The Bed of Crusty

Is there an aphorism editor in the house?

How about an aphorism Terminator?

In the age of Twitter, it’s no shock that the aphorism is making a comeback. Once upon a time, whole reputations could be built on the form, especially in France—for example, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort. Here in America, Ambrose Bierce still occasionally pops up in someone’s sentence. Back when regularly citing wise one-liners from the ancients constituted a major strain of literary style itself, one could see it as a literary career track.

But notwithstanding a kind of Newton’s law regarding the form—”For every aphorism, there is an equal and opposite aphorism” (Test it with volumes such as David Crystal’s delightful As They Say in Zanzibar, from Oxford University Press)—we require certain things from aphorists beyond putative truth.

We want to nod in agreement most of the time. We demand a personality inclined toward wisdom, not  the venting of unpleasant personality characteristics. We tire of formulaic attempts at clever paradox. We prefer our aphorisms without semi-colons and parentheses.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (Random House) appears to be one of those sweetheart projects in which a publishing house, having made a killing off the author’s ”real” book, agrees to collect the writer’s short pieces, laundry lists, in-the-shower epiphanies, whatever. Taleb, described on the book’s flap copy as “a former trader” who is now Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University, scored big with The Black Swan (no relation to the new film). The flap copy indicates that Taleb is rather full of himself: We’re told that he “spends most of his time as a flaneur, meditating in cafes across the planet,” and that The Black Swan “has become an intellectual, social and cultural touchstone.”

Probably it has within the Taleb household. Let’s be fair: Taleb is smart, and knows a lot about decision theory and randomness. His key notion in The Black Swan—that we should pay attention to unexpected, high-impact events in order to understand both history and daily life—is provocative. But his insistence that post-facto explanations of such events are largely false is unconvincing. Taleb, to be kind, needs to read more excellent history and less decision-theory trash. Also unpersuasive is his belief that virtually all consequential matters in history issue from “black swan” events. (Same remedy recommended.) Still, Taleb’s an amusing new maverick on the intellectual scene, and his webpage is a hoot.

As an aphorist? Well…..

Taleb organizes his goods (and bads) into respectable chapters such as “Matters Ontological” and “The Republic of Letters.” In the interest of accurate taxonomy, let me rename and reorganize.

Here are three items from ”Arrogance”:

An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.

Their idea of the sabbatical is to work six days and rest for one; my idea of the sabbatical is to work for (part of) a day and rest for six.

Some books cannot be summarized (real literature, poetry); some can be compressed to about ten pages; the majority to zero pages.

Here is an idiocy from “Off-the-Mark”:

The only objective definition of aging is when a person starts to talk about aging.

Here’s an observation from “Out of One’s Depth”:

Those who think religion is about “belief” don’t understand religion, and don’t understand belief.

Are you having a completely unexpected experience? Hearing about a supposedly brilliant thinker who isn’t? Listen to more.

Sample this autobiographical admission from “Bloated Condescension”:

To mark a separation between holy and profane, I take a ritual bath after any contact, or correspondence (even emails), with consultants, economists, Harvard Business School professors, journalists, and those in similarly depraved pursuits; I then feel and act purified from the profane until the next episode.

Ponder a revelatory thought from ”Delusional Looking in the Mirror”:

I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating and non-human in thinking with too much clarity.

My two favorites from ”The Crib of Banal”? Try these:

Wisdom in the young is as unattractive as frivolity in the elderly.

It is as difficult to change someone’s opinions as it is to change his tastes.

Finally, two closing categories. Care to adopt this pair from ”The Sofa of Stupidity”?:

If someone gives you more than one reason why he wants the job, don’t hire him.

Sports feminize men and masculinize women.

And what can one say about these two failures from “The Cot of Convolutedness”?:

The Web’s “connectedness” creates a peculiar form of informational and pseudosocial promiscuity, which makes one feel clean after Web rationing.

We are satisfied with natural (or old) objects like vistas or classical paintings but insatiable with technologies, amplifying small improvements in versions, obsessed about 2.0, caught in a mental treadmill.

Okay, I’ll admit I like a handful of lines here and there:

Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.

Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate.

Alas, the batting average is not so hot. In his “Postface,” Taleb lists the following among categories of fools: ”The overeducated, the academic, the journalist, the newspaper reader, the mechanistic `scientist,’ the pseudo-empiricist.”

How about the would-be aphorist with major tin ear?

Hey, Nassim, a word to the smart: Try a tad less arrogance, a trace more insight. Here’s an aphorism that has stood the test of time: “Pride goeth before a fall.”—Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large

Return to Top