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May 4, 2013

Gossip, A Danish Philosopher, & Henry James

by Brendan

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century Danish philosopher, famously said, “In time, all people will be interested in is gossip.”  Now, he apparently didn’t mean that people being interested in nothing  but gossip would be a good thing; quite the opposite.  And we have to factor in the “gloominess-factor” associated with philosophers in general, with the 19th century especially, and with Scandinavia in particular — I mean, does the sun ever come out in Denmark, Finland, or Norway?   Is it true their diet is about 50% salted fish and bread.   You and I would be gloomy, too.

But maybe Kierkegaard’s comment had predictive value.   Let’s consider it together with something that appeared in Slate today, starring gloomily-humorous American novelist (and social commentator) Henry James.

Henry James, Looking Disapprovingly Into the Future

Henry James, Looking Disapprovingly Into the Future

The Slate article noted that one Mary McClellan, a historically-real American girl, had gone to Europe and marveled at the “Anglomania” of the Italians, mockingly, sarcastically.  This led Jones to create a fictional American girl, enamored of English culture, French culture, of Americans copying it — in essence, James in his fiction, mocked Americans’ fascination with gossip.  To wit:

            The story that sprang from the International McClellan Incident is of Francie Dosson, a pretty and rich 25-year-old American girl.  She and her unpretty, conniving sister and simple father come from Boston to Paris. At sea they meet a reporter named George Flack, who…falls for Francie but has introduced her to a trendy painter, who is painting frightening “Impressionist” portraits. This painter’s best friend, of an American family (from “Carolina”) that has married ridiculously well into France and become Frencher-than-thou, falls for Francie as well. In the face of rivalry Flack decides he wants more than just Francie: He’s also after some hot copy for his American paper, The Reverberator.

        A third of the way through the book, Mr. Flack delivers a chilling and visionary speech to Francie that he expanded for the (wordier, less punchy) New York edition of 1908, to give this mildly terrifying manifesto:

“The society-news of every quarter of the globe, furnished by the prominent members themselves—oh they can be fixed, you’ll see!—from day to day and from hour to hour and served up hot at every breakfast-table in the United States: that’s what the American people want and that’s what the American people are going to have …”

So, as Slate puts it, novelist Henry James “Nostradamus’d” the current, and decades-old, fascination our culture has with gossip, especially celebrity gossip.  And which, coupled with our 24-hour news cycle and the Internet, boils down to a lot of gossip — seems as if it’s all anyone is interested in, doesn’t it?  Or is that just too gloomy a thought?

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