Essay: Of Rumor, Myth and a Beatle

  • Share
  • Read Later

LONDON AP—Paul McCartney vigorously denied today the rumor that he is alive and well. At a resurrection ceremony held at London's Highgate Cemetery, the 24-year-old Beatle, who would have been 27 had he lived, emerged from his tomb to insist that he was decapitated in a car accident three years ago.

"This is the sort of thing one doesn't get over," he told a crowd estimated by Scotland Yard at 3,500. "If I were really alive, wouldn't I be the first to admit it?" Amid a chorus of anguished protest from the audience, McCartney re-entered his crypt and was seen to bolt it from the inside.

Despite this brief reincarnation, the rumor persists that McCartney lives, strengthened by the report that a new Beatles movie, in which he appears, will be issued next year.

SILLY as this imaginary news dispatch may seem, it is not much sillier than the rumor, currently sweeping U.S. college campuses, that Paul McCartney is dead. As with most rumors, no one really knows its source. It has been variously traced to a thesis by an Ohio Wesleyan University student, a satirical but deadpan story in the Oct. 14 issue of the University of Michigan Daily, and a Detroit disk jockey who spread much the same nonsense over radio station WKNR. Since the rumor spread, Beatle fans have diligently parsed the albums of their heroes for clues corroborating what they already wanted to believe; of course, they found them, usually in forced interpretations of Beatle lyrics. That is another characteristic of rumor. It does not require—indeed, it commonly rejects—the discipline of reason.

As McCartney proved by appearing at a Glasgow airport last week, he is indisputably alive. But so is the baseless report that he is not. What is more, the rumor is not likely to die before he does; after the event, which could occur 50 or so years from now, the last surviving mongers of this particular rumor will triumphantly crow: "I told you so." For reasons that go back to the origins of man, the human intellect craves to discover more meaning than facts can supply. What it does not know it will guess at. Airborne by ignorance and insecurity, that supposition will almost always defy the attempts of reason to shoot it down.

Two conditions are essential to the survival of a rumor. One is ambiguity, which can stem from many different sources: a shortage of dependable information, events beyond ordinary understanding. The other condition is man's dislike of ambiguity in situations that vitally affect him.

The Welcome Channel

These two conditions are handsomely fulfilled by an age in which not only events but their meaning strain human understanding. Merely to live with the omnipotence of science and technology is enough to send man back to the safe harbor of primitive myth. Just as myth was the predecessor of science and religion, so may rumor have been the precursor of myth. Long before man registered his thoughts on the pages of history, he committed his anxieties and his faith to rumor—that welcome channel of information and misinformation that made sense of senselessness.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3