THE proverb, which seems to be the simplest sort of literary form, a felicitously phrased commonplace preserved often in a single sentence, actually embodies a number of presuppositions and emerges from a fairly complex set of social conditions. On the positive side, the proverb implies a normative situation which it phrases and applies; on the negative side, it has detached itself at least provisionally from what may be called the universe of myth, because on the historical evidence proverbs only appear when the universe of myth begins to undergo qualification.
Any utterance in natural language, as linguists have recently shown us,1 must in certain situations enlist presuppositions, as distinct from lexical entries, phonological principles, and syntactic rules. To take a simple example, Robin Lakoff (p. 148) demonstrates of and and other conjunctions that “For all conjunction a common topic is necessary.” An utterance like “John likes Vivaldi and the Pentagon has an oversize budget” is ill-formed for other than lexical, syntactic, or phonological reasons: because there is no plausible common topic, and cannot be used.
The presuppositions governing such utterances bear on just the competence of a native speaker. When we move to performance, the question of context, as well as of presupposition, bears on the utterance. A proverb is a speech act. Even an utterance so simple and seemingly detached from a specific context as a proverb may reflect nothing less than the whole social matrix that uses it. This was already something like Bacon’s view, “The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.”
Yet the pragmatic test for utterances in natural language usually resolves to a single instance in a single context. For example, the puzzle about the metaphoric statement “this old man is a baby,” where the status of each noun phrase as tenor or vehicle can only be resolved by pointing either at an infantile white-haired oldster—making “this old man” the tenor—or at a wizened baby in a high chair—making “this old man” the vehicle. In ordinary language this is a single instance; if the instances begin to converge towards a rule that applies past norms to future situations, then the utterance approaches the condition of the proverb.
Wherever the proverb occurs, and under whatever specific conditions, it constitutes both an appeal to old experience and a formulation to be used for new experience. It offers a normative rule as a guide. We may assume that the coordinates of the experience would have to be drawn in specifically for a location in space and time, and all the more when, as often happens, the proverb is widely distributed in space and time. The proverbs about courtship and marriage in the Bible cannot have had the same use in Jewish society of the fourth century B.C. as they might in twentieth-century American society, even that part of it for which the Bible is still a sacred book and its proverbs therefore canonical. However, the very abstractness of the proverb’s normative substratum of both presupposition and context allows it to drift in space and in time. Flies, for example, despite local differences in species or habit (they are more seasonally confined in Russia and Germany than in Spain, Italy, or Ancient Sumeria), are everywhere undesirable. Into a shut mouth flies fly not (Gluski, p. 198). The English version of the proverb has a shade more rhetoric than the Russian, V zakr’it’ii rot mukha ne vietit, to which the Spanish version adds the playful touch of a rhyme and a terminal climax, En boca cerrada, ni moscas ni nada. Italian is emphatic about time, In bocca chiusa non entra mai mosca, while French gives a logical emphasis, Dans une bouche close, il n’entre point de mouche. German alone in this group puts the proverb in the form of a blunt command, using a pejorative for the mouth, Halt’s Maul, so fliegt dir keine Mücke hinein. Who could have guessed, without the evidence, that this proverb also occurs on Sumerian tablets from the beginning of the Second Millennium B.C. (Pritchard, p. 425): Into an open mouth a fly will enter.
Language can easily accommodate and preserve proverbs. These, in turn, are also easily assimilated to become idioms like “carry coals to Newcastle,” which has lost its character as a separable sentence and become something like an expanded verb.2 Indeed many Chinese ideograms, at least to one who knows no Chinese, have the air of assimilated proverbs.3
In its full form as a separate sentence, the proverb not only implies a situation facing the hearer which is recursive enough to be normative; it may also imply a series. Many a mickle makes a muckle is a riddle involving series either easily solvable or completely unsolvable. Unapplied, it is redundant nonsense, “Many is many is many.” Applied, it suggests a Protestant-ethic or savings-bank psychology, and indirectly offers a warning, as the German form of the fly-mouth proverb directly does. In its indirectness it implies that the imagined hearer has already internalized the advice. Verbum sapienti, “A word to the wise,” is itself sufficient, and there is an equality between speaker and hearer assumed of such a sort that the “mathematical” rule Many a mickle makes a muckle need only be stated for the hearer to infer, as the speaker has, that a long-range view might recommend keeping the object in question, say a dollar, rather than using it up. Even the more direct Biblical version of the idea, Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise (Proverbs 6:6), states not only the principle but a necessary process of reflection to apply it. And yet there is a kind of inequality between speaker and hearer, or the hearer would not be presumed to need the advice. In the Wisdom of Ptah-hotep and in Proverbs this takes the form of advice from father to son, an inequality which will become an equality if the son listens. The advice of “Theognis,” too, is cast rhetorically as from elder to younger. Societies where a code is completely internalized—societies in which the initiated stand on a completely equal footing—would seem not to have produced proverbs, or not in the profusion of more complex, self-questioning societies.
Many a mickle makes a muckle, however, implies a stability of conditions, material conditions in this instance. On the day before the end of the world, or close to the death of the hearer, or in a war-torn society, it would cease to apply; its utterance would even be an insult. Proverbs in general imply a stability of conditions, and even A word to the wise implies that the hearer and the speaker will continue their relationship under the same conditions long enough for both hearer and speaker to cash in on the hearer’s agreement with the proverb. The proverb would lose its felicity conditions if spoken by a traveller to a customs inspector on a border he was crossing once in his lifetime.
When the conditions disappear, the proverb may lose enough of its anchorage in reference for its sense to be altered. It is said that in a modern American university half the entering freshmen interpreted A rolling stone gathers no moss as a warning against staying put and accumulating moss rather than as a warning to stay put and put on substance. The proverb tends to lose its meaning with its effect in a society where 20% of the population moves annually and a high premium is put on mobility and on oral gratification. The implicit anality of Many a mickle makes a muckle comes to seem undesirable, and muckle to accrue associations with muck, when a general prosperity induces an inattention to accumulation. Indeed, proverbs generally, which come as a mercantile society is on the rise, both in their attention to acquisition and in their implied function as mechanisms of social control, correlate well with the anal traits that are characteristic of mercantile societies.
The implication that a specific context must be at hand to trigger the felicity of the proverb is substantiated by the existence of antithetical proverbs. Haste makes waste ceases to contradict Seize the day if they are seen as applying to different situations; the first proverb fits a situation in which there is a temptation to take unwarranted shortcuts in finishing a task that requires deliberation; the second one fits a situation in which there is a temptation to unwarranted delay.
Seize the day recommends a prudent abandonment of caution; in doing so, it formulates a rule based on the fact that situations can change: Here today, gone tomorrow, a stable principle for instability. This condition could be generalized to cover the future envisioned by the proverb, which is unstable enough to need the proverb as a tricky verbal arm against instability. This feature of the proverb’s warning-system could also be applied metalinguistically to itself; the proverb often does so, and warns against infelicitous speech (A soft answer turneth away wrath) and against speaking generally (Into a shut mouth flies fly not).
While proverbs have finally settled into their status as folklore and would seem to imply a homely and homogeneous agricultural proletariat as their natural locus, even taken synchronically they may involve a complex context and a number of presuppositions as both constraints on their meaning and extensions of it. Taken diachronically, in most if not all social instances they arise from a society more complex by far than a simple post-Neolithic agricultural or pastoral one. The earliest proverbs, those of the Wisdom of Ptah-hotep, datable to as early as 2450 B.C., already rest on the elaborate organization of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The Sumerian proverbs of the early second millennium refer to catamite temple priests (Gordon 2.97-106; pp. 246-55) and to a variety of occupations including commerce and transport (292-94). Those codified in the Analects of Confucius come after at least a millennium of royal dynasties. The book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon in the first words of the collection,4 which means either that some of his utterances are incorporated into the book or at the very least that the book was compiled well after his reign, which was late and somewhat bureaucratic in comparison with those of other Israelite rulers. These proverbs say, over and over again, that they will lead one to become chakham, “wise,” a condition which is social as well as intellectual. The chokhemim were a somewhat secularized version of a priestly caste. In Greece it is well after the period of kingship and as tyranny was breaking up, that we first get separable proverbs, some of the statements of Archilochus, the long proverb series of “Theognis” (which may just be a collection of proverbs), and very soon thereafter the adoption of what amounts to the proverb form for strong philosophical assertion by Heraclitus.5 We have six possible utterances of Heraclitus (Diels 22 В 130-35) which would be lost if they had not been included in an ancient proverb collection, and others seem to have been quoted for their point as proverbs.
At this time, too, we get the beginnings of an assignment of the proverb form to the proletariat as its natural locus; Aesop is first mentioned in the 6th century B.C., a traditional source of proverbs as well as of fables. He will come to seem a simple black slave, but Herodotus calls him a logopoios, a statement-maker or prose writer, the term which he applies also to his great predecessor in historiography, Hecataeus. This process of assignment downwards, from a secularizing intellectual class to an egalitarian rural proletariat, may be observed in America too, where perhaps the most famous codifier of proverbs is Benjamin Franklin, an urbane secular intellectual of the Enlightenment who at once imagined and foretold the social destiny of his aphorisms in farmers’ almanacs and the like by casting them in just that form, Poor Richard’s Almanac. The almanac itself as a form derives not from a nascent agricultural society; it is an adaptation as literacy developed of the Neolithic attention to the calendar, and even the Works and Days of Hesiod, which incorporates some proverbs, incorporates other material than just weather saws. We see the process accelerated as the sayings of a military intellectual, Chairman Mao, are force-fed to a urban and rural proletariat.
It is significant that the very proverb which expresses an almost theological justification for egalitarianism, Vox Populi Vox Dei, occurs first in a letter of 798 A.D. from an intellectual (Alcuin) to a bureaucratic-imperial king (Charlemagne).6
Characteristically, the proverb, at its origin, redirects wisdom in an increasingly secular direction. The Wisdom of Ptah-hotep is much less god-centered than typical Old Kingdom hieroglyphic texts, and the same is true of the Sumerian proverbs. Confucius has virtually no theological references, and “Theognis” tends to replace gods with abstractions. The Analects recommend Chung Hsing, “Middle conduct.” As Pound renders it, (p. 163) “The master man’s axis does not wobble. The man of true breed finds this center in season.” Even Proverbs, though deeply pious, mentions the divine name somewhat less often than other parts of the Old Testament. For Heraclitus the proverb was an instrument for prying human thought away from a total dependence on myth. During the Renaissance an efflorescence of collecting and employing proverbs accompanied a questioning and redefinition of the religious orientation. We have the Adagia of Erasmus, the proverb-adaptation of Montaigne and Rabelais, such documents as Heywood’s Dialogue of Proverbs, and the very elaborate use of the proverb by Shakespeare, Nashe, and many others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as catalogued in Tilley’s large collection. I have quoted Bacon’s appreciation of the proverb. In this light Chaucer’s penchant for the proverb can be connected to his skepticism more easily than to pseudo-folksiness on his part. The same may be said of another late medieval intellectual, François Villon, and his work, particularly the Ballade des Proverbes. And indeed the popular locus imagined for the proverb may be taken as a social projection of this impulse to secularization rather than as the actual history of the form. It is significant that the Spanish Jesuit Gracian, who wrote proverblike aphoristic texts, was in constant and grave trouble with his superiors. Scorn and irony (melitsah) are coupled with proverbs in the Bible. The impulse to satiric redefinition in the formulation of the proverb is still recognizable, though mutated, in Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçus, as of course it is in the aesthetic aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, Chamfort, and Joubert.
This process of increasing secularization, which the emergence of the proverb as a genre exemplifies, does not betoken social abandonment of that irreducible unknown which myth renders in coordinated story form. Rather it involves a transposition of the force of that unknown into other areas. Proverbs come characteristically late in a scriptural tradition, the Wisdom literature being the latest part of the Old Testament canon and “Theognis” markedly later than Homer.
Since our picture of the oral cultures of remote antiquity is necessarily only a conjectural reconstruction, it is distinctly possible that the proverb form did originate in a lower class, to be taken up and adapted by a Homer, then detached for more demarcated attention, and finally reassimilated into the mainstream of spoken language where we now find it. Whatever historical sequence we assign to these steps, the function of the proverb, with its emphasis on the individual’s calculation of prudential behavior, finally makes accessible to the folk a kind of leverage in this literary form that carries some of the force of more complex literary artifacts. The impulse underlying the proverb may result in works of a more elaborate sort. The odes of Horace are an amplification of Ne quid nimis, “Nothing to excess.” The attention can be directed to secular areas without any detachment from the transcendent or abstracted religion of the culture, as in “Theognis.” Indeed, the proverb can be taken to substantiate a religious orientation, as it does in Proverbs and the Analects of Confucius.
Proverbs tend to be as free of metaphor as they are of myths (Taylor, p. 69). The metaphor in a proverb retains none of the force, the quasi-mythic force, which our Romantic-participative theories account it the most powerful function of metaphor to convey. A stitch in times saves nine merely classifies activities as being prudential. All is not gold that glitters includes pinchbeck as well as the con man, Fish or cut bait can also apply to fishing. “Stitch,” in other words, can serve as instantiating tenor while it is mainly a classifying vehicle, the homely side of the proverb. It enjoins upon the statesman taking precautions, say, a wisdom not different from that of the housewife mending a seam. The force of the comparison works as a classifying leveller, and also perhaps as a kind of reassurance: at no level of complexity in the decision process are the principles not reducible to those on which a seamstress might operate. There is, in this light, a strong emphasis on the adequacy of natural logic, which the proverb’s reduction of even Homer’s use of figurative language may be taken negatively to reinforce. Overtones are not needed for the metaphor in proverbs, where they serve only as a logical tool. Differences resolve into possible identities sorted out by natural logic; the seamstress operates as does the statesman even though a general relativism obtains: One man’s meat is another man’s poison (a proverb which also finds a parallel as early as the Sumerian).7
The proverb is literary, however, in form as well as in the time of its historical origins. Figurative language is found in proverbs as early as the Sumerian (Gordon, p. 187), and as the Wisdom of Ptah-hotep, Good speech is more hidden than the emerald, but it may be found with maidservants at the grindstones. This saying, attributed to a courtier, announces as its principle the double function that the proverb embodies, homely in its social focus while serving as a powerful and inobvious formulation of principle. As Erasmus said (Phillips, p. 6), Proverbia est sermo manifestam obscuritate tegens. “A proverb is a saying that covers the obvious with an obscurity.”
The proverb of Ptah-hotep is literary not only in its use of figurative language, a simile in this instance, but also in its antithetical form, a form Driver finds characteristic of proverbs and Taylor of the folk tradition generally. Antithesis is both a logical tool, applying the law of contradiction, and a rhetorical one, balancing the members of an utterance: All is not gold that glitters, Fish or cut bait. Street angel, house devil, in the most rudimentary possible form for its double antithesis, uses otherworldly categories, without either affirming or denying them, merely to link the social and the psychological in a coordination that enunciates a type without asking about the ambivalence behind the type. Young saint, old devil deploys the psychological and the social on the time-line of a type of life course.
The proverb, even in Sumerian,8 tends to harness the most rudimentary of literary forms, the sound-recursions of poetry. It deploys the axis of selection upon the axis of combination, to use Jakobson’s terms, so that our category prose cannot apply to it; nor will our category poetry work in all instances either. The form is so elementary as to resist the subordination of such classification. All is not gold that glitters transposes across its one noun and its terminal verb, a recursion of g + l + the dental. At the same time it suggests, in its phonetic differences, a logical difference underlying a seeming similarity, between gold and glitters. The same process happens in Many a mickle makes a muckle, muckle performing a kind of phantom or nonce-ablaut change upon mickle, creating a mock grammar in which muckle serves as a sort of intensive for mickle. Thus we are given three words for “many,” beginning with the word in natural language, many, shifting to the homelyarchaic mickle and then to the ablaut variant muckle. Echoing the m + vowel + k series, the one verb, makes, transposes and preserves the similarity. As it happens, this proverb eroded into its present form; the 1599 version listed in the NED is Many a pickle makes a mickle. It is as though the individual proverb sought out a form of maximum expressive economy in its evolution.9
This simplest of literary forms, typifying social experience without recourse to myth or elaborate sequences, raises few of the linguistic problems that fuller forms do: the utterance need not be deviant, and its metaphors tend to be not only reductive in force but kept carefully within the selection classes for natural language. He is a lion crosses +human and −human, but Better a living dog than a dead lion violates no selection classes in its grammar, even though in logic it makes the same comparison. If dogs and lions are logically included in the assertion that this utterance makes, they would not be included in its illocutionary aim, which is wholly at human beings. The metaphoric framing of the proverb draws on the subsidiary differences between the items compared (cowardice of man to dog, courage of man to lion) only for rhetorical force: the hearer’s effort to spell out the analogy and the likeness exhausts this force, whereas in poetic metaphors the differences between the items of likeness induce the hearer to dwell on the myth-suggestive, charged ground that the differences and the likenesses taken together activate. Pindar’s “gold is a blazing fire,” or Keats’s addressing an urn as “Thou still unravished bride of quietness,” by naming these disjunct objects, create a ground on which they may interact, in thought. A pale, precious substance that is a stable metal and a flashing, unstable, ravaging source of heat, or a timeless, shapely art object and a human sexuality envisioned in time—these somehow coexist and have their contradictions interact.
In a proverb the contradictions are assigned to the illocutionary force, and they do not operate at all on the level of proposition or assertion of a proposition, though the whole proverb must offer both of these. Even if the logic of Once a thief always a thief may be figured differently from that of A leopard cannot change his spots, the illocutionary application would be the same to a thief in the dock, and the kind of experience being classified is the same. The analogy to the leopard is only a mode of coordinating the human experience, and the superior force of the metaphoric formulation over the unmetaphoric one here does not extend to include leopards in its range of sense as Pindar’s extends gold to include fire and Keats the urn to include sexuality. In the proverb the metaphor serves merely as a trenchant inducement to apply the rule it phrases.
The proverb gains force from the use of such elementary literary strategies, which it superadds to the normal rules of language. Another of these strategies is that of detachment or abruptness: wisdom propounded in a normal, running discourse ceases to be proverbial. The proverb’s very succinctness, as well as its tendency to typify experience, gives it the force of rule. The early laws of many civilizations can be distinguished from proverbs only by their specificity. Solon and Solomon, legendary repositories of wisdom, are sources of good laws, good judgments, and good proverbs, all at the same time. There is a large body of legal proverbs (Taylor, pp. 86ff, with bibliography); some of these still have moral validity, Two wrongs don’t make a right, or legal validity itself, Finders keepers, Ignorance of the law is no excuse, Testis unus, testis nullus.
This last proverb, that one witness is no witness, comes into use in the New Testament, where the context of the proverb is enlarged. For the proverb has a kind of roughness that makes it mainly useful only as a rule of thumb, a roughness derivable from the open-endedness and complexity of the experience it addresses. Law deals with the past, with deeds actually performed, whereas the proverb typifies the past in order to apply it to the future.10 The proverb is purposive and potentially illocutionary; it does not make a promise but indicates something of the condition under which a promise to the self might be fulfilled: Many a mickle makes a muckle, A stitch in time saves nine. Its illocutionary locus lies between promise and warning. In this light the proverb, detached from the mythical formulations of the spiritual life as its first dialectical step, in a second dialectical step reassimilates the spiritual life in many aspects.
The multiplicity of aspect appears in the many terms attributed to proverbs in the first four verses of Proverbs: chokmah (wisdom), musar (discipline, chastisement), binah (sight, perception), tsedek (righteousness), mishpat (judgment), mesharim (straightness, equity), daat (knowledge), mizmah (plan, purpose), tahbuloth (guidance, steering). Theognis vaguely recommends the prideful (orgen) adaptability of the octopus (West 215-16), but at the same time he is constantly urging a discrimination between good and bad, in a social world where property is a factor, Many a mickle makes a muckle. His term chremata, meaning “goods” or “money” indifferently, operates in an instability between concrete and abstract that evokes the alertness of the prudence for which the aphorisms stand (186, 189, 226-35, and passim). The stance is not so different in its essential typification of experience, caution against unawareness, and future orientation, from that of the Nietzsche (1867) who early in his career commented on Theognis. Plato also quotes Theognis, and both Plato and Aristotle tend to use poetry generally as a kind of proverb-mine. Aristotle (Rhetoric 3.17, 1418a 21) characterizes Epimenides as one who “did not prophesy about things to come but about things that had already happened and were inobvious.” The proverb, according to the aphorism of Ptah-hotep quoted above, offers emeralds that are hidden. The proverb is cryptic, too, according to Proverbs: “to understand a proverb and the interpretation” (1:6), “le havin mashal u melitsah,” “to perceive at once a likeness (mashal) and its obliquity” (melitsah, from a root layits, to scorn, to turn aside, or to be ironic).
The very discreteness of the proverb lends it power, a discreteness from any validating numinous source, though it may stand loosely, and generally, under the sanction of canonicity. Know thyself and Nothing to excess are only incidentally, so to speak, derived from Apollo, since the content remains without that divine sanction. And so does the other discreteness, the curtness of the proverb, its access from a neutral context of staple wisdom into another context of linguistic interchange free and clear of other connections than those the hearer will make. Its discreteness from a flow of discourse constitutes a challenge to interpret and apply it properly. Faint heart never won fair maiden would not be said to a eunuch. The proverb envisages not any specific situation but the specific situation sui generis, a staple form whose applicability to a staple situation is an implicit invitation to act upon the situation. Many a mickle makes a muckle would be an infelicitous remark to make to a Rockefeller, whose situation needs no change in that regard. House angel, street devil is a warning not to be deceived by a particular kind of person.
Since the proverb summarizes the past in order to apply it to the immediate future, while itself detached from the temporal flow of other discourse, it embodies attitudes towards social time, attitudes often expressed in proverbs: Seize the day, Festina lente, Haste makes waste, Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, Time brings all things to light.
The view of time in such proverbs is non-cyclic, though if weather saws be reckoned proverbs, the genre does include calculations about cyclic time. Proverbs that refer to nature, in Gottschalk’s vast and richly detailed classification, almost all rest on individual observations of wind and water and cloud, earth, tree and bird, without combination into seasonal patterns. Even One swallow does not make a spring (p. 222), often given a social direction, is more cautionary than it is coordinating. The social proverb itself, however, bases its calculations on a recursive but single pattern of events: the proverb stipulates the underlying pattern. So its aim is awareness, not propitiation: philosophy, not ritual, even in weather saws.
The awareness in proverbs easily becomes metalinguistic, language about language. So, again, the “good speech is more hidden than the emerald” of Ptah-hotep. Pro-verb, Sprichwort, and Poslovitsa, all name a verbal element in the term for the form. He that refraineth his lips is wise (Proverbs 10:19). The words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters (18:4). Speech is silver, silence is golden. Actions speak louder than words. A soft answer turneth away wrath. A word spoken is past recalling. Many a truth is spoken in jest. Into a shut mouth flies fly not. Children and fools speak the truth.
These last two proverbs set out felicity conditions for utterance, or rather they imply a principle for felicity conditions.11 The speaker should know when to speak, or even a sharp utterance, a proverb, will lose its point. As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a proverb [,mashal, KJ “parable”] in the mouth of fools (Proverbs 26:9).
The sufficient conditions for the production of a proverb would include some detachment from the stipulations and explanations of myth, as well as an attention to patterns in experience. This is already close to enough linguistic leverage to produce philosophy as a form, and Heraclitus turned the form to just that usage. Wittgenstein’s “Of that whereof man cannot speak, thereof he must be silent” differs only in the specificity of its application from the prescriptions of the speech proverbs quoted above. Blake’s One law for the lion and the Ox is oppression and Energy is eternal delight retain the proverbial form, and delight in it. They are in fact called proverbs by their author, though they tip the balance towards the future and away from the past rather more heavily than proverbs that become anonymous do.
In its implied reformulation of old experience and its illocutionary call for application to new experience, the proverb provides for a recreation of social matrices. It thereby serves as a sort of sub-Hegelian agent to use the old forms of society in order to move them into new paths. Proverbs are lying ready to hand, so to speak, in the flow of Homer’s narrative, ready to be detached in the separate form that will help transform the society that produced the Homeric poems. Indeed, poetry when it appears in society as a form contains the power to generate proverbs as part of its recreation of experience. Bartlett’s quotations became familiar by being read, then passed by word of mouth, then reprinted. There is no way of telling if the proverblike expressions in Homer differ from the other expressions in their relation to his tradition. In this distich from the Songs of the South (Hawkes, p. 78) to evoke the distant early Chinese culture, who could tell whether the poet has invented or inherited a proverblike contrast? “Fish by their thatch of scales are told apart;/But the dragon hides in the dark his patterned brightness.” Proverbs can even pass among a people wordlessly, as they do among the Ashanti in the form of traders’ weights. A bird caught in a trap signifies “It is the trapped bird who sings sweetly,” and just a figure of a porcupine indicates “Do not rub bottoms with a porcupine.” If proverbs are not detached, they lie along the flow of a narrative or are buried in the categories of a code, like all the many Indian proverbs collected by Böthlingk. Indian philosophy never detached the proverb, and was also never able to detach itself from myth.
Once detached, the proverb can reenter the stream, as an element for dramatic interchange: Sophocles and Shakespeare are both full of proverbs. Heywood’s A Dialogue of Proverbs orders strings of them into a narrative illustrating two unhappy marriages. Cervantes creates and sets loose a kind of proverb-machine, Sancho Panza, to test appearances in experience, including the seeming contradictions in proverbs that are antithetical to one another. Gracian expands the proverb into a short discourse somewhat more pointed than the Epistulae of Seneca. The Pensées of Pascal are suspended as both fragments of an unfinished treatise and whole proverblike utterances.
A non-mythic story may be devised to illustrate a proverb, thus producing a parable, which in turn can generate new proverbs. This is a process observable in fiction as the genre develops: Proust contains many more maxims than Stendhal. Verga, a conscious imitator of Flaubert, buoys up the erlebte Rede or style indirect libre of his narrative by proverblike utterances that on inspection often turn out to be quasi-proverbs rather than common saws. Indeed, in one sense fiction never gets beyond a vast amplification of the proverb: Plus ça change plus ç’est la même chose summarizes Finnegans Wake. In line with the proverb’s attention to time, the operation of involuntary memory in A la Recherche du temps perdu can be taken as an expanded illustration of Festina lente.
The writer of fiction, however, has not just amplified the proverb with illustration. He has countered it with a large, internal access to an emotional world; that is, he has reimported into the deduction of behavioral norms something beneath or beyond those norms: the myth. Proust philosophically extends the depth-nuances of behavior: Joyce, setting up a typifying pattern for behavior at the border between waking and sleeping, life and death, radically destructures language (“the abnihilisation of the etym”).12 In fiction the proverb, which had begun by separating from myth, reunites with it, once the concerns of myth had been transposed into other modalities of language.