After a long, dry stretch in a particularly reserved (okay, anally retentive) academic department where I felt that my humanity was being drained out of me through my toes, I wrote a poem asking “Did anyone ever die for lack of gossip?” I answered myself that “We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter,” and then I threw my Full Professorship out of the window to find a more socially nourishing life.
From birth, we live in a rich matrix of other people talking to us and to each other. As toddlers, we begin to formulate our replies within that context of interactive chatter; by the time we are six we are skilled linguistic manipulators within our particular social milieu.
Chattering generates mattering: we figure out our place in our world through verbality. Feral children raised without language – let’s say by wolves – communicate in wolf submission gestures, taking their correct place in the pack on hunts, and in growls and grunts, but remain poorly wolf-socialized because they lack non-verbal wolf information like smell – the enormously detailed array of scents wolves respond to – and the multiple meanings that a tail can express. If rescued, it is often too late for feral children to acquire human language and live fully as humans.
A lone wolf ejected from the pack for bad behavior is not likely to survive on its own. American culture, in contrast, often considers an individual the center of the universe, despite our Surgeon General’s warning that the current plague of isolation leads not only to mental but also to bodily disease (apparently, we can actually die from lack of gossip).
Our development of language, with the evolutionary outcome of a larger and more complex neo-cortex than other animals, enables us to transmit a considerable body of how-to and what’s-it-all-about information among each other and down the generations. For many millennia after we came down from the trees, we did this by word of mouth, orally. Think of the West African Griot, responsible for keeping centuries of tribal history and genealogy in his head; of “Homer,” who was actually a group of people writing down a cluster of epic narratives; or of the New Testament Gospels, stories told in the Christian communities that remained oral for most of the first century after the life of Jesus.
Unfortunately, this treasure of human knowledge can be used for evil as well as good: it all depends on that ambivalent human gift, the gift of choice. At the beginning of the twentieth century, we assumed that our bright new technologies would, in and of themselves, lead to human progress. Silly us: we got a century of total war. As Justin Gregg puts it in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals about Human Stupidity: “If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal the world might never have had to endure the horrors of the Second World War or of the Holocaust.” Unlike animals, which seem to know what they are doing, human beings – for all of our linguistic skills and our museums and libraries and symphonies – are tragically prone to muck things up.
Gossip is that way too: talking about whose mother called, what he said, then what she said can lead to kind understanding or turn toxic in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, we can’t live without it: we feel all creepy crawly if we go even one day without talking to someone. So, if you live alone, like me, find somebody to chat with today, even if it is a familiar stranger like the check-out lady at the supermarket; she probably hankers to verbalize just as much as you do.