Wednesday, May 04, 2016

`Monstrous Novelty and Strange Disguise'

Be strong and try to imagine you are encountering this phrase for the first time in your life: variety is the spice of life. Think how rare spices were in England and the rest of Western Europe, how the wealthy paid extravagantly for products now in every grocery – nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin and ginger. Stuck in the amber of cliché, the phrase once triggered salivation but has long since been coopted by advertisers, practitioners of phony bonhomie and those who live in fear of sameness and routine like spoiled children. My ear tells me the phrase in recent decades has taken on a hint of sexual suggestiveness, just as stag films used to be called “spicy” (even better, “naughty but nice”). The origin of the phrase is the first section of William Cowper’s once immensely popular long poem The Task (1784). As frequently happens, the phrase has been slightly misremembered. Cowper writes:

“Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour. We have run
Through every change that Fancy at the loom,
Exhausted, has had genius to supply;
And, studious of mutation still, discard
A real elegance, a little used,
For monstrous novelty and strange disguise.”

In context, Cowper is poking fun at life in the town as compared to the country. He satirizes the obsession of townspeople with the latest fashions in clothing. In a gentler key, Cowper presages Thoreau: “The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.” Some forty lines later, Cowper writes:

“The earth was made so various, that the mind
Of desultory man, studious of change
And pleased with novelty, might be indulged.
Prospects, however lovely, may be seen
Till half their beauties fade; the weary sight,
Too well acquainted with their smiles, slides off
Fastidious, seeking less familiar scenes.”

At this point we ought to question our snobbery when it comes to at least some clichés. One is more forgiving of their presence in casual conversation than in journalism and contemporary poetry, where they are ubiquitous and largely unrecognized by their practitioners. “Variety is the spice of life” might be judged a benign cliché, a sort of folk poetry. The thought expressed certainly preexisted the cliché, as an egg preexists a chicken. There was a moment when almost every cliché was a shining, short-lived aperçu. The worst clichés are given and received deafly. They are ossified language, verbal holes plugged, lazy proxies for genuine communication, gestures in place of thoughts. Cowper left us other familiar phrases, almost proverbs, some later misremembered, that we have flattered by turning into clichés: “God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform,” “God made the country, and man made the town, “I am monarch of all I survey.”

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