On the contrary: Dishing the dirt

Blaise Pascal’s wise words, “If people really knew what others said about them, there would not be two friends left in the world,” assume ominous significance in a world driven, and to some extent, riven, by scandal-laden twitter feeds. The most interesting news is that which the rich and powerful would rather keep under wraps; the poor and vulnerable don’t give a tinker’s toss since their daily struggle against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune precludes any wallowing in the balm of middle-class morality.

Sociologists have redefined gossip as the useful passing on of information in an unconstrained manner, which sounds suspiciously like waffling but seems a perfectly good excuse when one is muck raking, don’t you think? I am not for a moment suggesting that technology is the culprit and that the 70’s era of Doordarshan and rotary telephones was an idyllic period where folks led simple lives discussing the Upanishads over a banana sundae at Lake View ice-cream parlour. What is unfortunate is the current hankering for being the first to dish the dirt; it is almost as if with the constant stream of muck on social media we have lost the taste for private life. As Milan Kundera sagely observed, “Without secrecy, nothing is possible- not love, not friendship.”

Joseph Epstein’s book, “Gossip” subjects a few renowned practitioners of this dark art, like Walter Winchell of the New York Mirror, to unsparing scrutiny. Apparently Winchell’s editor, Arthur Brisbane once told him, “You have no ethics, scruples, decency or conscience,” to which Winchell replied, “Let other have those things. I’ve got readers.” One problem with the trending objects of current gossip, be it Kardashian, Khan or Karunanidhi, is that they have practically no shelf-life and are mercilessly condemned to what economists refer to as the law of diminishing returns. 

On the other hand, historical gossip, be it about Alexander the Great, Pandit Nehru or Gandhi, has always been fascinatingly highbrow. Take for example, the theory that Kodavas ascribe their light eyes, fair complexions and regal bearing to Macedonian ancestry or consider how many reams of prose have been devoted to the subject of the Nehru-Edwina romance. Then read Lelyveld’s biography which drops meaningful hints about Gandhi’s relationships with Hermann Kallenbach, the German bodybuilder and Prussian architect.  Epstein cites Noel Coward as a sterling example of a wild and amusing gossip.

“Homosexual men, having long thought themselves outside the realm of middle-class respectability have achieved a nice distancing, a spectatorial view of so-called normal life, which is at heart, comic. This is what gives it a witty twist, suggesting as it often does that life is a sham, don’t you know and how amusing it is to pierce it by observing people play out their hopeless little pageants of pretence and hypocrisy.”  Ultimately hard-core gossips yearn to belong; they use gossip as a currency to proclaim their insider status. If there is merit to the saying that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, gossips strain every sinew in their efforts to provide buzz as well as the tedious details they fondly imagine their audience craves.

Psychological motivations, social calendars, sexual peccadilloes: all of this provides the rich, loamy humus of their constant gardening where the distinction between the early worm and the bird is often blurred.  That apart, very few among us are high-minded enough to remain abstemious when the chalice of gossip is being passed around, especially when we observe our friends and neighbours taking a healthy draught? As Liz Smith said, “I never repeat gossip…so listen carefully.”

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Note from Kannada.Club :

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