Victims of their own popularity

De-construct a cliche and you will find yourself thinking the paradoxes and contradictions that are routinely glossed over in writing

Victims of their own popularity

At first glance, clichés seem to have received a bad rep. The powers that be (whoever they are) dismiss these oft-repeated lexical constructions as lazy, reductive, and downright insulting. Why oh why, they ask, can’t the writers of the nation think outside the box?

The grass-root of the conundrum is that, of course, a paradigm shift needs to happen. (Notice how the last sentence didn’t make any sense and sounded bad? Well, that’s hackneyed prose for you right there.) In the modern world of today (as opposed to the modern day of yesterday), in this society which needs to be specified as Pakistani, or you may refer to a fancier umbrella term of South Asian literary community, clichés have become quite the carpet-weed on the lawn of writing.

Certainly, (at least, I propose it as certain, you might not agree) one feels that nearly all writing on Karachi that is churned out in blogs, articles, poetry, and novels, does tend to fall into lyrical cadences of oft-repeated juxtaposition. The city is amazing and awful, bombastic and bombed, cathartic and cursed, trapped in an eternal cycle of violence. It is a neglected wife, jilted girlfriend, scorned lover. It is hopeful and dejected. It is personified and comforted, it is abused and it is tragic. It is … wait for it… resilient.

It doesn’t just pack up and leave in a huff (as, I’m sure, most cities tend to do.) No, it stays, silent and suffering, like the audience at a literature festival where the moderator just won’t stop talking.

And ever the list goes on, in much the same vein. (See what I did there?)

Of course, clichés aren’t just a cover for an exceptionally indolent intellect. When applied to tragedies, the results can be fairly condescending. So we bemoan the mothers and sisters of the children of the Peshawar massacre who still shed tears on the shrouds of their children. Our politicians, our protectors of privilege, promise a ‘real and sustained effort’ for the ‘innocent angels’ -- which is roughly translated as this: they will form a committee and speak loudly and vociferously at it for a few days before the next crisis comes along.

True, clichés are problematic, because if words reflect the thoughts of the people using them then there isn’t much thinking going on.

Clichés aren’t just a pattern of words, they’re a way of life: meaningless rituals carried out without much thought, originality or any real belief in their purpose. So you had the citizens of the nation hold vigils, leaving their homes out of a sense of duty to light candles to the souls of the departed (but not having the civic sense to clean up all that melted wax and ensuing mess afterwards).

Words gloss over reality: 145 bodies are gunned down, children are heaped on top of one another, teachers are set on fire as they yell at their students to run for their lives, boys pretend to be dead to avoid being shot… all this is reduced to a ‘deadly attack’, read about and tut-tutted over several weeks after and eventually forgotten by the same people whose ‘hearts’ have been ‘struck’ by this ‘heinous’ and ‘horrific’ act. The victims fade, the event becomes a ‘palpable symbol’ to ‘build up momentum’ for rallies and speeches during the next election campaign.

True, clichés are problematic, because if words reflect the thoughts of the people using them then there isn’t much thinking going on. There is an art to diction but, like a lot of things, much depends on the user. But it would be unwise to dismiss all clichés as terrible, to my mind (as opposed to someone else’s).

Also read: Life one big overused idea

After all, they originated as a set of words that pierced through the fog of truism to make people see reality in a new light. These people liked them so much, they used them, and kept on using them until they, once novel and startling, became a bore. If you think about it, cliches are victims of their own popularity.

However, a cliché can serve as an opportunity for re-examination of an idea from a new angle. De-construct it and you will find yourself thinking the paradoxes and contradictions that are routinely glossed over in writing.

I am reminded of the poetry of Liz Lochhead, Poet Laureate for Glasgow, which takes the idioms and phrases that people are fond of repeating and turns them on their head. Her poetry shows that clichés can be renewed and given a new life, and lyrically so.

Lochhead in her ‘Poems for Other Poor Fools’ describes a beggar’s foot via a standard idiom, but her startling placement grants it a new resonance:

‘His playing was hopeless,

his foot bare in the gutter in the rain,

his big boot before him, empty, begging…

…just his poor

pink and purple naked foot

out on a limb.’

At the risk of sounding pedantic (which you will notice I will subsequently take) to go ‘out on a limb’ means to expose oneself, to make oneself vulnerable. But the naked foot is literally jutting out of a limb, exposed to the elements, just like the beggar, diseased and cold and probably not going to make it. The idiom no longer remains tedious, but becomes a shocking and disgusting image which the poet reveals to the reader through the very familiarity it calls upon. She grabs the metaphor and hurls it back down to earth -- to the grimy reality of a beggar in the gutter, waiting to be amputated by a heartless society.

Clichés use familiarity to burn through familiarity: that is the potential that they possess. Sir Terry Pratchett called them the "hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication." And he never missed an opportunity to create new constructions and wisdoms out of them: ‘…you think there are good people and bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides."

Cliches can be a lot of fun, provided how you use them. They work, if you make them work. And if they fail, the user is to blame, not the poor creatures themselves.

Victims of their own popularity