The Times, September 4, 1873 [via OED]
As a complainant or two has reminded me, I’ve already bothered you about the weather — well, about winter, but same diff — and now I shall ignore this advice yet again and bother you about advice, a particular species of platitudinarianism. For a long time after 1873, when this wise judgment was issued, most of the bothering was done in person, and if you wanted to avoid it you could have very brief encounters; and in your chosen reading matter you’d rarely be surprised by gobbets of vacuity. Now, however, the internet has made everyone a publisher and has moreover, as someone once said to me, greased the skids of prolixity: people who wouldn’t otherwise dream of buttonholing you to announce that the rain was falling will feel free to offer you online aperçus in the very same flow as their valuable thoughts. (Rather as The Friday Fillip sits, cuckoo egg, in Slaw’s rich nest.)
You know the kind of thing I mean: “Try harder. And if that doesn’t work, try harder still.” — the sort of stuff I remember from signs taped to the ceiling of the wrestling gym in high school: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” It’s one thing to have Winston Churchill waggle his jowls at you in 1941 and growl “never give in, never give in, never, never, never . . .” and quite another to get the message in ink on cardboard when the worst that will happen is that you’ll be pinned yet again. (Besides, Churchill made exceptions for “convictions of honour and good sense,” the latter of which never seemed to impress my coach.)
I was inoculated against these jabs of advice way back in the 50s, thanks to Disney’s TV show on Davy Crockett, an American folk hero, one episode of which (at least) had Davy counselling, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Having made the mistake of thinking about that, I found there was no going back. And so I developed a taste for the sort of advice that Yogi Berra gave when he said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Or, of course, the great Oscar Wilde, another such sage, who, speaking as Lord Goring in “An Ideal Husband,” pronounced, “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”
Still, there’s something attractive about a pithy apothegm — if only those words themselves. And which of us is so secure as to not need a word to the wise from, well, the wise? So I was intrigued when I read that filmmaker Werner Herzog had come up with 24 bits of advice for filmmakers that, although I’ve never made a film in my life, might, even so, be useful as “life advice.” I’ll take the liberty here of editing his list so that you get just an idea of what they’re like:
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
. . .
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
. . .
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
. . .
23. Take revenge if need be.
These, at least, you can argue with. I’m down with the bolt cutters thing, but disagree entirely with the injunction against detouring. And some just don’t apply: if I sent out all my dogs, they’d just garbage — all of them, every time.
This got me thinking, too, about advice I might offer my children. And, of course, if you understand advice as a substitute for experience, the urge to offer it passes. Even life’s wretched moments are in living colour, whereas advice is of a “pale cast” by comparison. Still, I wondered whether I could come up with anything, even if I decided in the end to keep it to myself. I fear what it says about me, but I emerged with this sorry trio of epigrams:
- Never read a work of fiction avowedly written by more than one person.
- Beware the driver who’s wearing a hat.
- As far as may be possible, let gravity do the work.
The “avowedly” is to admit the mysteries by Emma Lathen into the canon, Lathen being the nom de plume for a pair of women who met as grad students at Harvard. I have no explanation for the capped driver wisdom, except my own substantial experience. And the gravity business? Think waterwheel, using a heavy enough hammer, freewheeling a bike downhill, diving into a summer lake, and . . . hammock.