Two kinds of people argue with themselves: maniacs and metaphysicists. The maniac argues with himself the way a divorced couple argues: hashing up old arguments that lead nowhere simply because he’s in the habit of doing so. In that endless cycle, he becomes unsure of how he exactly he lost his way. The metaphysicist — the philosopher — the lover of wisdom — argues with himself to gain greater insight, to grow wise by way of passion kind of like the newlywed couple so eager to love one another on their honeymoon, they cannot quite agree on what to do next. I am about to argue with myself. I do so not as a maniac, cycling around ruts in the reasoning. I am about to argue with me out of passion that stems from insight I’ve gained since the last time I wrote about cliché.
Last year, I wrote an article entitled What Cliché Is. It’s a serviceable article that gets at the problem well enough, but I had hoped a response would surface. And a response, of sorts, did surface by Jo Eberhardt: In Defense of Clichés. Ms. Eberhardt is one whom I highly respect, whose company I enjoy, whose deep reflection on the craft has taught me much, and whose recent post on female protagonists got the airtime it deserved. In her piece on clichés, Jo did a grand job showing there’s a time and a place to use cliché — to craft authenticity in dialog, to reveal character, to build story. However, she began with a metaphor that I would like to first deconstruct, then replace, in order to conclude by defending cliché beyond the scope of even her own defense and therefore join her in completely squashing the ignorance of my own original article once and for all.
Ms. Eberhardt called cliché the McDonald’s of language. That metaphor works to her practical purposes — certainly we wouldn’t want readers to subsist on a diet built exclusively out of clichés for the same reason we wouldn’t want them to subsist on hydrogenated soybean fries. However she goes further, using the metaphor to say that a few clichés, like McDonald’s, might satisfy you, but a lot can kill you. It is with this part of the metaphor I now take issue.
When we typically rail against cliché, we talk down to them as if they’re the leftovers, the fast food of our language. We do this because we — myself as the worst of sinners — have been trained to do so and it goes back to the age of the penny dreadfuls (and likely earlier to the minstrels). Once upon a time, the upper and therefore better-educated class ignored “vulgar” literature for the same reason no red-tailed hawk cackles about his domination over honey bees. They simply did not consider it. As the literature of the people grew in popularity, the culture reversed courses and began to rail against it or downright dismiss it. You can see this right up until the present era in the Paris Review’s interview of Evelyn Waugh: the way he claims no one wrote about the working class unless it was “grotesque” or “a pastoral” or “something different… about the criminal class.” In response to this very attitude, Chesterton once said in his Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.” He was talking about how boys books, comic books, crappy scifi films will go on selling forever while literature may come and go with the waxing and waning tide of higher literacy.
We might add that poetry is a luxury, cliché is a necessity. I say that as the same poet who wrote The Schematic for Sculpting Language in the 2016 Poet’s Market, wherein I argued that poetry is the birthing and begetting of new language through the mixing of metaphor and the collision of old thoughts. Surely I would prefer we have more poetry for the same reason that I hope my grandfather would live another thousand years. But life is a luxury, living is a necessity. As we must go on living on when people die, so we must go on clichéing when Western (or in Ms. Eberhardt’s case — Eastern) culture exiles poets.
For without cliché, as Ms. Eberhardt herself argues and as I myself argued within the Poet’s Market article, we cannot have poetry for the same reason that without fiction we cannot have literature and the corollary is that without living we cannot have life. Where life is concerned, it takes two living beings — one begetting, one birthing — to create a new life. Life is a luxury, living is a necessity. A barren woman may never have a son, but she’ll have to go on living through the pain of barrenness all the same. Where literature is concerned, it must first be fiction before it can ever aspire to become literature. A hack may never have critical success, but he’ll have to go on writing through the pain of obscurity all the same. And a child may never grow up to read whatever won the booker prize this year or watch whatever won the Academy award, but to say he’ll live without stories is rather ridiculous. And therefore where poetry is concerned, we must start with clichés — they are the building blocks of language and therefore the building blocks of all civil society. To prove it, I now turn to the worst glut of Amazon’s self-publishing arm, the very tip of their very long tail.
The worst, most obscure fictions in the darkest corners of the Kindle marketplace will be critiqued (as opposed to ignored) by the haughtiest critics for their nostalgia. But common men remain nostalgic, for a nostalgic man is merely a regular man who feels things and has the courage to use old words like “sad” or “angry” or “happy” to express the things he feels. (Still referring to Chesterton’s argument here.) Is that evil? Is it evil to use the valiant truisms and clichés we’ve built civil society upon? Unless we use clichés, we do not build society at all. If a work of fiction emerges in which the Supreme Court of its world said, “Murder is wrong” and the readers and characters alike reacted in awe at the originality of the statement, I would gape in terror at that society. If we came across a village out in the bush and witnessed natives stealing from one another for a decade, ruining their chance at an economy and betraying their basic trust in one another, we would be hard-pressed not to utter the cliché, “Thou shalt not steal.” We teach our children that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that a penny saved is a penny earned, to use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without, and to buy something — anything — for a song because we hope to teach them delayed gratification, investing, frugality, bargaining, and the worth of stuff that money can’t buy. The surest and simple way to do so is to use a cliché or a truism and those truisms, in aggregate, keep cars from crossing the yellow line, keep airplanes in the sky, and keep the majority of any civil society employed. The Pythagorean Theorem, whatever else it is, is a cliché. Advertising agencies understand this so completely that they spend years trying to create new clichés hoping beyond hope that in the morning, you don’t think that the best part of waking up is sex with your wife or reading quietly alone or your first thousand words or walking the dog in the stillness of the morning upon the dew of Sunset Park, but rather that the best part of waking up is putting into your cup a specific — and pathetic — brand of the pre-ground, coffee counterpart to McDonald’s. So you see it is actually the creation of newer, lesser clichés that cause more danger for the startling fact that Folger’s — and their new-yet-catchy cliché — have not been tested by time. Certainly the second and third wave of coffee has rendered that particular cliché largely irrelevant and how? Because they resorted to an older, better cliché: that of harvesting just enough beans from a farmer you know, roasting them in a small and manageable batch, and brewing one cup at a time because it’s all you need for the day. Tastes better too.
In fact, I would argue the main problem with clichés is not that we use them, but that we use cheap imitations of them. Not that we invent them, but that we do not test the ones we invent. And as the scientific method goes (also a cliché), that’s malpractice. In the formal science of rendering cliché, the truest clichés go back the farthest, exposing the derivation of the world — of all that is — and the image of God in the face of man, how he himself is a cheap imitation. They render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s.
For that reason, I would not call cliché the fast food of language but rather its bread and butter. Even with that adjustment, I still agree with the first part of what Ms. Eberhardt said: I would not want you — or anyone — to subsist on a diet exclusively of bread and butter because those with such a diet are either in poverty or in prison. But bread and butter will never kill you. In fact, the one component pulling together most any breakfast at most any diner in New York is bread and butter — toast and margarine, pancakes and butter, waffles and spread. The chief appetizer of any Italian or French restaurant is bread and butter. When I order an Irish stout at The Ginger Man, I will always get brown bread and butter. For the days I’m eating simple in submission to my gluten and lactose intolerances, I still go for rice and ghee. Fat and carbs are the clichés of the culinary world. If you want to know whether I’m having a meal, check to see if there’s bread and butter.
To the same degree, if you want to write anything, clichés are your bread and butter. You may react to them. You may subvert them. You might make them into jokes or character quirks or smash them together to birth new language in a song or use one trope inside the Trojan horse of another, but you cannot start without them for the same reason you cannot create ex nihilo.
cover image by David Goehring