- The Rumour: A Cultural History by Hans-Joachim Neubauer, translated by Christian Braun
Free Association, 201 pp, £16.95, November 1999, ISBN 1 85343 472 8
The first problem which besets an attempt to assess a cultural history of rumour is to determine what the cultural history is a cultural history of. Hans-Joachim Neubauer seems uncertain. Sometimes he follows the convention according to which what constitutes a rumour is its baselessness, if not its falsity; at others its mode of transmission via anonymous and multiple sources, irrespective of the truth or warrantability of its content, is his criterion. This ambiguity is implied by the prominence given to Virgil’s account of Fama from Book 4 of the Aeneid, which provided the epigraph for Gordon Allport’s The Psychology of Rumour (1947), one of the foundation works in this area. The rumour about Dido’s consummation of her love for Aeneas was not only correct, however, it was precipitated by the event itself. Neubauer also treats the beacon flares which proclaimed the sacking of Troy and the impending return of Agamemnon as rumour – though it was not a rumour but a prearranged signal.
These distinctions may be too fine for Neubauer. He begins with Plutarch’s cautionary account of the fate which befell the barber of Piraeus who, learning from one of his seafaring customers that the Greek fleet had been destroyed in Sicily, rushed to inform the citizens of Athens and was racked for propagating demoralising falsehoods. When the Athenians discover from other sources that the Sicilian expedition has indeed come to grief they rush off, leaving the barber on the rack.
Plutarch tells this story as a warning against garrulity rather than rumour-mongering. It is not an ideal example of rumour in any case since it lacks the characteristically diffuse and anonymous sources which Neubauer sometimes insists on. Plutarch’s story does, however, bear on the strength of the impulse to transmit rumours, since we are told that no sooner is the barber released from the rack than he is at it again.
In his chapter on ‘the search for the formula of the rumour’ Neubauer dismisses the pretensions of social science to study rumour at adequate depth; and it is true that Allport’s formula – ‘R ≈ i×a’, where ‘i’ is the importance of the rumour and ‘a’ the ambiguity of the situation on which it impinges – smacks of scientism. Even so, Allport manages to make a number of pertinent observations which may not count as scientific but compare favourably with Neubauer’s often fatuous comments on his historical and literary examples: ‘Rumour can be as swift as fear, as cold as hate and as sweet as the voice of the sirens.’
Neubauer’s procedure is to pick out either a personification of rumour in literature or art, or a historical episode of rumour-mongering, and then extrapolate from it to its society or milieu in terms so figurative as to baffle assessment. For example, in the French city of Orléans in 1969, a rumour spread that the Jewish proprietors of a new boutique were abducting younger female customers to sell into prostitution. Researchers tried to determine how the rumour started. This is Neubauer’s comment on their results: ‘In a country which ... after the end of the Second World War bases its moral self-understanding upon the myth of the Resistance, completely different myths suddenly spring up and transform what is “real”. This result alone is worth the cost of the research.’ How so? It is not news that for a long time the French exaggerated their role during the Occupation; nor is it news that within decades of the war there were still French people who would seize on any pretext to slander Jews. How Neubauer thinks these two facts are related is something his idiom prevents us from grasping.