"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Life As A Cliché–Why Allusion And Aphorism Suit Us Far Better Than Accuracy And Precision

“Beauty is as beauty does’, said Flannery’s mother, one of a string of clichés she used every day. ‘An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, ‘Actions speak louder than words’, and ‘All that glitters is not gold’ were just a few and all perplexing to the young girl, looking up to her mother for love, support, and advice but getting only illegible aphorisms. 

“What does that mean, Mommy”, Flannery would ask.

“Why, it’s obvious”, replied her mother. “It means just what it says.”

Mrs. Booker had used clichés all her life as her mother had, so many in fact that her language had become a strange American Creole.  “The pot calling the kettle black”, she told her husband when he had made a comment about her driving, a comment that had nothing to do with his driving, but a reference to some other minor flaw.  Within this family lexicon, it was up to him to decipher her meaning and intent. 

It was not as though Mabel Booker could not think more precisely or clearly.  It was just that she preferred ellipses rather than rectangles.  Precision left no room for reflection.    It was better to let her husband wonder a bit what he had done wrong than to confront him with it.  Lord knows he had a lot to answer for, so let him chew on it for a while.

Mabel carried her clichés with her wherever she went – to the country club, afternoon tea, or the Women’s Auxiliary.  There was always room for an allusive comment.  No matter what the gossip, Mabel was ready to comment.  When the ladies suggested that Pastor James had interests in a certain young lady in the West End, Mable said, “He’s already got one paw on the chicken coop”.  The image of a cunning fox about to sneak in to Lily Thomas’ bedroom was more apt than any more direct and presumptuous allegation.  To comments about Harry Abel’s unseemly doings and unsure health she said, “Before the Devil knows you’re dead”, a favorite of her Irish uncle who, the drunker he got, the more he recited, “Ah, Mick”, he said, raising a glass to his dear departed friend, “May your glass be ever full, may the roof over your head be always strong, and may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead.”

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The ladies looked up from their tea sandwiches, smiled, had no real idea what Mabel had meant, but as was Mabel’s intention, they began to wonder. She knew that Harry Abel had many more skeletons in his closet than most, and he would be lucky if he escaped the law let alone God’s divine justice; but rather than add to the already murky mix, she let things and Harry Abel lie.  Let them think what they may, she thought, smiling back at Laura Dugan in her lovely flowery sundress, and taking a bite of a delicious cucumber and chutney canapes the hostess had prepared.

Mabel was particularly fond of Biblical clichés which added import to her observations.   ‘A soft answer turns away wrath’, ‘A prudent man conceals knowledge’, ‘Your enemy shall distress you at all your gates’ were some which seemed to have particular salience in these troubled times.

Jesus himself spoke in parables when he could have just come right out and said what he had to say plainly and clearly.  He wanted to make people stretch their belief and force them, by solving his parabolic puzzles, to realize the profound meaning behind them. Anything important, Jesus implied, was not black and white.

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So Mabel, encouraged by Jesus and the Bible, but as an indirect and imprecise person from birth found clichés to be her go-to manner of speaking.  She knew that many found her endless, Hallmark card, predictable, and treacly aphorisms unbearable, a sign of an unfinished education, flaccid thinking, and hopeless idealism.  At the end of the day, what were they worth? When toted, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  A collection of worthless, childish sayings that, Biblical reference or not, adding nothing to discourse.

Yet had the ladies at tea stopped to consider themselves and their equally imprecise, subjective, and speculative comments, they might have been more forgiving of Mabel’s childish verse.  What was the difference, after all, from drawing conclusions from Pastor James repeated visits to Harriet Goodman’s house while her husband was at work?  He could certainly be spending long afternoons in bed with her; but he could just as easily have been ministering to a woman at the end of her rope.  Why indeed did the ladies make more of Harry Abel’s supposed delinquencies when he could well have been in a legitimate although marginal business?

The ladies, like most people, found it much easier to come to facile conclusions than more cogently argued ones; and if truth be known, it was more fun to speculate than to know.  Innuendo was no different than allusion.  Both suggested but never claimed.  Mabel was only more obvious.   She contributed as much to the gossip by her well-timed clichés as the ladies did by their catty innuendos.  Both were in the same boat.

And, when one considered most clichés, they were not stupid or irrelevant.  An apple does indeed not fall far from the tree.  Children are like their parents and no sooner can avoid their influence than an apple can fall upward.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall has been true forever.  Ambitious, arrogant men will always become overconfident, incautious, and reckless; and will inevitably be removed.  Blood is indeed thicker than water, shown time and time again, the stuff of O’Neill, Faulkner, and the Old Testament.

A film critic recently wrote that he saw no difference between Turkish soap operas and so-called ‘great’ literature.

If it is at all true that great drama should be judged in part by its evocative, emotive power; then why should popular dramas not be classed in the same category as Williams, O’Neill, and Miller and judged as such?  Turkish soap operas – most notably Winter Sun, The End, Black Money Love, and Love is in the Air – are perceptive in their understanding of human nature; the inevitable crises, ambitions, frustrations, enmities, and selfishness of families; jealousy, sexual competition, and conflicts between family and individual loyalties; the nature and satisfying pursuit of revenge; and the disruptive, painful experiences of disease, disadvantage, and death.

Turkish dramas are as focused on human nature, foibles, desires, and disappointments as the plays of Tennessee Williams.  The characters are memorable, and while they are often formulaic they are never dry, sterile, or academic.  What more is there to learn about human nature than we already know? We turn to both drama and soap operas to see it played out in a thousand entertaining forms.  What makes them so popular? They are good, true to life, relevant, and compelling.

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Anything that has broad appeal is automatically suspect in the eyes of traditional reviewers.  If tens of millions of viewers could be watching and enjoying Turkish soap operas, how could they possibly be?  How could anything mass produced, predictable, and simple be considered anything but popular entertainment? Even Graham Greene, author of some of the most morally complex yet compelling dramas of recent decades felt obliged to divide his work into ‘Entertainments’ and serious works.

Without a doubt Turkish soap operas are theatrical clichés.  Everyone expects infidelity, deceit, jealousy, unwanted pregnancy, fatal disease, crime, and power; and viewers are never disappointed.  Like verbal clichés, those on the Turkish ‘dizis’ are familiar, predictable, and obvious.  While they may not have the more profound insights of more respected playwrights, they accomplish the same purpose.  They illuminate human nature, encourage viewers to reflect on it, and even move them off the couch.

Is not the purpose of art to enlighten? To educate? To move?  A case can be made that the best Turkish television serials do all three.  Winter Sun is enlightening because of its personal insights into the most common human sentiments – jealousy, envy, revenge, and ambition.  The subject may not be new, but the way the series’ producers and staff have configured it to display a range of moral, emotional, social, and family reactions to provocative events is compelling and fascinating. 

Clichés are really social code.  They need no explanation but are open to interpretation.  Which apple? Whose blood? Whose chicken coop?  In an increasingly complex world, they are needed shorthand; a way of commenting on familiar, endlessly repetitious human actions without exegesis.  Human nature has not changed in a hundred thousand years and is unlikely to; so why not rely on a proven lexicon to allude to what is already known but unendingly surprising?  The cliché not only has its place, but is part and parcel of human observation. 

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