Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity
By Tom Payne
Paperback, 288 pages
List price: $16
On one of her visits to Wembley Arena, northwest London, Mariah Carey began to sign enormous balls and toss them into the audience. These gifts bestowed her fame upon her fans, who could keep the spheres to show that, one night, something of Mariah Carey’s bounced their way. But what if you were already famous? One of the people who caught the balls was the late Jade Goody, a star of reality television who came to represent the unlikely celebrity, and who was, in her brief, brash life, loved and loathed, often by the same people, and at the same time. Certainly she inspired revulsion when she caught one of these balls (it helped that she was standing on her chair). The woman next to her said, “You don’t need that! You can get one anytime.” To this onlooker, all fame felt the same. But Jade felt like an outsider herself, and managed to retain a sense of wonder throughout her exposure to the glamorous. When she recalled the brush with Mariah Carey in her memoirs, she wrote, “I was looking at her like she was God or some thing.”
This is a book about fame; but the problem with writing about fame is that everyone knows all about it already. That’s what fame means, after all. But more and more, we all know different things. We each of us have our own way of interacting with famous people, and even if our way of interacting with them is to avoid knowing much about them at all, well, that’s still a response to them. I remember being surprised when, after a supper with friends I admire for their braininess, we all sat down to watch I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Since this was the first season of the original British version, I was witnessing something that would soon become an international brand. Not that I appreciated it at the time. Back then, in 2002, I comforted myself with the fact that I could watch the finals with none of the endless reality before it. Still, I guess I learned something that night: I learned that I had a lot to learn. And already I was having my own relationship with the famous, however disinterested I claimed to be. No one puts the problem better than Catullus, the smartest poet of the Roman Republic:
Caesar, I want no more to do you right
than I am bothered if you’re black or white.
Even in this dismissal, Caesar rates a name-dropping. The joke appears to be that Caesar was hard to miss, unless you’d spent the last de cade in Parthia. All Caesar’s ambition, Rubicon crossing, and attempts to or ganize his own deification ended up making him seem try-hard. The Romans had what they called a course of honors, a hierarchy of possible promotions, and Caesar had reached the top of it. Still, you could always rely on poets to pooh-pooh the whole process.
This cool stance might strike us as familiar, just as we look at a new intake for Celebrity Apprentice and ask ourselves, Who the — ? But is it so familiar? We’re constantly hearing easy formulations such as, “We have become obsessed with celebrity. Children now look to celebrities as role models. Honestly, you can get to be famous for doing nothing these days. We’re living with a cult of celebrity.” In this book, I ask the question, Is this anything new? And, ultimately, Is our obsession with fame really such a bad thing? Authors queue up to tell us that our vapid preoccupations presage the end of civilized life. But it’s possible to see our fascination with even the most fleeting stars as something that bonds us, and which expresses something about how our civilization works.
There are risks in this approach. It will involve a lot of flipping from one culture to another, in a search for shared human responses to history. As we dip in and out of different times and different cultures (mostly Western, admittedly, with a fairly consistent emphasis on Greece and Rome), we will find things that feel similar to our own experience of fame. Sometimes they do provide equivalents for our own preoccupations; but we need to remember that sometimes they show a completely different way of dealing with famous people. For example, if we look at Stone Age burial practices, we find ourselves in a world where modern ideas of fame don’t apply at all: Rather than celebrating individuals who are different and removed from us in some way, earlier societies would honor and trust members of a community whose diverse skills made them part of a coherent whole. Some of their bones might even be replaced with the equivalent bone of some other deceased dignitary.
This in itself sounds nostalgic, as though we’re looking back wistfully to the fourth millennium b.c. Still, if we look at the distinctions between then and now — after all, there can be nothing but distinctions from an age as remote as that — we find that the story of fame is a story that concerns all of us. Famous people have occupied different positions in society during different ages, and I offer this as a way of looking at human history. On the face of it, the study of celebrities doesn’t tell us much about what appear to be the really important things in life. Nothing about grain supply or industry; not much about irrigation and the three-field system; very little, directly, about the laws of thermodynamics. For these reasons, plenty of historians, particularly in the late twentieth century, have tried to move away from the “Great Man” theory of history — the idea that the past is usefully studied through kings and countries, or that heroes and villains have made us who we are. In shunning all this, historians have hoped to discover truths about what really matters.
This book says phooey to all that. We shouldn’t rule out heroes and villains. Even if they don’t really explain how things are today, it’s still important that we made heroes and villains out of them; and that tells us so much about us.
Excerpted from Fame by Tom Payne. Copyright 2009 by Tom Payne. Excerpted by permission of Picador.