THE OTHER DAY I happened to hear on the radio one of the best descriptions of what it means to come as an outsider to America. It was Eugene Ormandy who was speaking and, as an immigrant to the United States of now many decades, he said that he still remained an archeologist in it. It is a remark full of illumination.
One may go to France or Italy or Germany, and things there are simply French and Italian and German. But in America the newcomer turns over every artifact, even the most commonplace, to find both a special American and more-than-American meaning in it. He applies his own carbon test to every pot and pan. Tell me, he pleads to it, of this strange culture which made you. The Americanness of America, with all its roots in and ties to the Old World, is still something that no one has been able to explain, its apartness from all else. It makes one an archeologist: at least these dumb things should have a tale.
Take proverbs, for example. It was some months ago when, listening to a free-and-easy conversation one evening, I realized that we don't really have proverbs any more. Someone may say, "More haste, less speed," but it is a cliche and with no real impact. A proverb had authority. It was advice, it was a warning. Not to exaggerate, in fact, it was a commandment.
In the intervening months, I have thought about the question a lot. I have waited to hear if proverbs are ever used in day-to-day life as more than cliches. The answer is, "No." The literature about proverbs is immense: Go and look at the card catalogue of the Library of Congress under PROVERBS. They have been such an important part of speech in the past that one wonders why and how we now think we can do without them. Here is something which is worth turning over in one's hands, and asking what is the culture that thinks it needs no proverbs. As I will argue, it is partly American.
Not long ago, two English authors, Ronald Ridout and Clifford Whitting, produced a book, "English Proverbs Explained." They say in it that most authorities claim that there are now only between 500 and 600 proverbs which are currently used. But they raise the figure to 800. I went through all of them and, although it may be true that, once in a blue moon, one may hear them in conversation, I would say that only about 50 are part of our daily use, and that even those are used, as I have said, more as cliches than as commandments.
WHAT IS a proverb? It is the commonly accepted wisdom of a people. One definition is that it is "a popular short saying with words of advice or warning." Every term in that definition counts. It is popular: everyone is agreed about it. It is short: pithiness is its essence. And it firmly gives advice and warning. This last is essential. With its earthly wisdom born of experience, the proverb says that, if you ignore its truth, you will foul up your life and have to pay the cost.
The proverb may just grow out of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people; or it may be a piece of wisdom which some writer distills into a phrase. "The course of true love never did run smooth" is something any peasant could tell you, but it was Shakespeare who distilled it into its final form. Shakespeare is almost an encyclopedia of proverbs -- "Cowards die many times before their deaths" -- and the great proverb-maker in America, of course, was Benjamin Franklin. "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Thanks a lot, Ben, but there is not much evidence that you kept very orderly hours yourself. "Practice what you preach," says another proverb.
The next thing to notice about proverbs is that the most powerful of them come from rural societies. This should not surprise us. People who live by the soil and the seasons acquire a very earthy and patient wisdom. It nevertheless is important to realize how so many proverbs have their roots in country life:
"Make hay while the sun shines."
"Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
"All's grist that comes to the mill."
"The grass is greener on the other side of the fence."
"As you sow, so shall you reap."
"The best fish swim near the bottom."
"Don't change horses in midstream."
"Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."
"The early bird gets the worm."
"Still waters run deep."
Long, patient country wisdom.
As I was talking about this question to an American, he said, "I'll give you a proverb from the cities." He then handed me a pearl: "Don't play jacks on a hot sidewalk." That's a proverb! I immediately felt levels of meaning in it, applicable to all kinds of situations, and the more I thought about it, the more it speaks volumes. Just dwell on that one word, "hot," and all it can mean. Part of the force of the image, like that of the proverbs of the country, comes from its down-to-earth local origins. When my friend used it, the streets of the Bronx came alive.
A proverb is not just an observation about the toils and sport of life. Out of the blue, as I was thinking about the subject, a Jewish friend gave me the new edition of Hanan J. Ayalti's collection, "Yiddish Proverbs." It is a marvel in many ways: the wisdom of a race of unillusioned but still humorous survivors. But too many of them are not proverbs, but only observations of a human scene. "Jewish wealth is like snow in March" is full of pithy meaning. But there is no real injunction in it. "They are madly in love: he with himself, she with herself." Well, yes! We have all seen it often enough. Even known it! But there is no real proverbial authority to it.
"Spare us what we can learn to endure." That is a prayer -- welling up from however many thousand years of Jewish endurance -- but it is not a proverb. This is interesting, because the Old Testament is stuffed with proverbs, and not only in the Book of that name. Yiddishness, as distinct from Jewishness, in other words, has lost the power of commandment. A saying is only a proverb if it contains some warning of punishment. Not punishment by any of one's fellows, not punishment even by God, but punishment in the sense that one cannot get away with it, that a price has to be paid in one's own life.
BUT THEN the proverb, as one contemplates it even more, turns around with a fresh surprise. This is what is fascinating about it. It is full of tease. It is one of the most dramatically concentrated uses of human language in all ages. "The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs" is not just, as one would expect, a work that carries scholarship to the heights of majesty. It is a book to read. Life is there on every page, puzzling away to find what is tangible in this otherwise shadowy world.
And where the proverb turns on its own tail to surprise us is when one contradicts the other. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," says one proverb, and we nod because we know it is true. But at the next moment: "Out of sight, out of mind." Think of all the proverbs that tell us that "Patience is a virtue," and that only "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." But then there are all the rest that tell us that "Opportunity only knocks once," and that "Faint heart never won fair lady." The proverb even seems to correct the proverb. "Experience is the mother of wisdom": If anything is, that is a proverbial truth. But then again, "Experience is the teacher of fools." So it goes. "Love is blind," we are warned. "Love will find a way," we are then reassured. And if we move into the kitchen, "Many hands make light work," but also, "Too many cooks spoil the broth."
In many of these, one may seem to be getting very near to my criticism of the Yiddish proverbs, that they are only observations and not injunctions. But, no! Read them carefully. There is nothing just wry about them. Even when they speak the opposite way, they are full of threat and alarm.
The contradictions are not mere accidents. The proverb is at the level where human behavior is shamelessly and even magnificently inconsistent. "Sticks and stones may break your bones," says one proverb, "but words can never hurt you." Which is a blatant lie. And there is a proverb to say so: "Words cut deeper than swords." And right here is the wonder of the proverb, why it is one of the most extraordinary inventions of human language.
Yes, you, it says, you: You are a mass of contradiciton and inconsistency; of high endeavor and faulty will; of such good intentions, which "pave the way to hell," and of such small achievement. You are all that: You are human. But what holds it all together is the wisdom of your society, which has seen it all so often before but which knows that in you it is still fresh. Just do not think that you can hack it alone, the proverb says, it is society that enables you to be the individual you are.
It is for this reason that I think that the decline of the proverb is partly an influence of America. The genius of America is to have erected the individual as self and self alone. Without America there would have been no liberation movements, and we needed the liberation movements to take us on to a new level of self-exploration. But that genius has a deep geological fault. Everything in America, unless it is self-consciously confronted and resisted, tends to weaken the claims of society. The individual is propped up alone, but without the only reliable prop.
If you do not believe me, then look at the proverbs of Benjamin Franklin. They are adages to tell the individual how to get the best of his fellows. In other words, of his society. And look at the Yiddish provers, and compare them with the great rabbinical truths. They are the sayings of a very great, brilliant, deep but displaced people who have no society that has endured. They endure only as individuals. This is a profound sadness to our civilization: that one of its founding peoples and cultures, still so fertile in mind and spirit, has no society that outlives it: that outlives it in a proverb.