Sucker for an Archetype, Patsy for a Cliché

Sure it's a good idea, but isn't there a fresh way to express it? Uh, yes. The options are endless.

Sure it's a good idea, but isn't there a fresh way to express it? Uh, yes. The options are endless.

Swans paddling serenely beneath a stone bridge. Sunsets over beaches. Cute cats on plush pillows.

Generally speaking, I have no interest in these things.

Early in the Barry Levinson movie “The Natural”, there's a scene with some guys playing baseball in an early 20th century, sun dappled field. Golden sunlight sets summer bugs and floating blossoms aflame in sharp, angular rays. The players wear floppy caps and knickerbockers and the knowing smiles on people watching the game provoke the movie audience to lean expectantly forward for each pitch. I’m not even a sports fan, but there’s no other way to say it: the scene is spectacular in its apparent simplicity and familiarity.  It appears effortless.

When I encounter a string trio playing jazz in a cool club corner late at night I can’t help but feel right with the world. As a suburban parent I don't generally get to spend much time in upscale hotel bars or hip night clubs. More precisely, I’m also not one generally found drinking bourbon while seeking dangerous liaisons. Nonetheless the mental image conjures a nearly cliche archetype of implication in every aspect. It persists for me and I can’t un-recall that smoky club, wooden chairs, fedora’d bass player, brick walls, and city street outside full of possibility. A sense of grown-up immediacy inherent in the scene invests its idealization with charm and cool, even if reality is a little less than Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard.

Most invented things will not be entirely new. Everything is built on the culture that comes before, and when you to deny the power of archetype you deny the culture itself. The reason we return to the same tropes and images and moods again and again is because they resonate. We endlessly re-create images of sunsets over beaches because they imply evenings we wish we could experience. The draw is not the beach, or the sunset, or even the evening itself. The draw is the implicative pull of the time and wherewithal to facilitate the experience. Cliche is the translation of human desire into an idealized state.

Cliche and archetypes present traps, of course, beyond simply being overused and boring. When we presume we know how a person or a scenario or a sight or a sound should be, our stereotypes limit us from dreaming deeper. Human history is littered with the wreckage of presumptions aforethought. The various -isms that endlessly weaken our collective human potential are just the tip of the iceberg. From the perspective of thinking like a creative person, however, it’s valuable to think about how those archetypes can be subverted to positive effect.  Even if my dark jazz club presents subtle hints of femme fatales in cool places looking to cause trouble, my liaisons would not be dangerous if classic archetypes weren’t working in the background even if those archetypes are negative ones.

That’s the jumping off point for something much more lasting. Faced with an opportunity to transform that scene into something unexpected, a creative person can capture attention and compel a viewer, or listener, or reader. Culture’s inexorable gravitational field yanks us toward the places we already know, but a perceptive creative person can see cliche as it happens, and transform what came before into opportunity. Is that woman in the bar going to cause trouble? Maybe she is, but the story will be much more interesting if she’s trouble in ways that are not tied to old saws.

I used to think that all cliches and archetypes ought to be avoided. By and large that’s still a bit of good guidance, but like all ideas that grow over time, I believe there are nuances to the advice where there were once absolute dictums. You cannot help but be affected by archetypes and cliches; they exist because they’re part of the culture in which you live, and culture always takes a long time to change. But if you allow yourself to see those cliches, to be honest about what you think and what you presume and what you believe you expect of others, you empower yourself to change the narrative. Empowered with expectations of what came before, you can transform the future.

@michaelstarobin          or    

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