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James Richardson's foreword to Signposts to Elsewhere:


Somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle defined by Proverb, Philosophy, and Poetry, the Aphorist drifts restlessly in his tiny boat.

All proverbs were written by Anon, a canny and slightly weary fellow, unsurprised by what life does to us. “Man proposeth, God disposeth,” he’ll say, or “This too shall pass.” He has a taste for the general and reusable. Unlike the poet, he doesn’t worry whether we’ve heard his exact words millions of times. Nor does he have the philosopher’s care for consistency. He doesn’t mind that today he warns you “Time is money” and tomorrow contradicts that with “Stop and smell the roses.” He has neither the ambition nor the naiveté of the systematizer, and his truth, though stated generally, is applied locally. When he says “Like father, like son,” he doesn’t expect anyone to object “Wait, I know a son who’s not like his father.” He means that right here, right now, a particular son has behaved just as his father might have. Proverbs are pre-formulated responses to eternally recurring situations. “Ah,” they sigh,“ it is as we always knew.”

The aphorist may be tempted by the philosopher’s authority, the poet’s style and heart, and even the paradoxical fame of Anon—one kind of great aphorism is the one everyone quotes and no one knows the author of—and in Yahia Lababidi’s Signposts to Elsewhere not only the Poet and the Philosopher, but Temptation itself are major characters. He is a passionate man trying as hard as he can, but not harder than he should, to be reasonable. We aren’t given the proverbial situations that inspire his one-liners, but we feel in them the whip crack of response: the aphorist is his own occasion. “Words or actions, faith or works?” he has asked... himself, and he concludes brilliantly, by not quite concluding,
The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others,
the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.

Both, neither, depends. It is as if two opposite proverbs Anon might have spoken in different weeks here collided hotly in a single instant to make something new. Anon says “Opposites attract” on Tuesday, and “Birds of a feather flock together” on Saturday. Lababidi, in one flash, says

Opposites attract. Similarities last.

Or else he’ll crash through the period at the end of a proverb to find a less final, and funnier, thought:

Time heals old wounds only because there are new wounds to attend to.

These are not the smothering and slightly dismissive truths of the proverb, but rotated and poetically poised possibilities. Do we need to be convinced? Lababidi omits the philosopher’s follow-up paragraphs of evidence and argument. He is on to another image, another angle:

With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer each time we ask her the same question.

The aphorist cares more for a graceful exit than for leaving believers behind him, or worse, summoning them to follow. “Subtlety,” Lababidi says in five words that leave us to supply their scene, “is the grandest gesture.”

All this isn’t to say there is no wisdom here, only that wisdom for Lababidi is on the move, a matter of suppleness rather than rigor, of insights and angles rather than rules:

The primary challenge for creators is surviving themselves.

Moralists, in contrast, like to imagine total victories over themselves, but these are possible only with the high self-defense budgets that leave us bankrupt of sympathy:

We are cruelest when we ought to be kindest—when someone is losing a battle, or war, which we’ve waged and won before.

Lababidi is skeptical also of his skepticism, and Signposts to Elsewhere is as much a book of faiths as it is of doubts. As intense as his conversation with himself is, it is also kind, tolerant of his own limits and of ours. His writing is so little a matter of preaching, so much a matter of carefully responding to what he has felt himself feel and heard himself say that his classic definition of good listening applies just as well to his kind of good writing:

A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.

I give you that expert self-listener, that excellent writer, Yahia Lababidi.



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