Friday, August 21, 2015

Worshipping at the Altar of Celebrity

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 55
Tom Payne, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity

Recent months have witnessed American popular culture consuming the characters it once elevated to mass-media stardom: Bill Cosby’s disregard for women’s autonomy. The gulf between Josh Duggar’s words and his actions. Even Al Gore, once the epitome of stuffed shirt respectability, has fallen in for blood-chilling accusations. It’s difficult to recall a time when so many vaunted personalities disclosed repugnant secrets for salacious audiences.

Have we truly produced a generation of celebrities famous for ephemera? Is our cult of fame truly unprecedented in a history of noble, upright heroes? Tom Payne thinks not. Bringing together recent puff journalism, centuries of history, and the Greco-Roman classics, Payne demonstrates that, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Our need to make celebrities, and then to tear them down, seems ingrained in human endeavor.

A Cambridge University graduate, Payne comes from a background well versed in understanding the distant past and the power classics hold over the present. As a former newspaper literary editor, he’s also accustomed to building bridges between books and their audiences. He proves himself a masterful context maker in this, his first book, establishing how trends that appear newfangled and revolutionary are actually, deep down, old hat.

Payne starts with the observation that Britney Spears' famous shaved head eerily mirrors Greek traditions of womanhood, when brides on the cusp of deflowerment offered their locks as holy sacrifice. Building on that, he finds parallels between how we treat athletes, politicians, celebrity marriages, and celebrity flameouts, and how ancients elevated demigods only to destroy them. He even finds matching Jeremiads of the decadent present written in our antique past.

Though he writes with a spirited, even coarse, voice, Payne's work is rich with philosophical weight. Anybody can approach this book, but nobody can really read it without rubbing up against discomforting concepts. Why, he wonders, do we take pleasure in seeing the mighty brought low, a trend we perpetuate with reality TV shows targeted for maximum humiliation? Is this really as different from the democratic process as we might hope?

Fame, in Payne’s figuration, isn’t mere acclaim; it entails elaborate ritual, by which we first elevate, then destroy, our idols. Watching the cold-blooded glee with which online commentators have eviscerated Jared Fogel, it’s easy to assume we’re watching a reasonable response to public wrongdoing. But if Payne’s figuration holds, we’re actually witnessing a trajectory not unlike that taken by mythic heroes, like Achilles and Cassandra: accomplishment to acclaim to sacrifice.

In Greco-Roman times, this trajectory had undeniable religious implications. Only the destruction of the truly mighty had power to appease the gods. Though some heroes brought low could return, like Odysseus, such restoration required an arduous journey through the land of the (literal or figurative) dead. Maybe that’s why audiences love comeback stories, because our celebrities, once restored, have messianic glamour we long to emulate.

Today, the fame arc isn’t necessarily religious, inasmuch as it involves no appeal to transcendence. But if, by religion, we mean the liturgical rites that bind human societies, then fame worship serves the same roles today as in classical times. Consider how we make secular saints of celebrities, Bono for instance, then methodically disparage and destroy their divinity. That structurally counts as religion with no gods.

We treat the beautiful and the good as superior, out of place in our lives. Indeed, we easily confuse beauty and virtue (he specifies Angelina Jolie, though he elides her work in the developing world, a serious oversight, I think). Then when we find out that those we have exalted have the same venial shortcomings we do, we pillory them for their weakness. What does this say about us?

I wish Payne explained some of his pop culture references better. For instance, in his desire to build trans-Atlantic appeal, he talks about both American and British culture, forgetting that they aren't wholly interchangeable. Jade Goody is one of Payne's major motifs, yet how many Americans have heard of her? Not me, certainly. Payne explains the classics thoroughly, yet I repeatedly had to Google his more current exemplars.

Still, Payne challenges us to answer hard questions: what primal impulse forces us to sacrifice the idols we have built? What perverse pleasure lets us watch systematized humiliation of our heroes, then apply for the same concourse of fame? Do we have the same primeval urges displayed at the Bacchanalia, and do we, perhaps, want to be sacrificed? Payne offers no easy answers, but implies that the questions matter most.

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