Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctor as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”
Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase? After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”? Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”? Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety? For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way. To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation. At first, these phrases had flavor, spice. But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite.
Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche. “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.” Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed. “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils. In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.” For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded. A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.
In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in love, reawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.” The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague. And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience. Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it. We all write our own stories. But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways. Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.” A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:
“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise. It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.
The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.
The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater. It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries. What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal? Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?
The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’
In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts. Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”
A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice. “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote. No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt. We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough. So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald. Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation. But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.
While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language. At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas. According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers. Proust despised this overblown mode of expression. When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.” So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:
“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’ ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’ Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’? Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'”
But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose? Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas. The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic. “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well. But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language. Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!”