after.” (Ernest Hemingway). Presidents are not excluded from asinine statements. “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?” (Ronald Reagan) And some sayings should be etched on the minds of people who believe that the solution to Life’s problems can be found in the mechanical sciences. “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” (Pablo Picasso).
I would rather read an intelligently assembled anthology of sayings that a political tract on why it would be inadvisable to invade Peru. You garner the finest distillation of thought without having to slough through the mental process the thinkers suffered.
When you read as many anthologies as I do, you reach a plateau of information, and anything above that plateau, is confusion or misunderstanding. When you are being very intelligent, you become mixed up about what you are saying. You don’t always know if you’re being clever, or if you’re actually quoting someone else’s cleverness. I was once asked an opinion of Richard Nixon’s mind, and I said, “He was not made for climbing the trees of knowledge.” I later learned that it was said by the novelist Sigrid Undset.
I thought I was being clever at a party when I was asked to comment on Nietzsche, and I said, “When he who hears doesn’t know what he who speaks means, and when he who speaks doesn’t know what he himself means–that is philosophy.” But it was said by Voltaire, before me.
Accepting credit for being clever, though I may be using someone else’s mind, is not disturbing to me. I am always consoled by knowing the mind I am stealing from, stole his cleverness from the heritage of minds that thought before him. Or, as Augustus de Morgan said, “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on. Ad infinitum.”
©2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop
(first published April 20, 1986 the Manhattan Mercury)