sabato 4 dicembre 2010

Killing the Gods


What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity
By Tom Payne
274 pp. Picador.

Never famous in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson had some astute things to say about fame as a phenomenon: “Fame is a fickle food,” for instance, and “Fame is a bee.” But perhaps most evocative is:

Fame is the one that does not stay —
Its occupant must die
Or out of sight of estimate
Ascend incessantly —
Or be that most insolvent thing
A Lightning in the Germ —
Electrical the embryo
But we demand the Flame.

Unlike other luminaries to have weighed in on the subject (from Francis Bacon to David Bowie), Dickinson does not take aim at celebrity’s supposed lack of substance. Rather, she insists that it be taken seriously, identifying two qualities that imbue it with a specific, and dangerous, substance: the impossible, intrinsically destructive pressures it places on the famous (“Its occupant must die”) and the impossible, intrinsically destructive appetites it exposes in the fans (“We demand the Flame”).

In his trenchant, unsettling, darkly hilarious “Fame,” Tom Payne also examines the murky pact that binds stars to their public. For him, this relationship stands to reveal “grim truths about humanity that we would struggle to express otherwise — those desires so unspeakable that we have to evolve a kind of code.” But where Dickinson uses the language of sparks and fire to rewrite this code, Payne, a former deputy literary editor for The Daily Telegraph in England, works to decipher it, uncovering clues in the foundational texts of Western culture. Moving seamlessly between yesterday’s great literature — Greek, Roman, early Christian, Enlightenment and Romantic — and today’s trashy tabloids, Payne advances a persuasive, if disturbing, definition of what fame is now, and what it has ever been. Above all else, it is “a systematic cycle of celebration, consecration and sacrifice,” in which cultures create gods and goddesses in order to kill them.

This may sound like heavy stuff, but Payne wears his erudition lightly, alternating between the highbrow and the low in a way that invests the classics with surprising accessibility and relevance. And he endows modern celebrity gossip with unexpected cultural import. A prime example is his chapter “A Certain Sacrifice: What Was Britney Telling Us When She Cut Her Own Hair?” As anyone who was conscious in 2007 inevitably knows, this question refers to one of that year’s most notorious celebrity news stories: the night when Britney Spears marched into a hair salon and, in full view of photographers, shaved her head. Payne finds this episode noteworthy for its resonance with the ritual shearing of a young woman’s hair that commonly figured in the ancient ritual of virgin sacrifice, of which classical literature offers one particularly well-known example: the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the gods on the eve of the Trojan War. In Euripides’ telling, Iphigenia is lured to the altar with the promise of marrying Achilles. At first, she protests but eventually sees that her death will smooth her father’s, her betrothed’s and her other compatriots’ path to glory. Even more important, she discovers that by sacrificing her life for her countrymen, she will achieve renown in her own right: “And for this,” the Greek chorus tells her, “immortal fame, / Virgin, shall attend thy name.”

In Spears’s case, the “virgin” part of the “immortal fame” equation is markedly more ambiguous than it was for Iphigenia (who indeed got the ax instead of a wedding night). As a teenager, Spears repeatedly said she was saving herself for marriage, all the while starring in sexually provocative music videos, and at one point wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt.” Yet the implied loss of her virginity, like the publicly staged chopping of her locks, clearly partakes of the logic of sacrifice as articulated by Euripides. Spears herself, in fact, appears to see the matter in this way, singing in “Piece of Me”: “I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous (You want a piece of me) / I’m Mrs. Oh My God That Britney’s Shameless/(You want a piece of me).” Like Iphigenia, Spears is prepared to give of herself in order to secure some measure of celebrity for herself. As an ABC News correspondent said of the sacrificial victim du jour: “By going bald, Spears may be seeking a rebirth.” And by Payne’s lights, she found it, if only insofar as “her offering has become part of our folk memory. . . . Britney is sacred; ‘ordinary people’ have made her so.”

So fame is a dialectical interplay of adulation and destruction in which “the crowd wants something, and an individual is prepared to give it to them.” But what is that “something”? What is in it for those “ordinary people” who chase down and photograph and write about — or those who consume stories about and formulate strong opinions of — stars in distress? Why does anyone care about Lindsay Lohan’s drug use or Angelina Jolie’s love life? According to Payne, these narratives belong in the same category as fox-hunting and bullfights and, again, ritual sacrifices: all of them cultural practices that redirect human beings’ inborn aggression away from one another and onto designated victims, thereby strengthening the bonds of the community as a whole. “In the bloodshed and the howls,” of a human or animal sacrifice, he writes, “congregants would have experienced the shock and thrill of death” safely and collectively. “The effect was to bond people closer together. Feelings of guilt would have been attenuated; a feeling of togetherness, of complicity, would have taken their place.” The sacrificial object dies so that the community might live on, its members defined by the fact that they were not the ones singled out for death — and that they did not turn against one another. It is this same dynamic that structures our current obsession with self-destructive celebs: “If people feel bad about seeing Amy Winehouse on TMZ after a night of putting syringes between her toes, at least they have the consolation that it really isn’t just them.” Together we elevate our sacrificial object and together we tear her down. Alone she falls while together we stand, simultaneously colluding in and protected from the carnage.

Recasting this phenomenon in funnier terms, Payne considers today’s celebrity perfume industry:“Have you ever given someone Intimately Beckham for Her? Did you ever receive Lovely, by Sarah Jessica Parker? If so, how did you feel? Were we tempted by Donald Trump, the Fragrance?. . . What was the allure of Mystique de Michael Jackson or Only, Only Crazy, redolent of Julio Iglesias?”

Such fragrances seem to promise an intimate connection between the famous whose names they bear, and the not-­famous who buy them, for as an ad for the Mariah Carey scent M emphasizes, perfume lies “like a second skin on the wearer.” Yet a second skin, Payne points out, “is you, and also isn’t you”: by putting it on (rather, he adds, like ancient Aztecs who used to don the flayed, bloody hides of their human-sacrifice victims), the buyer succeeds in showing “an affinity to the star, as if joining her fan club; but being Mariah Carey has always been Mariah Carey’s business alone.” Fundamentally, such gestures “divide the world into two sorts of people: those who are Mariah Carey and those who are not.” The public — armed with perfumes and glossy magazines and juicy gossip — basks in the secondhand glow of the culture’s shining stars; but the celebrities, like their astronomical counterparts, are in fact dead already. Their light is extinguished in the very process of reaching us, precisely because “we demand the Flame.”

Caroline Weber is a biographer of Marie-Antoinette and a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento