“Dead Head”? Why Do We Hate Cliché?

Why Do We Hate Cliché?

JAN. 6, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Rivka Galchen and Leslie Jamison discuss why we react so strongly against clichés.

By Rivka Galchen

When did glory start showing up in blazes and majorities become vast? When did war become something we wage?

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Rivka Galchen CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Like many people with family for whom English is not their first language, I’ve always had a soft spot for clichés. Or a mushy place, as someone might say. A relative of mine terms someone behaving strangely a “weird chicken” (from “odd bird”), and when something is exceptionally great or exceptionally inappropriate we say it is “totally out of the water.” I think this is a crashing together of “out of the ballpark” with “out of bounds” with “fish out of water.” All fish out of water are beloved among us. And without the water of clichés, how would we ever recognize these aqueous exiles?

But feel-good foreigner comedy is not the main way we encounter clichés. Usually clichés are used correctly and unthinkingly. So correctly and unthinkingly that mostly we don’t hear them, especially when we say them ourselves. The ways in which canned speech — even the can is now canned! — obstructs thinking, obscures evil and turns us into unknowing automatons have been very intelligently and thoroughly considered already: George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and George Carlin’s comedy sketch on “shell shock” (about how “shell shock” became “battle fatigue” became “operational exhaustion” became “post-traumatic stress disorder”) are particularly precise and witty. If you are looking for important thinking about cliché, I would go look at either of those pieces before reading the rest of this column. The Carlin bit is about euphemisms, but any popular euphemism is as much a cliché as linguine is pasta.

I can, however, think of one minor point about cliché that fits well into this narrow space. Clichés are like the old talismans dug up at an archaeological site. They often endure even when the times and places that produced them have passed on. When, for example, did we start to say “passed on”? When did glory start showing up in blazes and majorities become vast? When did war become something we wage? When did social commentary so often become searing, and was it around the same time that a certain demographic took a fancy to seared scallops? Why is lyrical something we wax, and why is a whip something we want to be as smart as? At some point someone’s goat was got, someone’s envelope was pushed and the mouth of someone’s gift horse was examined. None of these things happen any more. But we still use the old phrases, like hikers unrolling sleeping mats in the ancient temple at Petra.

Clichés obliquely tell us more than they mean to. Consider the term of affection “doll.” It was an endearment for a female, animal or human, at least as far back as the 1500s; the word took on the connotation of “slattern” in the late 1600s; it became a word for a kind of toy around 1700. Then it returned as a darling, having passed from human to nonhuman and then back again. Nowadays, “doll” feels a bit Bogart, but you can still buy one at the store.

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Or “the bane of my existence.” The word “bane” is now almost never used, except in this phrase. And the phrase now feels like a comically hyperbolic way to refer to something annoying. But “bane” has roots in words for poison and murder. “Banal” is another word we say often, even as most of us are unaware that its precise meaning derives from something unexpected: the obligatory service that serfs owed their feudal lord. To speak these words and phrases that have traveled to us from other times is akin to speaking in tongues, just a tongue that passes too well as language at its most simple and clear.

Rivka Galchen is a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Berlin Prize, among other distinctions. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The New Yorker, which selected her for their list of “20 Under 40” American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed “Atmospheric Disturbances,” was published in 2008. Her second book, a story collection titled “American Innovations,” was published in May.

By Leslie Jamison

Clichés lend structure and ritual and glue: They are the subterranean passageways connecting one life to another.

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Leslie Jamison CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

“Easy platitude” has always struck me as a funny phrase, because so many of the people I know who use the most platitudes are the ones who have led the hardest lives. Of course I know how “easy” is meant. Platitudes are “easy” because they replace the work of singular expression with the crutch of what’s been said before. But I think it’s useful to consider the relationship between platitudes and difficulty — not only the difficult experiences that might make platitudes useful, rudders to steer by, but also the difficulty involved in living by them: “Do unto others” never stops demanding a renewal of vows.

David Foster Wallace, virtuosic maestro of complexity, gave a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 that quickly went viral. He described “the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered,” and I’d argue that the speech itself — its willingness to speak simply in order to communicate effectively — is an enactment of that principle on the level of form.

In their simplicity, clichés embody this same potential. They allow us to look outward, to recognize the ordinariness of our experience, to understand the resonances between our own lives and the lives of others. They privilege commonality over singular self-expression. They humble us toward one another.

Some of Wallace’s fans despise the wide appeal of his Kenyon speech in the same way a chocolate snob might despise the appeal of a Hershey bar over a dark single-origin. Loving his simple speech supposedly misses the point of his genius. But so much of his greatness resided in the way he wrestled with simplicity — how its saving potential chafed against his natural inclination toward endlessly unfurling subtleties. In the margins of one of his many self-help books, he wrote, next to an observation about addiction: “Too simple? Or just that simple?”

Wallace came to the virtues of simplicity through the world of recovery, which is one of the best contexts in which to see clichés for their connective potential rather than their strictures. Clichés lend structure and ritual and glue: They are the subterranean passageways connecting one life to another. They obstruct alibis of complexity and exceptionality, various versions of the notion “It’s different for me.”

The question of clichés is partially a question of purpose and genre: Clichés might offer the consolation of company in a broken world; that doesn’t necessarily make them art. I’ve certainly felt my own resistance to clichés and their overhandled polish. But I’ve also come to recognize that I resist them for good reasons and bad ones: I resist them because I want to grant room for nuance and complexity; but I also resist them because I’m afraid of the fact that in certain basic ways my experience is just like everyone else’s, and I deeply want to believe in the exceptionality of my own interior life.

Resisting the violence of oversimplification doesn’t resist cliché so much as it resists a certain relationship to cliché: clichés as substitutes for exploration, or clichés as final verdicts, ways of herding the free-roaming beasts of experience into a cattle pen. It comes back to whether you think of clichés as portals or conclusions. Clichés work against us when they replace our tongues entirely, when the greeting card messages supplant our own. They work best when they link our singular experiences rather than efface them — when they function as dangling strings around which the rock candy of individual experience crystallizes.

I once knew a man who spoke almost entirely in clichés. What he said was like a patchwork quilt, phrases sewn together in jagged veers of thought.Where there’s smoke there’s fire . . . if you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned . . . it all comes out in the wash . . . this too shall pass . . . one day at a time. His voice tacked between these phrases as he spoke — less like a sermon, more like a song. He was offering these clichés as gifts. They had helped him survive his own life.

Leslie Jamison is the author of an essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her first novel, “The Gin Closet,” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and her essays and stories have been published in numerous publications, including Harper’s, The Oxford American, A Public Space and The Believer.

Posted but not at all written by Lou Sheehan

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