As To Rumors by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

MADRID, Jan. 17.–Nikolai Lenine was among the Russians who landed at Barcelona recently, according to newspapers here.–News item.

It is rather important to understand the technique of rumors. The wise man does not scoff at them, for while they are often absurd, they are rarely baseless. People do not go about inventing rumors, except for purposes of hoax; and even a practical joke is never (to parody the proverb) hoax et praeterea nihil. There is always a reason for wanting to perpetrate the hoax, or a reason for believing it will be believed.

Rumors are a kind of exhalation or intellectual perfume thrown off by the news of the day. Some events are more aromatic than others; they can be detected by the trained pointer long before they happen. When things are going on that have a strong vibration–what foreign correspondents love to call a “repercussion”–they cause a good deal of mind-quaking. An event getting ready to happen is one of the most interesting things to watch. By a sort of mental radiation it fills men’s minds with surmises and conjectures. Curiously enough, due perhaps to the innate perversity of man, most of the rumors suggest the exact opposite of what is going to happen. Yet a rumor, while it may be wholly misleading as to fact, is always a proof that something is going to happen. For instance, last summer when the news was full of repeated reports of Hindenburg’s death, any sane man could foresee that what these reports really meant was not necessarily Hindenburg’s death at all, but Germany’s approaching military collapse. Some German prisoners had probably said “Hindenburg ist kaput,” meaning “Hindenburg is done for,” i.e., “The great offensive has failed.” This was taken to mean that he was literally dead.

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In the same way, while probably no one seriously believes that Lenine is in Barcelona, the mere fact that Madrid thinks it possible shows very plainly that something is going on. It shows either that the Bolshevik experiment in Petrograd has been such a gorgeous success that Lenine can turn his attention to foreign campaigning, or that it has been such a gorgeous failure that he has had to skip. It does not prove, since the rumor is “unconfirmed,” that Lenine has gone anywhere yet; but it certainly does prove that he is going somewhere soon, even if only to the fortress of Peter and Paul. There may be some very simple explanation of the rumor. “You go to Barcelona!” may be a jocular Muscovite catchword, similar to our old saying about going to Halifax, and Trotzky may have said it to Lenine. At any rate it shows that the gold dust twins are not inseparable. It shows that Bolshevism in Russia is either very strong or very near downfall.

When we were told not long ago that Berlin was strangely gay for the capital of a prostrate nation and that all the cafes were crowded with dancers at night, many readers were amazed and tried to console their sense of probability by remarking that the Germans are crazy anyway. And yet this rumor of the dancing mania was an authentic premonition of the bloodier dance of death led by the Spartacus group. If Berlin did dance it was a cotillon of despair, caused by infinite war weariness, infinite hunger to forget humiliation for a few moments, and foreboding of troubles to come. Whether true or not, no one read the news without thinking it an ominous whisper.

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Coming events cast their rumors before. From a careful study of rumors the discerning may learn a good deal, providing always that they never take them at face value but try to read beneath the surface. People sometimes criticize the newspapers for printing rumors, but it is an essential part of their function to do so, provided they plainly mark them as such. Shakespeare speaks of rumors as “stuffing the ears of men with false reports,” yet if so this is not the fault of the rumor itself, but of the too credible listener. The prosperity of a rumor is in the ear that hears it. The sagacious listener will take the trouble to sift and winnow his rumors, set them in perspective with what he knows of the facts and from them he will then deduce exceedingly valuable considerations. Rumor is the living atmosphere of men’s minds, the most fascinating and significant problem with which we have to deal. The Fact, the Truth, may shine like the sun, but after all it is the clouds that make the sunset beautiful. Keep your eye on the rumors, for a sufficient number of rumors can compel an event to happen, even against its will.

No one can set down any hard and fast rules for reading the rumors. The process is partly instinctive and partly the result of trained observation. It is as complicated as the calculation by which a woman tells time by her watch which she knows to be wrong–she adds seventeen minutes, subtracts three, divides by two and then looks at the church steeple. It is as exhilarating as trying to deduce what there is going to be for supper by the pervasive fragrance of onions in the front hall. And sometimes a very small event, like a very small onion, can cast its rumors a long way. Destiny is unlike the hen in that she cackles before she lays the egg.

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The first rule to observe about rumors is that they are often exactly opposite in tendency to the coming fact. For instance, the rumors of secrecy at the Peace Conference were the one thing necessary to guarantee complete publicity. Just before any important event occurs it seems to discharge both positive and negative currents, just as a magnet is polarized by an electric coil. Some people by mental habit catch the negative vibrations, others the positive. Every one can remember the military critics last March who were so certain that there would be no German offensive. Their very certainty was to many others a proof that the offensive was likely. They were full of the negative vibrations.

An interesting case of positive vibrations was the repeated rumor of the Kaiser’s abdication. The fact that those rumors were premature was insignificant compared with the fact that they were current at all. The fact that there were such rumors showed that it was only a matter of time.

It is entertaining, if disconcerting, to watch a rumor on its travels. A classic example of this during the recent war is exhibited by the following clippings which were collected, I believe, by Norman Hapgood:

From the Koelnische-Zeitung:

“When the fall of Antwerp became known the church bells were rung.” (Meaning in Germany.)

From the Paris Matin:

“According to the Koelnische-Zeitung, the clergy of Antwerp were compelled to ring the church bells when the fortress was taken.”

From the London Times:

“According to what the Matin has heard from Cologne, the Belgian priests, who refused to ring the church bells when Antwerp was taken, have been driven away from their places.”

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From the Corriere Della Sera, of Milan:

“According to what the Times has heard from Cologne, via Paris, the unfortunate Belgian priests, who refused to ring the church bells when Antwerp was taken, have been sentenced to hard labor.”

From the Matin again:

“According to information received by the Corriere Della Sera, from Cologne, via London, it is confirmed that the barbaric conquerors of Antwerp punished the unfortunate Belgian priests for their heroic refusal to ring the church bells by hanging them as living clappers to the bells with their heads down.”

Be hospitable to rumors, for however grotesque they are, they always have some reason for existence. The Sixth Sense is the sense of news, the sense that something is going to happen. And just as every orchestra utters queer and discordant sounds while it is tuning up its instruments, so does the great orchestra of Human Events (in other words, The News) offer shrill and perhaps misleading notes before the conductor waves his baton and leads off the concerted crash of Truth. Keep your senses alert to examine the odd scraps of hearsay that you will often see in the news, for it is in just those eavesdroppings at the heart of humanity that the press often fulfills its highest function.

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