Proverbs are defined as "short sayings in common use that strikingly express some obvious truth or familiar experience" or "condensed but memorable sayings embodying important facts of experience taken as true by many people." Agreeing with both, I add: proverbs make dependable, invaluable bricks of human wisdom.
The Bible devotes a whole book to proverbs:
The wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are bold as lions.
Other proverbs spring from the anonymous mélange of folk traditions:
Don't count your chickens before they hatch.
— while still others spring from minds as modern as Yogi Berra's:
It ain't over 'til it's over.
A proverb's power lies in its striking expression — most, like "Haste makes waste," persuade by sound as well as sense — and in the "obvious truth" of the "familiar experience" that the words describe. So many people face the same facts of life for so many years that in time a felicitous phrase is born to sum up that shared experience. When we first hear "Haste makes waste," we may not know what it means, but soon enough will come a day when we lose by rushing. Then with the rest of rueful humanity, we'll shake our heads and realize how much truth the proverb contains.
The value of proverbs springs from this truth to experience. Let's not let our pride in the art of writing blind us to a humbling fact: writing often doesn't tell the truth. In entire genres of writing only queasy half-truths are to be found. Paper-thin characters people much fiction, and the daily news inextricably tangles truth and untruth; the score of the ballgame is likely right, but political stories we must read with seasoned skepticism.
Untruth to this degree does not alarm me; I expect chaff with my wheat. Untruth, however, posed a far greater threat in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Russia. Communism grew on the belief that Marx's 19th century predictions would come true in the 20th. Once committed to this ideology, believers used it to declare, in effect, "Experience will be whatever Communism says it is." Whenever life didn't turn out as predicted, they fudged any results that threatened their beloved theories.
Solzhenitsyn despised Communism's Hydra-headed lies and in taking on the Herculean task of disproving them, he wielded proverb as a prime dragon-slaying weapon. Open any of his books, flip a page or two forward or back, and you will find proverbs. He works proverbs into his descriptions of his characters:
[Spiridon] didn't return from the war like some — spoiled, a good for nothing. He quickly established himself, got married, acquired horses. As the proverb says: "Where there's a good householder, you can walk through the yard and you'll find a ruble."
—The First Circle
and into their dialogue:
"You know what they say: a young man's too young to get married, and an old man's too old." He leaned both elbows on her table.
In August 1914 Solzhenitsyn often sets proverbs in italics at the end of chapters as one sentence sum-ups of the action: "The sons of the rich are like blue horses — they seldom win races" (Chapter 6); "You shouldn't have searched in the village but in yourself" (Chapter 58). In Oak and Calf Solzhenitsyn reports how he relied on proverbs to find his way:
It was statistically almost unthinkable that the Cheka-KGB might suddenly come crashing into my apartment for no better reason than that I was an ex-zek; there were millions of ex-zeks around, after all. But I was guided by the proverb, "The woodpecker could hide in the forest but for his beak."
Solzhenitsyn's proverbs blend into the text, creating the overall view of a man of common sense and common speech, not easily fooled, who sees life clearly and speaks his mind in confident, colorful terms. Proverb becomes one of Solzhenitsyn's many tones of voice, a quick and convincing shorthand that, like a dollop of Ivan Denisovich's mortar, can cement home a fact or idea with a dab of mother wit.
Solzhenitsyn's use of proverb is no accident. In his prison years Solzhenitsyn studied Vladimir Dahl's great Russian dictionary that uses proverbs to illustrate word meanings. While teaching school in Ryazan, he copied, classified, and annotated Dahl's proverbs on index cards, filling a big vase with such cards so that he could pick out this or that one to suit his needs.
Under Communism the "words above experience" untruth infected the law like a plague. In long angry chapters about Soviet law in Gulag, Solzhenitsyn shows how Communists did their best to detach the meanings of words from experience and attach them to ideology. Since law is "a political weapon" and "an organ of the class struggle," wrote Nikolai Krylenko, the Communist's chief prosecutor in the 1920s, guilt or innocence should be decided "from the point of view of the interests of the revolution." In a land where words can be so used, Solzhenitsyn concludes, "There is no law."
Thus one untruth can give birth to a million other untruths and injustices. As furious as Solzhenitsyn is at the hurt this untruth inflicted on the Russian people and on himself, he is just as furious that writing itself could be so cynically used. Yet how could he defeat this malicious goobledygook? Fighting untruth point by point, he could get lost in tangles of specious argument. How could he turn the advance of such sophistry into rout and retreat?
Proverb, answers Solzhenitsyn, a good proverb will clear the air! "Words-before-experience" stands writing on its head; proverb puts writing's feet back on the ground. Proverbs are rooted in experience like trees in the ground; they get their meaning from life itself. When Solzhenitsyn uses a proverb like "Whoever runs with the wolf is no sheep," or "The pig that keeps his head down grubs up the deepest root," he defeats Communist doubletalk with words still raw with the color and stink of experience.
Proverbs convince us by conveying truths we can see with our eyes and hold in our hands. They don't tell us what we must feel; they connect us to what we do feel. One by one and as a running thread, Solzhenitsyn's proverbs steer us back from the untruths of bullying blowhards to "the obvious truth of familiar experience."