by Moshe Zvi Marvit
Originally published by Tramp Quarterly
The literary cliche was born in 1892 in a comparative anatomy textbook. It was not used in the 20th century outside of this comparative anatomy textbook until it was employed to describe a set of motives in the 28th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is not surprising that the term has proliferated so widely in just over a century. Nor is it surprising that the first use of the term was in an anatomy textbook, so long as it was comparative. The surprising thing is that the term did not exist before the turn of the 20th century. Well into the modern era, after Kant and Hegel and Marx, after the Civil War, and after Frege had mapped out the foundations of what was called at the time “common-sense philosophy,” there was still no way to describe the overflowing concept that is the cliche. Of course, this question of what we had before the cliche has now become a cliche, so it will not be investigated here. Instead, the question will remain throughout: what is the cliche? Though we all fill in the blanks of our lives with its easy colors, and though everyone tries to be original in the matters one holds important, very few have stopped to ask what the benefits and uses are of the cliche.
The cliche is perfect, easily communicable, and marks an end. The perfection of the cliche should not be understood primarily in terms of value, but rather in its denotation of completion, or absence of absence. Though its positive connotation is in part intended, this position flows from its neutral quality of perfection. The cliche is as whole as a literary piece can be. Though the incompleteness and ambiguity of language is constantly bemoaned by analytic philosophers and mature seventeen year-olds, the cliche offers an escape. It offers a rare moment of language serving as an exact coincidence and representation of that which it was intended to describe.
The cliche is also supremely communicable, as it means the same thing leaving the speaker’s lips as it does entering the listener’s ears. There is no gap or possibility for miscommunication within the cliche Of course, the application of the cliche is according to the discretion of the speaker and may be as easily misapplied as any other turn of phrase. If a man inserts himself in the middle of a line and then justifies himself to the lady behind him with the following cliche, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” then the cliche is perfectly clear. But he is confused. This understanding that the onus lies in the application rather than within the cliche allows one to see that the cliche is as a weapon. One must choose his weapon carefully, knowing full well that it must be appropriate to the situation and that another weapon may be used against it. The cliche can be countered and contradicted by another cliche. This is, in part, a mark of its perfection. Each cliche is a complete system, wherein no internal elements are antithetical. But when two systems come into contact, they often contradict each other on their own terms. The cliche has a remedy to this tension. It switches the focus from commensurability to comparability. To make commensurate is to be original. It is to recognize complexity and immanent difference and yet seek common enough elements for an ordinal understanding. To compare is to reduce bodies to their most commonly known elements and then hold the objects within view. It is an unfair, but highly useful act. Dust jackets require comparisons to Hemingway and Joyce, though these comparisons belie their efforts. To make the whole world commensurable is the near impossible task of being an artist. The artist places the two editions on the same shelf and understands them beside each other. To make the whole world comparable is to be agreeable, it is the action of an individual on a first date. This man is constantly trying to sell.
The closing is said to be a thrill for the salesman, but it is agony for the artist. The closing, or end, is always a cliche. How could it be otherwise? To finish neatly, where all the elements wrap up nicely, is cheap. To end arbitrarily, and thereby imply that life-real life-does not have quaint endings, has been done before and is no more tender. The ending must then be a cliche of the author’s own choosing. It is why every instance that a novelist has defined the novel, whether Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, Proust’s Remembrance, or Joyce’s Ulysses, the format has been dually declared epitomized and dead. How can one begin a work of genius when the ending must necessarily be recycled? This question has no answer and suggestions will not be attempted here.
In order to avoid the cliche, there must be a sense for the creative impulse. It is indeed a nice thought to picture the author alone in his study creating a text from nowhere. Or perhaps listening to the melodic tones of a muse. But to imagine creation taking this form is to imagine the quaint artist, the eccentric painter, the reclusive genius. These are all personality traits, but not traits of creation. The creative process begins and ends in the interpretation of the world. The way one approaches the world, postures before it, and makes meaning of situations, is the act of creation. Everything else is filtering, reduction to formats-the forms already in place. The act of creation is in interpreting events as original. It is understanding the differences and similarities of a man on his knees in a church and a man on his knees at a porn shop. The subsequent acts of arrangement and connectives are as acts of taxidermy or quilt-making. That is, they are recycling.
But if creation is in original interpretation then the artist is splintered. And once again, the cliche is whole and perfect. In its perfection, it is easily transferable-a fungible good. When it is offered, it is offered as an answer, with all the qualities of finality and endings that answers carry with them. So once again the cliche sneaks to the end; and the end taints the beginning. The investigation again leads back to the practicality of starting something originally while knowing that it will have to end generically.
The central concern of this question cannot be answered here. But a secondary concern of motivations can be teased to some degree. In particular, the question of motivations for this essay will be answered.
Perhaps this essay begs the question: “Why now?” Why question the cliche, which has become nearly ubiquitous, more than one hundred years after it was first used to describe comparative anatomy and sets of motives? The answer will not satisfy, because it is not a cliche. It will not fully answer, again, because it is not a cliche. The answer arises out of circumstances; it is because a new text has been written that can accurately be described as circumscribing the topics of comparative anatomy and motives. It goes beyond inter-special anatomy and encyclopedic intentionality and explores the anatomy of bodies, cities, and language. Its motors are intentionality and motivation, and its governor (if we can extend the mechanical metaphor now in use) is the cliche. The text is God Bless the Squirrel Cage. It is both a plea and a prayer, the title that is. In the text, the cliche becomes a religious matter, whether devil or god, to a devout atheist. Its name is not to be spoken, but its reach is felt constantly. The text explodes the cliche by overworking it, turning it on its head, and eventually understanding its immense benefits and uses. The work that the text does, that we need it to do, ultimately allows this essay to close thusly: Le fin.