“Saying ‘I love you’ is the most unoriginal thing we can say to another” the genderless narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body” tells the reader. “Love makes the world go round. Love is blind. All you need is love.
Nobody ever died of a broken heart. You’ll get over it. It’ll be different when we’re married. Think of the children. Time’s a great healer…it’s the clichés that cause the trouble.” In relation to love, as is the subject matter of Winterson’s stunningly poetic and vivid novel, clichés seem to be a dangerously inadequate form of expression. Much like a stereotype of a certain individualized group of people(s), clichés make the general specific; it synthesizes complex thoughts, emotions, desires into one comprehensible expression. So much personal experience gets left out when the inner workings of the complex human mind (and heart) get fragmented into a few words.
Is the presence of the cliché in language and interpersonal communication similarly tainted? Recently, the mother of one of my friends passed away. Words of encouragement, sympathy, empathy, support, love and compassion flooded my mind as I thought of what I wanted to say to her. “Nobody ever died of a broken heart. You’ll get over it…Time’s a great healer.” Winterson’s reminder of the clichéd responses we have to tragedy, whether romantic or familial, illustrates a troubling point. Although our response to a loved one’s loss is undoubtedly heartfelt and genuine, it seems impossible to convey these sincere emotions through language that is tainted with overused and outdated clichés.
Not only the act of simplifying individual human experience with a cliché, but the concept of using words that have been repeated countless times over the ages to and from different people in unique circumstances is similarly troubling. Wouldn’t we all like to believe that whatever it is we have to say is more important, different in some way, than what another does? The depth and intensity of my human experience is mine alone, it has never been felt before and will never be felt again. To a certain extent this is true of course, but like language, human experience is not unique to one person, it is repeated and continued and perpetuated from the beginning of time well beyond our own lifespan.
Perhaps the problem with clichés is the ego, then. To think that one’s own seemingly unique perspective of life can be simplified by, and summed up, with a phrase or two that has been used countless times before and will be used countless times again may be another devastating blow to the ego. Words, and the emotions, thoughts and feelings they signify, are not mine alone. I am not the only one to know and express loss, heartbreak, joy and love.
And while this knowledge may be disturbing on a certain selfish level, it is also comforting and life-affirming. Instead of creating an isolated, insular bubble around each individual human being felt and understood only by him or herself, language is communal and inclusive (albeit repetitive) in nature.
Perhaps clichés, then, are a testament to the resilience, the commonality, of humanity and our system of communication. There is a comfort in knowing that what you feel, think and say is not a burden to bear alone, but shared through the ages. Maybe this is why we still like to hear clichés, even though they are tired and seemingly unrepresentative of our own personal self-because they are a reminder of the sameness, the shared experience of humanity. None of us is all that different as we might like to think ourselves to be, and clichés are a reminder of this.
The cliché, and language in general, act as an equalizer among us, proving that no one is more or less than another, but all represented and defined by the words we all use.
Anna Shajirat is a senior English major.