the homeric cliche

In Les Fleurs de Tarbes, Jean Paulhan’s exasperated tract (which holds a position in modern French literature similar to that held by Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise in English lit ), Paulhan puzzles over the growth, in literature, of what he calls a “terrorist” ethic – an ethic that proscribes all cliché, all “literary-ness”, that makes literature only out of renouncing literature, or hunting it down and exploding it. As he points out: “ The classic poets welcomed proverbs cliches and common sentiments from every direction. They welcomed abundance and gave it in back to those around them. But us, we who have little, we risk at every instant to lose that little.”

The “war on cliché” – to use Martin Amis’s hackneyed phrase declaring his allergy to hackneyed phrases, which as is the way of allergies is a disease of the immune system that is constructed to fight disease, a disease that turns on the immune system’s excess - was first declared in France. Independence from the commonplace, and a horrified attention to the way thinking is done through commonplaces was in a way the primary stylistic gesture of Flaubert, Baudelaire,  Bloy and Peguy – to name just four diverse writers of the time. It is as if, in the proverbs that were once considered a sort of common good, the writers discovered with these fantastic, power mad little machines who were actually thinking for us. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that each of those writers was profoundly anti-democratic, for the cliché is like the sum of votes on thought, it is elected by a majority.  And this seems profoundly wrong, for instead of the brain directing the mouth, what came out of the mouth directed the brain.

Henry James, among his other distinctions, is an essentially cosmopolitan writer – he knew Flaubert, he knew George Sand, he knew Turgenev, and he knew them as an artist knows another artist. But in his late style,  one notices that he returns to the classic style as Paulhan describes it. It is, though, a return full of ‘discriminations”, to use the Jamesian word.

I would call the note that runs through the late work the Homeric cliché. Just as the Homeric metaphor unfolds, metynomically, into a narrative, the Homeric cliché, as James uses it, takes the proverbs and cliches of the newspaper and the country club and makes them entrances to the higher impression towards which the authorial presence, and the authorial presence’s characters, strive.

Notice that even the entrance, in James, is labyrinthian – it is full of feints and false doors.  Here’s an example of what I mean. Allusions to apples, orchards, and golden fruit – all circulating around the cliché of fruit falling into one’s hand – are played out in this description, in The American Scene, of James taking a ride on the Staten Island Ferry:

“Nothing could have been more to the spectator's purpose, moreover, than the fact he was ready to hail as the most characteristic in the world, the fact that what surrounded him was a rare collection of young men of business returning, as the phrase is, and in the pride of their youth and their might, to their "homes," and that, if treasures of "type" were not here to be disengaged, the fault would be all his own.(6) It was perhaps this simple sense of treasure to be gathered in, it was doubtless this very confidence in the objective reality of impressions, so that they could deliciously be left to ripen, like golden apples, on the tree--it was all this that gave a charm to one's sitting in the orchard, gave a strange and inordinate charm both to the prospect of the Jersey shore and to every inch of the entertainment, so divinely inexpensive, by the way. The immense liberality of the Bay, the noble amplitude of the boat, the great unlocked and tumbled-out city on one hand, and the low, accessible mystery of the opposite State on the other, watching any approach, to all appearance, with so gentle and patient an eye; the gaiety of the light, the gladness of the air, and, above all (for it most came back to that), the unconscious affluence, the variety in identity, of the young men of business: these things somehow left speculation, left curiosity exciting, yet kept it beguilingly safe. And what shall I say more of all that presently followed than that it sharpened to the last pleasantness--quite draining it of fears of fatuity--that consciousness of strolling in the orchard that was all one's own to pluck, and counting, overhead, the apples of gold? I figure, I repeat, under this name those thick-growing items of the characteristic that were surely going to drop into one's hand, for vivid illustration, as soon as one could begin to hold it out.”  

This multitudinous weave of a trite phrase concerning golden apples into an account of business men, the sea, the cheapness of the ticket,  and the appearance of New York creates a sort of counterpuntal music out of a cliché – and as always, there is the sexual undertone, with the “fruitiness” and the “thick growing items” playing a role that you don’t have to be Freud to find superfluously suggestive.  James has a way of continuing at it – just as you think he’s forgotten that orchard, he returns with it. The cliché is treated  hologrammatically, and instead of the narration that the Homeric metaphor unfolds, in which the comparison becomes the unfolding of an episode in a world of episodes,  we have an impression, a sort of aura around a narration, that  situates, or, because it is a matter of impression rather than precision, concentrates a narratively tending consciousness. The narrative, always, is about not losing the supreme  things – life, intelligence, the chances of attention -  and yet the loss of these things is always the fatality to which, factually, this determination falls victim. There is a certain choral mockery, then, in these cliches. Listened to closely, they reveal not the wisdom of the people, but the implacably boxed in places of their origin – one senses their evolution in the resorts of the upper classes  where they really do operate as a way of thinking or, as is mostly the case, a way of walling off any thought.  In his own way, James, too, becomes one of the writer-terrorists of Paulhan’s essay, while avoiding the logical inconsistency that Paulhan very gleefully points out, where the avoidance of the already said must either lead to the incomprehensibility of the never said or the clichéd antithesis to cliche that founds the campaign against the already thought in an ideology of originality blind to its own contradictions.

James’ Homeric cliché was not passed along to any inheritor, althoug h you do find a figure like Santayana, whose prose is less William Jamesian than Henry Jamesian, occasionaly resorting to one.