Rain or Shine

It is a cliché to pounce on cliché. The ubiquity of clichés in our everyday print, speech, and correspondence is such that attempting to punish each violation would drown the discourse. We have clichés about cliché: a piece of writing might be ‘cliché-riddled.’ Unless something becomes a hideous metaphor-mixing chaos of lexical butchery – The New Yorker gleefully catalogs such instances with its regular feature ‘Block That Metaphor!’ – it seems a bit gauche to criticize. Besides, we all use clichés, from time to time.

The abstinence from cliché requires a certain muscle, and it is one that most of us leave to atrophy; constantly inventing new patterns of speech and bursts of figurative language is difficult, and it tires a person to do so. For fresh, interesting language we read writers; when we are with friends we just want to find out what’s going on in their lives.

But what is a cliché? Is ‘from time to time’ a cliché, or is it just an expression? What about ‘what’s going on’? It is a cliché to call prostitution ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ and the most famous cliché is a full sentence: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ What about ‘rain or shine’? How short can a cliché be? (‘Browbeaten’? ‘Deadline’? ‘FYI’?) Perhaps (to use a cliché) a cliché is like pornography: you know it when you see it.

Cliché is a pariah caste of language. A piece of writing has been pretty thoroughly dismissed if hung on it is the pejorative ‘clichéd.’ And reading even a paragraph of writing choked with tired phrasing is indeed a chore. It is therefore more than a little surprising to come upon such lines in V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Mimic Men: a woman mentions a ‘blow-by-blow account’ and the narrator inwardly praises her for it, for possessing ‘the gift of the phrase’; the narrator then explains that the same woman’s clothes ‘had taken away my breath to behold’; and a few pages later he employs a trite metaphor from wrestling: ‘it was now accepted that no holds were to be barred.’

It is surprising to snag on these bits of textual gristle because Naipaul has spent a long career abolishing cliché from his writing: of all writers he is hostile to cliché, and he is precise in his use of language. For proof of this a reader need only seek out the first passage of the same novel from which the above sentences have been culled:

When I first came to London, shortly after the end of the war, I found myself after a few days in a boarding-house, called a private hotel, in the Kensington High Street area. The boarding-house was owned by Mr Shylock. He didn’t live there, but the attic was reserved for him; and Lieni, the Maltese housekeeper, told me he occasionally spent a night there with a young girl. ‘These English girls!’ Lieni said. She herself lived in the basement with her illegitimate child. An early postwar adventure. Between attic and basement, pleasure and its penalty, we boarders lived, narrowly.

What a beginning! Here I ought to point out that the use of clichés mentioned above is attributable, surely, to the consciousness of the narrator: like everyone he sometimes expresses himself in cliché.

Another example of a writer embedding the clichés of his characters in the prose itself comes from a story by Jonathan Franzen, ‘Good Neighbors’, printed in a recent issue of The New Yorker. In the first paragraph we are introduced to the Berglunds, ‘young pioneers of Ramsey Hill’ – a gentrifying couple.

The Berglunds paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it.

The sentence clangs: two clichéd hyperboles right in a row. The whole sentence is a lie. They paid real American money for the house; and they were alive at the end of its renovation. Nevertheless, it is precisely how Patty Berglund would think about herself and her situation: Franzen knows his quarry.

But how long do I, the reader, care to tolerate Patty’s cliché of an existence? Even if they accurately represent common patterns of thought, clichés make for tiresome prose. Naipaul deploys them sparingly and cannily in The Mimic Men, and he does so for effect; Franzen’s story becomes a bit hard to get through after a few pages.

Cliché is not just a problem for writers; it is a problem for anyone who wants to think of himself as individual. It is a human problem. I could not help but think about this as I watched 24 City, the most recent film from the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. It is a tapestry in the form of a pseudo-documentary: a chain of interviews with workers and other people associated with a shut-down factory; but some of the interviewees are real and some are actors reading scripted lines. Almost every interview ends in a show of tears. In one of them, an interview with a woman filmed while riding an otherwise deserted bus, the woman describes the economic devastation suffered by her family after she lost her job at the factory; she has a saying: ‘Come rain, come shine, I must go forward.’ It is a motto she picked up at work. Her voice spikes in a shriek; the tears come and she manages to pin them back.

She takes counsel in a cliché – in the most meaningless, empty, insipid language available. But it is impossible to dispute the depth of her sentiment, of her pain, of her resolve. She finds language to express those depths: she finds solace in cliché. We seek unique pathways of language in part because we want to assert our own individual personalities: we want to sound like no one but ourselves. It is part of the fun of mocking cliché; those who parrot it seem like corporate place-holders. (Corporations love clichés; they want us to memorize their slogans.) And certainly Jia Zhang-ke’s film represents an effort to examine the consequences of making one’s personality subservient to a company whose single motive is profit.

The woman’s choice of crutch – ‘Come rain, come shine’ – might suggest a grim thesis: the corporation won; even after it has left town and she is impoverished, her mind remains softened by an emphasis on company loyalty over individual expression, by the kinds of clichés that such larger, pernicious entities want us to swallow as medicine. But I don’t think it is the company’s fault. Everyone, everywhere, uses clichés, and we often use them not casually, speaking at breakfast about the weather – ‘Cats and dogs out there today’ – but rather at moments of profound confession, of hard reckoning with ourselves and our circumstances: ‘Come rain, come shine, I must go forward.’ Original language deserts us at moments of crisis or heavy emotion; even Lincoln had to spend time revising the Gettysburg Address. What else could the poor woman say, or think? Prayers are usually clichés, too.

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~ by mackenz on June 23, 2009.

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