Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Proverbs

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.
—Cancer Ward

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."

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday December 6th 2012, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I enjoyed reading about the use of proverbs, and it left me wondering if society in general uses them much anymore. Speaking for myself, I don't believe I express my little proverbs quite as often as I used to do, but they are still somewhere in my consciousness. I've always thought the book of Proverbs was stunning in its revelation of the human condition, but does its sharp edge cut anywhere in our society? This article has given me food for thought, and I'll be chewing on it for quite a while.
Thursday December 6th 2012, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Great article! Much of the power of proverbs is in establishing common understanding between people of very different backgrounds. Through vivid, shared imagery, they recognize the truth in each other's eyes, across great chasms of language, culture and education.

Proverbs express fundamental truths in poetic, self evident imagery, but other common idioms, some with literary roots, use the same power to communicate clearly and memorably. The idiom in Chinese equivalent to "kill two birds with one stone" is composed of the characters for "one stone two birds." Chinese is full of beautiful idioms like "sha ji jing hou" which means "kill a chicken to warn the monkey," or punish someone to deter others.

The star rating widget does not seem to be working so: ******
Friday December 7th 2012, 5:48 AM
Comment by: Tomahawk (New York, NY)
Interesting article. When I was teaching expository writing I very often gave a proverb as the assignment. I'd posit the proverb, (for example: 'A rolling stone gathers no moss') and ask the writer to say what he or she makes of this. Such an assignment allows each writer to approach the assignment at his or her own developmental level, i.e. differentiated instruction long before the phrase was coined.
Saturday December 8th 2012, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Rabbi E. (Mount Vernon, MO)
Proverbs are wisdom writings and sayings. The author has illustrated well their use in a Russian context fighting communist cultures. Ronald Reagan also understood the proverbs power of expressing familiar truth in simple prose.
Monday December 10th 2012, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
Great article! I already plan to read it again.

I recalled an old African Proverb I'd like to share: "Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped."
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 6:12 PM
Comment by: Hong C. (Northfield, IL)
We can use a proverb as a hypothesis. Then through analogue processing, we can be sure of the consequence if the issue we face is isomorphic to the proverb. This is the most time saving device for human decision making.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.