Cheer Three: Gossip as Literature

I. The Dark Ages of Gossip

Jane Goodall, guardian and student of chimpanzees, was watching one of her families scrambling around on an African hillside when she noticed one little fellow, a quite insignificant one, pick up an empty tin canister and let it roll downhill. As it bumped along, it made a varied and considerable noise, and every chimpanzee in the family stopped whatever it was doing at the moment and came running to watch it go and listen to its clattering music...The little chimpanzee ran after it, picked it up, took it back up the hill, rolled it down again. The family could not get enough of it. By the time he gave up from weariness or hunger, little Master Insignificant had amassed so much admiration and prestige the he rose at one bound from near the bottom to almost the top of the severely structured pecking order which rules all chimpanzee families. From this time forward he ranked only two or three rungs below the Dominant Male.

I doubt if the chimpanzee brain is genetically endowed with the ability to make a lifetime job out of canister-rolling, let alone pass the secrets of the trade on to future generations. The brains available to early humans, our ancestors, were made of richer stuff. In the daily round of gossip in some primeval cave or forest clearing, a clever gossiper might easily observe that one of the events he was recounting seemed to hold the interest of his hearers more than others, and he or another might observe that this did not depend so much on the nature of the event as on the way it was being told. He could then in the course of time work out the basic techniques of narrative that would be valid from those days to the days of Chekhov and Stephen King. Effect follows cause. Past leads to present and to future. Character molds action and is revealed by action. A story has to have a beginning a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. Pieces of information deliberately withheld increase suspense. Repetition adds emphasis. An axe picked up at the beginning of a story achieves its full dramatic effect when it crashes some neighbor's skull at the end.

It was the beginning of literary art, though literature in the technical sense would not appear until the invention of writing several hundred thousand years later. Oral or written, its first function was to tell a story.

A story, as the first story-tellers in forest or cave learned, is a form of magic. Events which occurred in another time, another place, are transferred by mysterious immaterial means like the sound of a human voice into the minds of those who hear or read the story, and can arouse reactions of delight or grief or rage more intense than witnessing the original action might have done. It might affect their whole lives forever after. At the very least it could make the long dark nights in forest or cave less lonely, less threatening.

People would like to hear over and over again how grandpa killed that monstrous bear, what grandma learned from that ghost she met in the field of giant mushrooms. If the stories were spicy enough, they might be repeated over and over again, for generation after generation, being continually changed by the skill of different story-tellers to fit the changing environment of his audience.

The ability to call up memories of common ancestors can be as important to the survival of a tribe as the ability to make rain, and it is no wonder that the story-teller has been always regarded with some awe, much like that aroused by Jane Goodall's canister-rolling chimpanzee, and acquired the same kind of social privileges.

Whether this was the first of all arts, or was preceded by dance or song or sculpture, is a question of only academic interest. All works of art that have survived to our day, whether they be cave paintings or stories of monkey-headed gods or dances to make the crops grow, however immeasurably old they may seem to us, are the end-product of hundreds of thousands of years of development and experimentation, distortion and improvisation. All artists, by the time they come into view in the historical record, are in highly specialized castes, with definite social functions and social privileges. From the earliest times we know of, story-tellers were clearly set off from the general run of mankind, as they still are in illiterate or semi-literate societies, from Tanzania to Wall Street.

While John Millington Synge was in the Aran Islands about a hundred years ago gathering material for his plays, a story-teller arrived from the mainland, a great event for the islanders. He had many tales to keep them enthralled, one of them about a Captain Connolly who lived far off down the coast. The captain's adventures were quite familiar to Synge, they came straight out of the plot of Shakespeare's Cymbeline King of Britain recast with Irish characters. A man who could tell stories like that was sure of a warm welcome, plenty of food and drink and a few coppers.

If he had been around a thousand years earlier, this raggedy old man would probably have been richly robed, and would have worn golden chains around his neck, he would have been a bard.

Since modern poets with a high opinion of their own insights, like William Blake, have described themselves as bards, the idea has caught on that bards were wild-eyed wild-haired men who like hippies of a bygone day wandered over suitably wind-swept landscapes chanting whatever profundities or whatever nonsense might go through their untamed minds. In fact, the ancient Irish bards were civil servants, receiving stipends fixed by law. They sat close to the King at table, and they sang for their supper. They operated under procedural rules as strict as those of any modern bureaucrat. They recited traditional tales of traditional heroes in rigidly traditional forms, or they recited tales of the great deeds of their living kings in the same traditional forms. Since they were responsible for keeping the king's exploits alive in a world beyond time, an Other World, where all the important decisions were made, they had immense prestige , and no battle between two bands of cattle-thieves was considered officially ended till bards from both sides had met and decided who would get the deathless glory of having won it.

It was not to be expected that a bard who sat at the king's table would be interested in workaday quotidian gossip. Adulteries that were going on before his eyes were of no concern to him, he sang only of how, far away and long ago, Queen Deirdre had been unfaithful to King Conchobar of Ulster, and how she and her lover Naissi after a happy life of sin in Scotland had come back home to meet their doom.

Story-tellers in other lands did not necessarily have the magical powers of the Irish bards, who could kill a man or make a woman ugly with a line of verse, or their exalted position in society, but everywhere they were a class apart, and the stories they told stood apart too. Against the artlessly spoken gossip of ordinary folk, they placed the solemn cadenced words of tradition which in the course of time would become the written word, Scripture. Any lowly camel-driver could entertain his fellows at night with rude and lively chatter about how the wily wife of a Bedouin chieftain tricked her senile husband into disinheriting his oldest son and leaving all his property to a younger one, her favorite, It was only when this story became attached, in solemnly cadenced prose, to Rebecca and Isaac and Esau and Jacob, and thus became a central event in the formation of the nation of Israel, that it began to be faithfully memorized and eventually written down.

That could take a long time, hundreds or thousands of years, and it is obviously impossible to hope to recreate the original gossip. So all those years, comprising all human history till the day before yesterday, must be regarded as the Dark Ages of Gossip.

"Dark Ages" is a literary term of abuse, which is applied by scholars to periods of which they disapprove because they find their manners uncouth or simply because there are too few surviving records to be studied in academically respectable depth. But the truth seems to be that humanity has always gone on developing through dark ages as well as light ones, though not necessarily in ways we approve of. The miserable arthritic humans who limped through the few poverty-stricken millennia of the Mesolithic Period learned how to domesticate the dog, which had been beyond the powers of their ancestors, the great artists of the long and glorious Paleolithic. The barbarians who destroyed Greco-Roman civilization in what are called the Dark Ages of Europe learned how to harness horses without choking them, something of which Aristotle and Julius Caesar were incapable. But no bard thought it worth his while to sing of such things however more important they may seem to serous folk today than the sorrows of Queen Deirdre.

Even in the absence of records, it seems reasonable to assume that, whatever the complexity or sophistication of their culture, people went on gossiping steadily about their families, their neighbors, their kings, the tribesmen from across the river whose cattle they stole, all the while improving their techniques as their societies and their languages grew in scope and capacity. Only, during all those interminable ages, gossip had no official sanction, no dignity.

Just as it had no place in official history, as we saw in the previous chapter. it had no place in the poems and prose destined to give pleasure to polite ears, it was definitely not part of Literature (a word derived from the letters of the alphabet, and for more than 90 percent of the history of mankind nobody had any idea of what an alphabet was).. If its matter and manner were ever used, it was only when they could serve some higher purpose. It might be exploited to provide the raw material of stories that were made part of the ritual of priests and kings; while in its original, unofficial, form it remained human and transient, like any other natural function best left untalked about, while priests and kings spoke for eternity, with the voice of gods.

The books of Ruth and Esther in the Bible, for example, are based on two bits of gossip, neither of them very edifying by contemporary standards. The Book of Ruth is about a Moabitish woman who chose to stay on as a Hebrew among the Hebrews with the family of her dead husband instead of going back to her homeland in Moab, and is rewarded by getting a chance to snare a rich husband and thus becoming the great-grandmother of King David. The Book of Esther is about a Jewish woman in the harem of the royal palace of Persia who is manipulated by her uncle to win the favor of King Ahasuerus and influence him to call off a scheduled pogrom of his Jewish subjects and authorize the slaughter 75,810 anti-Semites. These stories were accepted as part of Scripture only because they could be used for ecclesiastical propaganda, one in favor of tolerance, one for keeping the holy people separate.

Almost all early literature is concerned with gods and demigods and monsters, or with kings and queens and heroes who behave exactly like gods and demigods and monsters. It deals with vast events on a vast scale, full of wonders, never with the petty affairs of daily life unless they impinge somehow on the lives of the heroes.

Similarly, so-called folk-tales, which are generally believed to be the degenerate offspring of ancient myths and rituals, never have anything to say about the life of ordinary folk. If a woodcutter appears, he never chops wood. If Cinderella has to scrub the floor, it is only because she is on her way to becoming a princess. Kings in folktales never do what real-life kings customarily do. German folklore is full of characters like kings Etzel and Dietrich von Bern, who historians tell us were really Attila the Hun and Theodoric the Ostrogoth of Verona, but they never make wars or sign treaties or proclaim laws or scoop up virgins the way the flesh-and-blood Attila and Theodoric were expected to do. Instead, they have marvelous adventures, slay dragons, fall asleep for hundreds of years in caves.

The literature about them was originally composed by members of an ecclesiastical caste, which as civilization advances is replaced or supplemented by a secular writing class, whose function is entertainment rather than official relations with the supernatural. While members of this class may not be quite as exalted as they would wish, they still operate on a superior level, and what they are expected to write about is never ordinary life. They write epic poetry and drama dealing with heroes from a distant past having fabulous adventures like Odysseus, committing monstrous crimes like Clytemnestra and Orestes, or founding future empires like Aeneas. These heroes have wives and children, whom they sometimes murder, but they have no family life. They are constantly making wars in which hundreds of thousands of casualties may occur, but there is no detailed description of anything that happens in these wars, except single combat between champions on each side, David and Goliath or Hector and Achilles. When Israel fights Amalek in the Sinai Desert, there is no strategy and no tactics, the results are determined by how long the aged Moses can hold up his arms. Homer's Greeks lay siege to Troy for ten years before finally finagling their way inside its walls, but nothing at all happens in those ten years except a few brawls and quarrels between aristocratic chieftains over the booty left over from a gang rape.

This is because literature in what are called heroic ages deals only with the select individuals who, like the writers themselves, live on a superior social plane. They alone speak because they alone have something to say. The common folk are on stage only to cheer them on or provide a carpet of corpses they can ride over..

It is said that the first literary expression that can be ascribed to the individual common man is to be found in graffiti scrawled by Greek mercenary soldiers on the walls of monuments while they were on service in Egypt twenty-five in hundred or so years ago. Greek mercenaries were in great demand at that time because of their superior armament and tactics, and it might be thought that the life of any one of them, battling and plundering his way around the colorful and sanguinary Mediterranean of the first millennium BC, would be just as interesting as any tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. It is the kind of thing that would automatically make the best-seller lists today. Ernest Hemingway wrote a notable short story, Today is Friday, in which some privates in the Roman army of occupation in Palestine in the year 788 after the founding of Rome gossip about their recent unpleasant assignment to oversee the crucifixion of a Jewish trouble-maker on the hill of Calvary in Jerusalem. How happy we would all be today if, say, the secretary of Pontius Pilate, having followed a course in the Roman equivalent of the Columbia School of Journalism, had chosen to record what they actually did say that Friday. But no classical author of any description, or any other author until very recent times, would have dreamed of recording the disorderly ungrammatical ramblings of private soldiers for any other purpose than to make fun of them or reprimand them: Thersites in the Iliad makes some familiar and very-convincing lower-class sound when he tells the assembled Greek leaders that they are killing a lot of poor men in an utterly senseless war, but Odysseus soon beats the nonsense out of him; little boys in Samaria taunt the prophet Elisha, but God immediately sends two bears to eat up 42 of them; foot soldiers in Shakespeare's Henry V complain in terms very much like those of modern GI's, but Henry soon whips them back to duty with blank verse grandiloquence.

. So the Roman soldiers remain silent and all we know of the Greek mercenaries are those few signatures they scratched on the tombs of kings. Kilroy was there, saving the sum of things for pay, but no one knows exactly how he did it or how he felt about it.

Poetry in Greece and Rome and in the Far East came in time to permit expression of individual unconventional emotions, like the Greek poet Archilocus who boasted of having thrown his shield away and saved his life by running away from the battlefield, or Catullus analyzing his mixed feelings about his love. It would have occurred to none of them to describe how they spent their time on a typical day, like Mr. Bloom's day in June 1906 in Dublin. They would have recognized parallels to their own lives in the patterns and routines that are current in modern fiction, but they would have seen no excuse for paying attention to them. That would have been gossip, and gossip was something that concerned only inferior orders like women who were by definition illiterate.

Some literary conventions did leave a little room for the inferior orders, for comic effect. There is a famous scene in the Idylls of Theocritus which has two women in the Alexandria of the third century BC chatting about the husband and servant problems in terms that were undoubtedly as current in Alexandria as they are in the modern cities:

GORGO: Is Praxinoa at home?

PRAXINOA: Gorgo dear! Such a long time! She is at home -- I'm surprised you got here even now. Eunoa, see to a chair for her, and put a cushion on it.

G: It's fine as it is.

P: Do sit down.

G: Poor soul that I am! I hardly got here alive, Praxinoa, in all that crowd and so many carriages - everywhere hobnailed boots and men in

cloaks; and the road is never-ending -- you live farther and farther away.

P. That's that lunatic! He comes to the ends of the earth and buys a

cave, not a house, so that we can't be neighbors -- out of spite, the mean

brute; he's always the same!

G: Don't talk like that about your husband Dinon, my dear, when

the little one is here. See how he's looking at you, woman. Never mind,

Zopyion, sweet child, she doesn't mean daddy.

P: That daddy, the other day, really just the other day, I said to

him: Papa, go and get some soda and rouge at the stall. And he brought

me back salt, the great lumbering brute!

G: Mine's just like that too, he throws money away. Yesterday for

seven drachmas he bought five fleeces of dog's hair, shavings off old saddle-bags, nothing but dirt. But come, put on your shawl and your wrap. Let's go and see Adonis in king Ptolemy's palace. I'm told the queen is preparing something fine.

P: Everything's grand in grand houses.

G: When you've seen a thing, you can talk about it to others who

haven 't. It's time to be going.

P: It's always holiday for the idle. Eunoa, pick up that thread and

bring it back here, or I'll beat you. Cats like soft beds to sleep on. Move,

and bring me some water at once. I need water first, and she brings me soap! Never mind, let me have it. Not so much, you thief. Now the water. You wretch, what are you wetting my dress for? That will do.

G: That dress with its deep pleats suits you very well, Praxinoa.

Tell me, what did the material cost you?

P: Don't remind me of that Gorgo; more than two minas of good

money, and as for the work!

G: But it's just what you wanted.

P: That's true. Bring me my wrap and my sun-hat; put them on

properly. I shan't take you, baby. Let's be going. Phrygia, take the little

one, and call the dog in, and lock the front door.

This kind of TV-sitcom prattle was as far as ancient authors ever went in dealing with ordinary domestic life. Their fiction in general dealt with either fantastic adventures in mythical kingdoms or with the graphic grapplings of shepherds and shepherdesses who never came near a sheep.

Gossip does manage to bubble up from time to time in serious settings, for there is no way of keeping the old girl permanently down, but is never allowed an independent existence. It always has to serve some higher purpose.

Take away the philosophy from Plato's Symposium and you are left with very lively bits of gossip about some rich young men in Athens having a night on the town. Plato was a consummate literary artist who could have written first-class realistic fiction if he had wanted to. He had more important things on his mind.

Outside of historians, who are professionally bound to some reliance on random fact, classical writers preferred standard timeless situations in which lower-class people were allowed to make fools of themselves in more or less hilarious ways. Here is Petronius Arbiter, a Roman aristocrat and friend of the emperor Nero, who set the standards of taste at the imperial court:

He was still chattering away when the servants came in with an immense hog on a tray almost the size of the table. We were, of course, astounded at the chef's speed and swore it would have taken longer to roast an ordinary chicken, all the more since the pig looked even bigger than the one served to us earlier. Meanwhile, Trimalchio had been scrutinizing the pig very closely and suddenly roared, "What! What's this? By god, this hog hasn't even been gutted! Get that cook here on the double!"

Looking very miserable, the poor cook came shuffling up to the table and admitted that he had forgotten to gut the pig.

"You forgot?" bellowed Trimalchio."You forgot to gut a pig? And I suppose you thought that's the same thing as merely forgetting to add salt and pepper. Strip that man!"

The cook was promptly stripped and stood there stark naked between two bodyguards, utterly forlorn. The guests to a man, however, interceded for the chef. "Accidents happen," they said, "please don't whip him. If he ever does it again, we promise we won't say a word for him." My own reaction was anger, savage and unrelenting. I could hardly contain myself and leaning over, I whispered to Agamemnon, "Did you ever hear of anything worse? Who could forget to gut a pig? By god, you wouldn't catch me letting him off, not if it was just a fish he'd forgotten to clean."

Not so Trimalchio, however. He sat there, a great grin widening across his face, and said: "Well, since your memory's so bad, you can gut the pig here in front of us all " The cook was handed back his clothes, drew out his knife with a shaking hand and then slashed at the pig's belly with crisscross cuts. The slits widened out under the pressure from inside, and suddenly out poured, not the pig's bowels and guts, but link upon link of tumbling sausages and blood puddings.

The slaves saluted the success of the hoax with a rousing, "Long live Gaius!" The vindicated chef was presented with a silver crown and honored by the offer of a drink served on a platter of fabulous Corinthian bronze.

It is perfectly possible that this is genuine gossip and some bloated rich upstart like Trimalchio actually put on a performance like this in Rome. Self-made millionaires have never been noted for good taste. On the other hand, there is something a little labored about Petronius's manner, he is a little too anxious to show off his superiority to the vulgarians he is talking about. He could laugh at the buffooneries of self-made ex-slaves like Trimalchio the way New York millionaires today can make fun of millionaires in Beverly Hills. He could approach real life near enough to show a real cook roasting a real pig. The idea of treating it as anything but a joke was beyond him..