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COLUMN: The rule of clichés by Zulfikar Ghose

March 17, 2013


Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also penned many novels, including the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian. He is professor emeritus in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin

NOT widely known and little appreciated, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) offers high intellectual entertainment that might surprise readers who know him principally as the author of Madame Bovary. Bouvard and Pécuchet are the descendants of the European novel’s archetypal literary pairings like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and Diderot’s Jacques and his Master, and are themselves the precursors of characters like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, which in turn influenced the creation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And the rise of the cinema in the 20th century caught on early to a similar creation of twin contrasting characters, the most famous being Laurel and Hardy: well-meaning men who are constantly confounded by reality.

Meeting by chance, Bouvard and Pécuchet realise that living a mundane existence as copy-clerks in Paris, they share a great deal in common and become inseparable companions. Bouvard comes into an inheritance that enables him to buy a country estate in Normandy and the two friends move there, determined to leave behind an existence of constricting mediocrity with its unthinking acceptance of received ideas. They plan to organise their life according to the latest thinking.

Their first experiment is to cultivate their land by following the most advanced methods described by ‘experts’ in textbooks and journals. All they reap is disaster. They attribute their failure to ignorance and attempt to be more thorough in their study when applying the latest learning to other projects; and so, in a succession of hilarious chapters relating their experiments, they put to practice the theoretical knowledge gleaned from a detailed examination of archeology, psychology, literature, philosophy, the nature of sexual passion and on to the upbringing of children, only to fail with each project. It is as if Laurel and Hardy were building a house by following a blueprint and even if it was beginning to look crooked they stubbornly went on with the construction until, just when Hardy banged in the final nail, the whole structure collapsed.

Bouvard and Pécuchet are bewildered by the world around them. Their repeated attempts to establish a rational order invariably ends in chaos or utter bafflement. Life mocks their quest for meaning by showing them the commonplace and rewards their aspiration for grandeur with a mountain of banalities. Their expectation of some profound philosophical understanding leads them to fall neck-deep into clichés.

Failing in all their experiments at living an original and meaningful existence, Bouvard and Pécuchet return to their life as copy-clerks, and one imagines them copying down the same old sentences and repeating worn, trite ideas to eternity, which perhaps is the fate of humanity. And now, in this age of mediocrity, of novelists.

There’s a lot more to Flaubert’s novel than the story of two friends trying to come out of the rut of a banal, repetitive existence only to fall deeper into it. It is both a representation of society and a critique of its organisation; it contains a precise rendition of people. Even the stock characters like the priest and the doctor are living individuals and not caricatures and present an amusing comedy of manners made sharp by a satirical undercurrent. Engaging the reader with encyclopedic knowledge, the novel will appeal to those with some learning and they will discover in it incomparable intellectual entertainment.

Whatever the quality of one’s appreciation, there’s no denying the sociopolitical and philosophical ideas generated by Flaubert’s novel, which is what I propose to examine. Those ideas are very much relevant today, and readers who prefer their literature to be didactic might like to note that some of the best instruction is to be obtained from works that were never intended to teach anything but only to show the existential confusion that is the essential human condition, while works written with a specific moral in mind become stiff as corpses. Because he has no intention to instruct but only to examine reality with almost a scientific objectivity, Flaubert ends up being a greater teacher than many a committed writer. He analyses, tabulates, shows, and lets the reader make a judgment of any truth that may consequently be deduced.

Most of humanity, so we deduce from Bouvard and Pécuchet, experiences life as a succession of clichéd situations and perceives reality through the lens of received ideas. Original thought, minority opinions or any non-conformist expression are a threat to a society which finds stability in the undeviating recurrence of familiar events and linguistic expressions. Societies structured on some dogmatic belief are quick to brand an original thinker a heretic, an accusation for which Galileo was punished by the church in 17th-century Italy and many a brave soul in the 20th century, from China in the East to Chile in the West, was branded a dissident for questioning the state dogma and incarcerated, tortured or made to disappear. Modern democracies, for all their lip-service to human rights, find self-righteous justification in inventing new forms of punishable heresy, as witnessed in the fate of the music band Pussy Riot in 21st century Russia.

A world of clichés is one in which no one does anything differently and everyone derives a tribal strength, which is not without a spiritual dimension, from observing a communal uniformity of ideas and action, and most importantly, from the repetition of hackneyed phrases: ‘Many happy returns’; ‘Please accept my sincerest condolences’; ‘Eid Mubarak’; ‘Merry Christmas’; ‘Feliz Ano Novo’.

Our tireless use of trite expressions induces a soporific sense of stability. I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill but I hope I’m being crystal clear without needing to open a whole new can of worms or starting a tempest in a teapot. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Attend a wedding ceremony, a christening, a funeral, a memorial service, the opening of parliament, an independence day parade, an award ceremony, even a literary festival (where the attending writers are supposed to possess a talent for creating a fresh, original language), and you will hear the same old hackneyed phrases. In fact, people are nourished by repetition; it’s like building one’s muscles by doing the same exercise again and again, whereas any deviation from hackneyed phrases creates insecurity because one feels threatened by not knowing what might follow the new expression.

Recently, President Obama’s second-term inauguration ceremony provided a perfect example of how society sustains its identity through repetition, which is grandly presented as tradition. After the gratifyingly familiar symbols — the swearing-in ceremony, the blessing — there was the president’s speech. Obama’s brilliant oratory thrilled the nation with its impressive rhetorical mastery that made one hear the consolingly familiar metaphors — “America will remain the anchor” of the free world; it is “the star that guides us still”, “Our journey is not complete” — as forceful fresh ideas. So much so, that the rhetorical flourish with which he repeated “Our journey is not complete,” making the crowd roar in ecstatic agreement each time, so impressed The Washington Post that it quickly made the phrase the front-page headline on its online edition; it was also emblazoned across the front page of the next morning’s paper in Austin, Texas, and across television screens during two talk shows, so that the cliché took on a pontifical tone and one felt privileged to be hearing the words again as if it was not Obama who had spoken but Confucius.

The speech contained substance of crucial importance to its audience, but the language chosen to make it forceful was based upon the usual dead metaphors with which politicians present their vision. They are always on some journey to a happier future or on the path to peace or riding the currents of progress or facing a mountain of problems. Well, let’s leave them making their usual hue and cry and clutching their delusion that their ideas will sell like hot cakes. Every social group, whether of illiterate peasants or of professors of literature from the most distinguished universities, carries out its discourse in clichés particular to that group.

In literary studies, for example, while some original thought might be expressed by a Walter Benjamin or a Michel Foucault, the expression soon evolves into a received idea that at first is the smart thing to say and then the thing that everyone feels obliged to make a reference to in their articles and conference papers. Finally it falls as a curse on tormented PhD students whose dissertations must contain phrases like, ‘As Derrida so emphatically states,’ or ‘To quote Roland Bathes’ or ‘Bakhtin’s analysis is to be preferred to Merleau-Ponty’s’ or some reference to the latest guru whose work few have read, fewer understood, and no one remembers a generation later, least of all the professors who first made the name-dropping obligatory. Where, indeed, are the snows of yesteryear?

In the organisation of society, the more despotic a government the greater its insistence on enforced common habits that compel society to adhere to strict physical and intellectual codes, which include the way people dress, speak and think. Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Afghanistan under the Taliban are recent examples of such despotism, of which history provides several others. And in the ‘free’ countries where people supposedly may dress and think as they please, the tyrant fashion imposes a dress code to which the ‘liberal’ population, convinced that it is exercising free choice, goes at great expense to choose to conform; and as for their ideas, talk show hosts on radio and television, evangelical priests from their amplified pulpits in mega churches, and partisan politicians provide the people with talking points to channel their ‘free’ thinking. Many of us who flaunt what we believe is our attractive and unique individuality are conformists even in the choice of language with which we proudly proclaim that individuality. Despotic governments, determined that their people should keep their heads deeply sunk in cliché-filled pillows of the establishment’s religious orthodoxy, especially target scientists and artists, whose fresh, challenging ideas are considered an insult to the unthinking masses, and brand them as enemies of the state. To force a society to accept the conforming discipline of general mediocrity that enables despotism to thrive, the preferred clichés are presented in a number of sanctimonious guises: national habit, custom, cultural distinction, and tradition, with the people encouraged to think of the dominant social clichés as institutionally sacred; in the process the leader assumes a spiritual authority that the people dare not question because his authority is presented as sanctioned by divine will. In countries like North Korea and Iran he is known as the supreme leader and acts as if he sits on an ecclesiastic throne as God’s own deputy, issuing fatwahs against anyone who suggested to the heads dreaming on that cliché-stuffed pillow that the image of the world presented by the national orthodoxy was a fanciful fiction.

What these leaders don’t possess is the sense of irony or humour that would show them that they are clichéd copies of past leaders and that they exemplify one of the most repeated clichés — that history repeats itself, and that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And incidentally, if you follow the reasoning implied by the word ‘absolute’, you have no choice but to accept the logical conclusion that if absolute power corrupts absolutely, it must follow that the most corrupt figure in the universe has to be the one to whom we ascribe omnipotence because no power can be more absolute than that assumed by one who is all-powerful. That at least is how Socrates would have argued. However, the language that keeps society under control has little to do with logic and reason; it is more concerned with not disturbing the unthinking mind with an idea that might challenge its preconceptions. And it is not just despotic regimes that exploit cultural clichés. Free capitalist nations, with their obsession with the gross national product and the daily nervous watching of stock market numbers, find solid stability when there is no radical change to upset clichéd expectations.

That same model infects the production of literature. Time was when we applauded writers who risked an original approach to see if some exceptional beauty could not be achieved through a radical formal experiment. To create a work of literary distinction that derived its power from some dazzling new aesthetic design seemed the ambition of many a writer in the 20th century. Ezra Pound had uttered the battle cry in 1915: “There must be no clichés, set phrases, stereotyped journalese.” And so we valued writers who made it new for their time. But not any more. Now we award the highest distinction to purveyors of topical subject matter presented in a clichéd language.

Of course, every age is fixated on those current events that seem crucially important at the time and it is perfectly appropriate that the artist respond to them. For the artist, the most crucial current event is the mystery of existence that the human imagination has been trying to penetrate in an ever-changing language: whether it is that language of surreal Rabelaisian lunacy or Jane Austen’s measured elegance, Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic precision that replaces the narrator’s ‘I’ with a seeing ‘eye’ that makes no comment but simply presents the objective image or the poetic density of Beckett’s late novels, it is always the style that gives value to literature. The subject matter is not important until a fresh new style makes it so. This is why Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is just that, what its title says.

But just as despotic governments are intolerant of any heretical variance from the clichés embedded in the preferred religious orthodoxy, the so-called free nations with their priests in Wall Street profess a nearly zero-tolerance policy against work that doesn’t sell, thus ensuring the triumph of mediocrity. Octavio Paz described this some 25 years ago: “Today literature and the arts … are threatened not by a doctrine or a political party but by a faceless, soulless and directionless economic process.” Capitalism has forced publishers to surrender to the market. “But the market,” wrote Paz, “… is not fond of literature or of risk, and it does not know how to choose. Its censorship is not ideological: it has no ideas. It knows all about prices but nothing about values.”

In an earlier essay, Paz had written that in the arts “beauty is born of a necessary infringement of the rules.” But the market is not interested in beauty, only in that which sells. Some three decades after Paz made those remarks, I doubt if the books in which he made them would be published today.

In those three decades we have been sold mediocrity as high art. We have become accustomed to equating quality with success. We are not shocked when a writer whose idea of descriptive prose is to string together such clichéd phrases as “tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes” on the first page of his latest novel is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is enough to make one want to become a copy-clerk and go sit beside Bouvard and Pécuchet and spend the rest of one’s days copying a choice of such sentences from the latest bestseller. Or perhaps one should abandon one’s obsession that demands fresh language and aesthetic brilliance from new literature, and instead surrender to the rule of clichés, switch to YouTube and check out some Laurel and Hardy clips. The silent ones.