It works if you work it

The whole concept of cliché has caught my attention recently. At the Ennet House, we get introduced to a character named Geoffrey Day, who proclaims that he has come to Ennet House “to learn to live by clichés” (IJ, 270). How exactly does something become cliché and what does it mean for one to “learn to live by clichés?”

To start with a solid definition, a cliché is “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse” ( Day, a “recovering” drunk desires to “turn [his] will and life over to the care of clichés” (270). He wants to seek solace and comfort in phrases such as “One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first.” (270). In so doing, we learn that the result of Day’s surrendering to a life of clichés is that his life becomes “easier” (271). He explains that before a life a clichés, “I used to sometimes to think. I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t” (271). Day needn’t think because the clichés do the thinking for him. All that is necessary to live a life of clichés is to follow the directions of the short phrases, which have already been thought about, which have already been defined by others. There is, definitionally, no original thought involved in clichés. Therefore, Day’s life of clichés is an escape from personal thought or initiative.

Gately’s response to Day’s philosophy of a clichéd life seems to parallel DFW’s own response to modern societies’ creation of cliché. If Gately could, he would tell Day “that the clichéd directive are a lot more deep and hard to actually do” (273). This is the essential point. Clichés have become cliché because they have been repeated too many times to hold any significant meaning any more. But, the important thing to remember is that at some point in time, before the cliché was a cliché, it actually had meaning. It was once new and original and significant. The only reason that a cliché has lost its meaning is because we have taken it away.

DFW’s work thus far has, in part, been a plea to stop the removal of meaning and value from what become clichés; from what we create to be clichés. In his works and in his interviews he calls for a return to the basics: to real love, and genuine emotion, and true sentimentality. But, the problem he faces in attempting to return to these basics is that we as a society have overused these ideas and made stereotypes out of them so that now they have become trite. As he talks about in the McCaffrey interview, love has become so clichéd that we can no longer talk about it or express it without an ironic wink or a nudge. We have created platitudes where there used to be meaningful thought.

As he recognizes this sad fate of meaningful thought, in his writing DFW tries to get us to work to make the clichés relevant again. This is not an easy task, for they have been so overused and ingrained in us that it is almost impossible to see them as anything but stereotypical. This is why Gately wants to warn Day that clichés are “hard to actually do.” Contrary to what Day believes to be the case, if one were to truly live a life of clichés, one would have to live the clichés completely, fulfilling the value of each phrase. But, in order to do so, one would have to instill meaning back into the clichés–and this is no insignificant task.

Ultimately, Day and Gately’s comments on cliché highlight one of the biggest issues DFW sees with regard to modern society. But, we are still left wondering how this work to revert the clichés must be done–in neither his interviews nor in his writing does DFW give us clear directions. I suppose that merely being aware of the problem is the first step to solving anything, but what can we do next?

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