Robert Wernick, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
Home Page

iii.. A Critique of Pure Gossip

There was once, about fourteen hundred years ago, an Irish King named Sweeney who "thought he was a bird and lived his life in treetops." This must have seemed like a stimulating piece of gossip to the monks who heard versions of it either before or after the King flew off to Heaven. And to modern scholars like Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, it is a delightful expression of the Celtic temperament at full throttle.

For the King's attendants, talking things over at the foot of the tree after a day spent climbing up through the fog and rain to provide him with his food and his female birds, clean out his nest, and bring down his instructions about taxes and cattle-rustling forays, it would obviously not have been delightful, and it would not have been gossip. It would have been Shop-talk of the most serious and dreariest kind. When the attendants retired to their earth-bound homes at night and sourly reported to their wives the wearisome round of activities in the treetop court , it would have been what modern newspaper editors call Hard News. When the wives repeated it to their neighbors, and they in turn repeated it to wandering tinkers minstrels or monks, sometimes inserting a picturesque detail or two, either out of careless confusion of King Sweeney with some other King or a deliberate design to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, it would become Gossip. Either before or after some monk wrote down the story in the scriptorium of his monastery, it ceased to be Gossip and became a part of Irish History. When people stopped taking the monkish versions of Irish History seriously, it became a vital link in the great chain of Irish Literature, it became fodder for Ph. D. candidates working in the field of Folk Memory, and now, thanks to Mr. Cahill, it has become Gossip again..

It would surely provide some intellect satisfaction if we could follow the lead of the linguistic scholar Nancy Mitford, who found a way of dividing expressions commonly used in contemporary England into two groups: U, meaning Us, upper class, pukka; and non-U, meaning not quite our cup of tea. We could then classify everything we hear in the course of the day into G, for gossip, which is below the salt, and non-G, (or, if you prefer, S or SS, for Sir Serious). which is the right stuff, the serious stuff, above it Unfortunately, as the example of King Sweeney makes clear, G turns out to be such an amorphous concept that it keeps slipping from one side of the line to the other, the S side, and back again, like a bosonic ghost..

There can in fact be no precise definition of the word. Gossip is in the unhappy position of a sub-atomic particle caught in the grip of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: by the time we have identified it, it has ceased to be what it was. Your S may be the other fellow's G, and vice versa. The story of the sexual carnival which aroused such uproarious laughter at the little gossip session with your friends may turn into a terribly serious sob story when you have to explain to your spouse how you picked up a venereal disease. What may seem like insignificant gossip to some may be deadly serious fighting words serious to others, A couple is heard shouting at each other: "Your daughter is acting like a slut." "She's your daughter too, remember?" Their neighbors pass the story around with varying degrees of pleasure. They would be outraged to hear that similar stories were being told about themselves..

I once, at a party in San Francisco, decided to follow the Joyce example [see above] and noted down the words that had just been spoken by the novelist Caroline Gordon who for some reason was recalling a visit that had been paid many years before by the young poet Robert Lowell to the house in Tennessee where she and her husband Allen Tate were living:

When I saw that car arrive, I knew something strange was happening. I have never seen such filthy creatures in my life. They had been eating eggs, and the eggs were plastered on their shirt fronts. Filth! That poor girl, I forget her name. I saw that dreadful car come to the bottom of the rise. It was not just travel stains, it was days and days of filth. A young man got out of it and went to the bathroom and then I saw him coming up the path and I said to Allen, That young man is either drunk or mad. It was all Ford's fault. Ford told him that if he wanted to learn how to write he should head south. Allen sent him to Nashville to learn how to write there. Go see Mr. Ransom, he told him. Mr. Ransom told him, Go back to see Mr. Tate. Fordie and Allen were perfectly right. They said he was out for anything he could get. He'll use me and he'll use me and one day he'll write my life en pantoufles, said Ford. and that is exactly what he has done, that dreadful poem saying that Ford had no money. Allen warned me, he had no talent. But I was weak. It was my fault. The most hideous experience in my life came in the church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Chicago. At the moment of the elevation of the Host, suddenly there were his hands at my elbows and he was lifting me. Imagine what those Chicago people thought! He could never write a line of poetry. Suppose his name was Simpkins or Jenkins instead of Lowell, no one would pay any attention to him. I am not his mother! He told me once, You have only two children, but I repeat, I am not his mother! Lifting me like that at the moment of the elevation of the Host, I tell you I have never been so completely terrified. Later when he lifted me off the end of a pier and held me out over Lake Michigan, why I could almost enjoy that, I could take in the view. and then when he ran along the beach and picked up that little boy and squeezed him and said, You will be saved! Perhaps we were wrong not to call in the authorities, we were wrong when we said we could take care of him. He's nutty as a fruit-cake. It was his mother's psychiatrist who sent him down to us; a nut, too. And now he digs up lady psychiatrists and they tell him he can drink! He never could write a line of poetry. Allen always said so. Allen said he was going to feed on us and feed on us and then he would turn on us. That's what he has done. Look at the dreadful poem about Ford. He has done more private harm to Allen, he has not missed one opportunity. Poor boy! Nutty as a fruit-cake! and all America is going that way, no one values anything but madness. .If his name was Simpson, no one would be wasting their time talking about him...

There are undoubtedly nuggets of spicy gossip here, but would it be fair to classify the whole passage as G when there are so many S elements (Literary Criticism, Biography, Autobiography, the New Criticism, the Decline of the West) woven in as fancy or the martinis might decide?.

Still, nobody can deny that gossip, like the sub-atomic particles, really exists, and a certain number of generalizations can be made about it, though they all will be shot through with imprecision and uncertainty and will be almost uniformly fuzzy around the edges.

Since it expresses a universal need to communicate, it takes a group of two or more people for gossip to be created. There are of course solitary scribblers who keep diaries, but the diary at the moment it is scrawled on paper is elevated by the magic of art to the status of a person and is commonly addressed as such. Gossip is thus necessarily a social activity. (When the actress Mary Astor had an experience with a Hollywood writer which she could not very well share with the gossip columnists, she rushed to her desk to write, "Twenty times, dear Diary.")

But it differs from most other social activities in that it is not programmed. Like children's play, it may conform to patterns set by previous generations, but more than children's play it depends on individual whim. When people get together to gossip, they are temporarily out of society, they are only talking about things that interest them at the moment, not what church or state or the advertising agencies instruct them to talk about.

Gossip in principle opts for the concrete, abhors the abstract. Gossip is always declarative, never interrogative or imperative. Gossip deals with the mundane, it never goes to heaven though its ill-wishers say it smells of hell-fire. Its domain is Aristotelian fact, not Platonic form.

But if it deals with facts, it deals with them at second hand. It is not gossip when you report an automobile accident to the police or when a radio announcer tells you that war has broken out in the Balkans or when you read out to your spouse the activities reported by the private investigator you have hired.. But as you and your friends and the public in general talk about these things, they will gradually enter into the stream of gossip.

They won't stay there indefinitely. Gossip is eternal, but any particular item of gossip can only last a very short time, a few days for the leg you broke in a skiing accident, a few weeks for a rock star's overdose, tww or three years for the unpleasantness involving Senator Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, perhaps two of three generations for the assassination of President Kennedy. When it comes to gossip, we are all like the Athenians berated by the apostle Paul, we are only interested in some new thing.

People may go on talking about the Kennedy assassination for centuries, but it will not be gossip, it will be Serious Talk, like talk about the assassination of Julius Caesar, it will be history, Shakespearean drama, political propaganda or mere paranoia.

In olden days gossip necessarily moved slowly. It might take years for the story Parson Weems either heard or made up about young George Washington and the cherry tree to get itself implanted in the American mind. These days it can be done in a single sound-bite on the evening news. Not so efficiently perhaps. A gossipy image of George and the cherry tree, or Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak for Queen Elizabeth on the muddy street might endure for centuries. But what similar images of the last two or three generations have survived at all? Images of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at the General Assembly of the United Nations or of Michael Dukakis climbing into a tank at a U.S. Army base might flash in their day into every home in the world, but recent studies are said to show that fewer than twelve percent of American high-school seniors have any idea who Nikita Khrushchev might have been, and nobody bothers to ask them if they have ever heard of Michael Dukakis...

And yet there are so many other fleeting moments of the past that will not go away.

Gossip may be considered as an enormous sheet of very shallow water covering the world since man began to talk. It is not stagnant water, it is moving eternally forward with sluggish eddies or ripples which are forever dying out like the Assyrians and the Mohicans, and reforming in slightly different patterns. But every so often there is an eddy or ripple that develops an energy of its own, spreads beyond its little patch of water, and sets up waves that can go on indefinitely for reasons that it is beyond our power to determine. It is almost always impossible to trace one of these eddies back to its beginning, and when it is possible the results can be surprising.

In the year 1014 AD, all England must have been ablaze with gossip - which in 1014 was the only way that the day's news could be communicated to an illiterate population -- about the spectacular attack on London led by the Viking ruffian Olaf the Thick, later to become Olaf the Saint, the patron saint of Norway. History, serious History, tells us that Olaf was rowing his war fleet up the Thames when his way was blocked by a fortified bridge between Southwark and London. He ordered his men to cover their boats with roofs of oxhide, then to row boldly under the bridge. He had ropes tied around the piles and signaled to his men to row downstream in unison. Down came the whole bridge, and a .good number of Anglo-Saxon warriors drowned. It was a noteworthy feat of arms, and dozens of more or less exaggerated versions must have passed from mouth to gossiping mouth, from village to farm all over England. No one could have guessed that, while all the other episodes of that particular war have sunk into total oblivion, and even well-educated people who pray today to St. Olaf to find them a parking space have no idea of what he was like, ("If any there were," says his Saga, "who would not renounce heathen ways, he drove some out of the country, mutilated others of hands or feet, or gouged their eyes out; hung up some, cut down some with the sword; but let none go unpunished that would not serve God"), this particular episode somehow got embedded in the Anglo-Saxon memory. In a rationalized world, it might have been used to terrify the English into submitting to Olaf, or alternatively to rouse them to resistance against him. In the real world it simply lived on, without stirring anyone to action, and after a thousand years it still lives on in the nursery rhyme known to every English-speaking child, London Bridge is falling down.

There is no hiding the fact that Dame Gossip's hunting ground, which covers everything from God Almighty to what the little girl next door did behind the bushes, is a jumble, her critics will say a garbage heap, of undifferentiated objects. She picks them up because they are there and they can't help catching her eye, which has never had aesthetic or moral lenses to look through. She may be outrageously careless with her facts, but facts are all she has to offer. It is a quality she shares with revealed religion. There is no place for doubt in her universe, no time for weighing of the evidence. All that counts for her, as it counted for the Ondt in Finnegans Wake, is "what's what," and you had better take her word for it.

This certainly can narrow the field, and it is no use turning to Dame Gossip for too much insight into the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of life..She is properly barred from courts of law, from parliamentary debates, from meetings of boards of directors, from scientific symposia, she is not to be read in churches. She will not answer your questions as to algebraic theorems, or the ontological proof of the existence of God, or the influence of the rate of interest on the labor market. If she were so minded, she might answer that a society where everyone's time was totally devoted making love and war and money would soon get tiresome. As to a society run by Dame Gossip, it would only be fun while it lasted. In the wise economy of human society, there is room for variety..

Just how much room? This a question each society will have to decide for itself, quite unconsciously, however much advice may be given to it by its scholars and philosophers. Gossip is by nature a social activity, and must hve social consequences. But we should be suspicious of any general theories assigning it a specific role in society.

Some scholars have argued that gossip plays a useful social function by passing along and enforcing the traditional standards and values of the people that produces it. They approve of this strongly in primitive tribes, where they see women gathering like colleges of priestesses and filtering out current events to make them reinforce ancestral codes of conduct, protect tribal pride and identity, and thus ensure conformity and social stability . If such colleges there be, more power to them. Things are more complicated in the modern world, and I suspect that these scholars would strongly disapprove of colleges of priestesses in college towns spreading undocumented stories of nonconformist behavior in campus bedrooms that might get them fired from their associate professorships.

It is undeniable, however, that gossip prepares us for the practicalities of the ways of the world, the wicked or the benevolent as the case may be. The day we enter the army, or college, or computer reserhc center, or a typing pool, or the House of Representatives, we begin to hear a murmur of stories about the people we will now be living with and, if we keep our ears open, we will soon pick up invaluable hints about whom to avoid when the drinking fit is on, who is susceptible to sob stories, who can be sexually harassed with safety, who can be counted on in a moment of crisis. If modern life is a minefield, as many authorities tell us, then all these bits of gossip can be considered as strips of luminous tape that help us find our way and keep out of trouble.

On a more stately level, gossip may be taken as an evolutionary response to another uniquely human characteristic, namely, boredom. Animals, at least animals not locked up in zoos and big-city apartments, never get bored, but humans since the start of communal life have been disturbed and often driven crazy by the endless repetitions involved in keeping social life going. Gossip is to boredom what play is to work, a blessed relaxation, a relief from the tensions of necessity, it puts a comforting layer of grease between the grinding mechanisms of society..

And yet, for all the good deeds with which it may be credited, there is a touch of the non-conformist, a stain of the subversive, in gossip. The most shameless gossipers are at least subliminally aware that what they are doing is, to put it in one word, wrong.

Here for examples is a college of priestesses in a story, Lily Daw and the Three Ladies, by Eudora Welty, an acknowledged expert in the twists and turns, the strategies and emotional ambiguities of gossip in small southern towns throughout the world:

"Last night at the tent show-" said another, and then popped her hand over her mouth.

"Don't mind me, I know there are such things in this world," said Mrs .Carson, looking down and fingering the tape measure which hung over her bosom..

. "The point is, what did she do after the show?" asked Mrs. Watts practically. "Lily has gotten so she is very mature for her age."

"Oh, Etta!" protested Mrs. Carson, looking at her wildly for a

moment.

And here is a similar scene from Ireland, in Mary Manning's neglected classic, The Last Chronicles of Ballyfungus:

"There's queer doin's at the Old Mill." She paused, pursed up her lips and looked hard at her employer. Now Lady de Bracey knew she should not encourage Mrs. Walsh's revelations, it was "simply not cricket," but somehow she couldn't resist.

"Well, there's a foreign fella there that Miss Atkins met at Sannonside and she has him at the Mill mornin' noon and God forgive me I was about to say night. Poor Tim Nolan's fit to be put away. Last night when I was helpin' up at the Mill she had them artists from London to dinner. Declare to God before I was gone I hid all the sharp knives, when I saw poor Tom's condemned face and the two glarin' eyes on him. "'I'm off to Australia to work for my brother,' says he. 'A sure what would keep me now with the wife gone and no children?'" I hope he goes before murder's done. Remember old Carmody fed his wife's fancy man to the pigs?"

In Ireland as in Mississippi, these ladies are quite aware that there are some things which everyone knows but which it is not proper to mention out loud. Everyone knows that if you don't play cricket by the rules the world may well come to an end, but one word of old Carmody or Lily Daw, and out go the rules.

Gossip here seems to act like the unconscious mind in psychoanalytic theory, the primal seething force of the id that will pop up despite all admonitions of the prim super-ego and spill all the beans about what is going on below the surface.

Chronicles of life in oriental despotisms, modern totalitarian states, English public schools, all demonstrate that in an authoritarian society, gossip is almost the only means available for individuals under the yoke to maintain and express a certain independence of mind. Somehow the word gets out, of authority caught in some ridiculous or repulsive situation, and it is endlessly whispered with smirks and stifled giggles in corridors and closets and between conjugal sheets.

No wonder authorities in such institutions tend to regard gossip as fundamentally subversive, and maintain battalions of spies to ferret it out.

But who will spy on the spies? Think of how J. Edgar Hoover used to love to gossip about things like the noises picked up by the bug he had put in the mattress of the bed which Lieutenant John F, Kennedy, USN, shared with his friend Inga Binga.

It is true that Inga was suspected of being a Nazi spy, so this episode may be placed, if you so desire, in the domain of Counter-espionage, which is a domain of Sir Serious.

Perhaps it makes more sense to regard Dame Gossip and Sir Serious, so often regarded by themselves and by the world at large as irreconcilable foes, are really uterine twins, engendered out of the same entangled womb which is the hurlyburly of the world.

They are bound to each other by invisible but unbreakable bonds. Like Balin and Balan in the Arthurian legend they must go on battling till the end of the world. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it,

Gertrude, lily, and Luther are two of a town,

Christ's lily and beast of the waste wood;

From life's dawn it is drawn down,

Abel is Cain's brother, and breasts they have sucked the same.

The Gertrude in this poem is St. Gertrude, a medieval German nun who liked to gossip at length about her private relations with the Deity:: "Suffering from a headache," says her authorized life, written by some one who had been in a position to take down her words, "she sought, for the glory of God, to relieve herself by holding certain odoriferous substances in her mouth, when the Lord appeared to her to lean over towards her lovingly, and to find comfort Himself in these odors. After having gently breathed them in, He arose and said with a gratified air to the Saints, as if contented with what He had done: 'See the new present which my betrothed has given Me.'"

Such details would seem simply evidence of monkish superstition to Martin Luther, reforming the Church three hundred years later, as they would to William James who made merciless fun of them in his Varieties of Religious Experience, three more centuries later. Gertrude on her part, for all her piety and sweetness, if she had survived into our time, would surely have found it hard to say a good word either for Luther or for William James.

The prophet Hosea would certainly not have found a good word to say for the gossips who must have been whispering about him with knowing smiles while he thundered out prophecies in the market-places of Samaria in the reign of King Jeroboam II, in the 7th century BC. Samaria was then the prosperous capital of a strong kingdom, spoken of with respect by the Kings of Assyria in their inscriptions. Hardly a hint as to what life was like there has survived except in passages like this one from the Book of Hosea:

And the Lord said unto Hosea, go take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredoms, departing from the Lord.

So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim; which conceived and bare him a son.

And the Lord said unto him, Call his name Jezreel; for yet a little while, and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel.

And it shall come to pass at that day, that I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.

And she conceived again, and bare a daughter. And God said unto him, Call her name Loruhamah [that is, Not Having Obtained Mercy]; for I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away...

Now when she had weaned Loruhamah, she conceived and bare a son.

Then said God, Call his name Loammi [that is, Not My People]; for ye are not my people and I will not be your God.

We can only imagine what other versions of Hosea's life were current when the good people of Samaria gathered to gossip in the market-place. There was surely interest in the subject, for all but the most indefatigably righteous are openly or secretly delighted to hear of holy men who develop close relationships with fallen women, especially when they go on denouncing sin at every street corner. There was always an eager public for gossip about the sanctimonious 19th-century British prime minister Gladstone and his nightly contacts with the street-walkers of Limehouse, as there was about the aged and ferociously fundamentalist French cardinal in our own time who was found dead in the bed of a prostitute whom he was said to be trying to guide back into a life of virtue.

For Hosea, none of the details that would have fascinated the gossips -- what did Gomer charge for her services in the days before she was saved? or, How did little Not-My-People get on with his schoolmates? -- had the slightest importance, he would not have polluted his lips by mentioning such subjects. All that counted for him was the one great Truth that the Kingdom of Israel was condemned by God. And sure enough, two or three reigns after Jeroboam II, the proud city of Samaria was razed to the ground by King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria, the golden calves which had made Israel to sin were melted down to make anklets for Assyrian princesses, the whole people was driven off like cattle to be swallowed up in foreign lands in accordance with the policies of Assyrian imperialism.

. History rarely allows a clear winner to come out of this game. We can imagine the miserable line of captives being driven across the desert toward the Euphrates. A holy man, naked under the naked sun, perhaps it is Hosea himself now well stricken in years, howls out to his wretched companions that his prophecies had told them just what would happen if they lived on in wickedness, and they were getting just what they deserved. In the middle of the misery and despair, as they stop for the night in some barren waste to huddle together for warmth, some old reprobate can't help but break the silence: Have you heard, he asks, the one about that old holy roller Hosea and his wife Gomer when they ran into one of her old customers at the Temple and he asked her how many times she had to satisfy Hosea on an average night?

Soon both Hosea and the old reprobate will go on the block at the slave-market and disappear forever into the anonymous mass of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Though Hosea's serious talk in the Bible is all that will survive to tell us about the last days of Samaria, irresponsible gossips will still get their word in. Twenty-five hundred years after the kingdom of Tiglath-Pileser III had followed the kingdom of Jeroboam II into oblivion, the young American republic would be fascinated by reports that the Indians currently being expropriated from their homes in the West were descendants of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. According to gossip picked up on the frontier by James Fenimore Cooper, the Pottawattamie chief Crowsfeather rebuffed the suggestion. The Pottawattamie, he insisted, "is a great tribe. It never was lost. It cannot be lost. No tribe better knows all the paths, and all the best routes to every point where it wishes to go. It is foolish to say you can lose a Pottawattamie. A duck would be as likely to lose itself as a Pottawattamie. I do not speak for the Ottawas. I speak for the Pottawattamies."

There are to this day some people in England who call themselves British Israelites, with a better claim than the Pottawattamies to be the heirs of the Lost Tribes. When they meet occasionally for genealogical gossip, I am sure some of them will be able to work out a lineal line of ancestry going back to little Not-My-People. ©2003 Robert Wernick


Robert Wernick
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
info@robertwernick.com