The Gods of the fame culture
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his series on the myth of secularism with a look at the insecurities and loneliness that come with fame.
Myth of secular progression: the gods of the fame culture
I don't think I've ever been to a quotations page to research an article. But with this article I did because I wanted to read what famous people thought of their own fame. I read quotes about the insecurity and ill-ease of fame from the likes of Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts, Robbie Williams, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. And quite amusingly the first two quotes had Madonna decreeing arrogantly “I won't be happy till I'm as famous as God.”, and just underneath we had Erma Bombeck with “Don't confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other”. I couldn’t help but smile.
There is, of course, no real complaint about those who become famous due to a prodigious talent or innovative accomplishment. One can also find fame through courage or bravery - in war or in services to others. In those cases I think Socrates was right that fame can be the "perfume of heroic deeds”. There is one aspect of being famous that applies to all people in the public eye - there is the public persona and there is the individual behind that persona. In this day of mass media scrutiny I'm sad to say that the persona is what perpetuates the caricatured perception of the individual. This gradual loss of self-identity can only be bad for the individual consumed by the loss.
Another factor is probably the vicarious nature of humanity; it likes to step back and let people do things on its behalf – and in extreme cases we have intellectual lethargy and the horrific idea of the abdication of human responsibility. In celebrity we find the caricatured perception of the individual at its most intense, where instead of judging reputations by their actions the press asks us to judge actions by reputations. Thus as we often saw, even someone like the sorely missed Amy Winehouse buying a pint of milk at 2pm was presented as taking a walk on the wild side.
Being famous means the 'you' behind the persona is going to be absorbed by the public much less than the persona that the media and social networking engenders. We live in a post-Sixties culture in which the desire to become famous for fame's sake has become a bit of a god. And here is the irony; the ones who are famous for something other than personal talent or accomplishment are the ones least deserving of celebrity status. And if you want a double irony - these least deserving folk are the very 'celebrity' on whom most younger celebrity -wannabees base their aspirations. Those who are famous only because they coveted fame, slept with the right people we, fell drunkenly out of a club at the right time, dated the right sportsman or TV star, or something of that kind, are the ones looking at fame the wrong way. It is true that the human desire for prestige, achievement, self-confidence, financial independence and praise is hard-wired into us – but unless it is managed wisely it will lead towards false gods.
Schopenhauer spoke well on this when he said "The longer a man's fame is likely to last, the longer it will be in coming". What he means is not so much a measure of duration; it is more a qualitative term measuring the justification with which one finds fame. The reason we still talk about Plato, Jesus, St Augustine, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein (to name but seven) is that what they contributed to human history was seminally significant. I should imagine that nobody will be talking about Jordan or Peaches Geldof or Kelly Osbourne or Kerry Katona in a few hundred years time, because the chances of their leaving a significant historical legacy are remote. Fame for fame's sake shows itself to be historically wedded to the here and now. What the so-called culture of secular 'progression' has done is leave a vacuum - and if nothing deep and profound comes along to fill it then it is usually something terribly mediocre and transitory that fills the gap.
What we so often read about is the downside of fame - the way in which fame engenders insecurity, exile and loneliness. Even Albert Einstein, known for being one of the world's greatest minds, said “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” The truth is that fame doesn’t provide the delight that many think it will. Brilliance provides delight, but then brilliant people get pleasure from the brilliance not from the fame – the fame part is merely a by-product. If you make a Faustian pact with the public whereby you trade off much of your private life for a bit of fame then I doubt you’re destined for contentment.
Here’s a further irony; most of the happiest and contented people I’ve met are those whose lives shine love and grace. They are those who quietly get on with helping the poor and needy – and who would much prefer a positive impact in people’s lives than being celebrity-worshipped. Don’t misunderstand me; there are people in the public eye who are genuinely talented, and who deserve their adulation and column inches. But clearly for them fame is a by-product of their talent.
We live in a time in which we have unprecedented mass attraction to the image-based culture – even in politics good characters are left in the background by those mediocre figures who have the kind of style that conceals their lack of substance or intellectual and moral vigour. I don’t think this will change any time soon – if anything, it probably will get worse. Perhaps the best thing we can do for our young is help steer them away from the transitory forces, towards something more deep and profound. Maybe then we will the balloon of illusion pricked.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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