Clichés vs. allusions
Over in that tidily walled private enclosure, Facebook, Dora writes that "If you are a writer, you should ruthlessly excise clichés from your language. Not just from your writing, but from all language. You should avoid the expected, the comfortable, that which others will automatically agree with and you can say without truly thinking about... The good writers, the ones I respect, are authentic and original. They do not speak in clichés, even when describing what they had for breakfast."
I don't disagree with this. I am going however to disagree with something that I think lurks behind it, in its shadow, something it potentially tangentially evokes or implies, which Dora did not say (in some circles this practice of disagreeing-with-what-you-did-not-say is now officially known as "commiting Rosenbaum"... and you probably can't follow that link, thanks to Facebook).
The lurky-behind thing I'm going to disagree with -- which my hero Samuel R. Delany comes closer to suggesting outright in a wonderful post over at the Clarion Foundation -- is that one should eschew received language in general, and that originality of sequences of words is, specifically, a goal.
Is a given stereotyped pattern of speech -- the same words found together in the same sequence, spoken (or written) by many language users -- a cliché, an idiom, a term of art, an instance of jargon, an allusion?
The answer depends a lot on context. The centrality of the notion of "cliché" in our thinking about language, about writing, has everything to do with the post-Enlightenment, Modern enshrinement of originality as the cardinal virtue of art and thought, which is part of Modernism's whiggish neophilia in general.
If your primary model of the Artist is of that lone thinker who rises above that unthinking mass of men enslaved to the conformity of industrial society, pursuing the utterly original dream-vision consigned to her by the Muse, the very attention to which is an act of radical nonconformism and self-owned, self-originating, self-sovereign self-authorship... then saying anything that anyone else has said seems like a betrayal.
But of course, not all cultures have looked at art or thought like that. Classical and medieval discourse and art are densely allusive. If you're hanging out with Talmudic sages in 3rd century Babylon, or educated philosopher-merchants of 12th century Cairo, or qat-chewing intellectual shepherds in the Yemeni highlands today, the deal is that they are going to drop just a few words from the Bible or the Mishnah or the Quran or the Hadith, and those few words, because you're educated in the same deep textual culture as they are, combined with the nuances of your relationship and current situation, are going to carry huge rafts of meaning. Or a medieval painter can stick in the corner of a painting some image from Catholic hagiographic iconography -- a particular bird, or a pair of shoes -- and invoke an entire layered set of narratives, from the original life of the saint, to every political, social, artistic and cultural usage of that original narrative since.
In a context like that, it's the words that have been used before that are the most richly dense with information, the most evocative and powerful. By contrast, to use a totally new sequence of words, that no one has ever thought before, is to say something bare, plain, sterile, empty of nuance, and most likely banal. Of course, it's not that originality has no place in an allusive culture, but it's not a modernist originality of utter newness -- it's the emergent originality that arises from richly evocative standardized expressions in new juxtapositions and a new context.
One thing that's fascinated me about discourse over my lifetime, is that I have the feeling we are entering a new age of allusion. Internet memery, and other cultural productions which zoom through subcultures aided by the world's new flatness, seem increasingly to dominate discourse, especially online. And I (as a postmodern, not a modernist) tend to think that they enrich that discourse. And it honestly seems like this was less true thirty years ago, when we lived in a broadcast culture, rather than a web culture.
Then, the allusions tended to be restricted to Saturday Night Live skits ("schwing!", "could it be... SATAN"?) and they were reenactments. When you called someone the [noun]ster, you were evoking that particular skit on SNL, and that was about as far as it went. What we do the equivalent thing today -- when we say "X is the new Y" for some (original to us) X and Y, when we say "all your base are belong to us" or use that particular form of "really?" that has only been around for the last 5 years, it feels to me like we are doing something more equivalent to the way Colonial-era gentlemen used Homer and Cicero, or 9th-century Geonim used the Talmud. We are using stock phrases, not out of laziness, but because of the layered context they carry with them, and the joy of juxtaposing them in new contexts. It feels very different to follow up someone's odd sequence of words by adding "dot tumblr dot com", thereby turning it into a fictional Tumblr site devoted to that sequence of words now transformed into a reified concept with its own fandom, and also alluding to the xkcd comic that created the meme, than it does to say "don't put the cart before the horse." The latter is safe and complacent, it closes things off; the former is playful and hungry and about aperture.
So yes, you should avoid the lazy and the tame -- at least, you should avoid it when your goal is to awaken and encourage thinking and connection, which it is when you wear your writer hat (I reserve the right to use business and IT jargon and buzzwords when my goal is to lull people in a meeting into a friendly stupor, or to defuse tension). But "authentic and original" should not be defined too narrowly, and "cliché" is often a matter of perspective. Sometimes saying what has been said before is more potent and alive and rich than saying what has never been said before.Posted by benrosen at October 8, 2012 01:09 PM | Up to blog