Kitsch

1 Civilization is dead

First culture, then civilization, now kitsch. First myth, then poetry and prose, now cliché. First tradition, next reason and imagination, now ingenuity and images. First the tribe, then society and the state, last the borderless and atomizing market. A culture is soon crushed by a civilization, and a civilization is soon consumed by kitsch. For primitive peoples life drums a beat, for the civilized it sounds a melody, but for us it makes mere noise, and all we want is to make it more and more raucous. We have declined through the ages of gold, silver, bronze and iron, and have at last reached the age of plastic, cheap, mass-made, characterless and toxic. ‘Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome.’

Civilization is extinct. It was killed off in the middle of the twentieth century. But its corpse is still laid out respectfully in museums and concert halls, and is gaudily rouged and lit up by mass amusement. ‘It is,’ as Connolly wrote, ‘closing time in the gardens of the west.’ There has been no great novel since Céline and Faulkner, no great poem since Yeats, nor painting since Pollock, nor sculpture since Brancusi or Moore, nor building since Mies and Le Corbusier, nor science since Einstein and Heisenberg. Having put an end to nature and to art, the one decent thing we could do now is to put an end to ourselves.

In a traditional culture society is a solid, in a civilization it is a liquid, but with us it is a gas, volatile, unstable, ephemeral and thin.

We are gilded flies which buzz and blow on the offal of a necrotic organism. How cheerfully we live on, having killed civilization. ‘Is it with such insects as this,’ Cioran asked, ‘that a civilization so delicate and so complex must come to an end?’ Twelve thousand years of patient cultural evolution will soon be sucked dry by twelve billion frantic parasites. So when the human race soon wipes itself out, it will be finishing off a body which long ago lost its soul. The twentieth century put an end to civilization. The twenty-first will put an end to nature.

In five hundred years the americas have hurtled through all the phases of history, commencing with the rich cultures of its first peoples, then the civilization which beat them down, and now the barren and mercenary kitsch that has hollowed it out.

2 The style of consumer capitalism

Kitsch is the aesthetic of juvenile consumer capitalism, both of what it makes and of how it takes in all that is served up to it. We have ceased to touch the world save through a greasy synthetic gauze. Even if what we experience is not kitsch, our experience of it is. Our looking turns art itself into kitsch. We have emptied the world of real imagination, and clotted it with hyperreal images. The saturation of likenesses has bleached both life and imagination, which are too thin to match the bright but empty spectres projected by our devices. They have eaten up our cherished dreams and memories, desires and vision. Mass society has turned art to a sham and the virginal earth to a wilderness of death. And we are relieved to be rid of nature and art, since there is nothing in them to amuse us. We will swap the earth and our dear-bought civilization to gain one hour more of mindless fun. Art gave us nothing that we wanted. Kitsch gives us all that we crave in order to goad us to keep on craving. The world is now full to the brim with kitsch, as the seas will soon be overflowing with glutinous blobs of fluorescent jellyfish. The superb predators, which once awed the forest and savannah, will soon live on as mere trademarks to sell luxury junk.

In every society the economic base determines the cultural superstructure, but in capitalism it swallows it whole and spews out kitsch.

Kitsch is not a style of art, it is the one style in which everything presents itself to us now that art is dead.

In the world market all styles are available for use, and all are mutations of kitsch. Kitsch, which promiscuously embraces all styles, is now the one style that all of us embrace.

Kitsch, like the capitalism that spawned it, is indestructible, since it can stay what it is while incorporating the most irreconcilable tendencies, rural nostalgia or citified chic, the sincere and the inauthentic, the morbid or the manic, levity or schmaltz, the homespun or the exotic, the folksy or the bombastic. And what can’t be killed is bound to devour all that’s too good for it and more frail.

Art was a vocation, kitsch is big business.

One of the chief tasks of galleries, orchestras and theatres is to give us permission to enjoy art as if it were kitsch, and to venerate kitsch as if it were art. We love anyone who drags down the high standards that have been set in some field.

People like going to see art more than the art itself.

High culture has ceased to spurn low culture. It now fawns on it and apes its winning ways and begs some of its leavings.

We have lost the capacity to create. We can only consume, and what we consume are the second-hand copies of second-rate originals. We are too voracious to keep to what we need, and too impatient for quick returns to reach for the steep and arduous essential. We want to pluck the fruit before it’s ripe. The meaning of our work is the prizes that it wins. ‘Farewell, you infinitely slow works,’ as Valéry said in his adieu to the past. We now have the wherewithal to gorge on the most costly things, but we have lost the will to make priceless ones.

Force is harder to attain but easier to forge than form. So we are left with the restless fever of this outworn age. We run mad with our frenzy of consumption, and we feel that we are inspired by the fire of creation. All that we are now capable of is a pacified levelling sterility or the huckster’s frantic hurry, which buys and sells but can’t create.

An age of decadence is not an age of exhaustion and stagnation but of manic activity.

The spirit of the age is more to be seen in its advertisements than in its art. And foreign countries are known more by their consumer brands than by their culture.

These days it’s not beauty but advertisements that are the promise of happiness.

An epoch makes nothing but kitsch, when consumers and not creators set its taste.

You can now tell the taste of one stratum of society from the next by how dear they pay for their kitsch. All that most of us aspire to is a more select gradation of it, be it the hushed urbanity of the boutique, or the flashy tat of the mall. When it costs a lot, we call it stylishness and elegance.

When all are rich enough to get beauty, even the elite will make nothing but kitsch.

Civilization compounded technology with culture. We have now subtracted civilization from technology. Our appliances have electrocuted the muses. ‘The machine,’ as Rilke wrote, ‘is a threat to all achievement.’ Our doltish fantasies and smart devices have devoured imagination. As civilization’s sun goes down, an imbecile neon twinkle fills our sky with its dazzle.

We love the lucrative magic of technology but not the hard truths of science. We wallow in the sickly sentiments of kitsch but we spurn the exacting imagination of art.

3 Democratic kitsch

Civilization was for the few and for the long age. Kitsch, like democracy, is for the many and the jittering now. No wonder that it reaps such rich rewards.

Democracy, which we hail as the zenith of civilization, has in fact marked its demise. Our unstoppable material and moral progress has put a stand to it.

Art daunts us with its cold demanding dullness. Kitsch indulges us with a cosy democratic largesse. Art never grew to be universal or even cosmopolitan. But kitsch has fanned out all round the globe. It has proved to be the one international style, the style of suburban happiness. It is the sole contribution that democracy has made to art.

The public realm has at all times been theatrics, but each age fears that it is uniquely stagy, because it’s repelled by the tawdriness of its own histrionic style. Each kind of regime has developed its own style of prancing kitsch. Fascism made it gargantuan and belligerent, absolute kingship triumphal and ostentatious, and democracy syrupy and snivelling.

Flags are patriotic kitsch, hoisted everywhere when the old conception of a country has been pulled down, while anthems sound a rousing requiem over its bones.

A country that has turned its back on its traditions is obliged to stage a constant round of noisy commemorative extravaganzas, with brass bands, tolling bells and tear-jerking oratory.

4 Story and performance

Every work now must be staged as a performance. And every performance exists in order to have its instantaneous effect.

Kitsch turns every event into a facetious or poignant story to be performed for mass entertainment.

The audience corrupts everything. It clamours to be fed pap and then to be flattered for its fine taste, and it bows down to those who know how to fawn on it most cloyingly.

Each age has its own style of spectating as well as of creating. The style of this age is at once hysterically fawning and yet transparently self-flattering. We learn at second-hand how to respond to performances from the responses that we have seen others make. The crowd must be trained how to clap, yell, whoop and whistle on cue.

Performers have come to be stars now that makers have ceased to create. We have no more great playwrights, composers or painters. So we lionize entertainers, mimics, piano-players, divas, crooners, songsters, fiddlers, baton-twiddlers, directors, curators and impresarios as if they were artists.

Celebrity is a plastic fame, inane, broadcast, lucrative and anecdotal. It is the triumph of the life over the work, of media over art, and of commerce over creativity. Celebrity is a kind of conspicuous insignificance.

5 Cool, elegance, sublimity

Real cool used to be the style of demotic nobility. But teenage kitsch has now displaced it, as middle-aged kitsch has displaced elegance. A pop song epitomizes the fantasies of adolescence, inventive but callow, up-to-date but outworn, frothy, arousing, disposable, faddish, immediately seductive and narcissistic.

Elegance is kitsch in a lounge suit. Cool is kitsch in a tee-shirt.

The sublime is now just the high style of kitsch. It is a sham which moves us far more than the real thing. A speech can now hope to soar only by cadging a few gaudy feathers from the great speechmakers of the past.

6 Art against beauty

The artist must dare to show us a beauty that we don’t yet have eyes for. Art works by a slow revelation, kitsch is met with instant recognition. And all that we now create needs must have its immediate effect. People spot and fall in love with the blatant charms of kitsch straight off. But they need to be taught to make out the rigorous beauty of a work of art, and then they are as apt to resent it as they are to appreciate it. Art is a luxury, kitsch is a necessity. Kitsch is irresistible and indispensable, art is unwanted and superfluous. Kitsch gives us what we think we want, art gives us what it thinks we need.

Kitsch makes things that are alluring and familiar as representations but repulsive as art. Modern artists made things that are brutal and unfaithful as representations but beautiful as art.

A rainbow is a sign of God’s lack of taste.

After the rigorous experiments of modern art, kitsch has restored story to literature, representation to painting, tonality to music, and history to architecture. Is it any wonder then that we love kitsch and hate modernism?

Kitsch is not ugliness but a sad aspiration to beauty. And the world is in love with kitsch, since it tells the world how lovely it is. We colour the grey vapidity of life with the glamorous vapidity of its depictions. Industry has made the world so hideous by overstuffing it with functional things, that we try to beautify our lives by ornamenting them with fancy trash.

Art is indifferent to us, and we are indifferent to it. But we are so pleased with kitsch, because it makes us so pleased with ourselves.

The inmost stirrings of the heart speak in the honeyed kitsch of cheap religion, cheap entertainment or cheap romance. Art and irony disintegrate the personality, kitsch and sincerity make it whole. Kitsch is candid, art is self-aware.

Kitsch is coherent, art is always at odds with itself, with its maker, and with the world. When artists now try to make it whole, they make it kitsch, as Eliot did in Four Quartets.

Kitsch is on the side of life. Art, like truth, is on its own side.

In a merely good painting, such as one of Renoir’s, you have to squint to see the art for the prettiness.

Kitsch has no deep form, and so it is free to find for itself a flawless surface.

Kitsch is formula without form, sentimentality empty of real emotion, and images void of imagination.

In kitsch story trumps thought, emotion trumps imagination, sentiment trumps form, personality trumps tradition, sincerity trumps honesty, fantasy trumps reality, and reality trumps truth.

Kitsch is emotionally callow but technically sophisticated.

By long cultivation we may learn to see the worth of what is real and excellent. But by some natural affinity we still choose what is saccharine, synthetic, phony, garish, slick and impermanent.

We need to have everything adulterated for us. Anything in its pure state has no effect on us at all. We don’t need things diluted so that we can bear their potency. We need to have them artificially flavoured so that we can taste them.

Picturesque scenes catch the eye of bad painters, as poetic emotions win the hearts of bad poets.

Artists are now loath to go to bed with beauty, for fear that they’ll wake up with kitsch.

Art has at all times run more swiftly than beauty, as Cocteau said. But in the twentieth century it had to speed up so much to keep in the fore of kitsch, that it came to look graceless and unshapely, and left the public in the rear clutching its cute amusements. The real enemy of art is not ugliness but banality, as the real enemy of truth is not ignorance but conviction and common sense.

Kitsch is candied romanticism. It’s made to please the sweet tooth of the masses.

The victorian age was the vanguard of encroaching kitsch, sappy, commercialized, smug and nostalgic, against which the modernists fought a doomed rearguard campaign. Modernism was not a crisis of representation, but a last efflorescence of autonomous imagination, before consumerism turned the whole world to kitsch. Present day artists have made a league with it, and are well paid for their collaboration.

Modernism gave art a shock treatment which killed the patient.

Virgil was the prissy kitsch of Homer, as Rome was the pious kitsch of Greece, the New Testament was a kitsch rewriting of the Old, and post-modernism was the belated kitsch of modernism. Some artists turn out the sleek kitsch of another’s style, as Cocteau did Picasso’s, and some, such as Hemingway or T. S. Eliot, end by turning out the smug kitsch of their own.

7 The kitsch of novelty and nostalgia

In the wonderland of kitsch we divide our time between the latest fads and the hollowest nostalgia.

Kitsch is all that the modern world makes that is not modern, which is by far the most of it. We race to keep up-to-date, but no one knows how to be modern. Artists now have neither the discipline to keep to the old ways nor the daring to shape what’s new.

Kitsch is the slick that was left coating the whole world when the wave of modernism went out.

We now dose ourselves with the stimulant of novelty and the soporific of nostalgia. We want to ride into the future cushioned by our cosy reveries, while our mouths drool to feast on the next thrill.

We are mawkishly nostalgic in proportion to our rootless mobility.

Kitsch is restlessly innovating, ceaselessly obsolescing, yet never original.

We are captivated by a nostalgia leached of tradition. And we hunger for novelty devoid of newness. We demand that our future be engineered by our sleek machines and upholstered with a twee cottage handicraft. We want all things fresh and all familiar.

We are more stirred by truisms than by new concepts, and by revisiting one of our old haunts than by visiting a spot for the first time. We are touched less by the thing as it is than by our own prior reaction to it. We weep when we picture how we wept before. ‘We are moved,’ Pavese says, ‘because we were previously moved,’ or even because we were not, or because somebody else was. Tinsel fakes thrill our hearts more than the real thing. They seem to have a buried life that they know they don’t lead. What is used or borrowed sounds more plaintive, since it echoes all the pasts that it once had and has now lost.

Nostalgia is the style of a society that has to keep on reinventing everything and yet can’t make anything new.

Even our nostalgia is now just a hunger for the junk of the day before yesterday. Its date grows shorter and shorter in this accelerated and forgetful world, where everything is preserved and nothing is remembered. Kitsch is personally nostalgic but culturally amnesic.

Our consumerist nostalgia tells us that our memories are unique. But all we have now are the commonplace memories of consumerist nostalgia. As Lampedusa said of his prince, he would be the last to have any unusual memories.

Kitsch knows how to play on all our childhood memories, and our memories of childhood make up an anthology of kitsch, and the aroma of the same dead flowers intoxicates us for the rest of our lives.

Our tastes are fixed for life in early youth when we are most attuned to the hackneyed attractions of kitsch.

Kitsch is the lurid corpse light which is given off by the mouldering cadaver of dead forms. In our senescent age of forgetting, the old ways persist as an undead kitsch, to flatter us that we are preserving the past, while we’re at work constructing our rootless and ruthless future. Having junked our age-old customs, we trump up fatuous replicas of our own and other cultures. So we cherish antiques, ornament, christmas, dead ceremonies, reenactments, anniversaries, souvenirs, museums, revivals, eclectic bric-a-brac, marzipan monarchies, heritage.

Kitsch is the sickly sweet odour given off by the corpse of a civilization that has been embalmed in sugar.

Our new alexandrian age is resourceful yet sapless, frenetic yet spiritless, puerile yet senile, squeamish but selfish, lacking in wisdom but technically adept.

Kitsch is an imitation of an imitation. Every place on earth has now been imaged so many times, that it has waned to a hollow image of what it once was. We’re proud to be provincial replicas of spectral junk made in Los Angeles.

Civilization lives by what it hands on, but ours will die by what it eats up. It is too exhausted to create anything, but it is hungry enough to devour everything. ‘To carry on a tradition,’ D. H. Lawrence points out, ‘you must add something to the tradition.’

The cities that were once the cultural capitals of the world are now the mere centres of kitsch, finance and advertising.

Most architecture is kitsch, since it can’t copy nature, and so it naturally copies its own past. Most of the old world is not old enough, and most of the new world is not new enough. The old world imitates an older world, and the young world imitates these imitations and its own facsimiles of them. London or Paris strive to replicate old cities. New York or Shanghai strive to replicate modern ones or themselves. Each place will soon look the same as all the rest, and nothing like itself.

A foreign country is a cliché waiting to be inhabited by our experience. We know other times and lands through the stale images that we hold of them, which are conveniently contradictory. So France is the emblem of both prose and passion, of clearness and mist, of classical restraint and romantic decadence.

We love fashion because it is a collection of the most up-to-date clichés.

Fashion has such influence because our tastes are so pliant and our vanity is so constant.

Young people confuse style with the latest fashion. Old people confuse style with the fashion that held sway when they were young.

8 Sentimentality

It takes less skill to coax people to mimic what you feel than it does to move them by the real cause that made you feel. We weep not because we see the victims aching, but because we see the onlookers weeping. We are more touched by the tears of the bystanders than by the pain of the sufferers. Those who purpose to affect others must first act as their own audience, so stirred by their own playing that they form a persuasive template for their real audience to follow. ‘Tears in the reader only if there are tears in the writer,’ as Frost wrote, but they are both fake tears. They intoxicate them by their own self-intoxication. They gaze on the anguish of others as a show to arouse their emotions. And then they are overcome by the spectacle of their own sensibility. They consume sentimentality in producing it, and produce it in consuming it. ‘The orator,’ Montaigne notes, ‘will be moved by the lilt of his own voice and by his feigned imagination. He will let himself be drawn in by the mood he is personating.’ His own excitement inflames him, and this brings his flow of words to the boil.

An audience is electrified more by its own ovation than by the skill of the performance.

We are fooled by our own feigned moods, and warmed by frigid images. I melt at reminders of objects whose originals would leave me cold. ‘Nothing tempts my tears like tears,’ Montaigne says, ‘not just real ones but tears of any kind, in feint or paint.’

Sentimentalists don’t claim to feel a real emotion, they really do feel a confected one.

Kitsch keeps up our faith in all the beautiful ideals that we know not to be true, and, as Dostoyevsky points out, ‘people can’t do without fine words.’

Sentimentalists tell us that we are all conjoined as one. The clear-sighted know that each of us is on our own. Optimists trust that we can slip our isolation and affirm our connectedness. But the disconsolate see that our connectedness won’t save us.

These days you can garner a lot of money or votes for your own use by assuring individualistic customers and electors that we’re all in this together.

Human victims touch us most poignantly when they are presented like animals, speechless, guiltless, bewildered, forgiving. But animals stir our tears most when they are shown to be like us, with an identity, a story and a name.

We are disgusted by the stench of others’ mawkishness as much as we love to sniff the heady bouquet of our own.

A sentimentalist, like a sycophant, is nauseated by any sentimentality that smells different from their own. Each age must concoct a new style of mawkishness to set it off from its predecessor’s, so that it won’t see it for what it is and recoil from it. Modern artists had to cook up an egalitarian schmaltz to cleanse their palate of the cloying chivalrous schmaltz of the victorians.

Sentimentality is the winner pretending to be a loser, the brutal pretending to be bruised by their own fine feelings, the uncaring pretending to care, the actorly repressing itself as the reticent, the dry-eyed squeezing out tears for their own and their viewers’ delectation.

Sentimentalists don’t have emotions that they don’t wish to pay for, as Wilde claimed, they have emotions in the hope that they will be paid for them. They eke out a specious effect by converting an apparent worldly defeat to an affecting moral victory. They gain power by feigning weakness, and milk a lost cause for an unwarranted triumph of self-display. They are swindlers who manipulate their dupes by pretending to be at the mercy of their own emotions.

Maudlin writers claim a reward of tears for their own by refusing to remunerate the characters that their story has put through such trials. They make a show of conscripting art to fight for the good, but they just use a sham goodness to mock up a heart-warming tableau. They win a cheap aesthetic potency by pretending to be swamped by the moral.

9 Loss

Sentimentalists swoon at the small and understated, at blanks, absences and erasures and their sad traces, at fractured, maimed and unfinished things, the overlooked, exile and displacement, at what they’ve lost and what they’ve dredged from the wreckage, the melancholy of failed crossings and failed connections, intersections of hurt and splendour, brief respites of grace and small redemptions, the grandeur of transcendence and the poignancy of not attaining it, frail affirmations, gaps and silences, the forlorn poetry of dates, maps and lists, the sadness of fine intentions, since they all miss their aim.

We are in love with loss. We’ve lost others or we’ve lost our own selves. We’ve lost youthfulness and innocence. We’ve lost our roots. We’ve lost paradise. We’ve lost home or our faith and all the days that we have let slip away. Modernity is an elegy of loss and longing, and rupture is its pathos. Those who aim to seem modern try to pass off their nostalgia as a yearning for the new.

10 Cynical sentiment

Cold-blooded creatures are fond of basking in the genial sun of sentimentality. Frigid hearts love to thaw out in tears, which veil their calculations and pit others to serve their behests. A callous sharper can, like Carroll’s walrus, weep thankful millstones for the nobleness of some sorry wretch whom he’s piously defrauding of half his life’s work. Hard hearts make their dinner on the sloppiest mush. A nice man may be a man of nasty ideas, as Swift said, but a nasty man is sure to be a man of mawkish ones.

We are hard-hearted and soft-headed.

Our maudlin and abject souls love underdogs, so long as they come out on top.

Some writers use cynicism as a jet plush to set off the paste beads of their sentimentality. And some build up a large balance of irony and scoffing so as to have a long line of tearful credit on which to draw. Mawkishness thrives in dry and glacial climates, such as the blathering perplexity of Beckett’s plays or Hemingway’s swaggering tough guy self-pity.

Self-mockers pretend to have mastered their emotions, sentimentalists pretend to have been mastered by them. It’s hard to tell which of the two is the more deceived by their own pose.

Irony and sentimentality each work by indirection and disavowal. Beneath their guise of self-effacement, both of them are arch and preening and crafty. Sentimentality is a sugared irony, or irony is soured pathos. Sentimentalists amplify their sighs by battling to check them. The sardonic deflate overblown fools with their sly hyperbole.

11 Restraint

Sentimentalists pretend to feel less than they pretend to feel. The neophytes of pathos revel in excess, but its veterans revel in austerity and inarticulacy. They flaunt their tears most touchingly by their brave efforts to stem them, as David does in his threnody for Absalom. Our hearts melt at the sight of someone struggling courageously to get the better of a distress that they hardly feel. They seem to refuse to yield to a mood which they don’t quite feel, as a ruse to coax you to feel it in their stead.

Maudlin and garrulous authors and eras resound with the babbling praise of silence. As Morley wrote of Carlyle’s clatter, ‘The whole of the golden Gospel of Silence is now effectively compressed in thirty-five volumes.’ Most of those who laud quietness mean other people’s.

12 Clichés

I would be lost in the world, if I were dispossessed of the chart and compass of my ready-formed viewpoint. It’s a good thing for us that we have no more than a few trite thoughts and tropes to make sense of our most profound experiences. Our fatuousness, which should befuddle us, comes to our rescue by simplifying life and generating trusty nostrums to pilot us through it. When life’s crises would force us to face up to what is most real, we take refuge in what is cheap and fake. If we chance to stray into unmediated contact with the thing as it is, we are relieved to revert to the phony notions that we have got so used to. Churchill remarked how men and women ‘occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had ever happened.’ We build a full and authentic life on the footing of a few flimsy truisms.

Words are a wilderness, which we make a home in with our clichés.

Some people’s stock opinions can be elicited as predictably as the saliva of Pavlov’s dogs. Speak the right words, and their lips will dribble the reflex formulas that you have heard each time before.

The trunk of language is now held up only by the clichés which are strangling it, and the sole fruit that it yields are catchphrases.

We trust that we have mastered a theme or a style when we can fluently improvise the idioms of its overworked parlance.

Men and women will always think and speak in stale phrases. And so each kind of regime has to manufacture the artificial ambience of accepted claptrap which will sustain it. In a dictatorial state the public talk in the cant of dictatorship. In a democracy they talk in the cant of democracy. A depraved state is maintained by its murderous lies, a good state by its benign ones. The propaganda of tyrants appals us because it is so vile, and the fables of egalitarianism are so well-meaning that we take them to be true.

A regime tries to make up for the banality of its concerns by the pomposity of its rhetoric.

Though we shut our hearts to principles, we keep up a passionate faithfulness to slogans. If we let these go, how could we grasp or recall what it is that we are supposed to believe? ‘The crowd,’ as Tocqueville wrote, ‘relinquishes the ideas it has been given more readily than the words it has learned.’ We need them to remind us of ideals which we don’t much care for, and to tidy a mangle of thoughts that fill our minds, so that we can digest the creamy and savoury slop we make of them. ‘Man,’ as Stevenson said, ‘is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but principally by catchwords.’ We have our ideology to do our thinking for us, and our slogans to tell us what our ideology means. And in our consumer democracies brand names mean more to us than slogans.

The most inspiriting orators, such as Lincoln, Kennedy or King, dealt from a thin pack of majestic and vacuous platitudes. Their bastard inheritors now strive to match their sonority by quoting a snatch or two from them.

Men and women are not more commonplace on supreme occasions, as Butler claimed. The supreme occasion just shows up how commonplace they were the whole time, as Eichmann made clear at his execution.

All the commonplaces on a theme as commonplace as love are true. And all the truths on a theme as empty as death are commonplace. ‘All sensible talk about vitally important topics,’ Peirce says, ‘must be commonplace.’ A pop song will teach you as much about love as one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, though the sonnet will teach you a great deal more about the imagination.

The heart speaks in the language of clichés. How snugly our roomiest emotions fit into the threadbare suit of our stiff opinions. Our liveliest sensations talk in the weariest tropes. But the worked-up passions of poets find the most durable words to voice what we feel. Only those who are not in love are free to craft a fresh discourse of desire.

I hate others’ jargon and verbiage as much as I love my own. And I label their views as platitudes if they sound foreign to my own, but I’m dazzled by any that deviates an inch from the standard ones and that damns them as cant.

13 Accelerated clichés

A traditional state is ballasted by its time-tried prejudices. An innovative state is thrust on by its new-fangled prejudices, which it has to keep refurbishing and restocking. The herd lives its inherited truisms, but talks its new-minted ones. ‘Every generation,’ notes Thoreau, ‘laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.’ We keep venerable wizened clichés in place of wisdom, and voguish ones in place of wit. Conservatives and progressives differ primarily in the vintage of their fixed views.

People love old clichés for their elegance, and new ones for their cleverness.

In our age of accelerated banality we produce, distribute and discard our spicy clichés as rapidly as fast food. They sparkle like pop songs, trite yet effervescent, modish, flashing and saleable. They used to fetter our minds to the past. Now they fetter them to the forgetful present. We think in tired platitudes, and speak and write in set phrases. Our motley dialect imparts to our thoughts a variegation that they’ve not earned, and we try to revitalize their tiredness with a hyperactive vocabulary. Our speech grows more miscellaneous as our vision shrinks and shrivels. Our imagination is barren, but our language twitches promiscuously.

We all love to read the latest books, since they’re patched up from current clichés to appeal to the platitudes of the hour.

14 Repetitions

We are more convinced by repetition than by reason. ‘Tell a lie once and it stays a lie,’ Goebbels said, ‘tell it a thousand times and it becomes a truth.’

We have so few ideas, what else can we do but go on recapitulating them. If we repeat them often enough we come to believe that they must be good ones.

We are struck as if by a revelation when we hear our moral nostrums played on with an anguished gravity.

We stoop to pick up the opinions of others, and we take pride in reprising our own.

One of the few pains that life spares us is that of conceiving new thoughts.

‘By often repeating an untruth,’ Jefferson notes, ‘men come to believe it themselves.’ We keep descanting on our views, in the hope of convincing others or at least of convincing ourselves. We are persuaded of a thesis by hearing it reiterated. And we are persuaded as well by our own iterations as we would be by another’s. Who else could we trust so much? When I trot out my readymade formulas, far from blushing at the destitution of my ideas, I gloat that I’ve proved them right once more.

‘He that knows little,’ says the saw, ‘soon repeats it.’ Others have to keep restating their views, because they have such a dearth of them. But I feel entitled to restate my own, since they make such rich sense of the world. Who would not choose to reutter their own ragged fallacies rather than learn a new truth? ‘The creeds are believed,’ Wilde said, ‘not because they are rational, but because they are repeated.’ We take more pleasure in reaffirming our illusions than in excavating the facts.

My own refrains soothe and amuse me as much as those of others anger and disgust me. My dried-up phrases sound to me as wise as proverbs and as witty as jokes, and I’m sure that they do so to others too.

A platitude is a truism the converse of which is also true. Too many cooks spoil the broth, yet many hands make light work.

People love to harp on their convictions, because they think so much of themselves and so little about everything else. They gird their certitudes not with shaky corroboration but with unconquerable conceit. And they take pride in their illogic, as if they have bent reason to their own strong will. They hold uncompromising ideas on a point, not because they’ve formed their own view of it, but so that they won’t have to. They can’t keep off their hobby horse, not because they think so seriously about it, but because they think so trivially about anything.

We keep reasserting our ideas, not because they contain so much matter, but because our heads contain so little.