At the end of the day...
when all that is not rocket science has been said
and done, God will be the final cliché. Fact
of the matter is he is a God to die for, for his raft
of special measures for mankind has led
to millions going head to head to win their daily bread;
by millions more a too low profile kept;
and further millions rated last who had been least;
not to mention donkeys flogged who were long dead.
It's neither here nor there to say
that those who sing from another sheet
may live to sing another day,
may have the young and callow at their feet
or on the soul's back burner stoke
the fires without which is no smoke.
Until early in the nineteenth century, the word cliché meant a stencil or stereotype as in a printer's metal printing plate. The process was that papier-mâché or some such material would be used to produce a mould from a block of type. The plates would then be cast from the resulting mould. Towards the end of that century, however, cliché had begun to take on the critical meaning that we give it today.
Just so that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, a definition might be in order here. A cliché is an overused expression, a word or phrase that has lost its original power and meaning by being so overused. (Ideas, too, can become clichés, but I will come to those later.) Today, the word cliché usually refers to a word or phrase that has become annoying to a significant number of people, so over-used is it. This is apt to occur when it has become difficult to detect a specific meaning for it in a particular context. Also today the word is taken to indicate a certain sloppiness or laziness on the part of the author, perhaps even insincerity.
So where along the line did the word come to gather around it the pejorative associations that are now almost always ascribed to its use? For it was not always so. It is interesting to note that the modern meaning of the word dates almost exactly from the first stirrings of a general desire for originality. This is no coincidence. If we go back to classical times we find that writers like Virgil and Homer used expressions which in a modern writer we might denounce as clichés, and used them for a variety of purposes including the maintenance of the work's rhythms and as an aide-mémoire. Homer's Odyssey, for example, I have heard criticised for its repetative use of the phrase rosy-fingered dawn, but in fact Homer was writing within a well-accepted and established tradition. His readers back then would have seen nothing there about which to be critical. Neither should we forget that Shakespeare and the Bible are both rich sources of cliché, nor, indeed, that today's cliché was yesterday's powerful - and possibly original - phrase. Some will argue that the only reason a cliché is so called is because it has stood the test of time and is now what it always was: a good turn of phrase.
There is another valid use of cliché, which is in extempory speech where it may be used to give the speaker thinking time to mentally plan the next point or idea.
Even today, a good case can be made for certain uses of cliché in literature. The expression of irony, for example, this may involve the twisting of a cliché, thus: Never do today what you might put off until tomorrow. It might be useful to portray a character, maybe by putting a string of clichés into his mouth: You've let the grass grow under your feet, m'boy and now you are reaping what you have sown! tells us a great deal about the character. It might also help ro realise that a complete avoidance of all clichés is hardly a practical proposition.
So when does a cliché stop being a positive contribution to the work in question and become a thing to be avoided? I have already hinted at one answer, the one given by most people, I believe, in their response to a speech or a reading: it is a cliché of the kind to be avoided at all costs when it is irritating to its readers or listeners and/or when it appears to have no specific meaning in a particular context.
I also said earlier that cliché does not have to be a word or a phrase, and neither does it. All the arts have clichés of their own. Film for example, is heavily laden with them. Here's one: we see a pair of feet creeping across a dark screen. We cut to something shiny, reflecting the light. Cut. The something shiny has become a hunting knife. It is being held aloft in a gloved hand. The screen goes black. There is a scream. We see the knife again, now dripping blood.
Think of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and the clichés in that, from the shower and shower curtain, to Perkins's oedipal relationship with his mother... except that they were not cliches when he made the film. He was working creatively, but the film spawned a whole genre of clichéd films. (To my mind Psycho was not his best film, nowhere near as good as the earlier North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train.)
One of my all time best ten was cliched, though, but in my opinion rose magnificantly above them: High Noon and
Now here is a list of general clichés. You almost feel you ought to be able to buy them at the corner shop. Buy two, get one free.
- Sunsets into which lovers walk and cowboys ride,
- Escaping goodies and baddies who always make for the top floor from whence escape becomes more difficult
- Good dying characters who would not be seen dead unless they were surrounded by friends
- Good dying characters whose final words are always lucid and significant, if not philosophical
- Good dying characters who nearly always close their eyes at the point of death
- Good friends of the good, dead character on hand to close the eyes of those who do happen to die with them open. (The eyes always stay closed after such ministrations.)
- Characters having nightmares who invariably sit bolt upright upon waking. (Unlike us in real life.)
- Dogs who never fail to detect the baddies with their highly moral doggie sixth and seventh senses
Examples occurred to me faster than I could write them down, but I have probably given enough here. No doubt you could add scores of your own, for they are not difficult to come by. But here are a few I think work and work well as stereoypes, though you may not think well of them on moral or ethical grounds:-
- The sinister lump on Richard III's back.
- Captain Hook's evil prosthesis.
- Captain Ahab's wooden leg.
- Steinbeck's use of the moron to portay menace in his character of Lenny.
- The stereotype of the Jew in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice
But at the end of the day and bearing all things in mind, it remains the fact that that which causes us to frown heavily at the cliché is that which gave us the word in the first place: the desire for originality. All of which leaves one question still bugging me, a side issue perhaps, but germane to an extent: do we sometimes sacrifice too much in our quest for originality? I was left pondering the question again this morning after reading James Campbell's account of an interview with Derek Walcott in this morning's (04.10.08) Guardian. Walcott quotes Pasternak's remark that Great poets have no time to be original.