Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
Label celebrity a consumer society’s most precious consumer product, and eventually it becomes the hero with a thousand faces, the packaging of the society’s art and politics, the framework of its commerce, and the stuff of its religion. Such a society is the one that America has been attempting to make for itself since John F. Kennedy was king in Camelot, and the collective effort—nearly fifty years of dancing with the stars under the disco balls in Hollywood, Washington, and Wall Street—deserves an appreciation of the historical antecedents. This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly undertakes to supply them, together with asking why the glory that maybe once was America appears to have been dispersed to nought.
Associate celebrity with the worship of graven images, and not only is it nothing new under the sun, it is the pretension to divinity that built the pyramids and destroyed both Sodom and Julius Caesar. The vanity of princes is an old story; so is the wish for kings and the gazing into the pool of Narcissus. The precious cargo that was Cleopatra, queen in Egypt, was carried on the Nile in a golden boat rowed with silver oars, its decks laden with the music of flutes and lyres, its sails worked by women dressed as nymphs and graces. The son et lumières presented by Louis XIV in the palace of Versailles and by Adolf Hitler in the stadium at Nuremberg prefigure the Colorado rock-star staging of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential nomination. Nor do the profile pictures on Facebook lack for timeworn precedent. During the three centuries between the death of Alexander and the birth of Christ, the cities of Asia Minor were littered with tributes to an exalted self. Wealthy individuals aspiring to apotheosis in bronze acquired first a prominent vantage point and then a prefabricated torso representative of a goddess or a general. A flattering hand fitted the custom-tailored head; as with the cover photographs for Vanity Fair, prices varied according to the power of the image to draw a crowd.
The texts and illustrations within the following pages enfold our modern usages of the term celebrity into a good many of its prior manifestations. John Tresch (“Gilgamesh to Gaga”) recommends stone as “usually a good choice of material” for a press release. The ziggurats erected by the kings of ancient Mesopotamia he describes as “fame machines” comparable to the digital glorifications of the nymphs and graces unveiling a collection from Victoria’s Secret. Stephen Marche (“Consumer Products”) finds in the iconography of celebrity “a religion in disguise,” the values assigned to hairs shaved from the head of Britney Spears equivalent to those once invested in the tears of the Virgin and the feathers fallen from the wing of the angel Gabriel. Cicero notices that the people of Rome “had deaf ears” but “very sharp and active eyes,” and so resolves “that they should every day see me in their presence.” John Adams, wonders whether if to gain a reputation he must “exert all the soul and all the body I own, to cut a flash, strike amazement.” Reflecting on the supernatural powers attributed to A-list personalities, Max Weber defines “charisma” as something in the eye of the beholder, a quality called into being by “the complete personal devotion” of its admirers. Andy Warhol reaches the same conclusion when approached by a merchant offering to pay a handsome sum for his “aura.” Had he known what it was, or where he kept it, Andy gladly would have sold it. But his aura was an item he didn’t own. “It’s all in the other person’s eyes,” he said. “You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very well or don’t know at all.”
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