Thursday, March 12, 2020

Quips from Louis Kronenberger's The Last Word: Portraits of Fourteen Master Aphorists

One of my favorite pastimes is checking out what other people have on their bookshelves. Calling it a pastime made be imprecise. It's just something I've had a habit of doing when visiting people.

Many decades ago while in Coatepec, Mexico, a small town near Xalapa in the State of Ver Cruz, we were visiting a missionary there in the heart of coffee country. As has been my custom I was perusing his bookshelf and came across an interesting book titled The Pointed Pen by Charles W. Conn. It was a volume entirely comprised of pithy sayings, maxims, sharpened and assembled into a collection of pointed observations. It was a tremendously fun and thought-provoking read, and must have made an impression because I'm remembering it 39 years later. (I've long forgotten the name of the missionary, though I've never forgotten the town and the people there. Muy tranquillo.)

It's a form of writing that requires a keen wit. It takes work to chisel an idea down into a barbed quip that really sticks. Shakespeare was a master, as was Cervantes. Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) overflows with memorable jewels.

And so, as I was searching a section of the library for a certain book I unexpectedly stumbled on this one, Louis Kronenberger's The Last Word. Kronenberg apparently enjoys the pointed aphorism as a form of writing, so much so that he assembled this book with profiles of 14 authors who were masters of the form. They are La Rouchefoucauld, The Marquis of Halifax, George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Butler, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, William Hazlitt, Goethe, Emerson and Nietzsche. Each chapter consists of an author profile and concludes with a couple pages of witticisms by these masters.

I myself also enjoy anthologies. For example, a book I read for my Existential Lit class at O.U. titled Continental Short Stories combines stories by familiar authors with some less familiar, becoming a great means by which we can be introduced to other writers.

In this case, though familiar with the writings of more than half of these authors, the inclusion of less familiar names, with bios, proves to be a good intro for discovering other sharp minds. What follows are examples from each of Kronenberger's selected aphorists.

"Flattery is counterfeit money which, but for vanity, would have no circulation." -- La Rochefoucauld

"Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that the horses may not be stolen." -- The Marquis of Halifax

"Hell is paved with good intentions." -- Dr. Johnson. He's also the origin of this famous saying: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

"Most books today seem to have been written overnight from books read the day before." -- Chamfort  This last is hilarious because it was written in the 1700s and could still have been said today.

"To many people virtue consists chiefly in repenting faults, not in avoiding them." -- Lichtenberg

"Viewed from the summit of reason, all life looks like a malignant disease and the world like a madhouse." -- Goethe

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be." -- Hazlitt

"In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed." -- Emerson

"People care more about being thought to have taste than about being either good, clever, or amiable." -- Samuel Butler

"Beggars should be abolished. It annoys one to give to them and annoys one not to give to them." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

"One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead." -- Oscar Wilde

"Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." -- George Bernard Shaw

"An artist's flair is sometimes worth scientist's brains." -- Anton Chekhof

"Dogma does not mean the absence of thought but the end of thought." -- G.K. Chesterton

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