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The Novel’s Evil Tongue

Saturday 19 December 2015

By CYNTHIA OZICK

DEC. 16, 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! Eden 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 Egypt, 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.

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.

Why is it needful to penetrate the labyrinth of hidden things, to go up and down among your people as a detective spilling hypotheses? Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine. Even something so private as rumination is a mode of gossip, whereby the newsmonger is on the lookout for motive and character: every prober her own Proust. And since gossip peers through the keyhole of unsuspecting humanity, how can Emma Woodhouse not be compelled to reflect on Mrs. Elton, the young vicar’s newly arrived bride?

“She did not really like her. She would not be in a hurry to find fault, but she suspected that there was no elegance; ease, but not elegance. She was almost sure that for a young woman, a stranger, a bride, there was too much ease. Her person was rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner were elegant. Emma thought at least it would turn out so. . . . She had a quarter of an hour of the lady’s conversation to herself, and could composedly attend to her; and the quarter of an hour quite convinced her that Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant, and that her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good.”

We too do not like Mrs. Elton, nor are we intended to like her; but oh, what nasty pleasure we take in making her acquaintance! And must Jane Austen be admonished, by the strictures of biblical fiat, to keep her tongue from speaking acidly? Interior gossip of this kind, not yet spoken aloud or acted out, is certainly not the most cutting, though elsewhere Jane Austen can do better (by doing far worse).

Evolutionary biologists tell us that the history of ­gossip — of which their formulations are now inevitably a part — begins with primates grooming primates, where “grooming” means the practice of apes companionably picking unwelcome bits of foreign matter from one another’s fur. Nothing will illustrate the plausibility of this predecessor thesis more than the exchange, bitter rather than obliging, that unfolds within the affluently appointed walls of Dr. Sloper’s house in fashionable Washington Square. Mrs. Penniman, the doctor’s sister, has been zealously promoting her unprepossessing niece’s choice of suitor. “Allow me to say,” the doctor rebukes her, “that it is extremely indiscreet of you to form secret alliances with young men; you don’t know where they may lead you.”

But Mrs. Penniman will persist. She retails what she thinks she knows. She slyly weaves tangles that cannot be undone. She is the incarnation of the primordial ­go-between: She is Pandarus, she is Iago, she turns up in Chaucer’s pageant of schemers, and before that as the clever manipulator of the early French fabliaux, those bawdy comic tales in verse of thwarted lovers and their eager helpers. And while Emma as busybody is dangerously intelligent, Mrs. Penniman is self-importantly foolish:

“  ‘I don’t know what you mean by an alliance,’ said Mrs. Penniman. ‘I take a great interest in Mr. Townsend; I won’t conceal that. But that’s all.’

“ ‘Under the circumstances, that is quite enough. What is the source of your interest in Mr. Townsend?’

“ ‘Why,’ said Mrs. Penniman, musing, and then breaking into her smile, ‘that he is so interesting!’

“The doctor felt that he had need of his patience. ‘And what makes him interesting? His good looks?

“ ‘His misfortunes, Austin.’

“ ‘Ah, he has had misfortunes? That, of course, is always interesting. Are you at liberty to mention a few of Mr. Townsend’s?’

“  ‘I don’t know that he would like it,’ said Mrs. Penniman. ‘He has told me a great deal about himself — he has told me, in fact, his whole history. But I don’t think I ought to repeat those things. He would tell them to you, I am sure, if he thought you would listen to him kindly. With kindness you may do anything with him.’

“The doctor gave a laugh. ‘I shall request him very kindly, then, to leave Catherine alone.’ ”

There is a recognizable cruelty in Dr. Sloper’s laugh; his laugh is that of the tongue that speaks evil. He is cruel to his silly sister, to his lovesick yearning daughter, to her opportunistic fortune-hunting suitor. It is the same species of cruelty Henry James uncovers in Gilbert Osmond, the sinister aesthete Isabel Archer weds; it is the anguish George Eliot imposes on Dorothea in her horribly mistaken marriage to the withered Casaubon. And all of it comes about through the novelist’s transgressive devisings; these go where prudent moral restraint forbids.

Gossip at its inquisitive heart is heartless interrogation, and will sometimes push on to extremes: as in Oscar Mandel’s “Otherwise Fables,” where verity and piercing cynicism mingle; as in “In the Reign of Harad IV,” Steven Millhauser’s ingenious inquiry into ultimate miniaturization, the nature of the least particle of being; as in Chaim Grade’s fiery “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner,” where two survivors of the German hell argue bitterly over God’s faithfulness or faithlessness; as in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” with its pricking of pride and its punishing fall; as in the unforgiving thunder of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

Under the influence of the evil tongue, 10,000 stories and novels, before and since, have insinuated themselves into our sin-seeking world. They proliferate in their scores of languages, out of continents leafy or arid, out of furious histories and agitated moral persuasions. They are made by go-betweens, by whisperers and tattletales, by ironists and miscreants, by jesters and mourners, and always by the fevered bearers of false witness. Yet even Solomon’s Proverbs, that ancient well of prudence, in one of its seemingly admonitory homilies, reveals — against its intent — a fierce intuition for the shattering force of storytelling: “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s innermost parts.”

A man’s innermost parts! A woman’s innermost parts! Interpret this as you will, it all comes down to the self-conscious and vulnerable organ that humanity once dared (defiantly, subversively) to call Soul — where gossip longs to tread.

No gossip, no interiority. No interiority, the anthill.

Cynthia Ozick’s most recent book is the novel “Foreign Bodies.” Her new collection, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary ­Essays,” will be published in July.

A version of this article appears in print on December 20, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Novel’s Evil Tongue.

See online: The Novel’s Evil Tongue