James Geary: «Politicians hate aphorism» - Genova

James Geary: «Politicians hate aphorism»

Cultura Genova Venerdì 24 ottobre 2008

Genova - In recent years it is more and more common to hear people talk through idiomatic expressions/phrases, use ordinary sayings and, generally, employ a very impersonal vocabulary taken from TV programs or just be able to select from a very poor variety of words. Don't you think that aphorisms risks to encourage this sort of attitude?
Aphorisms are the exact opposite of the attitude represented by catchphrases, political slogans, and soundbites. Aphorisms are unsettling, provocative, while slogans and soundbites are empty vessels, meant to be inspiring enough to attract people but vague enough for them to interpret the slogan any way they want. This is one reason why politicians tend to prefer slogans over aphorisms. Aphorisms make you question yourself; they make you think, like Mark Twain's great saying: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

What is the relationship between aphorism and poetry?
Both are very condensed forms of writing that use lots of imagery. The greatest thing they have in common is the use of metaphor. This is how poems and aphorisms can compress so much meaning into so few words: They use startling and evocative metaphors, which then unfold inside your mind, like Stanislaw Jerzy Lec's wonderful aphorism: No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. The meaning of that aphorism has nothing to do with snow, but we know what it means because of the beauty and aptness of the metaphor.

What is the aphorism dearest to you and why? And among the political aphorism which is the most convincing?
My favorite aphorism at the moment comes from a yogurt advertisement: Lick the lid of life!
The aphorism dearest to me is one I first read when I was around 10 years old: The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth. I love that one because it keeps me alert and wary of becoming too comfortable, of thinking I've figured everything out.
The most convincing political aphorism: When you're going through hell, keep going. —Winston Churchill

How is an aphorism created, what is the creative process behind it? Do aphorisms spring from an observation, a thought, a long piece of writing that could be suddenly be summarised in a few words? Is it always possible to translate a clever aphorism into another language?
There are three composition methods: spontaneous combustion, in which the aphorism appears fully formed and is quickly written down on a napkin or an envelope; deliberate composition, in which the aphorism is carefully carved out of a longer piece of text and repeatedly revised; the accidental aphorist, the writer who never intends to write aphorisms but they just naturally appear in essays, poems or novels.

Aphorisms are always thoughts--that's why they are different from platitudes or cliches--and are always based on some observation of human nature. They reveal something that, once it is written down, everyone is able to recognize. Aphorisms are also the most democratic of art forms: everybody uses and creates aphorisms all the time, in popular songs, things parents or grandparents said, etc...
Sadly, it is not always possible to translate aphorisms, just like poems, especially when they use puns. But I hope this is not a problem for my talk!

Could you please disclose something of your speech for the Lectio Magistralis in Genoa on 25th October (at 6 p.m. @ Palazzo Ducale)?
My speech will be about aphorisms and science, how scientific equations like e = mc2 are metaphors for aphorisms: scientific equations are short phrases that contain a wealth of meaning, just like aphorisms, and they explain the secrets of nature, just as aphorisms explain the secrets of human nature. A great aphorism by an English astronomer is: Everything that shines must be observed. That is true in astronomy and also in life: what shines in your eyes—maybe it's a loved one, a hobby, or a place—is special and should be investigated! There will be aphorisms by and about science as well as aphorisms by many others. And I will also juggle. You can find out more about the talk on the Performances page of my website.

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