Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester University. His latest book is The Meaning of Life (OUP, 2007).

Orphaned bits of language

The fact that I am writing this piece at all is little short of astounding, given that I died of AIDS in China in 1984. Indeed, I have heard this canard so often that I have almost come to believe it myself. I am occasionally tempted to use it as a way to avoid various distasteful obligations, invitations to dinner with the odious and repellent, potentially tedious encounters with visiting academics, inquisitive missives from the Inland Revenue and the like. I have even flirted with the notion of travelling to China to lay a respectful wreath on my own tomb, on the grounds that it belongs to the practice of moral virtue to look after oneself. I wouldn't like to think of my grave being left dishevelled and untended.

But now I come to think of it, I have heard just the same fable, word for word, about various other left-wing theorists in the public eye. In fact, Beijing in 1984 seems to have been one enormous graveyard for the intellectual left. All over the city, Western leftists were dropping like flies, and curiously enough of the same disease. That this escaped the notice of the newspapers simply compounds the mystery. One would have anticipated a few brays of glee from the Heffers and the Hitchenses back home, but if my memory serves me they remained oddly tight-lipped. I even know of a few colleagues who have died twice. It is stale news that Robin Blackburn was thrown off Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1979 by an octogenarian Yemeni psychopath who claimed to be his twin, but less widely bruited that he also suffered fatal injuries from a rogue laundry van outside the Elysée Palace some years later. That Roland Barthes met exactly the same fate is miraculous.

The point about rumours is that there is usually something in them. It is not true that Martin Heidegger was only four feet tall, but he may well have been photographed a couple of times with the Harlem Globetrotters. On the charitable hypothesis that all of the people are not utterly duped about absolutely everything all of the time, it is possible to conclude that even quite outlandish doctrines like a belief in alien abductions (and it has been estimated that by 2017, only 6 per cent of Americans will not have been abducted) probably have something going for them – though not, to be sure, what the abductees themselves think. There is generally a rational kernel inside the mystified shell. Flagrant inventions are relatively rare, unless malice is involved. I was indeed in China in 1984, and may have been looking as ravaged as usual. One can usually extract the small nugget of truth from the swollen verbal extravagance. The Duke of Edinburgh is not in fact a transsexual; it is just that some Japanese tourists around Balmoral are unfamiliar with the concept of kilt.

Rumours are orphaned, unauthored bits of language, and thus typical of language in general, which has no sole proprietor. Like jokes, they have come loose from their origins and float anonymously through the social ether. Unlike art, they often involve a suspension of both belief and disbelief: we just don't know whether we believe them or not, or don't ask ourselves whether we do, or content ourselves with imagining what it might be like if they were true. In this sense, they are the popular equivalent of the speculative mind. Rumours are also collaborative affairs, and in this sense too can be seen as exemplary of language as such. Rather as the answer to the question "Who is desiring here?" is far from obvious for psychoanalysis, so it is never entirely clear who is speaking. Even "I love you" is a quotation. Tracking a rumour to its lair is like trying to discover who invented the word "badger". Rumour is language as a palimpsest, in which one utterance infiltrates, overlays, half-erases or monstrously inflates another.

What is needed, of course, is a materialist theory of rumour. Neo-Kantian, left-Hegelian, post-Durkheimian and liberal-Anglican theories of it have yielded remarkably little. The point about rumour is that it thickens as history accelerates, like turning up the heat on a pan of soup. When rumours begin to fly thick and fast, you can be sure that events are moving more swiftly than the mind can adequately encompass. The indeterminacy of rumour reflects a history in crisis. Revolutions famously bring in their wake a merging of fantasy and reality; a sense of reality as both heightened and volatilized. In such situations, as W.B. Yeats commented of the Irish civil war, "no clear fact can be discerned", and rumour goes accordingly on the rampage. A thesis remains to be written entitled "Rumour as Symptomatic of Historico-Epistemological Convulsion", which I admittedly wouldn't read myself, life being the fleeting affair it is. But other people might find this sort of thing appealing.

Or so I've heard.



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