The two most interesting things in life are metaphysics and gossip.
Consider gossip in its bare bones, the mechanics of it, how it works. One person tells another person something about a third person that may or may not have a basis in fact. Like as not, what the first person has to tell goes to the absent person’s reputation. Dealing with his personal life, it usually serves to diminish or tarnish that reputation. Why did the first person decide to tell it? Perhaps because he bears the absent person a grudge. Perhaps because the absent person’s behavior, the subject of the item of gossip, angers or strongly puts him off. Perhaps because he finds the behavior he is describing too amusing or freakish or astounding to withhold telling. Perhaps because he is reasonably confident that he will be charming the person to whom he is relaying the gossip, who will be indebted to him for a few moments of entertainment. Perhaps because he senses that conveying this bit of information will increase the intimacy between him and the person with whom he is gossiping.
Listening to gossip can be likened to receiving stolen goods; it puts you in immediate collusion with the person conveying the gossip to you. Sometimes the person who initiates the gossip asks the person to whom he is telling it to keep it to himself. Sometimes secrecy is implied, sometimes not. If the gossip has an element of real excitement to it, the request that the item go no further is unlikely to be honored. Some of the best gossip is intramural, taking place within a smallish group: an office, a school, a neighborhood, a village or small town. My first encounter with gossip of this kind had to do with stories of sexual exploits that teenage boys at my high school told to other boys about the girls they went out with. Kissing and telling is the traditional term for this sort of gossip. There was during that time, to be sure, a fair amount of not kissing but telling anyway, or of obviously heightening and dramatizing one’s rather pathetic conquests, a clear case of enhancing one’s status by retailing false gossip.
In less intramural settings, often one’s social perspective or one’s politics will direct one’s interest in gossip. Whether one thinks oneself liberal or conservative, one’s field of gossip interest is likely to be very different. Conservatives were blown away by Bill Clinton stories, liberals made uneasy by them. Two persistent bits of gossip about Martin Luther King Jr. are that he amply plagiarized his doctoral thesis and that, though married, he had lots of love affairs, including a steady liaison with a woman who was a dean at Cornell. If one is an admirer of Dr. King’s, one doesn’t want to hear such stories; if one is not, or even if one is skeptical about public heroes generally, such gossip has its natural appeal in bringing down an ostensibly great man. An even better story has King determined to fire Jesse Jackson just before the end of his life—better, that is, for all those people who consider Jesse Jackson essentially a fraud. The same applies to John F. Kennedy stories; if you care for him, you are likely to be less attentive to all those upstairs-at-the-White-House stories with movie stars and Mafia molls, and if you don’t much like him, bring on more such stories. Gossip, as the old New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson once put it, “is hearing something you like about someone you don’t.”
Photo: Hulton Archive
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