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God and Celebrity in America

Celebrity has become the packaging of our society's art and politics, the framework of its commerce, and the stuff of its religion.

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 5:28 PM EST

Modern Monarchs Eaten Alive

So too the nineteenth-century kings of England after the British throne had been shorn of its political strength and reduced to an expensive ornament. Remarking on what remained of the reverence for monarchy in 1823, William Hazlitt likened it to "a natural infirmity, a disease, a false appetite in the popular feeling, which must be gratified." The dream-buying public wants a "peg or loop to hang its idle fancies on, a puppet to dress up, a lay figure to paint from." The idol is best made from poor or worthless raw material because it is then subject to the whim of its manufacturer.

The bargain is a Faustian one. The media affix price tags to carcasses of temporary divinity, but in return for the gifts of fame and riches, they require the king of the month or the queen for a day to make themselves available to the ritual for the public feast. What was once a subject becomes an object, a burnt offering placed on the altar of publicity.

Diana, princess of Wales, died in Paris shortly before dawn on August 31, 1997, and less than an hour later in Cape Town, South Africa, the news media sought from her brother, Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, a truffle of marketable grief. He refused the request, saying instead that he always knew "[t]he press would kill her in the end," that "[e]very proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her… has blood on their hands today."

The earl knew whereof he spoke. Having once worked as a correspondent for NBC in London, he would have guessed that in Tokyo and Madrid the news media already had begun to cut and splice his dead sister into strips of videotape and fillets of twelve-point type. Diana was a celebrity of the most nourishing type, a born nonentity avid for the limelight because she hoped to find the needle of her self in the haystack of her press clippings. Together with her brilliant smile and despite her having received a fair share of fortune's party favors—youth, beauty, pretty dresses, a prince for a husband, Elton John for a pet—she projected a sense of loneliness and loss. Her fans cherished her neediness, which was as desperate and as formless as their own.

Maybe the earl also remembered something of his reading of the Homeric poems. He had attended Eton and Oxford, two schools still acquainted with the study of classical antiquity, and it's conceivable that in the media's terms of endearment he recognized the debt owed to the very ancient Greeks, who allowed their sacred kings to rule in Thebes for a single triumphant year before putting them to death in order that their blood might fructify the crops and fields.

The last 3,000 years have brought refinements, the editors of The National Enquirer improving upon the old ways of preparing the sacrificial meats and arranging their distribution to the suppliants crowding around the entrails. Before noon on the day of Diana's death, a thousand gossip columnists had spitted her memory on skewers of solid-gold cliché. By nightfall the television producers assembling the long goodbyes had wrapped up in two-hour segments the images that had been the empty shadow of her life—Diana in her wedding carriage, Diana carrying a black child or riding a white horse, Diana in the harbor at Saint-Tropez on an Egyptian's gilded barge.

At the hour of the rising moon it remained only for the anchorpersons, Barbara Walters among them, to step forward into the studio light and pour out the wine of glistening bathos. It didn't matter what anybody said, because even the tellers of the most intimate tales were talking not about a human being but about a golden mask behind which they were free to imagine themselves dressed up as Cleopatra or Snow White.


Celebrity Is Money with a Human Face

Akin to the making of sausage or violin strings, the manufacture of celebrity is not a pretty sight—as was noted by Bob Dylan in the midst of an adoring crowd, "I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs"—but not all the contracts exact a pound of flesh. Sometimes the fatted calf need only consent to a loss of freedom, of mind as well as movement. Incarcerated within the packaging of an image, the commodity in question loses the capacity for anything other than prerecorded speech, goes nowhere except in the company of a telephoto lens.

The fallen idol sells as many papers as the rising star, but God forbid that the product should lack the ingredients listed on the label. Were Sarah Palin to suffer a change of heart—maybe read a history book, possibly take instruction from a dictionary or an atlas—her image would lose its currency, risk being shelved in a supermarket aisle with the soda water and the bathroom fragrance.

Like the camera, the market moves but doesn't think, drawn as willingly to the production of nuclear warheads as to the growing of oranges or grapes. It doesn't recognize such a thing as a poor celebrity. Celebrity is money with a human face, the "pegs" and "loops" on which to hang the dream of riches. Bipartisan and nondenominational, the hero with a thousand faces unfortunately doesn't evolve into a human being. Let money become the seat of power and the font of wisdom, and the story ends with an economy gone bankrupt, an army that wins no wars, and a politics composed of brightly colored balloons.

To accept the price of a thing as certificate of its character and worth is to substitute the word for the deed. A further proof of Gresham's law, the bad money driving out the good, degrading the distinction between the life courageously lived and the life heroically publicized. Because the lesson of an exemplary life unfolds over a period of time that doesn't fit between the Viagra commercial and the top-of-the-hour station break, the constant viewer accustomed to the handling of disposable goods learns to discount the currency of human greatness, to distrust the tenders of mortal truth and beauty, loses sight of the nondisposable stars that might prompt a looking up from the wonder of his or her own navel.

Too much of Boorstin's "artificial fame" in the atmosphere lastly can be compared to carbon emissions leaking from a volatile organic compound that is by its nature toxic. Given the media's personal devotion both to the golden and the fatted calf, I don't think we can expect enactment of a clean-air standard or some sort of system of cap and trade.

On the national cultural circuits, as among the political camp followers feeding on the spectacle of a presidential election campaign, the mere mention of money in sufficient quantity (a $100 million divorce settlement, a $787 billion federal stimulus) excites the same response as a sighting of George Clooney. Eventually the society chokes itself to death on rancid hype. Which probably is why on passing a newsstand these days I think of funeral parlors and Tutankhamen's tomb. The celebrities pictured on the covers of the magazines line up as if in a row of ceremonial grave goods, exquisitely prepared for burial within the tomb of a democratic republic that died of eating disco balls.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Celebrity," the Winter 2011 issue of Lapham's Quarterly.

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