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Loose lips may sink political ships. But they also launch literary flights

Moammar Gadhafi is dotingly dependent on a "voluptuous blond" Ukrainian nurse. After his divorce from his first wife, Nicolas Sarkozy was so distraught that during an official trip to Morocco, he offended his hosts by constantly slouching and flashing the sole of his shoe in the direction of the King. Prince Andrew made a buffoon of himself at a dinner party.

These revelations from WikiLeaks are less the secrets of state than the idle chatter of diplomatic corps. On The Globe and Mail's politics site this week, Andrew Steele complained that it's "gossip-mongering of the kind seen on TMZ or Perez Hilton, except about government figures instead of celebrities." But is that reason enough to dismiss it?

Gossip has bad press: "Gossip separates the best of friends," the Book of Proverbs teaches us, one of many scriptural injunctions against backbiting and cattiness. Philosophers and theologians have tended to scorn tittle-tattling as indulging in triviality.

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Soren Kierkegaard saw gossip flourishing "when people's attention is no longer turned inwards, when they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves."

Martin Heidegger, with his unsavoury political gyrations and his habit of sleeping with students, was the subject of many whispering campaigns.

So it's no surprise that he took exception to gossiping, which he saw as a form of "groundlessness" that cuts us off from the search for being: "Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one's own."

Yet can so pervasive and entertaining a human activity really be all bad? These towering intellectuals are not the best guides to thinking about gossip. They are as far removed from everyday domestic life as a holy man on the mountaintop. Against such airlessness, a more humane view comes from literary essayists.

In 1982, critic Patricia Meyer Spacks wrote a deep and probing essay, "In Praise of Gossip," for The Hudson Review. Ms. Spacks usefully links back-fence and clothesline conversation with literature and domestic life. Busybody blabber is the kissing cousin of the anecdote and the tall tale, and perhaps also the germ of the novel.

"The usefulness of gossip, like that of literature … depends on its revelations about human motive and action," Ms. Spacks contends. "Gossip, like poetry and fiction, penetrates to the truth of things, reporting not fantasies of human greatness but realities of human pettiness."

Unlike most philosophers, the gossip cares about the humour and heartbreak of courtship, the transgression of social mores and the quirky perversity of people around us – the very things that the great fiction writers, from Jane Austen to Alice Munro, immortalize in their stories.

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As Ms. Spacks notes, the word gossip originally meant "godparent." We can trace the shifting shades of the word in Samuel Johnson's great 18th-century dictionary: A gossip was both "one who answers for the child in baptism" and "one who runs about tattling like women at a lying-in."

Godparents like to talk about their godchildren whether at a lying-in or later in life, so the two senses of the word are intimately connected. A gossip, like a godparent, is someone who is interested in our lives even if he or she has no biological ties to us.

As Dr. Johnson's derogatory definition makes clear, there's a tendency to associate gossip with women.

Ms. Spacks's vindication of the gossip has a feminist slant: In our culture, the denigration of gossip is part of a larger and unhealthy scorn for the feminine and domestic.

The entertaining essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a good-natured analysis of gossip in 1990. "Gossip is impressive in its variety," he notes. "It can run from entertaining chit-chat to genuine viciousness. It can claim to be factual or sheerly speculative. It can be trivializing, reprehensible, and absolutely vital to know."

Gossip is a social solvent, a way of building alliances and friendships. No wonder diplomats, paid to schmooze and back-slap, prove to be such great gossips, as the WikiLeaks cables prove.

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"Henry James and Marcel Proust were great connoisseurs of gossip," Mr. Epstein notes, "and both made fine artistic use of gossip in their novels."

Also a short-story writer, Mr. Epstein has learned from these masters the art of reshaping a true life tale into fictional form (incorporating real people he has met, such as Saul Bellow and Diana Trilling). He recently completed a book-length study titled Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit.

WikiLeaks, with its endless emission of bureaucratic chatter, provides ammunition to the argument that the modern person is drowning in superficial information.

But might there be a saving grace if future novelists redeemed the minutiae by turning it into literature?

Marcel Proust and Saul Bellow might seem far removed from WikiLeaks. But think of what Proust could have done with the story of Mr. Gadhafi and the shapely Ukrainian nurse.

Guest columnist Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.

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