A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

In Defense of Clichés

Though I try to avoid them, even interpersonally, I have never found clichés all that troubling. Sure, I hate a platitude as much as the next guy, especially when it’s delivered earnestly, but some people are so committed to “originality” that their snobbishness borders on the autistic. It is, unfortunately, an attitude quite common in the humanities, and all the more problematic since spiritual petrol is running dangerously low these days. If the people teaching literature don’t take something other than smug superiority away from these damned books, what hope is there?

I’m generalizing, of course; there are a lot of exceptions, but honestly, not as many as you’d like. Many a graduate student beer-fest ends with some sad condemnation of how students don’t read anymore, or how they don’t know how to write a decent sentence–this from people who haven’t met a sentence they couldn’t bludgeon into obscurity. And just to be clear–oops, there goes a cliché, let me rephrase–let me be pellucid, I’m not talking about complexity. Some ideas are difficult and cannot be further clarified. What Heidegger is getting at is just plain difficult. So too with James Joyce and Elliot Wolfson. Still, opacity is not a virtue: ideas that are not difficult should not be made so. There are a thousand spokes on the Dharma wheel, as the saying goes, and there’s room for simplicity and complexity both.

The thing is, the reason students in the United States don’t read that deeply, or think that critically, on average, is because they live in a culture that does not value those things, and most of them are not dumb enough to hitch their wagon to a dead horse. It is, in fact, not stupidity that drives them, but guile. They don’t care about learning how to write a thesis statement, or produce an original insight on Beowulf because they don’t need to. If they did, they would; it’s that simple. Now some of us, naturally or situationally, do care about those things. We wandered around our houses reciting T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” in our underwear when we were 16 because some verb broke our ribs while another consoled us, and an illicit adjective hooked up with an ordinary noun to bring us something unexpected and thrilling. We are, however, the exception.

I don’t mean exceptional, by the way; I just mean exception. Some people can grow tomatoes out of granite, and make boats out of balsa wood. They are the exception; most of us have to slog along and struggle through this stuff. Here’s the thing though, the thing that actually gets to me, that breaks the repose I struggle to maintain. Would you go to someone who could grow tomatoes out of rocks and expect them to talk about the glory of the Serpentine Leaf Miner, or the disenfranchisement of the Cutworms? The question is ridiculous, of course. Yet, these opportunistic parasites kill tomato plants; they thrive by drawing out the life of their subject, just as, pick your canned critical tradition, murders its literary host.

And if we can, for a moment, return to that fictional beer-fest I mentioned earlier, we would find amongst our highly educated elite a surprising lack of variety in their thoughts. You’d hear a lot about “undecidability” and “hegemony.” You’d witness an interesting number of variations on a Marxist theme that were at the end an assortment of inflections rather than melodies. There’d be some Freud, but probably not a lot of Shakespeare. There’d be some Bloom bashing, and a few sideswipes at Hemingway, but not at Fitzgerald, since he was sufficiently feminine.

Now, to be fair, this is a straw-man argument. I’m not being very specific in my critiques, and believe me, I’ve had more than a few teachers who have dealt with literary theory effectively and paid due respect to their hosting organisms, but still, this is an actual problem, primarily because all of that theory is basically just contemporary philosophy, and philosophy has had it in for literature since Plato’s Republic. There’s not a single theory I just paid short shrift to that I don’t find interesting or compelling. Not necessarily correct, but interesting all the same. But ever since the sciences took off in the 18th century, Western philosophy’s domain has been shrinking, and what is called the Continental strain of that tradition has taken up residence in the humanities, where it sucks the life from the books and students alike. Western philosophy’s other tradition, the Analytic, has been happy to play bathroom attendant to the sciences, but since many scientists–perhaps wrongly–openly ridicule Continental insights, the tradition made a home in a savannah without scientific megafauna, and one result of this migration is bored students.

Right now there is a conference somewhere in America about the plight of education, and the failure of the humanities. Undoubtedly, there is much hand wringing and teeth gnashing, and I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that I have no solution to this collective dread. What I do know, however, is this. Whenever I’m teaching, and I set aside the theory and avoid the jargon and talk to my students like people, like people who have suffered and loved and been so lost they looked for meaning on the Jersey Shore, they listen. I’m not saying I’ve made a difference because of it, but I have made connections, even if just for a moment, and human connections save us from the emptiness that we all know–even if we do our best to paste it over.

So, I may not like clichés, and I may get frustrated every semester around finals when I’m reading another “unoriginal” essay, but I guess I don’t really care if my students know what a thesis statement is as long as they know they’re not alone.

One Response to In Defense of Clichés

  1. Daniel says:

    I just wanted to say thanks. I run a video company, and have been having trouble communicating with one of my employees. As a film school grad, he can be an autistic snob.

    You have given me the vocabulary to both understand him better and communicate with him on what needs to change. Your post may have just salvaged his job and our friendship. Thank you so much!

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