Cheer Three: Gossip as Literature

iv. The Land of Dreams

 All golden ages must come to an end. By the beginning of the 20th century, the great seas over which the old novelists had sailed had come to look like land-locked harbors, and the new novelists were anxious to cast off from the old moorings, as again you can often tell from the opening sentences:

 For a long time I used to go to bed early. (Proust)

 Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done  anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning. (Kafka)


Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own. (Faulkner)


 They look like the old sentences, they are definite enough, they have the breath of life. But there is a faint blurring of the outlines. Even in the vividly precise Faulkner scene we are not walking on firm familiar ground. And all these novels will turn out to be not at all novels in the old sense, they will be parables, apocalypses, visions in which very vividly delineated characters doing very vividly delineated things will be operating not by the laws of our ordinary daily life but in idiosyncratic patterns set up in their authors’ minds. Their logic is the logic of dreams.

 The unconscious mind can of course communicate directly with us only through dreams, and dreams, properly examined, can be seen as remarkably similar in many respects to what the conscious world calls gossip. Like myths, they tell stories, and like myths, the ones that are remembered are the ones that for one reason or another are interesting. Like any good gossip, the dreamsmith locked up in our skulls looks for the vivid detail, the sharply defined anecdote with sharply defined characters. Like any good gossip, he (she?) makes sure that everything he shows us is coherent, makes sense, at least as long as we are dreaming - it is only when we wake up and filter the dream through our conscious mind that it begins to sound a little peculiar..Just as any good gossip would not think of wasting your time telling you of all the times Mrs. Jones walked up and down stairs yesterday or how many times she relieved her bladder but gets right to the point, that she was knocked downstairs by her teen-age lover, so our unconscious minds do not bother to keep us up to date on all the work they are doing all the time, such as regulating our blood flow and our digestion, but concentrate on scenes or situations involving our emotions and our unspoken desires. If they don’t, we simply forget them as we forget all but a tiny handful of the millions of things that happen to us in our waking life.

 Unlike the ordinary daytime gossiper, the dreamer has a captive audience which has no chance to interrupt the flow of information by yawning or slipping quietly out the door. This gives him a chance to spin out his dreams with a boldness and freedom which the constraints of daily waking life, not to speak of the clamor of a bad conscience, do their best to suppress. The dream can bring together with startling clarity in the night feelings and events which time and space and a sense of propriety keep far apart during the day.

 There is one very useful thing, however, which the unconscious mind lacks and which is necessary to getting through the day without disaster, and that is common sense. Gossip cannot exist without common sense, it must deal with plausible events happening to real people, bound by certain laws dealing with space and time. Effect follows cause, and the number of dimensions is three. The events occur in patterns which we have all learned to recognize from experience.

 In dreams, on the other hand, which are incapable of learning from experience, we can fly through the walls of our beloved’s bedroom, we can murder our fathers with impunity or turn our sisters into mice, we can disregard the laws of God and man and probability, we can annihilate all that's made to a green thought in a green shade.

 The illusion of omnipotence is heady, but at some point it becomes necessary to remember that it is an illusion. For all its vaulting ambitions, the human skull remains narrower than the world outside..

 The psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl was dragged from his home in Vienna by the Nazis in 1940 and sent, along with his wife, to a concentration camp. She was killed in a few days, but he survived for five years. One night some time during those five years, lying on the wooden bunk he shared with two other prisoners, he became aware that the man on his right was suffering the worst nightmare he had ever come across in his professional career: groaning, howling, writhing, thrashing. Everything in his doctor's training told him to wake the man up before he hurt himself, this is the most effective way to stop a nightmare. But just as he was about to grab him and shake him, he remembered that what the man would be waking up to would be daily life in Auschwitz, and that was a hundred times worse than anything the mere human imagination could dream up by itself. So he let the nightmare gallop on.

 The great novelists of the 20th century, the Joyce, Prousts, Kafkas, Lawrences, Faulkners and so on, have done extraordinary things with the green shade, there has never been a time when such virtuosity was used to mate language to the secret insights and yearnings of the soul. At the same time, they have more often than not lost sight of the tree that casts the shade and the people who are walking in it. Both tree and people get themselves into absurd situations, where common sense would dearly like to see an explanation, but none is forthcoming.

 No one can object to this in a short lyric poem, but in a long prose narrative it presents problems. Blake’s tiger burning bright in the forests of the night is a startling and highly effective image of a terrible superhuman force running loose in the universe. If this tiger would turn up as a character in a novel, like Moby Dick, he would look perfectly silly, since a real-life tiger would soon starve to death if it lit up in the night and scared away all its prey.

 The novel is an impure medium, and cannot be very strictly defined, but the least the ordinary reader can expect of it is that it deal with people who seem real, performing plausible actions in recognizable landscapes. No such necessity adheres to dreams, and twentieth-century novelists are delighted to do without the necessity. Space and time, cause and effect, which are the building blocks of gossip, can merge, fade, or take flight on the wings of fancy .We are left with a dazzling performance -- “God paring his nails,” was the way Joyce put it -- and poor plodding Dame Gossip is left far behind.

 It is a pity, because the novelists of the golden age owed their universal appeal to their ability, unparalleled in the history of literature, to find a balance between earth-bound gossip and heaven-storming imagination.

 Not that the 20th century novelists have been unalterably opposed to gossip. Indeed most if not all of them have loved to gossip in their private lives -- being novelists they could hardly help being curious about the world around them -- and often they gossip brilliantly in their works. Henry James, who may be considered the first of the modern novelists, loved to shut himself up in a cozy room with Edith Wharton and other friends to let them pour out all the latest scandals in society. When it came to his work, however, he had no time for such undisciplined stuff.

 The longer and more complex his novels got, the more they tended to build themselves around a simple, usually rather sordid, anecdote, and as he grew older he made less and less effort to make the anecdote plausible. It was simply a device on which he could hang the wonders of his narrative and analytic skills.

 The plot he chose for his last masterpiece The Golden Bowl, might have been the plot of a French farce. Adam and Maggie Verver are passionately in love with each other, but, since they are father and daughter, they cannot decently go on living together. Unbeknownst to Maggie, her best friend Charlotte is in love with an Italian prince, and he with her, but since they are both penniless fortune-hunters they cannot get married. A meddling friend provides Maggie with the chance to work out an ideal arrangement: she will marry the prince, papa will marry Charlotte, and all four can live together in harmonious luxury. Everything goes swimmingly until an amazing coincidence involving a cracked golden bowl in an antique shop reveals to Maggie that the arrangement she thought of so proudly as her own had really been planned in advance by Charlotte, whereupon a great emotional storm arises. It is a situation which in a French farce would produce some hair-pulling and some crockery-breaking and finally some ingenious twist of the plot which would reshuffle the partners into a happy ending. James, however, planned his work as a monumental two-volume version of King Lear, and did succeed in turning it into one of the great horror stories of all time, Maggie turns into a bitch goddess and will not stop howling and slavering till she has utterly destroyed the lives of every one involved. She bullies her father into dragging Charlotte off to the dreadful city he has built somewhere west of the Mississippi. And Maggie will go on living a desperately conventional life with her prince, who can offer her sexual satisfaction, a rare commodity in James novels, but is otherwise a thorough rotter, like all fortune-hunters and most foreigners in James novels. Maggie’s father, Adam Verver. acquiesces in all this, and, since he is one of the six richest men in America, a self-made millionaire of the Ross Perot type, he can finance it. If ever a character in a novel who cried out to be gossiped about, it was Adam Verver. But it would have been against James's principles to get into the sordid details of what any self-respecting gossip would have insisted on knowing, such as how Mr. Verver made all that money and how he goes about building up what appears to be the greatest art collection in the modern world. James had a horror of showing anyone doing anything, he preferred them agonizing over the manifold possible reasons for not doing it. Of such is gossip not made.

 Yet in the first hundred pages of the novel, most of which deal with Charlotte’s not buying the golden bowl, he reveals all the talents of an inspired gossip. He knows exactly who is doing what and why, because he is in the world of the fortune-hunters and what they are dealing with is something very tangible, money that is out of reach. James never had enough money, and he was keenly alive to all the ambiguous emotions such a situation entails. When he gets to Maggie and her father, he is dealing with vast sums of money in the pocket, money in the bank, and in James such money is purely symbolic, it stands for innocence and virtue. Hence Adam Verver, despite his little beard and his little paunch, becomes a disembodied presence, a kind of moral seismograph registering the most delicate degrees of awareness and suspicion and hostility in his little ménage à quatre. The sensitivity and sacrifice of Adam Verver would be very moving, if it were possible to believe that a selfmade midwestern millionaire who addresses his son-in-law with words like

“You’re round, my boy, you’re all, you’re variously and inexhaustibly round, when you might, by all the chances, have been abominably square”


could ever have existed. As it is, the most moving scene in the book is the one in which Charlotte goes wandering at the end of an invisible leash around the great rented house in the English countryside, silently wailing over her fate. Her fate is to spend the rest of her life, or more precisely the years before her husband dies, showing frumpish American ladies around her husband’s art collection in the Midwest, and once stated in these flat gossipy terms, it is nightmarish enough but it is also hard to take seriously.

 James Joyce was another great gossip who had more serious things on his mind. His Ulysses is so crammed with the details of the lower-middle-class

Dublin he knew that hundreds of pilgrims can flock there every Bloomsday in June and get drunk in the very bars where all the characters in the book got drunk and walk on the very sands where Mr. Bloom masturbated at the sight of Gertie McDowell's drawers.

 This last episode, which is very funny and very sad, takes place in the very middle of the book, something which in Joyce cannot be the work of chance. There is some profound symbolism here (the equivalent place in the adventures of the original Ulysses as recounted by Homer finds him tied to a mast between Scylla and Charybdis while sirens sing) and I am sure that the commentators have done their best to expound on it. Poor Mr. Bloom, likeable as he may be (he was, after all, a self-portrait) seems to be drowning in symbols for hundreds of pages consecutively, and I think most readers have found the only way to get through the book is to skip lightly over the brightly purple passages and keep an eye out for the gossip about dear dirty Dublin..

 The desiccation of gossip is carried by Joyce to its logical (logical in an Irish sense at any rate) conclusion in Finnegans Wake where the tantalizing fragments of life in dear dirty Dublin are only flotsam on a great sea of literary devices. Consider the climactic scene, as day is about to break and put an end to the long troubled dream of Mr. Earwicker alias Finnegan which has by now lasted for six hundred and ten pages. The arrival of dawn is symbolically enacted in a scene in which Saint Patrick, who the commentators say represents gray day, logic, imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church, triumphs in debate before the High King Leary over the Arch-Druid of Ireland, who represents poetry, the night and the multi-colored world of the Celtic imagination. The dreamy Arch-Druid speaks in Chinese pidgin:

 Tunc. Bymeby, bullocky vampas tappany bobs topside joss pidgin fella Balkelly, archdruid of islish chinchinjoss in the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan mantle finish he show along the his mister guest Patholic...speeching, yeh not speeching noh man liberty is, he drink up words, scilicet, tomorrow till recover will not, all too many much illusiones through photoprismic velamina of hueful panepiphenal world spectacurum of Lord Joss, the of which zoantholitic furniture, from mineral through vegetal top animal, not appear to full up together fallen man than under but one photoreflection of the several iridals graduationes of solar light, that one which what part of it (furnit of heupanepi world) had show itself (part of fur of huspanwor) unable to absorbere, whereas for numpa one puraduxed seer in seventh degree of wisdom of Entis-Onton he savvy inside true inwardness of reality, the Ding hvad in idself id est, all objects (of panepiwor) allside showed themselves in trues coloribus resplendent with sextuple gloria of light actually retained, untisintus, inside them (obs of epiwo). Etc.


while the blunt businesslike St. Patrick speaks in Japanese pidgin:

Punc. Bigseer, refrects the petty padre, whackling it out, a tumble to takem tripeness to call thing and to call if say is good while, you pore shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger, by thiswis aposteriprismically apatsrophized and paralogically periparolysed, celestial from principalest of Iro’s Irismans ruinboom pot before (for beingtime monkblinkers timeblinged completementarily murkblankered in their neutrolysis between the possible viriditude of the sager and the probable eruberuption of the saint) and so on..


 . When you get it all worked out, you may find it both funny and stimulating, like a highbrow crossword puzzle in the London Times; though it is hard not to sympathize with Ezra Pound’s exasperated comment that the only justification for all the wearisome work of decipherment involved in reading Finnegans Wake would be to find at the end of it a cure for the clap. More friendly commentators have found in this passage a symbolic representation of the clash of two world cultures, two ways of life, and their eternally opposing values.

 Such conflict of world values was not beyond the reach of novelists of the golden age. Here, for example, is Sir Walter Scott, who was as much an innovator in his century as Joyce was in the next one, in the concluding scene of The Talisman, which describes a climactic moment of the Third Crusade at the end of the 12th century. The wily Moslem leader Saladin is about to negotiate a peace treaty the only such treaty that would ever last for more than half a century in the Middle East, with the crusader hero King Richard the Lion Heart of England, known to countless generations of Arab children as the Melech Ric, a bugbear who will devour them if they misbehave. Saladin challenges Richard to a trial of strength, and

 “Willingly, noble Saladin,” answered Richard; and, looking around for something whereon to exercise his strength, he saw a steel mace, held by one of the attendants, the handle being of the same metal and about an inch and a half in diameter. This he placed on a block of wood. The anxiety of De Vaux [one of Richard’s attendants] for his master’s honor led him to whisper in English, “For the blessed Virgin’s sake, beware what you attempt, my liege. Your full strength is not as yet returned; give no triumph to the infidel.”  “Peace, fool,” said Richard, standing firm on the ground and casting a fierce glance around. “Thinkest thou I can fail in his presence?”  The glittering broadsword, wielded by both his hands, rose aloft to the King’s left shoulder, circled round his head, descended with the sway of some terrific engine, and the bar of iron rolled on the ground in two pieces as a woodman would sever a sapling with a hedging-bill.  

“By the head of the Prophet, a most wonderful blow,” said the Soldan, critically and accurately examining the iron bar which had been cut asunder; the blade of the sword was so well tempered as to exhibit not the least token of having suffered by the feat it had performed. He then took the King’s hand, and, looking at the size and muscular strength which it exhibited laughed as he placed it beside his own, so lank and thin, so inferior in brawn and sinew.

“Ay look well,” said De Vaux in English. “It will be long ere your long jackanapes fingers do such a feat with your fine gilded reaping-hook there.”

“Silence, De Vaux,” said Richard...

The Soldan presently said, “Something I would fain attempt, though wherefore should the weak show their inferiority in the presence of the strong? Yet each land has its own exercises, and this may be new to the Melech Ric.”

So saying, he took from the floor a cushion of silk and down, and placed it upright on one end. “Can thy weapon, my brother, sever that cushion?” he said to King Richard.   “No surely, replied the King. “No sword on earth, were it the Excalibur of King Arthur, can sever that which exposes no steady resistance to the blow.”

 “Mark then,” said Saladin, and tucking up the sleeve of his gown, showed his arm thin indeed and spare, but which constant exercise had hardened into a mass consisting of nought but bone, brawn and sinew. He unsheathed his scimitar, a curved narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was on the contrary of a dull blue color, marked with the million of meandering lines which showed how anxiously the metals had been welded by the armorer. Wielding this weapon, the Soldan stood resting his weight upon his left foot, which was slightly advanced; he balanced himself a little as if to steady his aim, then stepping at once forward, drew the scimitar across the cushion, applying the edge so dexterously and with so little apparent effort, that the cushion seemed rather to fall asunder than to be divided by violence.

“It is a jugglers trick,” said De Vaux...    The Soldan seemed to comprehend him, for he undid the sort of veil which he had hitherto worn, laid it double along the edge of his sabre, extended the weapon edgeways in the air, and drawing it suddenly through the veil, although it hung entirely loose, severed that also into two parts, which floated to different sides of the tent.


A story just like this might well have been relayed by gossips in taverns in Damascus or in London at the end of the 12th century. (What a shame it is that Saladin’s personal physician, Moses ben Maimon, known to the West as Maimonides, who must have known everything that was being gossiped about at the court of the Soldan, never thought of writing any of it down when he came home to dinner. But he had no time to spare from his authoritative guide through the thickets of Jewish law, Guide to the Perplexed.)

Sir Walter’s story is inaccurate, as gossip so often is, for Saladin and Richard never met face to face. But Saladin and Richard were legitimate and well-known historical characters and the story would have seemed perfectly plausible to hearers at the time. Even today, centuries later, for all its awkwardly old-fashioned language, it sounds like a lively enough tale and a playfully thought-provoking commentary on the eternal conflict of blunt brutal West and supple wily East.

Joyce’s Arch-Druid and Patrick, on the other hand, seem further removed from real life the more you look at them. It obviously does not matter that there was never such a person as an Archdruid of Ireland or, according to the latest pronouncements of the Roman church, such a person as Saint Patrick either. But a Japanese reader might well object that the story as told is very unfair to his country, since, viewed in the broad perspective of historic time the Japanese were imperialists for less than a century, between the arrivals of Commodore Perry and General MacArthur, while the Chinese have been expansionist for thousands of years. Moreover, Japanese art has always been more colorful than Chinese. And only a blind man could believe that the world of dreams is more colorful than the world you can see out of your window.

It is not to be wondered at that Scott in his day was read by everybody who could read, while Finnegans Wake can reveal its treasures only to multilingual graduate students.


It has become fashionable to say that the novel is dead. Any visit to a bookstore can prove that this is nonsense. There are plenty of readable and a few rewarding novels being published every year. They often touch on areas of human experience, notably sexual experience, that were taboo in Victorian days, and they can be strikingly original in style and outlook. There is, however, a general feeling which like most general feelings has a certain kernel of truth in it that there are no Great Novelists any more. No one since the early Faulkner has been even a serious contender for the title.

This is not necessarily the fault of the novelists, for the novel itself has become marginalized. For the brief century of its glory it fulfilled and transcended two of the main functions which had belonged to Dame Gossip over the ages. It provided a steady stream of information to satisfy every curiosity, about what was going on everywhere near and far. And it created familiar characters who became part of common life and common conversation.

 In the 19th century, every one would have recognized d'Artagnan if he walked down the street in his musketeer boots Today who can remember the name of the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a character with roughly similar values and behavior patterns? Or indeed anything about him except that he carried a sleeping bag with him? (I remember also that he described himself as an Idaho Republican.) For most people, he is just another Hemingway hero. It is the novelist rather than the novel that takes first place, for the action has moved inside, into the capacious chambers of his mind.

In the 19th century, the names of novelistic characters would spring to everyone’s mind, would enter everyone’s conversation, whether Ivanhoe or Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina or the Hunchback of Notre Dame or Huckleberry Finn. For characters of equal resonance in the 20th century, we have to turn to eccentric branches off the main trunk of the novel, the detective story or the fantastic adventure story which in time mutates into the science fiction story. Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan of the Apes are universal in a way that Stephen Dedalus and the Baron de Charlus or even the Great Gatsby could never hope to be. The last novelistic character who became a word in the English dictionary is, I believe, Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt (1923). A half century or so later, John Updike was writing his Rabbit novels, which give a much more entertaining and much more penetrating view of American small-city life than Lewis did. But George Babbitt has made it into Webster, and Rabbit Angstrom never will.

Comic books and Hollywood movies, not Nietzsche and Shaw, provide us with the unforgettable image summoned up by the word Superman. The 19th century novel gave us overarching figures from the animal kingdom, like Moby Dick and the Hound of the Baskervilles. Our 20th century equivalent is Mickey Mouse.

It is hard to think of any novel since Gone with the Wind that really entered the consciousness of the whole world And that consciousness is today formed largely by the images of the Hollywood production. 


There are some pasts that can never be recaptured. This is now the 21st century, and the sheer sweep of modern history and modern technology may well have guaranteed that the novel will never go back to its glory days of the 19th. The roles which it filled then have been gradually but ineluctably usurped by wave after wave of fresh media, the movies, radio, television, the internet and even by old-fashioned newspapers which are being changed before our very eyes from dreary chronicles of politics and crime and war into uninterrupted gossip columns.

In this crowded terrain, twentieth century novelists have neither the time nor the inclination to adopt the boon-companion role of their ancestors, they have had to adopt a more confrontational approach. This is not always expressed with the crude cynicism of Bertolt Brecht’s dictum, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, it is a hammer to beat it into shape,” but readers are constantly being reminded that they are no longer in an easy-chair across from mine host of the tavern, they are being hectored by disheveled prophets exposing the hiding-places of the human heart who will brook no dissent. As a French minister of Culture said of the revolutionary artists besieging his office for subsidies, they come with a begging-bowl in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other..

There is, however, no reason to believe that this art form which has proved so adaptable in the past will not go on indefinitely into the future. Its scope will expand and contract with the taste of the times. Its style will perhaps become purer: the world is full of writing workshops where any novice can learn to avoid the stylistic excesses and structural defects of George Eliot and Balzac. There will always be some nostalgia, however, for the old impure gossipy flavor, like that which the poet Barbara Guest found in muddy rock water from the upper Mississippi, so much more satisfying than the immaculate waters of the Alps - “the tough arm of water that likes to mingle with the crowd and pick up its bitters in a dirty old smoky fist. Like Dickens”.