On a Saturday, as though the concept of “weekend” still pertains, we go for a drive. This is a great excitement. It marks the day as different from other days, brings it into Technicolor, and it feels like movie magic to be in a car in motion, seeing a wider world of different streets out the passenger window, now more zoetrope than mere plane of glass. I gaze through it with moronic delight, like a person who’s never ridden in a car before. There’s also—after all these slow, ambulatory weeks—the plain thrill of speed as we accelerate onto the highway. All of this is heightened by the frisson of the illicit, because these roads are deserted and above them loom signs telling us to avoid nonessential travel. As I read them, something both sincere and self-mocking rises up in me, wailing, to ask: “but what’s ‘essential’ anymore, what does ‘essential’ mean now?” The things we used to hold essential—human touch, in particular—are now denied. Masked, we stand six feet away from our friends making hugging motions at each other in a sad, awkward, teddy-bear like travesty of the real thing. It is so good and necessary to touch and be touched. It is also so good and necessary not to transmit this virus which, unlike touch, is not a discrete and contained contract between two, but a potentially endless chain of infection. So I know that this drive, this nonessential travel, is an infraction. I also know that leaving the house and getting in the car strikes me as a psychological necessity, that is to say, essential.
The world has become much smaller—physically circumscribed by the walls of our homes, socially contracted to the friends we wish to call (or Zoom)—and simultaneously bigger, because now all the shameful inequities of this country tower over things, crudely exposed and monstrous. The enormous problem, then, is the political one: the way in which we’re called to do all we can to ensure this moment reconstitutes us in lasting, salutary ways. And then there’s the much smaller problem: the individual one, my problem, which is that I have not written King Lear in quarantine. Instead, I have been mostly logging in and out of Twitter, against a white noise brain backdrop of Rilke, on loop, going: “You must change your life.” In “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” he ends the sentence and with it the poem like that—a sober period. In my head it ends with a hysterical flurry of exclamation points and runs in all caps.
The signs above the freeway are also in all caps. They usually read EXPECT DELAYS or some other bathos of pure information. But today, they exhort LOVE ONE ANOTHER, preach THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I’m embarrassed to be moved; how perturbing that something can be both trite and true. To witness utilitarian urban scenery transformed from signs, in the most factual and straightforward sense of the word, into signs in the metaphorical sense, strikes me as amazing. As in: Omens! Symbols! Things glowing with meaning! I think of Jenny Holzer and her sometimes-luminous truisms. (WISHING THINGS AWAY IS NOT EFFECTIVE; ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE.) Specifically, I think about their increased ubiquity since the election of a reality-TV bigot to the presidency of the United States, an event, which, like the sightless fools we are, we thought to be the peak catastrophe, not knowing it was just the prelude to the even bigger disaster to come. Through this second disaster, the pandemic, the awfulness of the first disaster has been emphasized. The murderous ineptitude, venality, and total moral vacancy of that reality-TV bigot has been revealed as even worse than we first believed.
I don’t think the popularity of these Holzerisms can be explained solely by their quality of easily echoed sloganeering, or to put it another way, their tweetability. I think it’s more to do with the fear pervading this moment. In a nation under siege, in a hyperaccelerated, roiling time of horror and confusion and pain and panic, our resistance to platitudes grows vulnerable. Because who wouldn’t want the consolation of a solid and righteous thing, all caps blazing, in all this fucked-up flotsam? I think of another Holzerism, perhaps her most famous of all: PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT. Just as I recall it, here’s Morrissey, doleful and arch and sincere all at the same time, singing out the car stereo: “Please, please, please let me get what I want.”
LOVE ONE ANOTHER. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. But that was yesterday. And now it’s today and I feel a venomous loathing for these same phrases; for, respectively, a milksop of a plea and a warm fart of a bromide. Still, the days continue to ask varietals of the same question: How will you live now? What matters now? You can avert your gaze from the question and mutter, teenager-ish, to be left alone, but the question still stands there, hands on hips, waiting for an answer. It doesn’t go away.
We know this: that grief accentuates feeling in all directions, especially those poles of euphoria and despair. When flayed by loss, horror, bereavement you become radically sensitized—being skinless, you feel it all. It’s why eulogies tend to be better than wedding toasts. Grief also seems to paint coincidence in all things, making the world a web of meaning, or at least, presenting that welcome delusion. Lately, I think of a friend I haven’t been in touch with for years and then minutes later her name lights up my phone with a text. I think of the Holzer line and then Morrissey sings it. And so on.
The coincidences are not always numinous: in the car on that drive home, my partner and I find ourselves talking about Hooters, the large-breast-themed restaurant franchise, which, improbably, still exists. At least, we think it does. Does Hooters still exist? And if it exists (as we think it does), might there be one nearby? We, a couple of vegan feminists, joke desultorily about making Hooters the first restaurant we visit when lockdown is lifted. Haha. Who knows, maybe they have good fries, we could eat those. And then I look out the passenger window and, unbelievably, I see a Hooters. There it is, its bright orange signage, its cheerfully vulgar bubble font. I hoot. What a trashy miracle.
Cliché, as with the writer’s other sworn enemy, sentimentality, cheapens and ossifies experience, and so prevents us from seeing and feeling. In order to get at the truth of seeing and feeling, the writer has to make it new: this itself has become a cliché of writing instruction since Ezra Pound first made the injunction.
This is no time for clichés, and this is absolutely the time for clichés. Indeed, now more than ever. No time for them because a crisis like this demands that we be at our most awake, our most rigorous, our most discerning. We must actually make it new, “it” being nothing less than the country, our attitudes, our priorities, our governance, our vision. But also, very much a time for them. First, because, in their familiarity, they present comfort, at a time when no feeling person could deny another such a thing. Let’s take whatever we can—rewatching old episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, eating microwaveable snacks associated with childhood, or, yes, succumbing to the cosiness of a well-worn phrase. Why shouldn’t we allows ourselves the reminder that what does not kill you makes you stronger—and still won’t kill you, and still makes you stronger, over and over. There’s a reassuringly obdurate quality of repetition to cliché; it produces the same quieting effect as hearing the jolly theme to a long-running TV show, that credit music you’ve heard hundreds of times before. The French word, in fact, is onomatopoeic, meant to conjure the sound of a metal printing plate, a term which suggests identical copies turned out, ad infinitum. Second, and this is more germane to the moment, clichés provide comfort in being sites of consensus. In 2020, there can seem very little solid epistemological ground to stand on: unchecked falsehoods are promulgated across networks, voter suppression falsifies democracy, we disagree viciously and often punitively about what’s offensive and what’s acceptable, all while a shameless and fatuous president spouts torrents of lies which perhaps can’t even be called that since the notion is predicated on the perpetrator having some sense of truth. So it is that we might find ourselves shoulder to metaphorical shoulder, huddled around the campfire of this too shall pass.
It’s hard to get warm at that campfire. Instead, I find myself putting desperate, doomed demands on every book I open. That same voice of self-mocking sincerity wails, Who will tell me the truth! And (contra Holzer), Deliver me from cliché! I don’t want truism or escapism, I want truth and the opposite of escapism.
I read some A. R. Ammons. I sense I’ve found a grown-up, that is to say, a person who knows that you never really grow up, that there’s no terminus of selfhood, no full and final repletion, that you never arrive, but instead, if you’re really lucky, if you really try, you just keep growing.
In Ammons’s poem “Corson’s Inlet” there’s a sense of Yeats’s bitter, sardonic line, “the best lack all conviction” taken ingenuously, in other words, renewed into sincerity; Ammons is consolingly uncertain. To lack conviction offers itself as the best way to be. The uncertain poet allows himself a walk. Across the dunes, on the sand, he is “released from forms”: a pleasing line to find in any poem that, however loose, must take line and form. Nature has effected this release, freeing him from “perpendiculars”—all the “straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds/ of thought” and delivering him instead to “the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends/ of sight.” Terror and freedom run in and out of each other, as they tend to do. It’s exhilarating to be within his consciousness, “all possibilities of escape open” as he declares, “I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries.” To reside in this world of uncertainty seems less an abdication than a brave engagement. “How will you live now?” takes on new light, presenting itself as a question that calls more to be dwelt in than answered. Ammons’s poem, both bleak and rapturous, ends with him, “enjoying the freedom that”:
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
A new drive, a new walk, another tomorrow in which to try again to make it new.
Hermione Hoby is a novelist and cultural critic. She is the author of the 2018 novel Neon in Daylight. Her second novel, Virtue, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.