Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Monday, February 03, 2003
Various star sightings, and reflections thereon: Paola and I drove up to Malibu to have breakfast with blogdom's hottest couple, Cap'n Scott and Asparagirl. It's bizarre in a way to sit down with people whose blogs you've been reading for a while. This was the first time I'd ever met Brooke, and yet I already knew more about her than I do about many of the people I work with every day. (And they say the internet is inimical to real social interaction?) It was a beautiful morning. Azure sky, deep blue ocean, calm yet agitated enough to break up the sunlight into shimmering fragments. Brooke was eating it up. I think she's going to be quite happy out here. They are. You can't really get to know someone in the course of a brief conversation (even if you have been reading them for a long time), but there's no doubt that the two of them are very together, very in love. Always nice to see.

On the way back up the PCH, Paola noticed a sportscar on the road next to us, and asked me what make it was. I turned to look, and said, "Well, I can't tell what make it is, but the guy driving is Pierce Brosnan." And again it struck me: here's a guy I've never met, and yet in some sense I already know him. Such "sightings" aren't uncommon in L.A. And while you can pretend to be blasé and pull out the whole "I didn't catch the name" routine, you can't help but be struck when you see someone like that. Even if it's a celebrity you don't particularly care about, the mere fact that they are famous somehow makes them interesting, makes you want to scrutinize them. Why is that? They're just people.

Alright, are you ready for my armchair philosophical explanation? I think the lure of fame has to do with the nature of human consciousness. For us, what's real is what we are conscious of. And because we're aware of that fact, on some level we feel that to really exist we need other people to be conscious of us. This is of course in many ways a dangerous impulse; fame does not correlate with happiness or virtue or anything else desirable (except wealth perhaps). But even if we're wise enough not to unduly prioritize desire for fame, we still feel it. Even if we're truly happy, our happiness is augmented if other people perceive us to be happy and tell us so. Indeed, if Dante is to be believed even God has this same impulse—He created other conscious entities so that they could reflect His own glory back to Him.

It follows that the fascination we have with famous people isn't as much about them or their qualities as it is about the knowledge that all those other thousands or millions of people out there know who they are, and the reflection of all those consciousnesses somehow gives the famous person more presence. Just like a judgment expressed and shared publicly takes on a life of its own that augments people's perception of the phenomenon it's based on. Uma Thurman once said something like (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "There are plenty of women out there tending bar who are better looking than I am. But I'm up there on the screen for everyone to obsess over." We recently saw a form of this in the blogosphere with that whole "Jane Galt is a babe" meme. Don't get me wrong here—I'm sure that even if I'd watched that PBS show without ever having read a weblog, the irreducibly male part of my psyche would have reacted favorably to Megan's vivacious visage. But the mini frenzy that occurred wasn't based simply on that. It was based on the fact that Glenn had expressed the judgment, and therefore thousands of people knew about it, and she was already famous (in the blogosphere at least), and there were all these guys out there who were already fantasizing about her sight unseen because that's just the way our brains work. And when I say that last, I don't mean sexual fantasy in the crude sense; I mean that male appreciation of female virtue—even purely intellectual virtue—is never without an erotic element. As I wrote before in response to Diane's post about sexism in the blogosphere:
Yes, the knowledge that you are a woman, despite my best pretenses at disembodied intellectual objectivity, probably will have a subliminal effect on the way I react to your writing. But it won't make me take you less seriously. Quite the opposite. When I agree with and admire it, that agreement and admiration will be tinged with something extra, a certain thrill of attraction that isn't there when I read Lileks no matter how much I love his stuff. If I read something by you that disparages or repudiates things I hold dear, the cut will be incrementally unkinder. If I ever get a message from you in response to anything I write, it will affect my ego just a little bit more. There's no good reason for this. You might even term it a form of sexism. And since we're dealing in unsubstantiable conjectures, I'll offer one of my own: I suspect I'm not the only male to suffer from this form of prejudice.

But now I'm getting somewhat off track. This train of thought was about fame, not eroticism. The point is that fame augments whatever phenomenon it mingles with, makes it seem more real because other people think it's real too. We scrutinize the famous people we meet in part because we want to pare them back down to size. Living as we do in a fame-driven culture, we have internalized versions of that man who used to ride in the chariot alongside the honoree of a Roman triumphal procession, lest he forget that he was only a man. Only ours are addressed not to us but to the people outside, the ones we can't help being drawn to and envying even as we profess our indifference. Which is why it really is difficult to be famous, even though we don't have much patience with famous people who whine about it. They know everyone is looking for the flaw, looking to relieve themselves in one way or another of the burden of envy. Or worse—someone who is really a fan and really wants to admire them might be disappointed. Just as we can't help being interested in famous people, they can't help having some part of their self-esteem invested in their fame. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole babe flap has left Megan on some level more self-conscious about her appearance than she was before. Now she's got a rep, and probably some fear (even if unfounded) of disappointing expectations. Which would be unfortunate.

Enough. I think I've ridden this train of thought to the end of the line. I'd love to make my own bid for fame by turning out regular well-crafted essays here rather than random thoughts, but I have other things I need to invest time in.

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