After a discussion we had this morning, Husband posted the following quote to Tumblr:
My friend Martin Amis wrote a book called the War on Cliché, saying that all of us who write and think and speak try to remind ourselves that there’s nothing worse than borrowed phrases, and that using someone else’s words is part of literary intellectual death. Now, when I went to Czechoslovakia under the old communist regime, I thought to myself, whatever I do, whatever happens to me in Prague, I’m not going to use the name Kafka. I’m just not going to do it. I won’t do it. Everyone else does, I’m not going to. I’ll write the first non-Kafka mentioning piece. I went to this meeting of the then unknown dissident Vaclav Havel and several of his Czech and Slovak friends in an apartment in Prague. We thought that no one knew that he had these visitors coming from America; but someone must have given us away because it wasn’t long before the door fell in and in came police dogs, and guys in leather coats, carrying heavy electric torches and truncheons. They slammed me up against a wall and said ‘you’re under arrest and you’ve got to come with us’. I said, “Well what’s the charge?”, and they said “We don’t have to tell you the charge.” And I thought fuck. Now I do have to mention Kafka.
– Christopher Hitchens (via hitch-22)
To which I reply:
Oh, Martin Amis: there are definitely things worse than borrowed phrases. One can use a cliché well. One can use a cliché to remind the reader of the baggage that cliché carries. The cliché does not exist in a void, but is the product of a long tradition of intertextuality. A smart writer must not avoid cliché, a smart writer must engage cliché in a dialogue.
I was reading a review this morning in The Atlantic of a book about hot air balloons (Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes). The reviewer mentions the author’s brief mention of the Icarus cliché, as if the author could not simply ignore such an obvious allusion, but did not want to engage in it. As a substitute for similar classical weight, the author brought up Perdix the partridge. But not all clichés are interchangeable. When discussing the pioneers of ballooning, comparing them to Perdix is just not the same as comparing them to Icarus.
To rally against clichés itself is now a cliché. Celebrate them. They have a purpose.