Jennifer Lopez Is Delicious; Today's Gossip Isn't

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Let us return to the matter of Jennifer Lopez's dress, and consider it from an historical and philosophical point of view.

In this learned paper, I'd like to relate Lopez's famous dress to the history of gossip, and then — believe it or not — to a gossip-laden new biography of the late Mary McCarthy, the critic, novelist and sometime "dark lady of American letters."

This sounds ridiculous. It isridiculous. On the other hand, gossip is a fascinating subject — and a universal indulgence, a debased appetite that may be ennobled, if you insist, by quoting, say, Oscar Wilde, who said that all history is gossip, or by quoting Mary McCarthy herself, who declared that what we hear in Tolstoy or Flaubert or Dickens or Proust "is the voice of a neighbor relating the latest gossip."

What seems interesting about Jennifer Lopez's dress (that gauzy nothing that she wore to the recent Grammys) is that it was an item of pure visual gossip. Traditional gossip is anecdotal and therefore somehow literary; it comes, that is, in the form of stories. Even Marilyn Monroe's almost nonexistent dress — the one in which she sang "Happy Birthday" to Jack Kennedy — had a story around it (their affair, etc.). But Jennifer's non-dress was not a story. It had no content — well, you know what I mean. It was only a media image flashed around the world by broadcasters rendered reverently speechless. All picture, no caption.

Jennifer's dress marks a moment in the transition from the old culture, which was oral or literary, to a new and mostly visual culture. (Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, by contrast, was a reassuring throwback. The dress was never seen on its wearer by the public, but only conjured up as part of an indelible story, as part of, well, the oral tradition).

As a practical matter, it occurs to me that Ms. Lopez's strategy in wearing such a costume, exposing almost her entire front, was to redirect attention from her rear, which had been the subject of so much obstreperous commentary. The plan, you must admit, worked. The dress may also have been intended to divert attention from boyfriend Puffy Combs and his gun charges.

Turn now to Frances Kiernan's Mary McCarthy biography, called "Seeing Mary Plain" (Norton, $35, 939 pages), an overlong but riveting portrait of a brilliant literary celebrity and minor writer two or three generations back. McCarthy was a beautiful woman of tart tongue and astringent mind who made her ambitious way amid a splendid cast of literary characters during decades when reading and writing still meant something (Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Bernard Berenson, Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow and so many others, including the great Edmund Wilson, to whom McCarthy was, for a while, disastrously married).

Kiernan's gossip about McCarthy (the many men she bedded, her sometimes brutal assessments of their sexual equipment — one poor guy, McCarthy said, was the size and shape of a pencil) belongs to an older storytelling culture. Even the lubricities were part of fairly rich individual lives, richly lived and almost compulsively reconstituted as stories, novels, literature. McCarthy produced a body of work. Jennifer Lopez produced a body.

I certainly appreciated the Lopez dress. But I found myself wishing that such an image, circulating instantaneously through what passes for the world's culture, had had an interesting story to go with it. Instead, there was only the moment of indelible and naked manipulation.