Feast of Fantasies
by Yahia Lababidi
In the wry 1986 Smiths hit song Frankly, Mr. Shankly, singer/lyricist Morrissey warns, “Fame…it can play hideous tricks on the brain” – mind games, that is, where the audience is an unwittingly accomplice. For while the relationship between exhibitionist-celebrity and voyeur-audience is consensual, it is neither particularly healthy nor examined. Composed of an amalgam of complicated motivations, both on the giving and receiving end, affairs between famous persons and their admirers are frequently perverse, and fraught with unrealistic expectations. There is something of a Faustian pact in the lust for celebrity. Forgo your privacy and strip down to the soul, the unspoken understanding goes, and the adulation of the masses shall be yours.
What makes for celebrity? It is an inscrutable brew of ambition, talent, beauty, timing, personal magnetism, and pure luck – and not necessarily in that order. Somehow, a personality captures the public imagination, or as is often the case, simply demands it. The public then focuses the object of desire with the heat of its undivided attention, and a star is born. In most cases, the personality being celebrated is desperately grateful for the attention; if not, they find they cannot so easily be rid of it.
The minutiae of the new-born star’s life soon becomes public domain; their childhood and lovers, hopes and fears, homes and holidays, diets and bodies, all are shamelessly discussed and dissected. ‘After all that we’ve done for you, after all that we’ve given you,’ it is implied, ‘this is only our fair due.’ As music journalist Chris Heath noted, countering Madonna’s rare indignation to his gently probing questions: “you can’t open your home up to the public, and charge admission, then act horrified when you find strangers in your bedroom.”
But where do you draw the line? There have always been celebrities, and yet the means to access them have never been quite as sophisticated and invasive, nor the media so pervasive. Ultimately, recklessness of the press or media feeding frenzy is justified and sanctioned by the insatiability of the paying audience. “The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” Wilde quipped of the English gentlemen’s fondness for fox hunting. Uneatable, in the case of celebrities, because it is an illusion that the public so viciously hunts. Or as poet Rilke paradoxically observed, “Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.”
The superstar/supermodel then, becomes a sort of (super) human Rorschach of impossible projections and thwarted desires before which we are overcome and swoon. Which is why, given the volatile emotions involved, flirting with celebrity can also be flirting with disaster, as Princess Diana’s tragic dance with paparazzi painfully revealed. Royalty aside, the music, fashion, film and sports worlds similarly are littered with such fatal fascinations and assisted suicides, all who wilted beneath the intensity of the collective gaze. It is a bitter irony that those who begin by wishing to be loved by all, often end up feeling more isolated than most.
What’s more, the shelf life of celebrity is often short and the public notoriously fickle. The creatures that once were showered with praise may just as likely find themselves heaped with scorn, drool turning into spittle. Like tiresome plastic toys, celebrities are discarded once the sheen wears off, and replaced, but only after being dismembered. Having experienced a vicarious thrill through these living playthings, the public comes to resent their indulgences and punishes the celebrities for the spoiling attentions and fantasies which it has invested in them. Claws unsheathed, that myriad- headed monster, the masses, now finds it is hungry and bored, once more.
If the stakes seem high, it is because what is truly being bought and sold here is no less than the enigma of a human being. The appetite, inchoate as it may be, is actually for human knowledge, ardently trying to prize open another person to get at their unadulterated inner workings. That is what is sought from these intimate strangers whom we let into our homes and hearts, and whom we hold up to the light and examine from every angle, more engaged with the contours of their bodies and lives than with our own.
Perhaps this is also what is unsavory and dishonest about the culture of celebrity, the displacement of Socrates famous dictum ‘know thyself’ with ‘know another.’ Namely, the transference of time, energy, curiosity and hard work meant to be directed inwards, that is instead – lazily and cruelly – outwardly directed. For this reason, a rise in celebrity culture may correlate with a decline in the culture of self- examination.
Transparency, a term currently much-abused in political and business circles, once meant something. For the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, living in truth entailed making of the world a vast glass house with transparency of impulses, intentions and conduct. To illustrate his point, Diogenes masturbated in the marketplace and lived in a cask or tub (flamboyantly searching with a lantern, in daylight, for ‘an honest man.’)
Something of this nakedness – emotional, spiritual, and physical – is expected of our handsomely purchased celebrities. But what is observed alters in response, so that external substitutes for self-knowledge and self-love are invariably doomed to failure. No wonder then that both parties, unassuming celebrities and their insatiable admirers, often leave the table feeling empty at this feast of fantasies where, in the poetic phrasing of Harold Bloom, “the giving… famishes the taker.”