The Rumour: A Cultural History 
by Hans-Joachim Neubauer, translated by Christian Braun.
Free Association, 201 pp., £16.95, November 1999, 1 85343 472 8
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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.

The deficiencies of Neubauer’s style and procedure send us off in search of a word for the humanistic correlative of scientism – ‘humanisticism’ is unlikely to catch on and ‘aphorese’ is too limiting, so ‘blather’ will have to do. An example is his account of the reasons why the concentration camp authorities at Sachsenhausen forbade the dissemination of rumours. He notes that games and political discussions, too, were prohibited, and remarks:

As with card games ... it is true also of the system of hearsay that it is something that cannot be predicted or controlled, is itself, in this respect, a form of game. And it is here that one finds its small moment of freedom. But the truth of the camps remains the final, brutally stark reality. And therefore whatever could establish an – even only subjective – distance from this principle of absolute control is not tolerated. Here and in the ghetto nothing is to take place ‘of its own accord’; in the eyes of absolute power rumours even have, with their possible glimmer of collective hope, the character of insubordinate conducts. They could put in question the monopoly of violence, when with their rhetorical power, they spin a web of interpretations. That, however, would represent the end of definiteness and the beginnings of difference; one could call this ‘culture’.

Neubauer’s chapter on rumour-control blurs some pertinent distinctions. ‘Careless talk cost lives’ and ‘Zip your lip and save a ship’ are attempts to control not rumour but information, and cannot be assimilated to the German wartime injunction ‘do not corrupt mood and outlook by passing on rumours and exaggerated description of events.’ There are occasions when the distinction between reports, rumours and legends may not matter, as the motives may be the same, but that is not the case when what you want to learn is how a rumour originated. The answer to the question of why a rumour began that the President of the United States was receiving sexual favours from an intern in the Oval Office is that he was. Whether there is anything further to explain depends on the degree of distortion between the event which gave rise to the rumour and its later stages. The story of the church bells of Antwerp is cited by Allport as a good example of the progressive intensification of a rumour. When the priests of the city refused to ring the bells in celebration of the German victory they were, in the earliest version of the rumour, deprived of their parishes; in a later version they were shot; and in a still later version they were hung from the bells as living clappers. The event from which the story originated featured no unco-operative Belgian priests because the church bells in question were not Belgian but those of Cologne, rung to celebrate the German conquest of Antwerp.

Arthur Ponsonby tells this story in Falsehood in Wartime, a book intended to encourage scepticism, but the reluctance to believe the worst merely because it redounded to the discredit of an enemy may have had the effect of delaying acknowledgment of what was later done to the Jews of Europe. Yet at the same time, avid credulity as to enemy atrocities delayed acknowledgment that the Katyn massacre was perpetrated not by the Germans, to whom it was long imputed, but by our Soviet allies. Of the policy of letting rumours go uncontradicted lest they be given wider publicity, Neubauer justly observes that ‘the negative rhetoric of denial often has exactly the opposite effect from the one intended.’ He might have instanced as a counterproductive example of rumour-control the proscription on the racial identification of criminals. A common result of this is that if a crime is particularly vicious or contemptible it will be widely and mechanically assumed that the perpetrator belonged to a racial minority.

There would seem to be no formula which will enable us to discriminate true rumours from false. The identification of a discreditable motive for giving credence to a rumour is patently inadequate. Many of the scandalous stories I heard as a boy about the sexual proclivities or depravities of celebrities I later learned to be correct. What moral can be drawn from this other than the banality that though a story gives lubricious satisfaction to its transmitters it may nevertheless be true?

One informal method of controlling rumours is to mock the gullibility of those who credit them. A mickey-taking member of the Intelligence Services confided to a British General the mock-rumour that an attempt was under way to cross-breed parrots and pigeons, ‘thus producing super-pigeons capable of reporting by word of mouth’. The chastening purpose of the story was not achieved, since the General’s response was to warn his informant that he was divulging top secret information. As is common, the story was not based on nothing – the Intelligence Services were making serious use of pigeons. (Just before D-Day, the philosopher J.L. Austin, then serving in Intelligence, was apprehensively awaiting the arrival of pigeons carrying information from France as to the location of German units.)

When we think of examples of personal rumours, the ones that come most readily to mind are scurrilous, though Allport reminds us that there are hagiographical rumours as well as scurrilous ones. These are parodied in the story of Abraham Lincoln having been born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. Freud is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the hagiographical impulse in our time. In his book on Freud, Frank Sulloway lists 26 legends, though his account of their rationale is excessively conspiratorial. In their construction and propagation, powerful and disinterested archetypes are at work which transform Freud into an amalgam of Moses, Maigret, ObiWan Kenobi and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Many legends and rumours are relished and repeated by people from non-tendentious motives, merely because they are such good stories. They have ‘tellability’ and belong to the sub-class known as ‘urban myth’. One of Allport’s examples concerns Berlin at the end of the Second World War. A blind man bumps into a young woman in a street in a badly bombed neighbourhood and asks directions so that he can deliver a letter he is carrying. She takes pity on him and offers to deliver the letter for him. However, when she glances back to see how he is managing, she sees him walking swiftly away like a sighted man. Her suspicions aroused, she takes the letter to the police station. The police raid the address on the letter to find a black-market meat operation – the meat is human flesh. The reason they raided the apartment was that the letter the young lady was asked to deliver contained only one sentence: ‘This is the last one I am sending you today.’ The dissemination of this rumour has meagre ideological value, and the motive for its transmission is largely its tellability. This may be why in some versions the girl is described as plump; though a less wholesome motive than simple tellability may be at work here, similar to that which brings it about that whenever a woman under sixty is unlucky enough to get raped, some reports will describe her as ‘attractive’. The motive for this embellishment is unlikely to be gallantry.

Neubauer quotes a comment on a wartime American rumour that 500 overseas WACs had become pregnant and had to be discharged: ‘such stories are ... made of the stuff which is inside those who listen to them.’ But this once again prompts the suspicion that discovering ‘the stuff which is inside us’ is not the province of any specialised discipline but is available to anyone willing to brace himself for some unseemly self-revelations. In the course of a discussion of the atrocity stories which circulated during the First World War, D.W. Harding suggested that the interest they generate is often due to the fact that we harbour, ‘unconsciously, the same impulses which led to their commission’: ‘The conscious effect of the story is to arouse pity, indignation or disgust. Unconsciously, however, it has brought up the possibility of committing or suffering such an atrocity ourselves. Any submerged sadistic or masochistic impulses we may harbour are immediately stimulated.’ How does the sado-masochistic appeal of such stories bear on their credibility? Might not the same fantasies they exploit and gratify have been instrumental in the perpetration of the events they record? However this may be, the creation and circulation of atrocity stories and the heightened eroticisation which they often undergo can seem mysterious only if we take refuge in the notion of the hidden workings of an unconscious mind – only to be revealed by expert decoders – instead of owning up to the intermittent perversity of our everyday lascivious musings.

Is there anything very general to be said as to why rumours are sometimes aborted? Allport thought so. The rumour that Nero had burned Rome was spread by the disaffected populace until he managed to launch an even more popular rumour that the Christians had done it. Allport sees in this incident the ‘typical dynamics of rumour at work’. Thus ‘the populace hungered for the relief that finding someone to blame would bring.’ Nero fitted the bill, but was too powerful to make retaliation practicable, and so the Christians were blamed instead. Is there a typical dynamics at work here? How, for example, does Napoleon’s refusal to believe that Nero set Rome alight just to enjoy the blaze – a refusal on the grounds that the motive was unintelligible – exemplify a ‘typical dynamics’? For even if Napoleon’s scepticism was feigned to convey the impression that if everyone were as good as he was we wouldn’t need churches, it is not easy to see how social science advances matters by invoking a ‘typical dynamics’. Even the physics-resonant term ‘dynamics’ arouses one’s suspicions. (Another example of the historical particularity of rumour-spiking is provided by the American psychoanalyst Clarence Oberndorf. A woman he was treating, on being warned that analysts slept with their patients, replied: ‘Poor Dr Oberndorf, he sees six patients a day.’)

If cultural history has not contributed much to the understanding of rumour, can the study of rumour illuminate cultural history? Even if our attitude towards unauthorised and anonymous reports varied from age to age in a way which shed light on the age with which they varied, how much could this tell us that we could not learn more expeditiously elsewhere? The supposed geometrical peculiarity of the Sinic vulva is a paradigmatic rumour in its extraordinary scope and persistence, though in our shrinking world it may well have suffered the fate of most idealisations. But however diagnostically instructive, in the Orientalism vein, this rumour may be, is it any more so than Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan and willow-pattern plates?

What are the chances nowadays of hearing a rumour? The proliferation of nameable and public sources decreases enormously our dependence on hearsay. The scope for rumour-mongering about what was going on in Baghdad during the Gulf War was limited by the presence of CNN in the city. If the modern state of communications had prevailed at the time of the Sicilian expedition, the barber of Piraeus would have been spared his racking because he would have found the Athenians as ready to tell him their own version of events in Sicily as to listen to his.

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Vol. 22 No. 15 · 10 August 2000

I feel queasy about querying my own old philosophy tutor but surely Frank Cioffi’s statement (LRB, 22 June) that ‘there would seem to be no formula which will enable us to discriminate true rumour from false’ is not permissible. We may not know the truth or falsehood of a rumour since, according to its Merriam-Webster definition, a rumour is ‘a statement current without known authority for its truth’. If we could, it wouldn’t be a rumour but an opinion, a fiction, a lie or a fact. isn’t this an example of what Cioffi taught us to call a category mistake. Or is it just blather?

Neil Ferguson

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