Saturday, August 17, 2013

Martin Amis and the Politics of Cliché

If you spend too much time in or adjacent to academic circles, you start to develop a coldly utilitarian approach to prose-- words are simply the medium through which you convey ideas and "facts, facts, facts."  Or, if you belong to certain humanistic disciplines, your approach becomes not so much utilitarian as sadistic.  Language is no longer an instrument to be used and discarded, but a structural element of imperialism which must be savaged to pieces, one unnecessary "post-" prefix and "-ology" suffix at a time.

All of this is by way of saying that academic writing breeds clichés.  It deals in complicated ideas and copious facts, and in all this outpouring of thought, it will always be tempting to reach for those ready-made expressions to convey what you mean.  You know-- ready-made expressions like, "this is by way of saying," and "ready-made expressions."

I have come to recognize the red flags by now.  Whenever a sentence starts "writing itself" in an academic paper--  when you start thinking: "Gosh, where did that come from?" or "That sentence just seemed to fall into my lap!"-- then you should start to grow wary.  One explanation of the sudden corporealization of these ghost sentences, which you don't so much seem to compose as to conjure "out of thin air," is that your subconscious mind is a selfless creative genius who graciously forks over fresh material without asking for co-author credit.  The other, more likely explanation is that you, like the rest of us, have a Hades in the back of your brain where the departed souls of old phrases and sentences, picked up and half-remembered from old books and poems and school exercises and Sitcoms and NPR, drift about in pallid semi-existence until you summon them back to the daylight.  When you are writing against a deadline or just want to get across a damn thought and not worry about the originality of expression, these fateful spirits arise and fall into line "like," as George Orwell once put it, "iron filings obeying a magnet."  This is such a "common procedure" that to fully avoid it is probably impossible, and to confine its use within reasonable limits requires "constant vigilance" (-- everything starts to look like a cliché if you squint at it long enough!).  

The one writer I know of who has consciously taken up this sentry post with some degree of success is Martin Amis, whose most impressive collection of essays is entitled "The War Against Cliché" and includes the following meditation: "All writing is a campaign against cliché.  Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.  When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés.  When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice."

Does Martin Amis always succeed in his "appointed task"?  Probably not all the time.  Hostile readers might already be eyeing that "of the mind"/"of the heart" parallelism above with suspicion.  But, "by and large," Mr. Amis dodges clichés with exquisite panache.  It makes his prose sparkle and, even when his ideas become trite or his characters two-dimensional (more on this in a moment), his language is always a sheer pleasure to read.  If you don't believe me, go on Amazon and read the first paragraph of Money (1984) or The Information (1995) and see if your eyes don't flick unresistingly on to the next line, and the next, and the next-- even as you want to half-laugh and half-retch at Amis' mordant sensibility (more on this too below).  

Sometimes, of course, Mr. Amis' cliché-phobia can be taken too far-- and when taken too far, it risks becoming a cliché itself.  This is because writing, when done well, ought to make the writer invisible.  All art is an exercise in manipulation, but-- ideally-- the reader or listener is so caught up by it that she forgets this fact and experiences the thrill of beauty or truth directly, rather than through the medium of the page or of the orchestra or what-have-you.  As readers, we hope to forget the writer is there.  If the writer's dodges of clichés become a little too obvious, meanwhile-- if s/he elaborately crosses the street just to avoid them-- then, as they say, "the jig is up."  

There are those rare occasions in the work of Amis, therefore, when you can spot from a mile away the cliché that "sprang to mind" for him in "the heat of the moment."  For instance, in an essay in "The War Against Cliché" defending the posthumous reputation of the poet Philip Larkin, Amis notes the fact that one of Larkin's biographers writes in one venue against the promiscuous "conflation of life and art" that damaged Larkin's artistic reputation, and yet appears to be guilty of the same conflation in his own treatment of the subject.  The cliché that evidently occurred to Amis as a means of describing this hypocrisy is that the biographer is "backpedaling." But rather than "swallow his pride" and type out the name and address of the particular shade he conjured, Amis gives us this tortured evasion instead: "[W]hat we can also hear is the whirr of bicycle spokes: for the Observer piece is in fact a Tour de France of backpedalling." (p. 156).

Minor complaints, of course.  Amis is, all told, probably one of the world's only real stylistic geniuses.  But what sorts of ideas does he employ that style to express or covey?  It's a nice conceit that if one could only avoid clichés in language it would go a long way toward excising clichés from our ideas, our politics, our ways of thinking.  George Orwell suggests something like this in "Politics and the English Language" and I suspect it's true enough-- but perhaps the best (if not the least cliché-ridden) way of framing it would be to say that the extirpation of strictly linguistic clichés is "necessary but not sufficient" for the eventual cleansing of our minds of all stereotyped, ready-made, instant microwavable thoughts and feelings.  

The fact that it is not sufficient is probably indicated by the career of Martin Amis, who, as critics have remarked before, made a mid-career shift from writing his usual black comedies to making various attempts at greater seriousness and depth-- a Holocaust novel, a book about Stalin (he was bad, it turns out), a memoir (a wonderful book-- but only in those portions which genuinely reflected his usual sense of the tragicomic and not those which presented the new, more polished Amis), and then-- most deplorably-- his forays into politics and social criticism.  It seems that Amis suddenly discovered in the 1980s that nuclear weapons pose a threat to the survival of the human race and, after 911, that the cultural relativism of the New Left was damaging to universal values-- this latter truism taking the form in his hands of some brutally anti-Muslim remarks which certainly reflect, if not clichés of language, then clichés of thought.  Meanwhile, all this new "seriousness" could not change the fact that in Amis' greatest and darkest novels, there is often a frank enjoyment of male violence, misogyny, and just plain "seediness" on display -- all of which makes his nonfictional denunciations of dictators and the cruelties of Sharia Law seem, if not quite disingenuous, then not quite earnest either.

And what about those characters in his novels-- especially the women?  Surely they are too over-the-top, too one-dimensional, to be criticized with the usual kit of feminist clichés.  Surely, when Amis parades one vamp, one ball-breaking wife, one illiterate wet-dream after another past our alarmed and unbelieving liberal conscience, he is hoodwinking us in some way which is not immediately obvious.  This is some meta-fictional technique, we think-- we hope; some excess of postmodern irony.  Maybe so-- but this is not really much of an excuse.  I mentioned above a certain type of cheap dodge authors use to wriggle out of an obvious cliché, and here is another: getting whatever mileage one can out of stock characters and cartoonish humor and, when these are called out for what they are, retreating behind the catch-all category of "irony"-- the beleaguered critic simply didn't "get it," we are told-- these characters were supposed to be excessive, and so on.

Ok ok, but we each have only one life to live, and an all out war against clichés, if only of the linguistic variety, is enough of an achievement for one human existence for us to modulate our criticism at this point.  If I'm right that the purging of verbal clichés is "necessary but not sufficient," then we should not fault Amis for ceasing his frontal assault at the point of cleansing language alone-- someone had to do it for us before someone else could carry through the even more exhausting labor of cleaning up our ideas and beliefs.

Clichés, after all, even those of the purely linguistic variety, are not only artistic failures-- they are moral failures.  This is why we rightly distrust them.  The surest way to make an argument or belief seem ludicrous is not to point out a flaw in its logic-- but simply to point out how widely it is held.  "Ms. XYZ in her latest column has trotted out once again an idea that appears to have become conventional wisdom among our chattering classes..."  Don't you just hate Ms. XYZ already?  Aren't you convinced that whatever follows that ellipse is going to be the most ridiculous and pig-headed banality?

Clichés are moral failures because they serve as euphemisms.  They politely deny the truth of ugly realities so that we do not need to be discomfited by them.  "Collateral damage."  "Signature strikes."  Or, the biggest whopper of them all, those famous "enhanced interrogation techniques."  Clichés shield us from the moral consequences of our actions and of the things we allow to persist in our world.  Clichés are moral failures because they act as shibboleths.  By repeating them, we gain entrance into certain intangible clubs and professional circles.  We take shelter in numbers when our ideas can't actually stand up to rigorous scrutiny on their own.  This can take the form of feel-good Political Correctness on the Left or of shock jock sound-bytes on the Right-- the principle either way is the same.  Finally, clichés are moral failures in the same way that sentimentality is a moral failure-- they offer us ready-made means of expressing a feeling that we don't actually feel.  They therefore allow us to lie.  They allow us to pretend we are "deeply concerned about the victims" of this, that, and the other-- when in fact, we aren't.  When maybe, those victims are our victims, or our country's victims, or the victims of our favorite political party.

If Martin Amis has confined his own war to clichés of the linguistic variety, he has already done his part to take on these evil habits.  His prose therefore has a moral quality we must admire, even as the ideas it conveys and embellishes are sometimes frankly immoral.

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