iv.. A critique of practical gossip


            In the second act of Hamlet, Polonius is sending his servant Reynaldo to Paris to find out just what mischief his son Laertes may have gotten into.

                                    Look you sir,

                                    Enquire me first what Danskers are in Paris,

                                    And how and who, what means, and where they keep,

                                    What company, at what expense; and finding

                                    By this encompassment and drift of question

                                    That they do know my son, come you more nearer

                                    Than your particular demands will touch it.

                                    Take you as ‘twere some distant knowledge of him,

                                    As thus, ‘I know his father and his friends,

                                    And in part him, but’ you may say, ‘not well,

                                    But if’t be he I mean, he’s very wild

                                    Addicted so and so'. And there put on him

                                    What forgeries you please; marry none so rank

                                    As may dishonor him--take heed of that--

                                    But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips

                                    As are companions noted and most known

                                    To youth and liberty....

                                    Your party in converse, him you would sound,

                                    Having ever seen in the prenominate crimes

                                    The youth you breathe of guilty, be assured. . .

                                    He closes thus: ‘'I know the gentleman;

                                    I saw him yesterday, or t’'other day,

                                    Or then, or then, with such or such, and, as you say,

                                    There was ‘a gaming, there o’rtook in’s rouse

                                    There falling out at tennis,’ or perchance,

                                    ‘I saw him enter such a house of sale,’

                                    Videlicet, a brothel, or so forth.

                                    See you now--

                                    Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth.’


            Polonius always talks too much, but the substance of his advice is usually sound. He is well aware that if gossip expects to get anywhere, it must first of all be plausible. People will not listen to what strikes them as absurd or meaningless, and if they do, they will be unlikely to repeat it.

            We may presume that if Reynaldo followed his master's orders faithfully, the stories he told about Laertes would sound perfectly natural to his friends in Paris. In the world of gossip, bait and carp are indistinguishable. By the time Reynaldo's acquaintances have repeated his falsehoods, the falsehoods will circulate on equal terms with their own, presumably more accurate, tales.

            And they will be just as short-lived. As long as Laertes is carousing through Paris by night, there will undoubtedly be expatriate Danskers and others eager to exchange true or false gossip about him. But once he goes back to Denmark, his memory will quickly fade in Paris. Even after he gets himself dramatically killed in Elsinore by the heir apparent to the Danish throne, once the last of his contemporaries has tottered off to the grave his name will no more be heard in France or Denmark or anywhere else, until an alert playwright in England picks his name out of an old chronicle and makes him world-famous.

            Reynaldo and Laertes bring us to the difficult subject of truth in gossip, a concept every bit as ambiguous as that of truth in advertising. Gossip almost always starts with an implied, if not actually spoken, statement on the order of, You can believe this, I got it straight from the horse's mouth. Only the most innocent take such a statement at its face value, but even the wiliest of us have our innocent moments, and the art of the skilled gossiper lies in convincing us that this time at any rate the horse was there.

            And in fact it is perfectly possible that the horse was there. Don’t let yourself be deceived by the bad name of gossip, the chances are strong that the next piece of gossip you pick up will be at least reasonably accurate. This is because gossip is overwhelmingly local, it deals with people and things which are familiar to both gossiper and gossipee.

            Tell an average American, Bill Jones is cheating on his wife, or, I saw a UFO land on Lake Superior, and he may find the details surprising, but he knows Bill. Jones and Lake Superior, and he knows that such things happen. If he demands confirmatory details, it is proof that he considers your story plausible. Change your accounts to read: Mrs. Jones has eloped with the Pope, or, My brother is a UFO, people would look strangely at you, and you might find yourself the subject of extensive and unwelcome gossip.

            Ideal gossip, the kind that people like to listen to and enjoy spreading around always has a touch of the fresh and unexpected, a flick of novelty. I once knew a woman who, to my knowledge, was the only woman to have shared the bed of John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. When I impart this information to others, very few of them are interested in the Kennedy part, there have been so many of such accounts. But every one is eager to know, What was it like with Nikita? They take it for granted that I have a trustworthy source.

            .It is the trustworthiness of most, or at least much, gossip, that enables unscrupulous minds and tongues to take advantage of it. Its very informality, its personal nature, can give gossip can give it a paradoxical and undeserved kind of authority. Whenever there is an accident at a nuclear power plant, you will find people who have it on good authority, having heard it from a man who knew some one who had a cousin who had worked there, that hundreds of people were killed, and such eye-witness testimony will often carry more weight than the

 government statement published in the New York Times that no one was injured. (“That’s the standard coverup. I tell you, the man was there.”)

            Gossip of this or any other kind can be molded, distorted, slanted, or made up out of the whole cloth for personal or political ends. Polonius as chief adviser to a king must have been performing this kind of calculated manipulation every day. You or I of course would never do such a thing, we leave it to vile old schemers like Polonius or ministries of public enlightenment or the publicity staffs of national political parties But there is a sense in which all gossip that spreads beyond its first utterance can be considered manipulated. The word is not a pleasant one, it makes us think of how we were cut out of Uncle Thad's will on account of rumors spread by the nasty tongue of cousin Susan, or how we almost lost our job on account of exaggerated tales of that party on the cruise ship. But in fact we do something similar, if less reprehensible, all the time. Even if we are trained actors or lawyers, we cannot possibly repeat in one informal conversation the exact words and tones and body language used in another. Consciously or not, we change it to accord with the way we see things now and with what our new interlocutor likes to hear. If we don't like the word manipulative, we can use the word creative.

            There are people who can make a profession out of this. Writers like Cyril Connolly and Truman Capote could dine out for years with their carefully crafted impressions of the bizarre life of decadent intellectuals in London or lecherous millionaires' wives on Park Avenue. These may be considered works of premeditated art, and therefore the dinner guests who enjoy every word of them do not believe a word of them, the way they would a whispered communication of the names of the host’s and hostess’s current bedmates. The more artless the gossip sounds, the more credible.

            But why should Dame Gossip be denied her artist's license? We are all artists when we tell a story, even if it is a boring story, even if we tell it badly. Every time we tell it, we cannot help retouching it, improving or distorting or ruining it as the case may be.

            I have a friend named Charles Warner who had a grandmother named Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh, a well-known figure of fun in New York society in the days before World War II. It was part of the ceremony at the opening of the season at the Metropolitan Opera to have Mrs. Kavanaugh and her friend Lady Decies, face-lifted and rouged and weighted down with jewels, in the foyer drinking champagne out of slippers and otherwise entertaining the photographers and society reporters. The photographer Arthur Fellig who called himself Weejee, always on the lookout for the aberrant New York street scene, hired a woman who peddled apples to pop suddenly on to the curb as the two ladies were stalking down the sidewalk one night toward the Opera doors, to thrust her accusatory proletarian profile in front of their vacant patrician stares. It made a splendid richly symbolic photograph, which has been extensively reproduced and is cited in textbooks as a classic of the documentary style.

            During the war which followed soon afterwards, Charles told me that he had run into an old schoolmate who had been fighting in Italy and had come across a piece of German propaganda in which the Weejee photograph appeared with a caption describing it as a perfect symbol of the decadence and heartlessness of the American Judeo-plutocracy. Every time I heard the story, there seemed to be a few details added, and as I have repeated the story over the years I have added details too, in the interests of dramatic verisimilitude. By now the story has Charles himself crouching in a foxhole on the Anzio beach-head while German planes come roaring overhead. He stiffens, preparing himself for the shock of the bomb blast. But there is no blast, the planes fly on and in the strange silence that follows pieces of paper come fluttering down. One of them settles in his outstretched hand. It is a leaflet, and across the top of it is the familiar photo with the familiar faces of his grandmother and Lady Decies and Apple Annie, and under them in thick Gothic typeface the words:

            Give a story like this enough time and it will acquire a fixed and steady shape, that may last through generations, a genuine folk-tale..

            In my own childhood, I was always fascinated by brief references I overheard to an Uncle Mike who lived in the Canadian far north. I gathered that a quarter of a century before he had been the subject of gossip which had been eagerly passed around then and was now just lying in the cupboard. I felt it necessary to bring it back into the open air.

            Uncle Mike, it seems, had been brought to this country at a very early age. He had gone through high school in Boston and come out a stocky streetwise young man, always with his dukes up, ready for anything. He was not, however, prepared for the announcement by his father at one evening meal that his intended bride was arriving the next day from the old country. He had never heard of her before, he did not want to hear of her now, he had his own American ideas and negotiated marriage was not one of them. Still, family discipline was stronger in those days than it is now, and nothing for it but he must put on suit and collar and tie the next day and be guided firmly by parents and sisters to the dock where the ship was coming in. It came in on schedule, with blasts of steam and whistles blowing as it approached the pier, and there waving demurely from the deck was his Intended, a pretty little thing dressed in all her village finery, looking as un-American as she possibly could. Young Mike's brains were on fire with rage and revolt, and while all eyes were on the ship, he bolted. He ran fast but not aimlessly, for he was an intelligent and observant young man, and he had noticed that at the end of the pier there was another steamer preparing to take off. He got there with a speed that no pursuer could hope to match, and dashed up the gangplank just as they were pulling it in. Dressed as he was in his Sunday best, every one assumed that he was a panicky passenger arriving in the nick of time, and he dodged around the ship without attracting any attention till he found a dark place to hide in. He stayed there for forty-eight hours, and then, calculating that the pilot must long ago have been dropped off and that they were so far out to sea they would not dream of turning around to bring him back, he came out, found a ship's officer, apologized manfully for the trouble he might be causing, volunteered to work his way over to wherever the ship was going. It was going to South Africa, and they were glad to have an extra hand on board. In the appropriate number of days they arrived in Cape Town, just, so it happened, as the Boer War was breaking out. Mike enlisted in the British Army, which could use all the men it could get, and he served with distinction till the war was over. When I eventually caught up with him years later, he showed me a chocolate bar which had been given to him by Queen Victoria.

            As a little boy I was enthralled by the story, consumed by admiration and envy, for I felt that if only I had his guts I too might have escaped from Boston. There were many other vague mentions of him I could pick up, and there were many more stories I could pick up directly from him in later years , stories of diamond mines and Eskimos and battles in Flanders fields, and of how for two years he had ridden over the veldt on a white horse with his saddle-bags stuffed with sample bottles of White Horse Whiskey. Such stories have served me well for years and hardly need improvement, but I cannot swear I have not from time to time added picturesque details from other sources. Perhaps these stories with my emendations will go on providing good gossip material for future generations. I cannot help feeling that if the genetic lottery had decreed that both Uncle Mike and I be born in ancient Greece about the time of the Dorian invasions, I might have composed dactylic chants about him that would have spread his name from tribe to tribe and city to city. His exploits, continuously touched up and revised by more experienced bards, might have made different tribes construct genealogies establishing him as their philoprogenitive ancestor, he might have become a cult hero, a demigod, a god, he might have deflowered river-nymphs, founded cities, come back from the dead, rival caves would claim to be his birth-place, and perhaps in the course of time my uncle Mike would have given his name to a constellation in the northern skies. (1)

            So far can the offspring of Dame Gossip travel. She herself, it is true, will always stay at home. She will not have stars named after her nor will she write Othello or Totem and Taboo. She can, however, enlarge and enrich your own life, and that of your friends, and in extreme cases that of your country or of all humanity. It is time to turn our backs on the prigs and snobs who turn up their noses at her.

            The unhappy Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once proposed to restrain gossip by passing a law that would force people to talk of events only as if they had happened fifty years ago. They would then, he argued, be ashamed to bring out in public such silly and insignificant observations as, "Mr. Marsden is engaged and has given his fiancée a Parisian shawl."

            Why insignificant? Maybe it was a shawl bought from a Gypsy woman who had put a curse on it, maybe it was just a shawl, maybe Mr. Marsden was a notorious pederast, but in any event, if it had some kind of interest for Mr. Marsden’s friends, why should they be denied the right, and perhaps the pleasure of talking about it, even if it lacked the tragic metaphysical tone of Kierkegaard's own engagement or pseudo-engagement about which he and his biographers have written at such length?

            Kierkegaard’s hands were not as clean as he liked to think. In his Journal for the year 1846 he has some words for the “twaddle, rubbish and gossip”which occupies people’s lives, a page full of violent words, and then on the very next page there he is gossiping himself, just like the way along the Copenhagen waterfront:

One day professor Molbech was visiting me. He praised my idiosyncracy, my singular way of life, because it favored my work. “I shall do the same,” he said. Thereupon he told me that that very day he had to go to a dinner party and “there I have to drink wine, and I cannot stand it; but one cannot avoid doing so because

people begin at once saying: oh, just a little glass, Professor, it is good for you.” I answered, “Nothing is easier than to prevent that. Do not say a word about not being able to take any wine, for in that way you only egg on a posy sympathy. Sit down at the table and when the wine is served, smell it and then say or express by a look that the wine is not good. Then your host will be angry and will not bother you.” To that Molbech answered, “No, I cannot do that. Why should I quarrel with people?” I answered, “In order to get your own way; is that not reason enough?” But that is

how it goes on. First of all he gossips away with m for an hour and makes a fool of me with all his hot air; then goes to dinner where he gossips about it - and drinks; then he goes home and feels unwell - and gossips the whole night through about it all to his

                        wife; that is life and being interesting.


            A more trustworthy as well as more interesting philosopher for the common people of this gossipy world is Metrocles, who lived in Thrace in the 4th century BC and is said to have been the first collector of instructive anecdotes. Metrocles, Montaigne tells us, quoting Diogenes Laertius, once "somewhat carelessly broke wind when arguing in the presence of his pupils, and kept himself hidden in his house, for shame, till Crates visited him, and adding to his consolations and reasonings the example of his own liberty, undertaking to break wind in rivalry with him, he removed his scruples, and furthermore led him to his own more liberal Stoic sect from the more mannerly Peripatetic sect which he had hitherto followed."

            We do not ordinarily think of Dame Gossip as a Stoic, but then she has always been full of surprises.





(1) I would not want to romanticize gossip by suggesting that it always improves as it goes along. The contrary is more often the case. Dull minds will turn interesting and imaginative stories into dull ones. For every tale that gossip ennobles, there are a score that it debases.

            A few years ago, at a dinner in Paris, I was spinning out some gossip about my friends Alberto and Diego Giacometti. I recalled how at the end of World War II in 1945, a friend of Diego's came back from captivity in Germany, carrying with him a baby fox he had captured and made a pet. The fox, whose name was Miss Rose, was unhappy in a Paris apartment, and Diego who loved all animals (he was mourning at the time the loss of a pet spider) persuaded his friend that she would be happier in the relative freedom of the courtyard outside the two adjacent studios which the brothers occupied on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron. Miss Rose and Diego lived very happily together for a while. Then Alberto came back from his years of exile in Geneva. He would later receive great praise for saying that if he was in a burning building with the choice of saving a Rembrandt or a cat, he would save the cat. In real life he was less sentimental, all that concerned him about Miss Rose was that her feral smell stirred up atavistic emotions in the city-bred dogs of the neighborhood, and they would interfere with his sleep by their howling. One night, staggering home after hours of brilliant conversation at the bar of the Dome, he neglected to shut the courtyard gate after him, and when Diego got up a couple of hours later, Miss Rose was gone. It was quite unintentional, Alberto maintained, a mere oversight. But Diego was convinced that he was lying, and for the first and only time in his life, he was in a rage with the brother to whom he remained a devoted slave until his death. To the end of his own life, Diego would think periodically, anxiously, about Miss Rose and wonder if she had made it through the hostile suburban streets all those dog-infested miles to the happy freedom of open country.

            Among the guests at dinner when I told the story was a man who was preparing a biography of Alberto, and when the book came out some years later, after both brothers were safely dead, there was my anecdote, with the facts given more or less as I have related them here, and ascribed to me courteously enough in a footnote. Only the author, in the way of irresponsible gossips everywhere, had felt the need to prettify the story a little, by turning Miss Rose into "a fox from Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp," where Diego's friend had "somehow in the pit of inhumanity managed to catch, tame and feed a baby vixen." Diego, this account continues, in the syrupy-schoolmarm style affected by this author, "bore in mind what she had lived through. . . For those sensitive to the animal spirit perhaps her very insignificance gave her a singular meaning, while a sense of animal virtue was fostered by knowledge of the place from which she had come."

            It never occurred to the author that, wherever Miss Rose came from, it could not possibly have been Auschwitz, which was a death camp where food rations were scientifically fixed at a level somewhat below the minimum necessary to sustain human life. A prisoner at Auschwitz, in the most unlikely event that he came across a fox there, would have eaten it, no matter what sense of animal virtue might have been fostered in him. If he had an unusually noble character, he might have shared it with a friend Feeding it meat while men and women were starving around him would have revealed a degree of callousness that is unpleasant to contemplate.

            This illustrates how an apparently quiet and pleasant and rather touching piece of gossip can be turned by the wrong hands into something quite nasty.

             I put all this information in a footnote, partly because so far as I know this biography marked the first time that I was ever cited in a footnote, and also to encourage people to read footnotes with more attention than they generally devote to them. Except for some highly idiosyncratic books like Nabokov's Pale Fire, notes are generally written with less care than the text to which they are appended, and as a result can sometimes be far more interesting.

            Here for example is a noteworthy specimen, note 8 to Chapter I of Forms of Discovery by Yvor Winters, a very serious and often peevish work in which the distinguished poet-scholar, almost on his deathbed, was making a last desperate plea for standards of sanity in the wasteland of contemporary literary criticism. Even he, even then, could not resist slipping a bit of mischievous gossip into his technical analysis of the 16th-century poet George Gascoigne's Lullaby of a Lover:


(8) This poem is a lullaby for the poet’s youth and youthful vigor. The fifth stanza ["My little Robyn take thy rest"] is addressed to the poet's penis. I mention this fact because several learned Renaissance scholars of my acquaintance have not understood the stanza. Quiller-Couch understood it and omitted the stanza from the Oxford Book of English Verse.


            This sample shows that a gossip need not be the malicious wretch so often depicted, but can be a perfect gentleman--note that he is careful not to name the learned men whose noses he is tweaking--and at the same time can enrich our lives by deepening our understanding of 16th century English poetry and 20th century Renaissance scholarship.




©2003 Robert Wernick