on the moral dangers of cliché

Here are five brief studies of people who made heavy use of clichés: Francesca da Rimini, Madame Bovary, Adolf Eichmann, W.H. Auden, and Don Gately from David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I offer these portraits to explore the moral pitfalls of cliché and to investigate how our postmodern situation differs from the medieval, Romantic, and high-modern contexts of the first four examples. I end with the suggestion that in our time, the desire to shun cliché can also be a moral hazard.

In the days of moveable type, printers cast common phrases as single units of type to save laying them out one letter at a time. In France, typesetters called those units clichés. When we assign a phrase to a word processor’s keyboard command because we use it frequently, that is a modern version of the original printer’s cliché.

There is nothing wrong with repeating functional phrases: “To whom it may concern”; “On the other hand.” We skim over these formulas without cost. But the word “cliché” now has a pejorative sense, implying a fault in writing. A cliché is an expression that has been used so often that it has lost its impact. Using a recycled phrase can undermine the aesthetic value of a work. It can also be a moral failure, if the writer or speaker uses it to avoid a serious issue or problem.

Francesca da Rimini

Francesca is a favorite character from Dante’s Inferno, represented countless times in Romantic and modern literature and art. A particularly famous example is Rodin’s sculpture of “The Kiss,” which shows Francesca embracing her lover Paolo. In Romantic versions, she is depicted as a heroine who suffers because her authentic and natural impulse to love outside of her marriage is forbidden by artificial and conventional rules. As a character in his own book, Dante is so moved by her plight that he faints.

But Dante (the author) put her in hell. A careful reading of her two short speeches reveals, first, that she talks entirely in quotations or summaries of previous writing about love, and, second, that all of her references contain errors. Indeed, Barbara Vinken has claimed that every quote by a damned soul in the whole Inferno is in error.

For example, Francesca says (in my translation)

When we read that ‘the desired
Smile then was kissed by the ardent lover,’
he who ‘can never be torn away’ kissed
me, all atremble. A Gallehaut was the author
of that book, and seductive was his fancy.
On that day, we read no farther.
(Inf., v, 130-136)

Francesca is quoting here from the French prose romance Lancelot. But in the known versions of the roman, Lancelot never initiates the kiss. He is bashful and passive to the point of foolishness, and Queen Guinevere makes all the advances. Yet the ardent lover in Francesca’s quotation is male. She has confused this text with other episodes from the courtly love tradition, such as the one in which Tristan kisses Iseult while they play chess together. The details of the Lancelot story fade in her mind, to be replaced with a generic formula: damsel taken by ardent knight. Perhaps this is because she wants to shift the blame from Guinivere (the woman) to Lancelot (the man). Or perhaps it is because she reads literature as a set of clichés.

A cliché is that it is portable and recyclable—a ready-made scenario or sentiment that shows up in many contexts. When we employ clichés, we often commit what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This is the fallacy of taking something specific that belongs in one context and applying it elsewhere. Francesca treats the love scene between Lancelot and Guinivere that way, and to do so, she must ignore its peculiarities.

The works that Francesca cites in virtually every line were so popular in the high Middle Ages that she is like a modern person who speaks entirely in phrases from top-forty songs. Even the air in the Circle of the Lustful (where she is condemned for eternity) is filled with quotations:

And as cranes will move, chanting lays in the air,
ordering themselves into one long file,
so I saw coming with a woeful clamor
shades that were borne by the stress of the squall.
(Inf. v, 46-49)

The word lai means any complaint, and also a particular form of Provençal poetry about lost love. The “lays” that are endlessly chanted in Hell must be repetitive to the point of meaninglessness, which makes them perfect symbols of cliché.

One topic that Francesca does not talk about is Paolo. She says nothing specific about him, not even his name. She only says that he has a gentle heart (a commonplace from the poetry of the dolce stil nuovo) and that he is attracted to her “bella figura.” When Francesca notices that Paolo is attracted to her, she immediately recalls scenes from old Romances. In her mind, Paolo becomes Sir Lancelot in the arbor with Guinivere—or Tristan at his chessboard with Iseult, or Floire looking at a book with Blancheflor, or Floris reading romances with Lyriopé. She thinks she’s in love with a real human being, but she really loves the idea of a courtly suitor, which has been put into her head by books.

Francesca speaks in clichés; she overlooks the specific details of stories in order to turn them into stereotypes; and she repeatedly uses euphemisms (“Amor,” instead of sex) and circumlocutions (“That day, we read no further …”). As a result, she never has to say that she cheated on her husband or that he killed her.

In one of the Old French texts that Francesca has read, Iseult says of Tristan:

He loves me not, nor I him,
except because of a potion I drank,
and he too; that was our sin.

In his classic book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont comments: “Tristan and Iseult do not love one another. They say they don’t, and everything goes to prove it. What they love is love and being in love.”

Madame Bovary

The first clichés that Emma Bovary learns as a child are religious: “The similes of fiancé, spouse, heavenly lover and eternal marriage that recur in sermons aroused unforeseen sweetness in the depths of her soul.” But Emma loses interest in religion once an old maid smuggles novels into the convent where she lives. “They were about love, lovers, the beloved, persecuted ladies swooning away in solitary pavilions, postilions killed at every inn, horses ridden to death on every page, somber forests, troubles of the heart, oaths, sobs, tears and kisses, little boats by moonlight, nightingales in the copse, gentlemen brave as lions, sweet like lambs, as virtuous as no one is, always well appointed, and weeping like urns.” She has been reading the nineteenth-century equivalents of the Roman de Lancelot.

The narrator tells us that before Emma was married, “she thought that she had love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from this love didn’t come, she must have been deceived, she reflected. And Emma sought to know exactly what was meant in life by the words felicity, passion, and ecstasy, which has seemed so beautiful to her in books.”

Once she marries, she learns little about her husband’s interior life, doesn’t appreciate his tenderness, but realizes that he has nothing in common with the romantic heroes of fiction.

What is striking about Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s fresh, perceptive, sometimes sympathetic, and always precise way of depicting his characters’ hackneyed, vague, and self-serving thoughts (many of which he italicizes, to show that they are idées reçues). Likewise, Dante depicts Francesca as a person who thinks in clichés, but she is hardly a conventional character herself. On the contrary, she is a highly original creation.

Adolf Eichmann

Clichés are a mark of poor writing—an aesthetic failing—but Flaubert indicates that they are also morally dangerous. Emma Bovary is cruel to Charles because she sees the world in cliché terms. Pushing the argument much further, Hannah Arendt has described the power of clichés to excuse (or even to generate) true evil.

On trial in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann remarked that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.” He also said that he wanted “to make peace with his former enemies,” and that he “would gladly hang [himself] in public as a warning example for all anti Semites on this earth.”

Arendt writes that these remarks were “self fabricated stock phrases” popular among Germans after 1945. They were as “devoid of reality as those [official Nazi] clichés by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an ‘extraordinary sense of elation’ it gave to the speaker the moment [each one] popped out of his mouth. His mind was filled to the brim with such sentences.” In fact, she writes, “he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.”

Arendt stresses Eichmann’s “inability to think.” Although he wasn’t a very good student, he was an excellent organizer and negotiator, who had set up efficient, factory like operations for processing Jews. So presumably he was capable of thinking as well or better than most people. Nevertheless, when he told a “hard luck story” of slow advancement within the SS, he apparently expected his Israeli police interrogator to show “normal, human” sympathy for him. Similarly, when he visited a Jewish acquaintance named Storfer in Auschwitz, he recalled: “We had a normal, human encounter. He told me of his grief and sorrow: I said: ‘Well, my dear old friend, we [!] certainly got it! What rotten luck!’” He arranged relatively easy work for Storfer—sweeping gravel paths—and then asked: “‘Will that be all right, Mr. Storfer? Will that suit you?’ Whereupon he was very pleased, and we shook hands, and then he was given the broom and sat down on his bench. It was a great inner joy to me that I could at least see the man with whom I had worked for so many long years, and that we could speak with one another.” Six weeks after this normal, human encounter, Storfer was dead—not gassed, apparently, but shot.” If Arendt is to be believed, Eichmann’s total reliance on clichés permitted him to ignore the smoke from the Auschwitz ovens and to believe that Storfer was “very pleased.” Eichmann’s inability to think, she writes, was an “inability to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.”

Eichmann couldn’t see things much more clearly from his own perspective. Facing the gallows, he rejected the hood and spoke with complete self possession: “He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: ‘After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.’ In the fact of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, … he was ‘elated’ and he forgot that this was his own funeral.”

In addition to relying heavily on clichés, Eichmann and his Nazi colleagues used euphemisms to describe crimes from which they might have recoiled if they had called them by other names. So “killing” was known as “evacuation,” “special treatment,” or the “final solution.” Deportation to Theresienstadt was called “change of residence,” whereas Jews were “resettled” to the other, more brutal, concentration camps. These phrases were not called “euphemisms,” of course, but rather “language-rules”—and even that term was (as Arendt notes) “a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie.”

It is standard for a single act to have several potential names, each with a different moral implication. The dictionary will not tell us which name to use. For instance, it is not an incorrect use of language or logic to call mass murder “special treatment.” Nevertheless, some words are much more morally appropriate than others under particular circumstances. The Nazis’ euphemisms were extreme and telling examples of immoral language, for the crimes of the Holocaust had obvious names that the perpetrators studiously avoided using. By using euphemisms and circumlocutions, they avoided having to admit what they were doing—even privately.

Among Eichmann’s favorite clichés were lines from moral philosophy. In Jerusalem, he “suddenly declared with great emphasis that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty,” which he could paraphrase accurately. Clearly, Kant’s demanding principle had become an empty formula in Eichmann’s mind.

Arendt argues that Eichmann was no monster, that his evil was banal. The circumstances, however, were extraordinary, so we shouldn’t immediately conclude from his example that clichés and euphemisms are a widespread danger. It’s one thing to rely on stock phrases when you’re in love, and quite another thing when you’re the logistical mastermind of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, there is always a risk that clichés will prevent us from exercising judgment and seeing the details of the world around us.

W.H. Auden

“September 1, 1939” is a poetic and presumably fictional representation of the narrator’s thoughts on the night that World War II began. (My detailed notes are here.) The poem contains several very famous lines:

Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.

[We are] Children afraid of the night/ Who have never been happy or good

There is no such thing as the State

We must love one another or die.

Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages

These are not precisely clichés, because Auden invented them for the poem. But he quickly decided that they resembled clichés, presumably because they were sentimental, tempting to memorize and quote, and false to his experience. For instance, it simply is not true that we must love one another or die–plenty of people live without loving, and those who love nevertheless die.

It might not have surprised Auden that Lyndon Johnson’s campaign borrowed “we must love one another or die” for his “Daisy” TV commercial in 1964, that George H.W. Bush quoted “points of light” in his 1988 Republican Convention speech, or that at least six newspapers printed the whole poem right after Sept. 11, 2001.

In any case, Auden repudiated “September 1, 1939” along with four other political poems, requiring that a note be added whenever they were anthologized: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”

I suppose my own opinion is that the quotable remarks from this poem are excellent within the overall network that the poem creates (diagrammed here). They are problematic when extracted from the work. Whether Auden should have blamed himself for writing epigrams that could be misused in that way is a tough question.

Don Gately

I must admit that I have not finished Infinite Jest–I am still reading it. (My excuse for writing about it anyway is that this is just a blog.) But it’s my understanding that Gately is the hero and moral center of the book. He uses the jargon of Alcoholics Anonymous, which a sophisticated, postmodern author like Wallace cannot believe literally. To say, for example, that we have “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (step 3 of AA) is surely to repeat a cliché. And yet it takes courage and character in a postmodern world to insist on repeating just such phrases:

Gately’s found it’s got to be the truth, is the thing. … The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.

This doesn’t mean you can’t pay empty or hypocritical lip-service, however. Paradoxically enough. The desperate, newly sober White Flaggers are always encouraged to invoke and pay lip-service to slogans they don’t yet understand or believe–e.g., “Easy Does It!” and “Turn It Over!” and “One Day at a Time!” It’s called “Fake It Until You Make It,” itself an often-invoked slogan. Everybody on a Commitment who gets up publicly to speak starts out saying he’s an alcoholic, says it whether he believes it yet or not; then everybody up there says how Grateful he is to be sober today and how great it is to be Active and out on a Commitment with his Group, even if he’s not grateful or pleased about it at all. You’re encouraged to keep saying stuff like this until you start to believe it …

Note some echoes here: Flaubert italicizes received ideas; Wallace capitalizes them. Arendt writes that “language-rules” was “a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie.” Gately says that “Fake It Until You Make It” is “itself an often-invoked slogan.” But Gately is the hero of the book just because he has the courage and compassion to resort to cliché.

These examples in historical context

In a pre-modern culture like Dante’s, the main role of the artist is present known truths, thereby serving a patron, buttressing the true religion, and decorating and entertaining. No points are awarded for originality or sincerity: truths come ultimately from God, and the only question is whether a fictional work captures those truths in its allegory. Cliché is not problematic, because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with repeating a well-known truth.

However, authors of Dante’s own time were discovering that using a rote phrase or image could interfere with an audience’s emotional engagement. A striking image of the Crucifixion would be more emotionally compelling than a highly conventional one, as Dante’s contemporary Giotto showed. Dante was also part of a literary milieu in which clichés about romantic, secular love were beginning to spread. He was alert to the moral pitfalls of that love culture (in general) and to the specific perils of its clichés. Meanwhile, he was such an astoundingly forceful and original author that, despite his commitment to the traditional truths of his faith, he created indelible characters like Francesca–sinners who have been admired most of all by atheists and freethinkers. The tension between Dante’s poetic originality and his theological doctrines account for some of the power of his work.

By Flaubert’s time, authors were much less confident that there were truths to be conveyed or that repeating them would have value. Flaubert, for example, decided after his sojourn in Egypt that all the conventional mores of Catholic and bourgeois France were arbitrary conventions. But he couldn’t simply tell people to become Egyptians, because that was also a conventional culture and not objectively better than the French one. To copy it would have been false. He sought authenticity and autonomy from all norms. Originality became a mark of excellence and freedom; and cliché, a fundamental fault. In Madame Bovary, the narrator does not express his own values, because those would have to be conventional, but he achieves autonomy by ridiculing his bourgeois characters for their clichés. The author vanishes, leaving a work that is meant to be perfectly original and free.

Auden and Arendt (who were friends in New York) were modernists and post-Romantics. They no longer believed that a work of genius could break free of conventions. Any description of reality–such as a 19th century novel–would have to be a product of some kind of conventional culture. Moreover, they no longer sought autonomy and authenticity alone. They were both serious moralists, looking for answers to the evils of totalitarianism and capitalist imperialism. Yet, like Flaubert, they still sought critical distance from mass culture, wanting to break “the strength of Collective Man.” Auden’s “points of light” are exchanged by “the Just”–individuals who say and do the right things. These people “show an affirming flame,” quite unlike Flaubert’s caustic fire that merely burns the society he describes. Yet the points of light are “ironic,” because the wise cannot just state moral truths. Those would be, or quickly become, clichés.

Postmodernists then arrive to say that cliché is unavoidable. No one can invent language from scratch; it is intrinsically conventional. Postmodernists no longer pretend to avoid cliché, but they try to battle it indirectly by means of irony and parody. David Foster Wallace came from that background but spoke powerfully to his generation (which is also mine) because he recognized that the escape from cliché is pretentious and arrogant. In a culture saturated with advertising slogans (Wallace’s “ceaseless neon bottle”), we need the courage to say–and mean–things that are good but not original and not wholly true.

(This post draws from my book Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.