Fame and celebrity have fascinated me since I was a child. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be famous; I usually pick “rich” or “beautiful” in that “20 Questions” type quiz.
I prefer to observe most things from a distance rather than taking part myself. Fame is no exception.
Earlier this month, a not very surprising (to me) UK survey purported to reveal that most children would rather be “celebrities” than teachers, doctors or lawyers.
The UK is a swamp of third-generation welfare chavs etc etc so obviously the desire to work hard and succeed is at an all time low. However, you’d get similar results from a US survey, I think.
The cliches abound: for generations, we’ve been blithely saying that “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”; that celebrities are now “famous for being famous” and so forth.
So, in a culture of shallowness and sloth, the main attraction to fame as a goal seems to be its (apparent) effortlessness.
But that is only one part of it.
We have also said, for very much longer, that “fame is fleeting.”
But is that entirely true?
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book called Famous People You’ve Never Heard Of, and if somebody gave me a big enough advance, I’d take it. Obviously, it would be about those individuals who were world famous in their day but are now largely forgotten, and try to figure out why.
What are the actual mechanics involved in these transformations from obscurity to fame and back again? Why are some people famous while others who’d you’d think would be household names are not? (One thinks of the difference in relative fame between Edison and Tesla, to cite an obvious example)
However, is fame really fleeting and therefore not worth pursuing? The Founding Fathers didn’t think so, and while their definition of “fame” is closer to ours of “renown” and “lasting greatness” than of “celebrity”, it is still interesting to contemplate. And of course, some of them did earn “fame” as we understand it while others are now obscure.
Yet these days, at least on the superficial, in-the-moment level that most people, especially children, operate on, fame seems lasting rather than fleeting.
How, for instance, does one become “unfamous”? Just as unionization, lawsuits and bureaucracy have made it almost impossible for anyone to be fired for anything, however negligent, so too it seems that once acquired, fame is a permanent condition.
Perhaps because of the proliferation of recording devices, famous people today, dead or alive, are always “around” somewhere. And with the decline of “reputation” as a value (again, see the Founders as examples of men deeply concerned with honor and repute in ways that seem quaint and even pathetic today), it doesn’t much matter what any celebrity does — they will still have their fans and defenders, their comebacks and ironic cameos.
Why this is, I don’t know; but it is what it is.
And in a world of divorce and random violence and overall uncertainty (which have always existed but feel more acute and unfixable today), it is no wonder children — who need and crave security as much as they need food and water — aspire to the (real or illusory) permanence that only fame seems to bestow.