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.