When I was a fresh faced 18 year old, having just moved into my first house with wages from my first full time job I was living with my friend Russ. My dear departed Dad would stay once a week when he was in town and I remember him spotting something that Russ was reading and picked it up to have look. It was a book by the author Paulo Coelho. Russ is a good 10 years older than me and I assumed, being 18, that anything he read was sensible and grown up. I knew little of what Coelho wrote but knew it was often described as “a bit new aged” and rather “spiritual”. My father being the ultimate tree-hugging hippy who does tai-chi in his slippers, I assumed would nod sagely at this choice of reading material. He didn’t. He flicked through the book and said “Oh dear that’s no good. These are just aphorisms” then followed that up with, “that’s dangerous.”
Now my father had many faults, he was by no means perfect but he was a very wise man. Maybe not “smart” but a very gifted and wise man. So for him to describe a book of aphorisms as “dangerous” puzzled me at the time but I did not ask him to elucidate. Having subsequently read some Paulo Coelho I now know that Dad was right in that it is some of the most wishy-washy ambiguous new-age bullshit I’ve read but ‘dangerous’? Dad never knew me as a poet as he died long before I converted so I don’t know what he would make of my now career as I don’t really know if he ever had any interest in poetry himself. I never saw any in his book collections. But he did like to quote in conversation, something I have adopted. I like being able to site reference to other instances when talking or writing and I have a good memory for those sorts of things. Though my quotes tend to be more pop culture and cinema… Anyway, point being he was a user of aphorisms himself so referring to a book of them as dangerous still seems odd. Especially from a man who re-read The Celestine Prophecy numerous times.
Aphorisms in the age of the meme are enjoying a resurgence unseen since the Victorian era when sound bite witticisms and wisdom-isms were all the rage thanks to the likes of Oscar Wilde (who has many a meme circling the toilet bowl part of the internet). These manifest as graphic design images that get posted on social media. You know exactly what I mean. The Instagram post that’s a picture of a sun bleached field of corn with a carefully chosen font exclaiming “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. Some are profound (as that Edmund Hilary quote truly is), some are genuinely funny, most are banal, asinine drivel with all the depth of a puddle. Love them or loathe them they are everywhere. Memes themselves are slightly different and I confess I detest the word Meme due to the fact it was invented by a man who is the reverse of spiritual who I also dislike greatly but this trend for creating “CONTENT” (whatever the fuck that word means now) involving little to no thought or creative development that simply involves finding a free image via google and slapping any old collection of words on top of it, is actually the death of aphorisms.
A true and poetic aphorism, in the briefest amount of syllables and fewest words, should cut to the bone of a topic. Encapsulate all arguments and respond to all queries. They are the beautiful jewels of language that speak to us with an immediacy that can be mulled over and thought on for hours even days later. Especially when timed and deployed correctly. If Wilde was King of these Shakespeare was God: “Our enemies are our outward consciences”, “How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes”, “All glory comes from daring to begin”, “Nothing can come of nothing”, “Have more than you show, speak less than you know”, “Light and lust are deadly enemies” and the most appropriate “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Those can be chewed on for a long time and deserve to be. Few of those have been subjected to the above treatment for memetic usage and those that have tend to be in serif font on an old parchment backdrop to signify ‘Ye Olde’. No, now we use quotes possibly made up by the typer or quotes that are truncated or poorly sourced and most of the time not attributed, just simply encased in quotation marks like the grammatical version of holy water.
Tumblr is where these go to garner the most ‘likes’ and views but equally where aphorisms go to die. Few ‘good’ aphorisms make it through the Meme generator as they require thought and effort to understand, this is not what the internet at large wants. It wants something quick and easy to digest but then it is not an aphorism. Then. Then it is a platitude. And platitudes ARE dangerous.
The various quotes that are the currency of tumblr can be deployed at the drop of a hat. There is even a meme that states “All females have 50 screenshotted quotes waiting in their album ready to post when shit goes down”. What this means is their currency is inherently valueless, they become an echo chamber, a feedback loop. There is a quote or aphorism for any given emotion, topic or experience and for every side of the issue. There are even old sayings that contradict one another: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” & “Out of sight, Out of mind” being the most obvious. The picture of a balloon with an instagram filter on it with the words “you let me go” etched in faux typewriter font is sat alongside “Society often forgives the criminal, it never forgives the dreamer” and both given equal worth because of their context. Your way of thinking can be bolstered by a meme quote even if you know you are wrong. When “shit goes down” it should be a time for contemplation, serious thought. If you have separated from the one you love being told that “Love is blind” by a friend can cause you to analyse both your own motives and the person you are separated from’s, as apposed to the tumblr equivalent of “There are plenty more fish in the sea”.
Tumblr’s platitudes promote inaction and uncritical thought, they are affirmations that you were doing it right all along and that you should carry on as you are. This is wholly wrong. Aphorisms, true aphorisms, stem from the poetic mode of compression and that in turn requires personal involvement on your part. It should be ambiguous, it should stir questions not set you at ease. The reason I was riled to be so vitriolic and sweary in this post is that the kind of childish ill-thought out platitudes I see all over social media have now worked their way into speech and interaction not simply the passive aggressive posting on facebook etc. People use these meaningless non-quotes in conversations as cappers on an argument or discussion like that quote ends it. No! A good aphorism or quote should further the debate, should deepen the turn of conversation not end it because whoever the quote is attributed to says so. My father knew this and I now realise why he declaimed the Coelho book as dangerous, as they were not aphorisms, they did not challenge, they did not deepen or contradict your current thinking, they affirmed it.
In the film ‘The Rock’ by Michael Bay, Ed Harris is talking to Sean Connery and quotes Thomas Jefferson saying “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” to which Connery’s character replies “Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious” which is, of course, Oscar Wilde. In the context of the scene, for such a silly action movie, this actually gives something of a profound weight to both characters and their motivations in the smallest amount of screen time and even just reading them together would give one pause to consider the necessity of patriotism. That is what great language can do.
So the next time you see one of those, oh so pretty, like-baiting quotes over a pretty dull image shoved through an IG filter stop before liking or reposting just because you thought “Yeah! It IS like that isn’t it? That thing. Yeah.” Because that’s what the meme is for but it doesn’t help you or anyone else, it just exists as a digital water wheel, cycling round and round taking what it already had right back where it took it from. Then respond to that post critically, reply with your OWN quote, a more ambiguous one. The great people who said these things were challenging you to see the world anew not telling you everything is fine the way it is.
“To speak with another’s tongue, is to be silent” – Leo Cookman, 2015
P.S. Checkout these tumblr parodies to see the absurdity of this pernicious trend. I laughed till I cried looking at them and the originals deserve our contempt.