FOUR CHEERS FOR DAME GOSSIP
The Grandmother of Us All
by Robert Wernick
Cheer I: "One to Me is Shame and Fame"
i. The Illustrious Lineage and Bad Name of Dame Gossip
"There are some elements in the universe," said William James a century ago, "which make no rational whole in conjunction with the other elements and can only be conceived as so much dirt."
Such elements abound in the world of modern physics, where, while uncounted subatomic particles - fermions and such -- hop and swirl in well-regulated patterns to keep galaxies rotating in the sky and e-mail arriving on earth, there are separate and perhaps equal particles, of uncertain identity and no known function, scattering at apparent random around them. After a century of stupendous discoveries which have brought physicists to the very edges of the universe, these outlaw particles remain in circulation, bosonic ghosts as they have been called, gross chunks of James's dirt, with no apparent regard for the laws of gravity and motion and logic which hold in their iron grip all of us visible objects. Recently, with the help of an amiable theory called SUSY (for Super-Symmetry) ingenious mathematical physicists are trying to discover some underlying order even in this last refuge of chaos, and they are pursuing this tasks with such determined enthusiasm and such assurance of ultimate success that one Nobel-Prize winner has predicted that our time will one day be known as the Age of Dirt.
No such enthusiasm is aroused by the equivalent of these bosonic ghosts in the micro-universe of human society tucked away in the little clump of dust that is the planet Earth. This is Gossip, which can be found hopping and scattering wherever human beings concentrate but which, except for a handful of pallid academic studies, is either politely ignored by serious people or spoken of with curt disdain and distaste.
Yet gossip is something which every one does and everyone enjoys. It is, outside of eating and drinking and sex, the most universal of all conscious human activities. With a little searching, you can find otherwise ordinary people living ordinary human lives who have never prayed to any god or any devil, never committed one act of murder or adultery, never hunted or fished or farmed or voted or traveled to the next county or combed their hair or lied to a grand jury or seen a movie or broken a mother's heart. But you will have to look very far to find anyone who has learned to speak a language and who has never gossiped.
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool has collated dozens of learned studies indicating that with remarkable uniformity human beings, male or female, rich or poor, learned or ignorant, saint or sinner, when they gather in small groups and are left to their own devices, when their subjects of conversation are not programmed by office or school or church or army or lawcourt or talkshow host, spend from forty to sixty percent of their time gossiping. And though there are no learned studies to back up the conclusion, it is difficult not to assume that this statistic has remained constant since the dawn of human life on this planet.
Gossip is older than religion, law, science, government, money, war, competitive sports, indeed any other human institution you can think of except the family, and possibly slavery and cannibalism. And while these last two have virtually disappeared from the modern civilized world, and even the family is popularly supposed to be on its last legs, gossip flourishes as actively today as it did in the caves and forest clearings of prehistory.
An institution so old, so deeply rooted, so integral a part of our life, should almost by definition be a venerable figure. But gossip is nowhere venerated. The more we indulge in it, the more we despise it and denigrate it.
God abhors it, according to the Book of Leviticus [xix, 16]: "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people." And man is quick to approve that commandment. The very people who indulge most in the talebearing practice are the ones most anxious to disassociate themselves from it. "This is no gossip I'm giving you, that's for damn sure," said a man to me once in a bar in Winnemucca, Nevada, "this is the straight goods. I got it from my cousin, who has known the fellow all his life. He saw them put his wife into that saucer thing they had, and they had long green ears. It's no gossip, I'm telling you, it's fact."
Even those who make a living out of it treat it as a leper. An editor of one of the world's leading gossip magazines has been quoted as saying that his publication has nothing to do with gossip, a word which he says "carries connotations of untruthfulness. If I were asked to describe what we're doing, we prefer to call it 'personality journalism' or 'intimate reporting'"
The history of the word is a history of its degradation. Etymologically, it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon god-sib, meaning a person who has become a close relation through some religious ceremony like baptism. Godfather and godmother, words which came into being in the same distant past, are still with us, and when used in their literal sense, outside the criminal and political worlds, they are quite respectable words.. God-sib on the other hand, slurred by the laziness of custom to gossip, began early on to see its meaning slide downward. First, it came to mean "acquaintance, chum, friend," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, anyone to whom we feel close and familiar. Then it came to mean the close and familiar talk we hold with such people, spontaneous talk not dictated by our economic or social or political or theological or other obligations. Then it was broadened to apply to any informal unrehearsed exchange of information with friend or stranger.. Finally, it came to mean so much dirt - idle chatter, childish prattle, old wives' tales, talking to be talking, a misuse of time that could be better spent making a living or changing the world or acquiring self-esteem.
Why should such a widespread and clearly enjoyable activity have acquired such an ill repute?
An easy answer would be that it has always been associated with women, the brainless uneducated women who, until the day before yesterday, were expected to stay perpetually at home spinning and cooking and wiping babies' bottoms and chattering about anything that came into their disorderly minds while their menfolk were out purposefully in the world making war on the heathen, making the wilderness bloom, creating religions, creating civilizations, or innocently shooting the breeze. In the days when every abstract idea or general notion was personified, no one ever talked of Sir Gossip or My Lord Gossip, it was always Dame Gossip, a slovenly creature habitually poking her nose into corners which propriety would have suggested leaving in peace. In our days of feminism triumphant, such notions are properly regarded as patriarchal hogwash, but people tend to go on considering gossiping a feminine trait, and they do not mean it as a compliment. If they try to visualize a typical gossip session, they might think of something like Camille Claudel's lovely little statue of Les Causeuses, four naked women huddling comfortably in a corner, prattling through the daily round of ingrown toe-nails and unwanted pregnancies and roving-eyed boyfriends. Listen to four naked chief executive officers of great corporations in the steam-room of their country club discussing the sexual peculiarities of some of the younger female members, and ask them what they are gossiping about, they will respond with indignation: "What do you mean, gossip? This is man-to-man talk."
The hostility to the very name of gossip, however, goes deeper than mere gender.
Gossip can be creative, it can be stimulating, it can like Housman's ale do more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man. Yet there is also something lurkingly subversive about it. It defies all man's (or God's or SUSY's) best efforts to reduce the monstrous chaotic bulk of the universe to order.
No human society, and no component part of human society, can exist without some set of norms and standards to which its members are enjoined to conform as best they can, or face the consequences.. If you are a samurai or a senator or a hippie, you must act dress think and talk like a samurai or a senator or a hippie, you must follow your code. But Dame Gossip has no code. Though she may pay lip service to current standards of morality ("Isn't it terrible what the preacher did to those little boys?" "Can you believe a President of the United`States would do such a thing in the Oval Office?") she will never let standards of morality get in the way of giving us every eye-popping hormone-inflating detail of what happened to those little boys or to Monica Lewinsky. Her talk is often vulgar, always personal, undignified, disorderly. She is irreverent, irresponsible, irrepressible. Like the unpresentable grandmother who can cook a great dinner and keep onlookers in stitches with tales of her party days, she may be described as a great old girl who had better be kept shut up in the attic when respectable guests arrive.
The trouble is, she will not stay quiet in the attic. She will turn up uninvited in the midst of the most serious business, at moments when the fate of men or nations is being decided, and prattle away in defiance of good taste, good morals and common sense. Here are three samples I have plucked at random off my library shelves:
1) In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a novel which is also an astute sociological study of contemporary Massachusetts, we find a man engaged in a deadly serious business, he is hiring a Boston bartender to commit a murder. He is in the process of explaining that the head of the Mafia in Providence is personally interested in getting the job done right because he wants to avenge the betrayal and death of a young hoodlum to whom he was deeply attached. "The man," he says, "treated him like he was his son, which some people say he was." Which some people say he was -- it is a bit of gossip, of quite gratuitous gossip, which might well prove to be a suicidal piece of gossip to pass out to an audience that could see some profit in getting it back in garbled form to Providence. But the habit -- perhaps the habit of showing off his superior knowledge of the inner workings of the mighty, or simply the habit of showing off -- is so deeply ingrained in this man, worldly-wise and street-wise as he may be, that he can not resist indulging in it. Experience should have taught him as it teaches us all that the person who listens to gossip is more apt to profit by it than the person who spreads it. But we, like this friend of Eddie Coyle, go on chattering anyway till a decree comes from Providence and all our talk stops forever.
2) In Pumbeditha in Babylonia in the fifth century AD, a college of learned rabbis is putting together the definitive Midrash, or commentary, on the Book of Genesis which will be studied in schools and help conform the minds of men (minds of women do not count in this context) to wisdom till the coming of the Messiah. They are debating the deeper meanings that must be hidden behind every single simple word in God's account of the most important event in human history, the eating of the forbidden fruit in Paradise. How, asks one of these scholars, when they get to Chapter 3, verse 1, could the serpent arrange a private conversation with Eve so soon after her creation? Abba Halfon ben Koriah is ready with an answer: Adam, he says, "had engaged in his natural functions and then fallen asleep."
So easily does gossip slip in and out of human discourse and the minds of even the wisest of us, that not one of the scholars present in Pumbeditha, ordinarily so remorselessly attentive to every possible significance or ambiguity of every single word and letter in holy scripture, seems to have thought of asking where Abba Halfon had picked up this interesting but quite private piece of information. Certainly neither Adam nor Eve could have had any motive for spreading the story to their children and grand-children, and rabbis are not supposed to believe stories told by snakes.
Yet there you are. To the cynical secular eye of a later generation, it seems obvious that Abba Halfon had picked up a stray piece of gossip somewhere, perhaps from some other rabbi who had been overindulging in sacramental wine or from some woman he had no legitimate business with, and he accepted it without asking for its source or making the slightest attempt at critical or historical analysis, simply because he liked the sound of it, it was the kind of good decorously off-color story a man likes to hear, likes to spread in the board-room or the mens' room or the mess-hall. And as soon as an occasion popped up, he spread it in his normal sober tones. It fitted so naturally into the sober atmosphere of that solemn conclave that it was immediately written down it is now part of the official record, it is wisdom. Who knows what profound symbolic resonances are being detected in it by a bright young rabbinical student at this very moment?.
3) Field Marshal the Viscount Alanbrooke, K.G., O.M., is recounting in his memoirs the meeting of the Allied high commands at Casablanca in 1943, and is anxious to make it clear that it was only the acceptance of his own strategic concept and plans for an all-out Mediterranean offensive which made possible the final victory over the Germans in Europe two years later, regarded by himself and others as the most important event shaping the history of the twentieth century. The future of the world is at stake there in Casablanca, and the Field Marshal never wants his readers to forget it, but he cannot avoid wandering off into personal matters totally unconnected with grand strategy or the future of mankind, matters such as the odd behavior of Admiral Ernest King, commander of the U. S. Pacific Fleet who "got nicely lit up at the end of the evening. As a result, he got more and more pompous, and with a thick voice and many gesticulations, he explained to the President the best way to set up the political French organization for control of North Africa. This led to many arguments with [Churchill] who failed to appreciate fully the condition King was in."
No wonder serious people disapprove of Dame Gossip, even when she is telling them things they want to hear. They cannot forgive her fundamental disorder, If someone could replace the word Gossip with a new neutral term without any connotation of gender or untruthfulness, this term would soon acquire all the unfortunate connotations and the bad name of Gossip.
It can be a very bad name indeed. Professor Patricia Meyer Spacks in her valuable study Gossip (University of Chicago Press, 1985) reels off a doleful litany of denunciation and distrust beginning in the Middle Ages and rising to a 20th century climax with such epithets being hurled at Gossip as "surreptitious aggression" (Samuel Heilman), "murder by language," (Roland Barthes), and "unconscious wish for father-murder" (Jean B. Rosenbaum and Meyer Subrin in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 11, p. 829).
The condemnation is most thoroughgoing in works of the philosophers and poets of what may be called the Infantilist schools. who hold that all gossip or indeed all the language of grown-up people is deliberately designed to conceal, obfuscate or destroy the true apprehension of reality. For Infantilists, who rule the roost in many spheres of intellectual activity these days, our so-called civilization is a sham which does nothing but clip the wings and blinker the eyes of the free spirit which remains free in small children, madmen and selected sages and savages, but is elsewhere smothered by toilet training, incest taboos, dress codes, and schoolbook rules of etiquette and grammar.
Heidegger, the godfather of Existentialism, which until recently was the most fashionable of these philosophies in the western world, posited a primal reality he called Dasein (Being-there) which is inevitably distorted and corrupted in the normal channels of human discourse. "Because this discoursing has lost the primary relationship of being," he says in his distinctive style, "toward the entity talked about, it does not communicate in such a way as to let this entity be appropriated in a primordial manner, but communicates rather by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along....Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along -- a procedure in which its initial lack of grounds to stand on (Bodenständigkeit) is aggravated to complete groundlessness (Bodenlösigkeit)."
Heidegger was a Nazi, and it may be supposed that his ideal form of appropriating entity in a primordial manner would be a column of blond muscular young men chanting Sieg heil! as they goose-step off to break some non-Aryan skulls or burn some politically-incorrect books. Or in an opposing camp, it might be Allen Ginsberg leading a crowd of apprentice revolutionaries in chanting OM OM OM as they work themselves up to disrupt a national party convention in Chicago.
Life is not as simple as it appears to the Infantilist thinkers. All those handsome young people in Heidelberg or Chicago were taking part in what has to be called political action, and political action is unthinkable without politics, which necessarily involves the sophisticated use of gossip-ridden language to whip it into action. To get those masses with their primal insights assembled in the first place, in Heidelberg or Chicago, and to get them into the proper frame of mind or mindlessness for the correct action must have involved a truly colossal amount of Bodenständigkeit and Bodenlösigkeit.
Even Heidegger came to admit in his later years that Hitler had not been as close to Dasein as he once thought. Ginsberg, I believe, died unrepentant.
Not all Infantilists express themselves in a prose as muscle-bound as Heidegger's. Sometimes they write with real charm and wit and passion, like those Russians of whom Conrad said that, "as in the case of very accomplished parrots, one can't defend one's self from the suspicion that they really understand what they say." The trouble remains that any human life in society, or any human life whatever, depends on an accepted vocabulary, on words organized into a conventional language, and while we may all agree (with Conrad again) that "words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality," or with Wallace Stevens that "the words of things entangle and confuse," we should be aware that these were professional writers who needed to put eleven and seven words respectively grammatical order to get across their conviction that words are worthless.
The relation of language to reality is a bone on which philosophers have been breaking their teeth for centuries. Dame Gossip does not give a hoot for philosophical speculations, she knows that any philosopher who for any good or bad reason has a desperate need to know what is going on inside the house down the street where the blinds are always drawn or what a potential bedmate has been up to in recent months will find her a better guide than Plato or Wittgenstein. The Platos and Wittgensteins will go on bad-mouthing her just the same.
One consequence of all the savage assaults on gossip is that the word has quite lost every connotation of warmth and intimacy it once had, and in modern usage tends to become a term of abuse applied only to the kinds of gossip we disapprove of. Your neighbor gossips maliciously about you. You tell only the unvarnished truth about him..He sneaks and pries in the darkness. You bring the truth-bearing light that will make us free. He stoops, out of sheer petty spite, to rank garbagy gossip about the private life of public officials. You, with calm professional confidence, conduct investigative reporting.
Mr. Green, hearing some one report that his son has put a cat in a well dismisses it testily as mere gossip. Mr. Stout, hearing from the same source that his son has rescued her, trumpets it abroad as living evidence of the survival of the traditional values that have made this country great.
Even people who have been induced to put in a tentative good word for gossip will make a point of their determination to separate the good, life-enhancing, kinds of gossip from the bad, life-cheapening ones. As an example of the former, Professor Spacks cites a delightful passage from a letter dashed off by Lady Mary Pierrepont (later to become famous as Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the pioneer of inoculation for smallpox) in the early 18th century:
"Next to the great ball, what makes the most noise is the marriage of an old maid that lives in this street, without a portion to a man of 7000 per annum and they say £40,000 in ready money. Her Equipage and Liverys outshine anybody's in Town. He has presented her with 3000 in Jewels and never was man more smitten with these Charms, that had lain invisible this forty year. But with all this Glory, never Bride had fewer Envyers; the dear Beast of a man is so filthy, frightful, odious and detestable I would turn away such a footman for fear of spoiling my Dinner while he waited at Table. They was marry'd Friday and came to Church on Parade Sunday. I happened to sit in the Pue with them and had the honor of seeing Mrs. Bridge fall fast asleep in the middle of the Sermon and snore very comfortably, which made several women in the Church think the Bridegroom not quite so ugly as they did before. Envious people say 'twas all counterfeited to oblige him, but I believe that's scandal, for she's so devout, I dare swear nothing but downright necessity could make her miss one Word of the Sermon."
Professor Spacks compares this, with all its sparkle, precision of tone, precision of insight, its sheer joy of watching the world and rattling on about it, with some prurient little items culled from People magazine ("Caroline Reed, 18, finds her uncle Oliver surprisingly agile in a pas de deux"). She notes, reasonably enough if ponderously, that gossip like Lady Mary's offers us "reassurance not only about the stability of a continuous self but about the possibility of intimacy, of fruitful human exchange," while "People purveys the same reassurance in debased form, inviting its readers into a brief, unstable alliance . . .a one-night stand rather than an extended relationship."
In more sober language, what this says is that Lady Mary was a sharp observer and a good writer. and she gives us genuine and lasting pleasure by introducing us to some one like Mrs. Bridge whom we would never have heard of otherwise. And she reveals a good deal about her own lively little mind in the process. While in a month or a year, who will give a tinker's damn about the worthies cavorting through this week's People Magazine or the reporter who dissected their mediocre sins?
This is hardly cause for legislating gossip magazines out of existence as some good souls would have us do. There will always be bad writers as well as good writers, and the lives of most of us will always navigate unpredictably between extended relationships and one-night stands. Both Lady Mary and the editors of People share the eternal gossipy interest in the workings of sex and money in human life, and in this sense they, and Professor Spacks, are sisters under their skins.
So it is perhaps time to show a modicum of charity toward Dame Gossip and at least attenuate some of the charges which we are all too eager to throw at her when she gets on our trail.
It is not true for example, that gossip is always malicious. Undoubtedly a touch, or even a good dose, of malice will more often than not make any piece of gossip more interesting, for it is an unfortunate fact of life that evil deeds and calamities generally make for better stories than good deeds and healthy bank accounts. Playwrights and newspaper editors over the ages have found that stories about Dr. Jekyll would be an intolerable bore if he did not turn periodically into Mr. Hyde. Vice sells better than virtue, not necessarily because we are vicious by nature but because we all have bad consciences. We are more or less dimly aware of the evil or improper thoughts lurking in our own minds, not to speak of the evil or improper acts we have succeeded in covering up, so if we hear stories of our neighbors or the President acting them out, our first instinct most likely will be to believe the stories.
It is also true that people who have performed some good deed like making a considerable contribution to a local charity or welcoming back a prodigal son are generally all too happy to spread the word themselves in great detail, obviating the need for others to gossip about it.
Malicious people do gossip, nasty people do spread lies about their neighbors and their political opponents, ordinary people like you and me sometimes deliberately exaggerate the faults of in-laws and fellow-workers, but in the absence of a reliable census, I would guess that the overwhelming majority of items gossiped about on any one day of the year in any Tadjik village or American college campus is at least neutral if not downright benevolent in tone. Most gossip after all is pretty humdrum stuff, it is only rarely that, even in the west of Ireland where tongues wag wild, you will come across someone like Jimmy Farrell in The Playboy of the Western World who knew "a party was kicked in the head by a red mare and he went killing horses a great while till he eat the insides of a clock and died after."
It may make a spicier item on a news program to report that two United States Senators had a lunch with a federal Judge to plot what turned out to be the unfortunate choice of Kenneth Starr to bring down President Clinton. But the account of one of the Senators, that they spent the lunch discussing their respective prostate glands is, statistically speaking, more plausible.
I once knew an assistant professor who had once heard from the lips of Oliver Gogarty, the Malachi Mulligan of James Joyce's Ulysses, that the young Joyce had the habit, in whatever pub or whorehouse he was spending the evening, of repeatedly slipping away to the privy to jot down in the very words of the speaker whatever gossip about dear dirty Dublin he had just heard. My friend, who was living on the meager wages provided by Amherst College, could not afford such a life style, but he thought he could go Joyce one better by subscribing to one of those eight- or sixteen-party lines which telephone companies used in those days to provide in the boondocks. By keeping, through all his waking hours away from the classroom, one ear on the receiver and one hand holding a pencil, he aimed to collect, in the course of an academic year, enough living breathing colloquial gossip to enable him to write half a dozen novels dissecting the beating heart of western Massachusetts. After a couple of weeks, hip-deep in recipes for pound cake, hernia operations, the pranks of naughty children, lost cats, eighty-yard touchdown runs, dishonest insurance agents, needless waits in doctors' offices, a fire in a bakery, a fall from a roof, the plots of twenty-two movies, he was in a state of spiritual despair, a Saint Anthony in the desert who, expecting to be visited by velvet-bellied houris and saber-toothed bats, found nothing but herds of camels drifting aimlessly across a featureless landscape.
Well, Saint Anthony might find it dull, but the men driving the herds might be collecting and storing away enough incidents involving attacks by bandits, serpent-bites, camel-bites, falls off camels, encounters with crazy hermits in the desert, encounters with belly-dancers in the bazaars or with djinns in the sand dunes, to fill an evening with jolly gossip at the next oasis, however dull and inadequate all these incidents might seem to hungry hysterical hermits.
The human race could not have survived this long if we were not genetically wired to be more interested in things happening directly around us and impacting our own lives than in things happening in the next county or on foreign shores. Gossip is parochial because human life is. The telephone subscribers of Amherst were chiefly interested in gossip about things happening in their neighbors' living-rooms and bedrooms, or in the living-rooms and bedrooms of people with whom television had made them familiar, like Jackie Kennedy or Princess Grace. They would only be bored by gossip about the Queen of Tonga or about formative influences on the style of William Faulkner, or whatever else formed the assistant professor's chief zone of interest.
This same parochialism is responsible for the fact that Dame Gossip is, with insignificant exceptions, restricted to the here and now, she has no idea of the great currents of history, she has only the vaguest conception of chronology, she is ignorant of all but the most recent past. This admittedly deprives her of the gravitas which moralistic commentators are always demanding of public figures these days, but there are more things in heaven and earth than the commentators know, and we often can learn more from her than from them about what is going on in the world.
Moralists are always telling us disapprovingly that Dame Gossip is only interested in sex and money. It is only natural that, as the chief driving forces of human behavior, they occupy a very large part of her time. But not all of her time.
When Sir Philip Sidney, the poet-warrior-courtier paragon of the court of Queen Elizabeth, died of wounds he got fighting Papists in the Netherlands, there were two stories of the event passing by word of mouth through England. According to one , "He married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, whom he loved very much insomuch that having received some shot or wound in the wars in the Low Countries, where he had command, he would not contrary to the injunction of his physicians and surgeons, forebear his carnal knowledge of her, which cost him his life: upon which there were some roguish verses made." The roguish verses may have seemed hilarious to squires and tavern-keepers in sixteenth-century England, but they soon disappeared from common talk because people preferred to pass along another, more seemly version of the gossip, according to which Sidney died because, bleeding on the battlefield under a hot sun, and offered a cup of water by one of his soldiers lying bleeding beside him, he refused it with the immortal words, Thy need is greater than mine.
I had a friend named Frank whose tumultuous amours with all his wife's friends and all his friends' wives once stirred up repeated waves of gossip north of Boston. He in turn had a friend named Bill who was very rich and a little odd. Bill had just completed a private atom-proof bomb shelter in the Berkshires so that he could ride out the nuclear war which every one was expecting in 1946, and one day when he was stuffing this shelter with provisions he received an unannounced visit from General George Patton, who had recently been killed in an automobile crash in Germany. "Bill," said the general, "we are going to get into a war with the Russkies pretty soon, and the bastards are going to beat the shit out of us."
Frank was duly apprised of this incident. At the time he was doing a good deal of riding, and one day he found himself trotting down a country lane in Manchester-by-the-Sea beside one of his neighbors, Mrs. Patton, the general's widow. As they chatted amiably about the current news, the absconding bank president, the philandering bishop, he found bubbling up inside him a less and less resistible urge to inquire if her husband had visited her with the same information that he had provided for Bill, and the bubbling grew so insistent that he could only control it by suddenly crying out that he had seen a fox and taking off at a gallop over a field they were passing by.
There is no sex and only a passing reference to money in this story, and in addition it is perfectly true. But I found years afterwards that it would still serve to brighten up a languid conversation at a lunch table where melodramatic and usually inaccurate accounts of all those ancient and repetitious adulteries would have provoked only a yawn.
Finally, it is not fair to say that Dame Gossip can never keep her mouth shut. It is not only Sicilian criminals and screen-writers accused of following Communist Party discipline who can observe a code of omertà, the most ordinary people are often capable of keeping ripe juicy gossipy information hidden for impressive lengths of time, even carry it with them to the grave.
A particularly impressive real-life example of gossiparian discretion comes from the Paris of a century ago where everyone ("everyone" meaning society people and the members and hangers-on of the various artistic-intellectual groups and coteries) was gossiping about the passionate love affair between the great Rodin and his talented and beautiful pupil Camille Claudel. For years they were transcendentally happy, and in those years he produced much of the work for which he is best known. But it all ran down in the end and came to a brutal stop when Rodin would or could not leave his lifelong companion Rose, who came from a background as mean and impoverished as his own, who had shared years of hardship and obscurity with him, who had got up in the night in their unheated flat to wrap his clay in warm wet cloths to keep it from freezing. Besides, he liked her cooking. And he was always a little uneasy with Camille, who could read Greek and liked to tease him about his mistakes in French grammar and spelling. Rodin took the breakup very hard, he went to all his friends and cried. Camille took it much harder, she disintegrated. Her family eventually put her in a madhouse of the second class, the kind where the nurses made off with the food packages sent to the patients in ordeer either to eat or to sell it, where she survived for twenty-nine lonely abominable years till she died in 1943, probably of exposure to the cold, just as Rodin himself had died in another cold wartime winter, in 1917, when there was no wood to be found for the fireplaces in the huge rooms of his s mansion outside Paris..
Every detail of their story, including Camille's giddy idea of inviting both Rodin and Rose to dinner at the home of her unsuspecting mother, who never forgave her when she found out, was naturally the subject of brisk and witty discussion in the salons of Paris among people who, if we can believe the hundreds of pages Proust spent describing and stripping them bare, did not have a single decent bone between them. Here if ever was a ripe subject for their clever nasty tongues to wag about, all the more because it was not the stereotypical story of artists killing themselves with drink and sexually-transmitted disease; it was a genuine tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, two exceptional individuals defying fate and blindly devising their own doom. Yet not a word of it was uttered to the outside world, not a word got into the scandal-sheets and the tattle-tale books which were as popular then as they are today.
There were only veiled opaque hints in literature. Rodin's first biographer spoke guardedly of a "great love" in the master's life but mentioned no name. Ibsen, who heard all the details in letters from Frits Thaulow, a Norwegian painter living in Paris, used Rodin and Camille as models for the aging sculptor and the model who had been his great passion, the central characters in his last play, When We Dead Awaken. Ibsen believed in dramatic logic and was kinder to the lovers than real life was, he had them buried in an avalanche at the moment they became aware of the wreckage they had made of their lives. Camille's brother Paul used her as the model of Dona Prouhèze, the heroine of his surrealist masterpiece The Satin Slipper, who tosses one of her shoes into the arms of a statue of the Virgin Mary so that if she goes to hell she will be walking with a limp. (Camille had been born with a slightly deformed foot, the only flaw in her glorious body.)
But histories of art came and went on their way obliviously, with no mention of Camille.
A bookworm in the l950's, long after all the actors in the drama were dead, pieced together as much of the story as he could from fragmentary manuscript sources (after Rodin's death they found a big folder in one of his desk drawers labeled Camille, but the folder was empty). By that time of course it had ceased to be gossip, and it promptly became part of the history of art, and a vehicle for ultra-feminist propagandists who like to believe that Rodin stole everything from Camille.
The fact remains that through their lifetimes and well beyond, no one in Paris uttered a public word about this long affair, so rich in the emotions dear to Dame Gossip's heart. Perhaps Proust was wrong after all.
You may think what you like of Dame Gossip. She could hardly care less what you think. She is not interested in what people think, but in what they do. She wanders her unprincipled way through all landscapes in all weathers, gleaning everything in her path, preserving and tossing away what she finds as her whim dictates, tireless, indiscriminate, unaware of disapproval, heedless of criticism. Like Emerson's Brahma, she can say
"One to me is shame and fame."
There ought to be a law against her. But we cannot do without her.
©2002 Robert Wernick