Friday, December 18, 2015
When the world was just new, Story came into being, and it came with the beguilements of gossip, and talebearing, and rumor.
Most pressingly, it came through truth-telling. After all, the garrulous serpent was no liar when he told Eve the secret of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eat of it, he whispered, and “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” Ever since Genesis, no story has been free of gossip, and how unreasonable it is that gossip has its mischief-making reputation. Had Eve not listened, had she been steadfast in the face of so unverifiable a proposition, what barrenness!
would still be what
it was, a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked
beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring
forth. No Cain and Abel, then no crime novels and Hitchcock thrillers. No
Promised Land, then no Young Men From the Provinces setting out on aspiring
journeys. No Joseph in Eden ,
then no fraught chronicles of travail and redemption. In the absence of secrets
revealed — in the absence also of rumor and repute and misunderstanding and
misdirection — no Chaucer, no Boccaccio, no Boswell, no Jane Austen, no
Maupassant, no Proust, no Henry James! The instant Eve took in that awakening
morsel of serpentine gossip, Literature in all its variegated forms was born. Egypt
Scripture too teems with stories, including tales of envy, murder, adultery, idolatry, betrayal, lust, deceit. Yet its laws of conscience relentlessly deplore gossip, the very engine that engenders these narratives of flawed mortals. Everything essential to storytelling is explicitly forbidden: Keep your tongue from speaking evil, no bearing false witness, no going up and down as a talebearer among your people. The wily tongue itself is a culprit deserving imprisonment: There it is, caged by the teeth, confined by the lips, squirming like a serpent in its struggle to break free. Harmful speech has been compared in its moral injury to bloodshed, worship of false gods, incest and adultery; but what novelist can do without some version of these fundamentals of plot?
Gossip is the steady deliverer of secrets, the necessary divulger of who thinks this and who does that, the carrier of speculation and suspicion. The gossiper is often a grand imaginer and, like the novelist, an enemy of the anthill. The communitarian ants rush about with full deliberation, pursuing their tasks with admirable responsibility, efficiency, precision. Everything in their well-structured polity is open and predictable — every gesture, every pathway. They may perish by the hundreds (step on an anthill and precipitate a Vesuvius); the survivors continue as prescribed and do not mourn. And what a creaturely doom it is, not to know sorrow, or regret, or the meaning of death; to have no memory, or wonder, or inquisitiveness, never to go up and down as a talebearer, never to envy, never to be seduced, never to be mistaken or guilty or ashamed. To be destined to live without gossip is to forfeit the perilous cost of being born human — gossip at its root is nothing less than metaphysical, Promethean, hubristic. Or, to frame it otherwise: To choose to live without gossip is to scorn storytelling. And to scorn storytelling is to join the anthill, where there are no secrets to pry open.