I arrived at the house of my friend, Richard Poor, the other morning in the midst of a minor domestic upheaval. His daughter had discovered a large rip in her raincoat, and she was already late for school. Poor urged a quick fix with needle and thread. "I always say," he said, as she rushed out, "a stitch in nine saves time."
As it turned out, this was the topic he had in mind. He led the way to his study, pointed me to a couch, and settled himself upside down in his armchair, looping his legs over the back and allowing his head to dangle upon the floor.
"We hear a lot these days about environmental pollution and the exhaustion of natural resources," he began. "It strikes me that, what with all the books being published, the advice columns, the TV panel discussions and the phone-in talk shows, we are playing havoc with our national reserves of commonplaces. Instead of using them all up, or wearing them out, shouldn't we try recycling them?
"For example," he went on, "we have all these tired old proverbs lying around not doing much. What if we selected the suitable ones and reversed them? The way you turn a worn-out collar."
"In other words," I said, "Want not, waste not."
"I see you're not entirely convinced," Poor said. "I agree that some proverbs are so tired that reversing them only produces total prostration. Even then, though, don't you find that: 'Where there's fire there's smoke' has a majestic emptiness altogether lacking in the original?"
"What about 'It never pours but it rains'?" I suggested, softening a bit. "Or 'A king may look at a cat.' "
"Hold on," Poor interjected. "Notice that both of those are actually saying something. I mean, the first one extracts a bit of agrarian optimism out of your city-dweller's ritual gloom. As for the second; think of the use poor Prince Charles could make of it. It's nothing but cats glowering at him, yet every time he glowers back--oh, you know, says something about the skyline or tells a joke he heard from a vegetable--he gets into trouble."
"The difficulty with proverbs," Poor went on, "is that not only do they grow inert, but their inertness clutters up our mental space.
"Proverbs originate as bits of order. They are civic monuments to past triumphs of positive thinking, the kind favored by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote them down in his almanac and signed my name to it backwards."
But, Poor continued--since the rest of this belongs to him, and since he is imaginary, I shall drop the quote marks--old purposes wear out and positive uplift means less than it used to. In fact, when we untie our proverbs, we free an unexpected energy. They turn rakish; they lose their buttoned-up respectability. A restorative fecklessness replaces a withered practicality.
To Allan Bloom or a pedant telling us that the unexamined life is not worth living, we can reply: "Your unlived examination is not worth examining." To fearfulness masquerading as experience: "Angels rush in where fools fear to tread." To the bureaucrat: "The mills of the gods grind fine but they grind exceeding slow." To the M.F.A. in creative writing: "Long art is short-lived." To the officious Puritan: "Never do today what tomorrow you can put off."
Reversals treat their originals in all kinds of ways. They can be downright cutting, as in the reply to that most exasperating of proverbs, the one that tries to slow you down as you rush off, hopelessly late, to an appointment, and trip at the bottom of the stairs. "The more speed the less haste," you hurl back as you pick yourself up and dash out.
They can be more cautionary than the original, and take on an even more repellent stuffiness. For example, the store security manager warning of pilferage among the employees hired for the Christmas rush: "Much work makes light hands." Or the disciplinarian, chafing to try out his methods: "Spare the child and spoil the rod."
Other reversals simply dissolve good sense in a dreamy cloud; making it better sense, no doubt, but one you have to work hard to grasp. For example, "A bush in the hand is worth two birds." Or "If horses were wishes, then riders might beg."
The most powerful reversal, though, is a kind of awakening--somber, even bitter, but curiously liberating. A proverb is a sudden mental solution, a burst of optimism. But our solutions can become our children's problems. Our optimism dams up our successors'; untie a proverb, and you release life back into its normal melancholy channels and allow others to dam-build downstream if they care to.
When Woody Allen announced that the key to success was showing up, it was a morsel of wit that encouraged a generation. That generation is still here, but perhaps for many growing up now it is truer to say: "The secret of showing up is success." It's OK for you, Mr. Allen, but things are getting tougher; for showing up you need directions and clothes.
The uncommon sense in a reversed commonplace has its history. Montaigne was especially good at it. "One does not die of being sick, one dies of being alive," he wrote; and there is something too naked about such a saying for it ever to become a proverb needing reversal of its own.
Reversing can bring out a stoicism far more long-lived than the seasonal life of optimism. It is sometimes necessary to jump from the frying pan to the fire, for example, if only out of self-respect.
But for the proverb of true mournfulness, the one that builds no dam to experience but simply comments on its flow, you have to go to other cultures; those considered, perhaps, peripheral. The Creole of Haiti will do.
"Beyond the mountains there are mountains." Reverse it and you have: "Beyond the mountains there are mountains."