The Novel’s Evil Tongue

Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times:

BookWhen 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?

More here.