Thursday, 6 May 2010
Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Clichés)
There are many pitfalls of which writers/journalists/columnists/bloggers have to be aware but one hazard stands out the most: the cliché. Mental blocs, though repudiated, provide respite – at least that’s my interpretation -, especially in stressful times. One’s attention is diverted to meatier issues. Sources of inspiration can dry up, but one must always keep a positive mind that somewhere, just around the corner lurks the next topic about which to write. Possibly inside a folder held by Erato across her chest. These two dangers, however, pale in comparison to that moment when you have drafted up what at first looked like a well-crafted chapter/poem/article/post, only to find out post-revision that you cluttered it with endless clichés. L’horreur, l’horreur!
And yet, who can claim to have escaped such fate? Who can aver to having had the capacity for thinking outside the box and saved the day at the last minute?
Not many raised hands, I see. And that’s because we need clichés. In fact, sometimes we depend on them.
In my case as a language undergraduate student I noticed the following mental process when learning English: translation/interpretation (especially at the beginning), recognition, gradual understanding without the help of your bilingual dictionary (this is almost like a toddler letting go of the arm of the chair) and finally thinking. And that last element means thinking in the language you are learning. It’s at that moment when clichés make their (un)desired appearance.
Although you will eventually become fully fluent in the language you choose to learn, deep inside you know that you will never, ever be a native speaker. There will always be elusive idioms and linguistic term you will not get. That’s no reason to despair, though, because platitudes become your support device, your linguistic walking stick. And like a trekking aid, you don’t need them all the time, but you like to know that they’re still there. Just in case. The situation gets complicated when you want to break away from those ‘helpful’ clichés because you believe yourself to be self-sufficient in your new language, yet you find that it’s nigh impossible.
To demonstrate how clichés can be useful I’ll tell you an anecdote. When I was in my fourth year at university I had to hand in a paper for my English literature class. At the time I was hooked on writers like Dean R Koontz, Thomas Harris and Scott Turow. When the day to present my assignment arrived and I had zilch to show (a situation that occurred frequently in my student days) I grabbed a handful of novels I had on my shelf at home by the aforementioned authors and began to write down my thoughts on the book we had discussed in class, using some of the newspapers quotes on the back of the novels in front of me (you call it cheating, I call it being creative). The majority were clichés (‘a rollercoaster of a book!’, ‘another thumbs-up novel by [insert author’s name here]) but that mattered not one jot to me. I re-arranged them in such a way that my paper looked like it was an Op-Ed in the New York Times. By the way, I am not implying that the Times is cliché-ridden, I am just stating that my solution was a bit of blue-sky thinking. Or blue-skying.
But away from the world of assignments, dissertations and essays that make up a student’s life, and on Planet Literature now, well, here clichés are not a welcome sight for me. The minute I smell that the author is pandering to commonality, and even worse, that his or her attempt is below par, I give the book the old heave-ho. Luckily that hasn’t happened for a few years. The last such piece I encountered had a hackneyed plot involving terrorists and third world poverty. The only reason I soldiered on till the end was that I don’t like closing books halfway through. But, my God, was I tempted!
And yet, I do also feel sympathy towards authors. And also towards journalists, columnists and fellow bloggers. Because in our desire to escape from the trite expressions that might pervert our craft, we fail to see what lies in front of us: an open trap at the bottom of which treacherous spikes glisten with the poison of stereotypes and inauthenticity licking their sharp ends. But far from feeling dispirited, we would do better to re-think our approach to clichés. Sometimes, as I mentioned at the beginning they are necessary. Haven’t you ever found yourself reading a book (fiction, poetry, scientific journal, whatever) and longed for a familiar phrase? That’s nothing to do with the author’s quality; it’s to do with the human need for what’s recognisable. In this context the cliché is a metaphor for the acquaintance we come across at a dinner party where we don’t know anyone else. And although we discard them the minute we become the soul of the party (cruel, I know, but the show must go on) that person is there to act as a sign of convention.
Let’s get real, my cyber-pals, too many clichés can asphyxiate a good narrative. But sprinkle a few of them around your text and your word soup will taste better. After all there’s only so much pushing the envelope one can do.
Image taken from The Boston Globe
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 9th May at 10am(GMT)