On clichés

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to Alain de Botton’s writing, largely because The Consolations of Philosophy left me dissatisfied and wishing for more meaty philosophizing. I liked The Art of Travel quite a bit better, but my doubts have kept me from picking up How Proust Can Change Your Life, although I have a copy on my shelves that I bought after finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. So I was curious to see an excerpt from de Botton’s book in J.C. Hallman’s The Story About the Story.

I’m guessing that de Botton does better with literature than philosophy because I liked this excerpt pretty well, although — and I can’t fault de Botton for this of course — the best bits are quotations from Proust:

Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own “tone” …. I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly. I prefer — and perhaps it’s a weakness — those who write well. But they begin to write well only on condition that they’re original, that they create their own language. Correctness, perfection of style do exist, but on the other side of originality, after having gone through all the faults, not this side. Correctness this side … doesn’t exist. The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!

Yes, yes, to attacking language!

But back to de Botton … the excerpt is largely about cliché and why clichés are so bad for us:

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.

Clichés narrow experience because they take emotions and responses that are varied and reduce them to sameness. Using them means covering up what makes a particular experience unique and returning again and again to the familiar and the shallow. Clichés may communicate very good ideas indeed, but it’s the same very good idea again and again, which can keep us from having new ideas:

Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

When we have new experiences, we should strive to use language in a new way to describe them, and being open to new uses of language can help us have new experiences.

All this makes total sense to me, and I’m behind it completely, and yet I was reminded of the very different approach to cliché David Foster Wallace takes in Infinite Jest. There, we find characters who encounter clichés and look down their noses at them, as good intellectuals are supposed to do, but in this case, they do it at their peril. This comes up in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which are, I learned, a haven for clichés. You’ll find what looks like hundreds of them here. The characters who think they are too smart for the clichés are the ones who are most in danger; they desperately need AA and Don Gately, the book’s best character by far, knows that they are the ones most likely to start drinking again.

Gately understands people’s discomfort with clichés, but he has figured out a truth about them: they may possibly oversimplify and hide a complicated reality, as de Botton argues, but they can also function as a window into that complicated reality, a way to begin to understand it. A slogan like “One day at a time” can be the start of a hundred different stories or trigger a thousand different thoughts, and it can come to take on different meanings depending on what has happened to us. It doesn’t have to shut down new thoughts; it can be the start of them. Sometimes what people need is to cling to clichés for all the wisdom they have stored up in them and then find their own particular take on the meaning that lies behind them.

I’m as uncomfortable with clichés as any other person trained to look down on them, but something in me loves the fact that Wallace’s great experimental novel contains a defense of them. I suppose one way to fight clichés is to be willing to defend them if one can say something true by doing so.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

8 responses to “On clichés

  1. I admit to not being hugely impressed by de Botton, but this is a most intriguing comparison in approaches to cliche. I suppose I always think of Flaubert, who loathed cliches and said they were the tarnished coinage of exchange. But at the same time he used them a lot, to excess, in order to push them past their usual limits and make them fresh again. Much like Foster Wallace, I would think.


  2. I remember reading once some guideline to writing articles for some magazine that listed all the cliches that writers weren’t allowed to use and thinking, “Well, I could never write for this magazine,” not only because some of them didn’t really seem like cliches to me, but also because I immediately felt it to be completely stultifying. Cliches do serve a purpose, and I absolutely love to do things like turn them upside down or get them to perform other unexpected tricks. They can be great punsters as well. It just seems somehow wrong to me to give writers a list of phrases they may not use. Imagine if someone had told David Foster Wallace that. What a shame it would have been to squash his obvious creativity and the way he challenged his readers to think.


  3. When I’m editing, I’ve found that it’s not cliches per se that are bad; it’s overuse of them. If they do express some sort of truth, as de Botton suggests, they can be useful–there are times, after all, when we don’t need to explain every nuance behind the truth we’re trying to express. Maybe we’re trying to get at a different idea, and the more well-known idea, pithily expressed in a cliche, is one of the steps in logic that we need to take. However, when writers aren’t building on these cliches or twisting them in an original way, the cliche becomes a problem.


  4. How interesting, and the comments too. Cliches are part of our repertoire of language. How and when they’re used makes all the difference, whether they’re an entry point or an end point, an excuse to skirt an issue or a way to face it head on. I wonder if there’s a class issue here, too, whether cliches (the stuff of mass market, pulp fiction, of free self-help meetings) are marked by those that love them.


  5. I’m smiling at the observation that none of your commenters resorted to cliches (or maybe they did and I didn’t see them). I like your take on them and how they can both close down expression and experience and open it up. I can’t resist adding in a cliche here too: If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a … cliche!


  6. I think it would be hard for a writer to be really fresh and new–you’d think it’s all been done before now, but then someone will come along and turn even the old stuff upside down. I’ve never read any Foster Wallace, but from what I’ve heard he was someone who could do just that. Interesting post–you always make me want to be a more careful reader and catch these sorts of things!


  7. What an interesting comparison. I think both writers are correct in their opinions of cliches. My husband is an AA graduate and I have been to some meetings with him long ago and can attest to the number of cliches. However, during meetings the participants dig below the surface of the cliche, wrapping their stories around it so they create a personal meaning that serves them well when they are outside of meetings and struggling with addiction. When you say “one day at a time” to an AA person it becomes a kind of shorthand reminder.

    But de Botton has a point too because many of us use cliches as a way to stop a conversation and/or be flippant about circumstances.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Oh, and I have read How Proust Can Change Your Life and enjoyed it, but when I read it I hadn’t read a word of Proust either.


  8. Litlove — yes, I can see that Wallace is doing something similar with cliches — certainly he’s doing something interesting by defending them in a book that is anything but cliche in its structure and ambition. And he shows how cliches can be fresh and meaningful when encountered in the right mindset. They can regain their power.

    Emily — that does seem like bad editorial policy. Surely it matters more how one uses the cliches rather than their very presence? That seems to me like one aspect of writing it isn’t necessary to spell out. If someone uses cliches badly, they aren’t likely to write well at all, in which case you don’t publish them. If someone writes well, they will probably make interesting use of cliches or not use them at all, in which case, you publish them.

    Teresa — that seems exactly right. It’s how one uses cliches that matter. Using cliches badly is a sign of bad thinking — lots of sloppiness and thoughts not followed to their conclusions. I would think it’s the bad thinking that matters most of all, and not the cliche use.

    Lilian — I think you are right about cliches being part of the repertoire, and it certainly is interesting to think about who uses them a lot. My students do, that’s for sure, and I find myself trying to get them to go deeper because often they aren’t using them well or doing anything interesting with them. Cliches as an end to thought are surely a problem, but they don’t have to be that.

    Pete — you have found a good use of cliche! They make good springboards for jokes, don’t they. How interesting. And I’m not surprised anyone used a cliche in their comments; I just hope I wrote my post without one — or at least one used badly!

    Danielle — oh, I wish I were a more careful reader, too, because it’s only occasionally my books seem to speak to speak to each other in this way. I just try to capitalize on it when it happens. And yes, Wallace is definitely one to overturn cliches, in the same book where he is defending them.

    Stefanie — I’m glad you enjoyed the de Botton Proust book; it makes me more eager to get to it myself. And I’m so glad you see what I mean about cliches, especially in AA. You describe exactly what happens in the Wallace novel (in fact, when you have more time, I’d love to know what you think of Infinite Jest!). People show exactly what the cliches mean to them, and they become anything but cliche.


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