Who's the most famous man in the world?" my son asked me some time back. The president of the United States, I thought. But no, it was someone my son had recently brushed against while working at Universal City Theme Park: Michael Jackson, with his children and his entourage. Excitement generated by the King of Pop went far beyond southern California-"Tibetan monks know who Michael Jackson is." That's probably true, but what does it mean?
There was a time when fame meant success: military victory, artistic accomplishment, scientific achievement, "Hail to the Chief." It came with cheers, banners, and confetti. A famous man was preceded by his reputation; his deeds were known better than his face. But a significant shift occurred around the turn of the 20th century. In 1915, the most famous man in the world was not a king or conqueror. He was a commoner associated with thwarted ambitions: Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin's Little Tramp character had gone into all the world, creating instant rapport with Mexican peasants and Chinese farmers as much as American working stiffs. His medium was film, an image on a screen. Fame became the ability to project one's image-the wider the projection, the greater the fame, and the "celebrity culture" was born.
The epitome of a public face might be Anna Nicole Smith, whose death led the news for weeks without anyone being able to explain why. In a celebrity culture, death becomes a smart career move. It revitalized Elvis (in a manner of speaking), canonized Princess Diana, and may earn enough in increased sales of music and videos to make a dent in Jackson's debts-after the mourning that has as much to do with us as it does with him.
Celebrityhood turns individuals into public property, in ways they don't anticipate. Sarah Palin got more than she bargained for as pinup girl for the GOP, certainly one factor of her resignation. The broader an image is spread, the thinner it must become; anyone known to millions is barely known at all. Everyone gets a piece: fans, lovers, bodyguards, producers, attorneys, anyone with a story and a publishing contract. An entourage is more than a gaggle of gofers and parasites-it's a collective, a repository of the star's personality.
The celebrity also becomes the story, and sadness sells even better than sex. Chaplin wove the Little Tramp from an unhappy childhood; Diana became the anti-fairytale; Jackson was the incandescent boy who couldn't grow up. Under the spotlight these morphed into the personae of tragic figures whose peccadilloes could be understood, if not excused. "It is better to be envied than pitied," said Herodotus, but why not both? A tragic end calls for a tragic life, a redemption setup without the redemption-except maybe for us, undergoing the reaction of "pity and terror," as Aristotle described catharsis, the aim of tragedy.
Meanwhile, another era begins: from the Public Face to Facebook. If fame consists of image projection, Andy Warhol's prediction ("In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes") seems spookily relevant. Much of the projection via social networking sites and webcams is harmless, but it spreads us wide and thin. While deciding what to share with our public we're also editing ourselves, taking online quizzes to determine our Most Compatible Historical Era or Star Wars character. But true self-knowledge remains as elusive as ever. We see not only others, but also ourselves, "as through a glass darkly."
Why are we so hungry to be known, yet so unknowable?
God knows. We were made for connection; projection is a very poor second. Self-images fall into incoherence or hackneyed plotlines, and many die as clueless as the day they were born. But the One who originally stamped His own image on us is the One who knows us completely. That's our origin, our consolation, and our hope: "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."
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