ii. The Genealogy of Gossip
A few years ago Professor Henry de Lumley, sifting through the heaps of bones in the huge cave of Arago near the village of Tautavel in the French Pyrenees, found a complete skull, dated by radio-carbon testing to approximately 450,000 BC and now officially identified as belonging to a previously unknown subspecies, Homo Erectus Tautavelensis. This skull, de Lumley tells me, contains room for the part of the brain which would have enabled its owner to communicate with his acquaintances through language.
There is no way of knowing whether Homo Erectus actually used this part of his brain, and most scholars today seem to be convinced that all current languages derive from one or several ur-languages developed some hundreds of thousands of years later by his exterminator and successor, Homo sapiens sapiens, our own ancestor. It may be so, but it is a historical commonplace for conquerors to take over patterns of behavior from their victims, as the 16th-century Europeans learned the uses of tobacco from the Carib Indians before they wiped them out, and Homo sapiens sapiens was surely smart enough to have similar taking ways. ..
At all events, it is of no practical importance whether language was invented half a million or only fifty thousand years ago. The important thing is that it was somehow invented, and that it proved to be the most distinctive and perhaps the most important of the characteristics setting humans off from beasts. It was the creation of language which, by allowing specimens of genus Homo to conquer space and time and pass on the fruits of their experience to future generations, made possible the transformation of packs of scavenging animals into the continuous human society of which, all those millennia later, we are all a part. .
Now, language is something that could not have sprung up like a mushroom in the night. Every known language and dialect, from Sanskrit to Ebonics, is a complex repertory of verbal symbols obeying laws of syntax and grammar, with all their baggage of declensions and conjugations, moods, cases, tenses, past participles, ablative absolutes, ethical datives, things of which the speakers of the language may be completely unaware but which make their speech intelligible to their companions and which professors of linguistics need thousands of words drawn up in strict paragraphic array to describe and classify.
Creating something on this scale from scratch must not only have taken an immense stretch of time, there must have been a pressing reason, a felt need, for devoting endless hours and millennia to all the trials and errors, false starts, brilliant improvisations, plodding repetitions it must have taken to produce a first sentence on the order of, My grand-daddy is a caribou.
That pressing need was obviously there, it was the need to communicate with family and friends, that is to say, to gossip. After all, these people were born of monkey, and monkeys love to chatter.
A bit of evolutionary luck seems to have come into play here. When representatives of australopithecus afarensis, or whichever species gets the final academic palm for having spawned humanity, came down from the trees and began to stand upright and walk around in the forest clearings and over the savannahs on two legs, their larynxes began dropping down their throats a ways, leaving an echo chamber in which much more complex sounds could be made than mere grunts and squeals, that is to say, words.
Mere words by themselves, however, are no big deal compared to the sophisticated modes of communication available to other creatures. Ducks quack, birds sing, and apparently pass on to their companions a good deal of useful knowledge in this manner. Vervet monkeys make different sounds to identify the approaching predator as a leopard or a snake. Packs of wolves performing complicated maneuvers use specialized howls as they exchange quick and accurate information among their members while they seek out, cut out, run down and slaughter their prey. Even acacia trees are said to be able by rustling their barks to warn one another to curl up their leaves at the approach of a giraffe. But only humans can exchange knowledge about distant people and past events, only humans can try to turn the boundless jumble of external reality into coherent narratives, that is to say, to gossip..
No one will ever know when it began, but I find it logical, or at least plausible, to assume that it began among humans or proto-humans living in some physical and social setting like that of the representatives of Homo Erectus Tautavelensis in their vast and commodious Pyrenean cave. Study of their bones shows that they were strong healthy conservative people with a stable social structure who could go on living in much the same fashion, eating the same kind of food and forming the same kind of family groups, through generation after repetitive generation. In fact, they went on living in that cave for at least a hundred thousand years -- the layers of animal bones they threw aside after chewing off the meat rises some sixty feet from the cave floor.
And, most important of all, they must have had an immense amount of time on their hands.
Unlike their pioneer ancestors, they did not have to be perpetually on the run looking for food or hiding from enemies. Those ancestors were naked scrawny timorous creatures who had come out of Africa a million or more years earlier and slipped across the Bosporus, and had spent those million years skulking through the magnificent primeval forests which then covered Europe, living precariously in competition with wolves and vultures off the flesh of dead and diseased animals they found in the underbrush. It must have been a life of perpetual wandering, with deadly danger always lurking behind the next tree, and even if they had had the inclination, it is not likely that would have found the time to start experimenting with sentence structure.
But by the time they were settled down in the cave of Arago, they were smart and strong and well-organized enough to hunt down and kill the biggest and most dangerous game, lions, bears, rhinoceroses. Half-way up steep mountain-sides, they were reasonably safe from predators. They had learned how to use tools to kill and butcher and skin other animals and how to organize long journeys to get the proper rocks for manufacturing the tools. It would take them many more tens of thousands of years to learn that they could make fire to cook their food, but food they had in plenty. The land in front of them was savannah country much like that of modern Africa, choked with every kind of edible animal from elephants to mice. The food was there almost for the asking: drive an elephant over a steep bank, butcher it with your sharp flints, store the pieces in the cool depths of the cave and you could live in style for months without exerting yourself. For the first time since they came down from the trees in the rain forest, men, at least some men, could form a leisure class, a class with time to kill..
This may well be the time which would be recalled by later generations, forced to till the earth by the sweat of their brow, as the Golden Age, when, in the words of the poet Ovid, Earth brought forth her bounty spontaneously and no one had to work.
In such a Golden Age, our cave-dwellers would have had many more empty hours to fill than do members of the so-called leisure classes of today who are bound to endless social rituals like riding commuter trains, brushing teeth, attending cocktail parties. In their less structured age, they could spend as many hours as their fancy dictated in free-for-all sex or the free-for-all violence of some form of proto-football. But sex and violence are not enough to fill up every day of anybody's year. Since those proto-humans had not yet created a society, they had no social obligations. With no Law, they could not commit crimes. Since they had not yet invented War, they had no need to practice military maneuvers or organize expeditions to prey on distant neighbors. What were they to do as they lounged around comfortably in their fur coats, safe up the mountainside from any attack by lions or rhinoceroses, these ladies and gentlemen of leisure looking out from their cave on all creation?
Like their apish ancestors, they were infinitely curious. They had more to be curious about than their baboon and chimpanzee cousins back in Africa, for instead of being enclosed in the damp darkness of the ancestral rain forest they were able to walk out into a wide open world of meadow and mountain, see all of heaven and earth and the whales in the deep. And by another stroke of evolutionary luck they had inherited the best eyes in all creation, retinas that provide stereoscopic full-color vision, enabling them to really see, in fact to create, the Nature which was to be the joy and bane of their descendants for the next half a million years. The hawks circling over their heads might have keener vision, but all hawks can see is a series of jiggles in an abstract pattern of grays which tell their pea-sized brains that there is food down there; while our ancestors could, just as we can, behold and enjoy all the rich and colorful and endearing complexity that is a rabbit, even if they were genetically programed to tear it limb from limb. How much poorer and more constricted human lives would have been if like other mammals we had to depend on smell instead of vision for our primary form of contact with the outer world. Any language we created would have to be restricted to personal relations, and we would have no idea of the horizon or the stars or anything happening downwind.
Imagine the pleasant life of those cave people, newly able to talk and with so much to talk about. Their life is an ever-changing pattern of subjects of interest, they can hardly take a step without stumbling on something that has never been seen before by human eye. They can talk about teaching their little boys how to throw spears, they can talk about their reciprocal sexual urges and their Oedipus complexes, or about appealing to whoever is upstairs in the clouds to send down rain, or about the beauty of the flowers in the valley. Such talk would respond to human needs -- practical, emotional, spiritual, aesthetic -- that are universal now and presumably were equally universal half a million years ago, and we can imagine any one of them welling up spontaneously in any cave and seeking an outlet in any human voice.
But none of them really requires a language. A combination of expressive sounds and expressive gestures would do just as well, in fact would more often do better. A spontaneous cry does more than stumbling words to give vent to desire, admiration, hatred, joy, disgust, any strong human emotion. If you are walking with the kids in a forest and you see a wolf, you can scream WOLF! and point out the best place to hide; and if you want to teach them how to hunt wolves, the best method is to take them on a hunt, not to give them a technical manual. The first priests and the first prophets who called down rain and made the grass grow must have found that they made a deeper impression on their congregations when they spoke in unintelligible words; as priests and prophets do to this day. A man wanting to establish the proposition that woman's place is in the cave could do it more efficiently with a fist or a club than with the structured exposition of a theory of male supremacy. When Tarzan first met Jane, he did not need any rules of grammar to identify himself.
What then are our lively chattering forefathers and foremothers going to use their growing store of words for in their quiet evenings in the caves or on their elephant-hunting expeditions? Just what did Mr and Mrs Erectus have to talk about as they squatted on the Arago cave floor in the evening, gnawing on their share of bones? It is tempting to think of them debating such topics as, Who am I, where do I come from, where am I going? or, Why does the sun always rise every morning behind those hills? or, What becomes of grandfather after we have eaten his brains? There is no way of proving that they did not. But it is surely more probable that such speculative subjects would come up tardily if at all, and only among a small minority, an elite, of the cave-dwellers. The bulk of their first stammered phrases and inchoate sentences were more likely to have been attempts to communicate incidents in the day's events (or the night's dreams, which then as now must have seemed equally real), reported and repeated because they were amusing or puzzling or frightening, at all events interesting: what grandma said when the wolf bit her; or, how the blind woman gave birth to twin hyenas in the field of giant mushrooms.
That is to say, they were gossiping. They have been gossiping ever since.
Professor Dunbar maintains that gossiping caught on because it replaced older methods of bonding, of forming such deep feelings of intimacy among members of a community they will rally to each other's defense at a moment of crisis. Specifically, he says that it replaced grooming, the long loving stroking of a companion's body hair, which is something our ancestors all did when they were apes in the rain forest, and which baboons and chimpanzees surviving in the rain forest do to this day, giving great -- little short of orgasmatic -- pleasure to both groomer and groomee, so much so that they can spend up to half their waking hours at it. But when those ancestors were forced by global cooling to wander over wide open spaces in search of their daily food, they simply did not have the time for all that scratching and tickling. And so, says the professor, they created gossip instead.
This is an entertaining theory, with the usual lack of concrete evidence to back it up, and it may well have a kernel of truth. There is a vestigial form of grooming, which was practiced almost universally before the rage for sanitation began a couple of centuries ago, one that has always been closely associated with gossip, to wit, delousing. For the last three million years more or less, the most faithful animal companion of man had been, not the dog, which was only coaxed out of being a wolf in the Mesolithic Age a scant nine or ten thousand years ago, but the louse. During all that time, in societies scattered all over the earth's surface, delousing was a regular part of the day's routine. It generally took place at bedtime, it involved close intimacy since lice are apt to cluster in parts of the body not ordinarily exposed to public view, it developed .bonds of affection between the people who took part in it, it developed social cohesion, not least because it provided an occasion for summarizing all the gossip of the day.
. Delousing was thus a useful social tool which mankind did well to develop, but it falls far short of gossip in many important respects. For one thing, it demands direct physical contact, while gossip provides a meeting of minds across empty space and time, and thus may be said to have introduced a spiritual element into human life. For another, grooming reinforces rigid social hierarchies The delouser is always subordinate to the delousee, the wife delouses the husband, the servant-girl delouses the wife, the lady-in-waiting delouses the queen. On the other hand, gossip cuts across social lines. Caliph Harun al-Rashid could exchange the latest stories with the porter at the gate of his palace in Bagdad. J. P. Morgan could exchange them with his favorite bartender in New York, and this is a tradition that must go back to the Paleolithic hunting bands. Aeons before Locke and Jefferson, Dame Gossip was slyly suggesting that all men are created equal.
As in all good poetry, a deep truth lies buried in the lines from the grand old ballad of the Four Maries:
Word's gone to the kitchen
And word's gone to the ha'
That Mary Hamilton gangs with bairn
To the greatest Stuart of a'
The truth is that among the slops of the kitchen as in the perfumed council chamber, every one in Edinburgh (a code word for humanity) wants to know what the king of Scotland has been up to with his queen's maid of honor, and is perfectly willing to collect the information from whatever source is willing to dish it out.
This of course not the kind of truth that we swear to tell in a court of law.
The facts in this case, if they were invoked in a court of law, are that no reliable record of any sort exists of a woman named. Mary Hamilton drowning an infant that had been fathered on her by a King of Scotland. There was however once a somewhat similar incident at the Russian court in Saint Petersburg, and the wise poet simply transferred people and places to a locale more familiar to his audience, as a commentary or riff on the general law laid down by Evolution or God or a Platonic Idea, that when it comes to propagating the human race, it is the man what gets the pleasure and the girl what gets the blame..
The best proof that gossip created language, it seems to me, is that the oldest examples of language that have come down to us in all known cultures are myths. Myths are certainly not gossip, they are serious things which are taken very seriously by the people who pass them on from generation to generation.. (At least when they have an important place in our own culture or the culture of people we admire, like the ancient Greeks; when the Pieroa Indians tell us that the world was created by a god during a night spent chewing psychedelic leaves, we think they are perfectly silly,).
Modern scholars treat myths with great respect, if not awe. They are after all, outside of a few cave paintings and broken figurines, all the witness we have to the spiritual and intellectual life of humanity during all but a tiny fraction of its existence. They were accepted as truth by the various cultures which created them, as firmly and as naturally as the Koran and the free-market economy are accepted by various cultures today. Playing a central role in the life of all peoples, they must have had a profound significance for whoever it was who created them. But what that significance was, we will never know, for we cannot know who created them, or when.
It used to be naively thought that the stories of what were then called "primitive" peoples who are now saddled with the discourteous label "undeveloped", are immensely old, going back to the beginning of human life, when men first started to try to give some sense of order to their thoughts about the outside world. It is now generally agreed that since the outside world has been changing steadily during all those hundreds of thousands of years, the myths explaining or describing it must have been changing likewise, whether they be the stories of the least developed Australian aborigines or of the most highly developed Scandinavians. As Ice Ages and Great Floods came and went, as reindeer-hunters were replaced by goat-herders and nomads by peasants, as tribes and peoples with different languages and customs merged through intermarriage or conquest, the stories had to be retold in ways that made some sense to the new audiences. All the myths, or fables, legends, fairy-tales, folk-tales which we think of as changeless relics of the distant past -- Leda and the Swan, Cain and Abel, Krishna and the ten thousand milkmaids, Little Red Riding-hood and the wolf -- can only be the belated forms of stories that have been told and retold, reworked, translated and retranslated, reinterpreted uncountable times before they were written down and frozen into the forms we know. That is why there were versions of Greek myth in which King Oedipus never dreamed of killing his father and marrying his mother, why there are two quite contradictory accounts of Noah's Flood in a single chapter of Genesis.
There is no end to speculation as to how myths came into being, and there is no way of disproving any of the speculations.. The early Christian church regarded pagan myths as inventions of the devil, designed to distract mankind from the true factual revelation of Holy Scripture For eighteenth-century rationalists, as for surviving Marxists today, they were inventions of priest-kings, or queen-priestesses, designed to enslave the minds of the working people before enslaving their bodies. Some modern scholars have regarded them as narratives of historical episodes turned awry for religious or patriotic purposes. Others see them as philosophical or proto-scientific statements explaining the natural world.. Still others see them as eternal verities burrowing into the brains of newborn babies.
Robert Graves may have been right when he derived them all from a primitive ritual in which a woman representing the Mother Goddess of the tribe at a specified time of every year sleeps with for 150 or so nights and then tears to pieces. or hangs, or pitches off a cliff a young man who represents the grain that is grown every spring and cut down every autumn in the fields. Freud may have been right when, in Totem and Taboo, he derived them from a "memorable criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion," performed by a Primal Horde of bachedlor brothers who got together to murder and then eat their father and split up his harem among them..Even Jung might have been right when he put the birthplace of myth in the fairyland he called the Collective Unconscious, which we all prowl through when we have nothing else to keep our minds busy, and where the patterns of our changing world are set by eternal inhabitants inside our skulls called Archetypes.
On the other hand, Vico may have been right. Giambattista Vico the 18th-century Neapolitan philosopher who insisted that myths were simply statements of fact. "Since the first men of the gentile world," he said, "had the simplicity of children, who are truthful by nature, the first fables could not feign anything false; they must therefore have been true narrations."
Of course Vico could not have meant to be taken literally, unless we assume that children in 18th-century Naples were different from any you or I have ever known. He had a rational modern mind that could not have accepted at face value the word of some one who swore he had seen a bearded gentleman calling himself Zeus assume the shape of a swan and fly down from Olympus to seduce or rape a princess named Leda. What he was hinting at, in his wise and devious way, was that all myths are stories -- fables, parables, anecdotes -- dealing with real people (or real people masquerading as animals, showers of gold, burning bushes) interacting with other real people in a world of things familiar to the story-teller and the story-teller's audience. This might well pass as a definition of gossip.
Whatever the merit of any of these interpretations, they all have to start with the fact that all myths share one common, and essential, characteristic, they come in narrative form. To create a myth, you have to be able to construct a story.
The only people in proto-human days who would have known how to do this were the ones born with the gift of gab, the chatterers who had been delighting or bending the ears of their families and neighbors for countless generations and now found that they could hold their attention better by telling them of something they had seen going on up the mountain or down in the valley. Presumably they began with simple anecdotes, short straightforward narratives with a beginning a middle and an end, with no time out for analysis of character traits or expression of moral judgment. With the passage of time inventive, inspired and mischievous story-tellers would have found ways to make the pattern more elaborate, more entrancing, leaving the audience steadily coming back for more, as in the myth of Sheherazade. It was these sophisticated techniques of narrative which enabled priests and prophets to get people interested in their new-fangled religions; without them they would have been only so many wild men yammering on mountain-tops.
How trustworthy were the original stories? As trustworthy, I should imagine, as anything you hear or overhear in a modern bar-room or subway train.
Gossip has never been bound by strict rules of evidence or any intemperate devotion to eternal truth. Gossipers have always felt free to embroider and elaborate their stories as their imagination or their sense of fitness may direct them, provided their listeners will let them get away with it. The human imagination, however, is not all-powerful as modern artists and poets like to claim, the spirit can never quite escape from the clay in which it is embedded. Freud was quite right to quote Goethe, Im Anfang war die Tat, In the beginning was the Deed, to back up his insistence that his scenario of Eating Up Father was not an idle dream, it had actually happened.
Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. It is safer to assume that the events in those ancient stories did not happen in precisely the way they are described. All the elements in them, however. had to be real, even commonplace. The woman in that Paleolithic field could not have given birth to hyenas if the man telling the story and his listeners had never seen or heard of a woman giving birth or never seen or heard of a hyena. Take away the exalted rank of the personages involved, and such stories as that of Vulcan discovering Mars and Venus naked in bed on Mount Olympus or that of Joseph panicked by Mrs. Potiphar in Egypt sound like bits of gossip that might have been heard in any primeval cave as in any bar on First Avenue today.
Any ancient Greek mind, primed on laurel leaves or psychedelic mushrooms, could have put ordinary birds' wings on ordinary horses and created a vehicle to pull the chariot of the sun-god across the skies All the Greek minds together could not have dreamed up a Boeing 767, any more than Sophocles could have put a psychoanalyst's couch into his drama of Oedipus the King.
People born in a pre-scientific age, who had seen with their own eyes carrion flesh turn into live maggots and dead bears come out growling in the spring time, would not be astonished to hear that Osiris and Persephone rose from the dead or that Zeus had turned himself into a swan to sexually molest Leda. Everyone in olden days had personal acquaintance with bearded gentlemen who had raped women, even ladies of high degree. Sexual intercourse between humans and swans is physically possible and has been practiced throughout history, it is still practiced at Cambridge University if we can believe the well-known limerick about the swans of St John's College that are reserved for the dons. Such disparate bits of common experience could be put together in different ways as people gossiped about them over the generations.
All that counted was that it sounded real, sounded good, and was worth repeating, and was repeated over again in different forms and in different contexts till one day a bard or a shaman or a power-hungry college of priests or the Collective Unconscious put it into holy writ as a labor of Hercules or the ill-advised meal in Eden, or the rape of Leda.
Once Leda's misadventure with the Swan or someone she claimed was a Swan became a myth, it naturally ceased to be gossip. It became a part of Greek religion. Since one fruit of the rape was Helen of Troy who started the Trojan War, which was the oldest event in the past the Greeks chose to remember, it became the starting-point of official Greek history. It furnished the theme for magnificent paintings in the Italian Renaissance. In our own time, William Butler Yeats made it one of the hinges on which man's fate has turned or turns, on a par with the Virgin Birth in Bethlehem and the beast currently slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.
Myths do not always live on this portentous level, they can take a less exalted course. Some that have lost their official standing can survive in altered form in the popular imagination as folk tales or fairy tales. A story like Little Red Riding-hood is said to be derived at an immense distance from some ancient ritual or some forgotten episode in the prehistory of the Indo-European peoples. It may well be so, but, lacking any documentary evidence of these rituals and episodes, there is nothing to work on but the story itself. It has proved to be fertile ground for modern theorists. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm says it is obvious that the red riding-hood of the heroine represents menstruation, while the psychoanalyst Georg Groddek is equally sure that it represents the foreskin. A feminist scholar on the other hand has argued that the eating of the grand-mother by a presumably male wolf re-enacts the enslavement of women by the patriarchal blackguards who took over the world in the second or third millennium BC.
Whatever the superstructures that may be built on them, at bottom there had to be a foundation of rough unhewn facts which people could gossip about. There was sexual intercourse in all the continents before Adam and Eve set the standard in Mesopotamia. There had been fratricides without number before Cain murdered Abel, gang-rapes were common long before Agamemnon and Achilles quarreled over the spoil of one of theirs, wolves had eaten many a grandmother before Little Red Riding-Hood's. And men and women were interested in such things, gossiped about them, quite unaware of how their words might one day change the shape of the world.
There is no need to summon up ghostly forms like "racial memory" or other mumbo-jumbo to explain how stories like Red Riding-hood or the myths of the ancient Greeks and the Bushmen were transmitted over many generations. If Vico was right, and I have no doubt that he was, it was no more mysterious than the formation of myths that goes on under our very eyes. In the lifetime of people still living, a whole new mythic world has been created in the United States of America, new heroes have appeared on the scale of, and with many of the same features as, those of the Trojan War, the Nibelungenlied, the Norse sagas.
They began as real enough people in what sedentary Americans called the Wild West. They were living ordinary enough lives for the time and place, lives full of hardship and danger and violence that called for exceptional physical strength and courage and endurance. Such lives make for lively heart-warming gossip. The gossip that began around campfires on the prairie came to the ears of intellectuals in Eastern cities like Owen Wister who wrote The Virginian, and numbers of lesser figures who wrote dime novels and helped create the familiar characters -- cowboys and Indians, cattlemen, cattle rustlers, school-teachers, dancing girls, sheriffs , prospectors, bartenders, outlaws, preachers -- and the familiar plots of good guys competing with bad guys we all know so well..
They were given mythic stature, they became timeless like Achilles and Samson and Siegfried and King Arthur, through the efforts of what Joe Kennedy called "those pants-pressers." meaning the young east-European Jews who created the movie business in Astoria and in Hollywood in the early decades of the twentieth century. If those pioneer movie-men had been creatures of racial memory, they would have produced two-reelers about pogroms and wonder-working rabbis and fiddlers on rooftops. Fortunately for them and for the rest of us, they were out to make a quick buck, and intelligent enough to divine that the movie audiences would be more interested in Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. And so they have been till this day. The form survives, the function never dies, Even though in these deconstructionist days, the villains of old, the Indians and the Sundance Kids, have become saints and heroes, the otherworldly atmosphere is the same.
Naturally as time goes on mythic heroes will look less and less like the human beings who figured in the original gossip, with their all-too-human warts and contradictions, and they will become simplified idealized presences. You can see a couple of such presences taking mythic shape under your eyes in contemporary Paris, where in the Montparnasse Cemetery a single simple slab marks the last resting-places of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In their lifetime a generation or so ago every tongue was wagging with gossip about their intermittently acrimonious sexual and intellectual relations, about how Sartre was fondling every pubescent female who sat in his lap, about how de Beauvoir was gossiping about her own farflung amorous adventures with mythic American proletarians and Parisian intellectuals in her novels. At this very moment a constant stream of pilgrims is filing before their atheistic grave to perform the traditional religious rite of strewing flowers (sometimes accompanied or replaced by subway tickets) over it The pilgrims I have seen are almost unfailingly well-bred young people who may or may not have read a word of their books and or learned any details of their lives, but have been taught that they were heroic archetypes of the twentieth century, bound in death as in life by a passionate love for each other and for the liberty of man- and woman-kind. One of these days no doubt they will appear in popular songs much like the lovers in the medieval poem out of whose hearts grew honeysuckles that would be forever intertwined.
Such procession from pedestrian detail to pure poetry must have started in the caves. Popular conceptions of our cave-dwelling ancestors tend to swing from one extreme to another. One day we see them as hairy brutes braining one another with tree-stumps, the next they are mystical visionaries hearing the voice of unknown gods in thunder and lightning and laying the foundations of modern art. Perhaps we should make room for an intermediary class, pushy little prehistoric Adolph Zukors and Louis B. Mayers collecting an audience in the cool of the cave to listen to their version of the latest gossip about events in the wild countryside below. Just as the early movie-makers had no idea they were creating a new art form until European intellectuals began to tell them so, there is no need to suppose that the ancestral gossipers were aware that, by creating the new instrument of language to help them get their dramatic effects, they were making possible the birth and fantastic growth of religion, philosophy, literature, science, commerce, war, all the ingredients of civilization.
Panegyrists in all tongues have touted mankind's achievements in all these fields. But almost no one has ever had a good word to say for Dame Gossip who was the grand-mother of them all.
©2002 Robert Wernick