[From Henry Alford, HOW TO LIVE: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) (New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2009) pp. 244-253. Copyright © 2009 by Henry Alford].
When I got back to New York, I had a new appreciation for how
difficult it is to spin aphorisms. James Geary writes that an
aphorism has four essential traits: "It must be brief,"
"It must be definitive," "It must be personal,"
and "It must have a twist." Looking through the sayings
I'd assembled, I wondered how many would qualify.
And then I hit pay dirt. Deep in the bowels of a Google search one day, I came across the Web site of a seventy-five-year-old named Ashleigh Brilliant. (Yes, that's the name he was born with.) The author of such well-traveled chestnuts as "I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent" and "Support your local God," Brilliant lays claim to being history's only full-time professional published aphorist or - as Brilliant calls himself and the Library of Congress has cataloged him - epigrammatist. Asked once by the Wall Street Journal whether Oscar Wilde or La Rochefoucauld didn't also qualify for such a claim, Brilliant commented, "They weren't full-time."
Born to a Jewish family in London in 1933, Brilliant started out as a painter. But people responded more to the far-out titles Brilliant gave his works than to the works themselves. Brilliant started to do pen-and-ink drawings to complement his titles, and then, before he knew it, he just started writing long lists of titles. He imposed a limit of seventeen words on his epigrams - a tribute to the number of syllables in a haiku and then to the realization that he'd never used more than sixteen words anyway "but wanted a spare in case of emergencies."
Since 1975, these drawings and titles have been published under the name "Pot-Shots," appearing in newspapers and on clothing, coffee cups, and postcards. His words now appear on about a hundred million items, thus allowing Brilliant to lay claim to the title "most-quoted author."
A former Haight-Ashbury hippie and college history professor, Brilliant now lives in Santa Barbara. When I called him, he told me that, though he still writes epigrams every day, "I stopped publishing them when I hit ten thousand. I figured no one can read ten thousand epigrams. Who needs any more?"
Indeed, Brilliant's work is nothing if not the codified ramblings of a realist.
"All I want is a little more than I'll ever get."
"My life has a superb cast, but I can't figure out the plot."
"Appreciate me now and avoid the rush."
"I feel much better, now that I've given up hope."
"If you're careful enough, nothing bad or good will ever happen to you."
"In order to discover who you are, first learn who everybody else is - and you're what's left."
"Life is the only game in which the object of the game is to learn the rules."
"We owe it to our past futile sacrifices to continue making further futile sacrifices."
"Isn't there some way to get the wisdom of hindsight in advance?"
"If I can survive death, I can probably survive anything."
No aspect of Brilliant's career is more rooted in realism than the fact that he has had to protect his material - all of which is copyrighted - vigorously. In 1979, when Brilliant challenged a heat-transfer-decal company that had appropriated three of his gems, a federal judge ruled that Brilliant's works - including, in this instance "I have abandoned my search for truth, and am now looking for a good fantasy" - were "epigrams," not "short phrases," and thus eligible for full copyright protection. He threatened to sue the Funny Side Up catalog when they emblazoned some underwear with an uncredited "I May Not Be Perfect, But Parts of Me Are Excellent." He went after Random House when David Brinkley called one of his books Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion.
I asked Brilliant, "So what does it say that your profession - a profession based on revealing truth and dispensing advice - is so fraught with legal snafus?"
He said, "My profession is based on creating a new form of literature. In order to protect it, I had to establish it as a legitimate form. The only way to do it was to copyright it and take on all comers . . . You want me to relate this to wisdom, I suppose?"
"Well, the thing is, you can't be wise unless you're alive. In order to stay professionally alive, you sometimes have to protect yourself."
"And how do you respond to those people who claim that wisdom can't be self-serving."
"Well, that's sort of like my line 'When I find true wisdom, I'll let you know (if letting you know still seems important.)' I mean, maybe what you're saying is true, but who knows? I haven't found true wisdom yet. Only a wise person could answer that, and he probably wouldn't because that would be self-serving."
I asked him where his vita was headed - "What is the ideal net result of all your work?"
"You mean like never dying?"
"Maybe," I said. "Or. . ."
"What did you have in mind? Give me a multiple choice."
"I thought I read somewhere that you're hoping to win the Nobel Prize."
"Yes, my ultimate goal is the Nobel Prize."
"And how's that going?"
He had not yet received a phone call from Stockholm.
After I'd talked with Brilliant, I did some more Googling and found a public lecture he gave in the spring of 2007, in a series called "What Matters Most," Sponsored by the Santa Barbara City College and the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. At one point, Brilliant brings up the age-old query of whether we are meant to let things happen or make things happen - "As Dylan Thomas put it, do you 'go gentle into that good night,' or do you 'rage, rage, against the dying of the light'?" Brilliant didn't presume to have the answer. But he did once write an epigram, he said, that he hoped people would put on their doors. The epigram read, "If I'm not home, accepting what I can't change, I'm probably out, changing what I can't accept." . . . .
I decided to visit Brilliant.
Is there a more lovely place in the world to grow old than Santa Barbara? I wonder. A friendly bicycle path snakes along the beach, shaded by tall, spindly, Dr. Seussian palms; the mountain range that surrounds the city imparts a sensation that is at once comforting and bosomlike. But the best part is the air: it's tinged with eucalyptus and rosemary and pine - many big-city dwellers, if wrapped in a towel, could be convinced to pay $120 an hour just to smell it.
I met Brilliant one afternoon at his office. He's turned the small clapboard house that he and his wife used to live in into his workplace; tidy and quiet, it's filled with carousels and cardboard boxes that bear epigram-laden postcards. Working in chronological order, Brilliant has given each of his works a number from 0001 to 10,000. Walking past a carousel, I spotted 0034 ("Let's love one another, and get it over with") on a postcard and remembered that John Lennon once sent a copy of this card to Ringo Starr, writing on the flip side, "This is the truth as we see it."
We sat on the office's couch. Brilliant is wiry and bearded and was wearing shorts and black socks and black shoes; the look of an errant mailman. His affect is one of determination and slight petulance; he has the facial expression of one who is perpetually swatting at a fly.
Given that Brilliant and his wife, Dorothy, were about to celebrate their fortieth anniversary, I asked him what the secret of his marriage's success was. He reminded me that he'd once written a Pot-Shot that ran, "The secret of our wonderful relationship is that much of the time it's not really so wonderful."
"And do you believe that, Ashleigh?" I asked.
"When you see our house, you'll get a better sense of what I'm talking about."
We walked about ten minutes up the gentle slope of Santa Barbara to his and his wife's house, the décor of which I would describe as Garage Sale. The floor is dotted with teetering hillocks of travel brochures that appear to have been cryogenically sealed in Ziploc bags. The furniture drifts in unconventional, slightly askew formations. Bedsheets are draped over mysterious bulges, suggesting baby elephants at rest. The paint on the ceiling and walls is peeling heavily, casting over all the mood of psoriatic unveiling.
"The reason the house is in this condition is that Dorothy owns the house," Brilliant said irritably. "I would never have it this way."
The lovely and beaming Dorothy, one hand on the couch to steady herself, raised her other hand into the air and proclaimed, "Isn't it great to own!"
I asked Dorothy what she thought the secret to her marriage's success was, and she told me, "Ignoring each other." Dorothy goes out for breakfast every day without her husband; her passion is for world travel, which she also does mostly without him.
I explained to Ashleigh and Dorothy that the paramount reason I had traveled from New York to Santa Barbara was because "I wanted to see the light switch."
A month earlier, Ashleigh had sent out a mass e-mail to his fans explaining that the light switch in his and Dorothy's dining room had stopped working two years earlier. Dorothy was unwilling either to pay an electrician or to have Ashleigh try to fix the decades-old fixture himself - Ashleigh wrote, "Dorothy takes any work on the house as personally as if it were an operation on her own body." So, for over a year, they made do with a lamp on the dining-room table instead.
But then Dorothy finally agreed to have Ashleigh try to remedy the situation. Off he went to Everything Electric, returning with a new switching apparatus. "I took it home," he wrote in his e-mail, "only to be greeted by Dorothy, as soon as she saw it, with a cry of anguish: 'It's the wrong color!' At first I didn't know what she was talking about. The whole thing was going to be buried in the back of the wall. The only part which would ever be seen was the small plastic projection which we commonly think of as the switch. But THAT, it turned out, was the part that was the wrong color."
It was white instead of ivory.
So Ashleigh returned to the store, purchased an ivory one, and went home and fixed the light.
I asked the Brilliants to show me the switch. We walked into the dining room and stared at the wholly unremarkable-looking item. I asked Dorothy what her reservations had been about having Ashleigh fix it in the first place.
He's wonderful to say he'll try fixing it," she said, "but he has no experience as an electrician."
"She doesn't trust me," Ashleigh said, not with a surfeit of warmth.
"He could electrify himself. It's an old house. The wires are brittle. I was worried that he'd goof. Hurt himself."
We returned our gazes to the switch, like cavemen staring at a fire.
I thought about its repair. I put forth. "Many men, including me, would not have gone back to the store a second time for the ivory switch. Discuss."
Dorothy rejoined, "Many men would have been artistic enough to know it needed to be a certain color."
Ashleigh blinked his eyes slowly, as if to tamp down burgeoning emotion.
I responded, "Dorothy, I'm interested that this was important to you given that the rest of the house exhibits an approach to home décor that's a little more, shall we say, laissez-faire."
"Look at that!" Ashleigh jumped in, pointing to an eighteen-inch wide curl of paint that was peeling from the wall a few feet away.
"We couldn't do anything about that, Ash," Dorothy said. "It would cost us five thousand dollars to paint this house."
Fixing the light, by contrast, had cost $1.45.
Silence settled over us.
We trained our eyes once again on the item in question.
"I think this light switch says Something Important About Your Marriage," I said, dropping the bombshell.
"It wasn't a big deal," Ashleigh said. "But you can make it a big deal if you want to."
I asked Ashleigh what well he had tapped into to be able to return to the store, and he said, "I realized I'd made a mistake."
We returned to staring.
Time seemed to come to a standstill.
Ashleigh shifted his weight uncomfortably from right to left. Grimace. Blink, blink. Sigh.
"OK," he finally relented, "maybe this is the secret of our success." ##