The Time of Clichés

We’re drowning in clichés. That statement is a cliché. This entire piece will no doubt be riddled with them. There I go again. It’s worsening by the hour.

“It is what it is,” I told a friend, after the lock-down was announced. Talking myself down from a wolf howl of claustrophobic anxiety.

“We’re all in this together,” says virtually every politician on air, reminding me how utterly dishonest and regressive clichés can be.

“I loved you with all my heart,” I told an old boyfriend, not wishing one of us to die without clearing that up.

Writing students are regularly taught to avoid clichés, those phrases defined as trite, suffering from overuse, lacking originality, ultimately meaningless. If you Google ‘creative writing’ and the term, you find dozens of sites instructing the would be author how to escape the cliché minefield, including one site that includes an alphabetized list of 681 of the worst examples.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell warns us against the use of “dying metaphors… which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

The 19th century French poet and essayist, Gérard de Nerval, was perhaps the most scathing of any other writers careless enough to descend into cliché: “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile,” he wrote.

But then de Nerval committed suicide, leaving this note for his aunt: “Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white.” And Baudelaire noted that de Nerval had “delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find.”

Hannah Arendt provided us with a philosopher’s statement of the role of clichés in our language and perception:

Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.

Although Arendt was rightly an advocate of casting one’s “thinking attention” onto reality, we might find in her statement our own gentler, simultaneous explanation for the accumulation of clichés during historical moments of anxiety. In other words, although it is not the meaning she intended, there may be times so terrifying that some “protection against reality” is needed. It may help us to cope. As “events and facts” clamour at our doors, we take refuge inside and in shared platitudes.

This is the additional point about clichés. We share them. It’s the inevitable outcome of overuse. Perhaps the thousands of us who repeat the old clichés are not imbeciles, but poets after all. Or if not poets, we’re living beings reaching for some helpful expression in dark times. A phrase here and there that we trust others to recognize. A wave across socially distant space. Perhaps there are cultural moments when such sharing brings a comfort that more original language might not. Perhaps we need both.

To return briefly to that damning list of 681 clichés, its readers are advised to use such expressions only “for comic effect.” Yet Terrence Malick scripted one of our greatest (non-comic) films entirely from clichés. In Badlands (1973), he gives the narrative voice to Holly, the teenage girl on the run with Kit, her murderous boyfriend. In her retrospective voice-over, and in the exchanges between Kit and Holly, we can almost see the spare scripted lines, delivered like a child’s first steps across a white page, word by word. It is like being privy to a first “read through” by earnest amateurs.

Holly’s account is impassive in tone, while drawing on popular images of romance. “Little by little we fell in love,” she says. “Our time with each other was limited and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other away from all the cares of the world,” she adds. “He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.”

For Malick, the clichés are not there for comic effect; nor is Holly to be seen as a pathetic, boring or stupid person. In an interview with Sight and Sound not long after the release of the film, Malick claimed that Holly’s language derives from her sincerity. If she has recourse to pulp images or clichés, it is because

when people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal, they could only come up with what’s most public.

It’s that tenderness, that embedding of our vulnerability and private feelings in public expressions that we know require no further explanation — these are the elements driving the clichés we’re currently voicing to one another.

In due course, theorists, writers and artists will busy themselves inventing new languages to meet the challenge and aftermath of the pandemic. We don’t yet know what those languages will be. But they are to be welcomed. To borrow from Antonio Gramsci, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

We’re in the time of morbid symptoms. When we emerge from it, some clichés may disappear from our discourse under the weight of the destruction. Some will remain.

But some of us may not emerge from it. Virtually all of us will lose someone. If there is something you need to say, and if it takes a cliché to get it said, then that is your tender being. Don’t be afraid to show it. We’re still in the time of clichés.

A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see