Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Queer Afterlife of Gossip: James Merrill's "Celestial Salon"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Queer Afterlife of Gossip: James Merrill's "Celestial Salon"

Article excerpt

Gossip, though it can be exceedingly interesting when the parties are alive, is not at all interesting when they're dead.

--W. H. Auden (1946)

Who could ever think--in particular, at this date, what gay man--that someone's death ever stopped the elaboration of someone else's fantasy about him?

--D.A. Miller (1992)

Does gossip have an afterlife? The fresh news promised by hot gossip might seem to carry a short expiration date: gossip's critics and proponents alike often remark its occasional, ephemeral, and even disposable qualities--those aspects of everyday talk that, depending on one's perspective, either compare unfavorably to or enable a subversion of the literary, understood, in Ezra Pound's famous formulation, as "news that STAYS news" (1960: 29). Yet at a time when "Google's unforgiving memory," Daniel Solove argues, "transform[s] forgettable whispers within small local groups to a widespread and permanent chronicle of people's lives," gossip's news--if "once scattered, forgettable, and localized" (2007: 8,11)--increasingly appears the enduring stuff of history. Perhaps it always has been. Ovid's influential account of gossip imagines the House of Fame, classical goddess of gossip and rumor, as an impossibly totalizing, eternal archive of "every voice and word" ever uttered, while Fame herself, as thoroughly as any search engine's web crawler, "scours the whole wide world" of discourse for "all that goes on in heaven or sea or land" (1998: 275-76). Ovid intimates, pace Auden, that although the subjects and occasions of gossip inevitably pass, talk about them remains indelibly on record, waiting only for its performance to become "exceedingly interesting" again (Auden 2000: 86). As no less a theorist of modern dish than Oscar Wilde puts it, "Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip" (1999: 451). In this view, our gossip outlives us, becoming history, or, rather, we become historical by living on as gossip. Indeed, insofar as gossip's keen, revivifying attention ensures that no one ever really gossips about the dead, Auden may be right to claim that good gossip dishes only on the living. More than a shift from the literal to the figurative, reinflecting Auden s claim in this way entails a change of emphasis from gossip's transience to our own; it suggests that, instead of asking whether there can be gossip after life, we might better inquire: Is there life after gossip?

The sharpest--and strangest--meditation on these questions that I know is James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), a sprawling, 560-page poem that takes what can only be called an exceeding interest in (as one reader sees it) "much gossip, often licentious, about the famous dead" (MofFett 1984: 155) to the extent that, for some, the poem seems a veritable "all-night talk show of the dead" (Mazzocco 1983: 215). Sandover--now epic, now dramatic, now lyric in temper--chronicles nearly thirty years of Ouija board conversations among Merrill (JM, in the board's uppercase shorthand), his partner David Jackson (DJ), and an eclectic ensemble of voices from the beyond, including dead friends, literary forebears, familiar spirits, batlike angels, and a pantheon presided over by God Biology and his sister Mother Nature. Announcing his poem, in its opening pages, as "The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings Spent / With David Jackson at the Ouija Board" (S 4), Merrill mines the occult qualities of the relationship between literary tradition and individual talent as he channels a queer fantasia on themes as seemingly disparate as nuclear apocalypse, Cold War politics, homosexuality, friendship, reproduction, and poetic self-making. These far-flung threads are woven together by the gossip that both establishes and sustains Merrill's "celestial salon" (100) and proves vital to his poem's attempt to create "some kind of workable relation / Between the two worlds" (20). Thriving on gossip with and about deceased parties, Sand-over at times appears to be crafting a self-affirming literary genealogy of gossip from Plato to Proust, and beyond; and its pedigree of gossip as poetic practice features, somewhat ironically, W. …

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