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Why celebrity is like Oakland

Peter Wicks | Thursday, March 2, 2006

Legend has it that the gods offered Achilles a choice between a long, undistinguished life and a short, glorious one. Achilles judged a premature death an acceptable price for the immortality of fame.

If fame is the recognition of great achievement, then there is no mystery to its appeal. It’s only natural that the baseball player should dream of securing a place in the Hall of Fame or the aspiring writer should dream of winning a Pulitzer Prize. By honoring excellence we encourage excellence; the fact that the desire for fame leads many astray (be it through the use of performance-enhancing drugs, plagiarism or the fabrication of scientific results) is regrettable, but no reason not to honor genuine accomplishment.

Fame is something quite different from celebrity, although some who achieve fame also become celebrities as a result. Celebrity is about always being in the public view, and is measured in cameras. It’s no accident that film and television actors, who are used to working in front of cameras, are the most prominent celebrities.

There are some obvious appeals to being a celebrity; there is the money, of course, and the access to the most exclusive – and hence glamorous – restaurants and parties. These benefits are real enough, but they alone would hardly be worth the effort of attaining and maintaining celebrity status. One does not climb Everest for the view.

Life under the spotlight is obviously so demanding that it would not make any sense to submit to continual public scrutiny merely as a means of getting to the best Hollywood pool parties. Celebrity is sought not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself; for the celebrity, life in the spotlight is not a burden, it’s the whole point.

Warren Beatty once said of Madonna, “She doesn’t even want to live off-camera, much less talk.” It sometimes looks like the press are always intruding into celebrities’ private lives, but Beatty’s remark suggests that those who survive and flourish as celebrities neither have nor want private lives. As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, there is no “there” there.

In the past I have mocked some of the political pronouncements made by film actors who have somehow come to believe that they have not just a right but a duty to use their prominence to share their geopolitical insights with the general public. Most of the commentary deserves the response that Wolfgang Pauli is said to have given to a particularly egregious paper submitted for publication in a physics journal: “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”

I won’t belabor the point – these days the only people who still believe celebrities have something to contribute to political debate are other celebrities – except to mention my theory that as a means to break a person’s mind, sycophancy is second only to physical torture. The quickest way to drive a man crazy without laying a finger on him is to give him an entourage.

Celebrity seems to me a far worse deal than fame, but I can still see the appeal even if I do not feel it. What I cannot understand is the desire many people have to appear on television regardless of the circumstance. Reality television seems devoted to finding out just how much people are willing to humiliate themselves to appear on screen.

I’d like to propose a bold and wholly unverifiable theory about why this is: We have become Berkeleian Idealists. This form of idealism, named after the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, holds that the world is composed not of mind-independent material objects, but of ideas, and it is in the essence of ideas to be perceived by someone. As Berkeley put it “esse est percipi”: To be is to be perceived.

Contrary to popular belief, philosophers don’t actually spend their time debating the question “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” but if we did, the Berkeleian Idealist would hold that without an observer, not only is there no sound, there is no tree either.

This view has rather less bizarre implications when combined with belief in God (Berkeley himself was an Anglican Bishop, at a time when holding that office was still a fairly reliable indication of belief in God). An eternal, all-seeing God secures the permanence of trees and other objects that might otherwise pop out of existence when we aren’t looking.

Medieval cathedrals are often decorated with gargoyles and other ornaments positioned so far above the ground that once in place there is no way that they would have been visible to the naked eye. But the craftsman still worked on them as if their details would have been subject to close inspection, because God would see them. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it:

“In the elder days of art,

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the gods are everywhere.”

In the absence of a God to pay attention to these things, there is a corresponding increase in the constant need for the recognition of others. Hence perhaps the somewhat compulsive relationship so many of us have with instant messenger, e-mail and our cellphones, and hence also our deep unease with the experience of solitude. It is often said that a university education should teach us to be good citizens. I’d agree if only I believed that those doing the educating knew how to make good citizens, but while we’re making wish lists let me add an item that doesn’t get mentioned nearly so often as good citizenship but is just as important: A university education should teach us how to be alone.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. He was once featured in a Japanese documentary about the differences between English and Japanese comedy. To this day he is unable to account for how this happened. Peter can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.