Yeats’s Byzantium is starting to look better every day. I say this as someone who has always fantasized about traveling back to medieval times, and specifically Constantinople circa 1100 A.D., but also as someone living in the celebrity-obsessed U.S.A. circa 2016 and looking back nostalgically to a time in history when pre-existing class conditions, and the absence of any notion of upward mobility, meant that people were confined to the caste where they were born with no fantasies about becoming “stars,” unless they were nobles or monarchs or maybe in the military or the church. The advent of the idea of a meritocracy, which began especially after the American and French revolutions, meant that anyone could aspire to anything. The process of democratization only accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries, so that, when I was growing up, it was common to see TV people hovering over a newborn and exclaiming, “Just think, he could be president someday.”
At one time that’s what I wanted to be. First, mayor of San Francisco, then senator, then governor, and finally the White House. I was about twelve then. Later, when I started writing poetry and stories at fifteen, I believed I would be the most beloved author in history. I was sure that when I turned fifty, telegrams from all over the world would arrive to congratulate me, as they did for Thomas Mann when he turned fifty . . . All my life, at least since the age of twelve, I have been plagued by the wish for honor, but it is only now, in my mid fifties, that I am able to come to fully grasp, delve into, come to terms with, and attempt to heal the fantasy of fame. In my adult life, this preoccupation has often taken the form of not being able to accept my immediate reality/circumstances/situation—including work, relationships, creative life—with the knowledge that there were not thousands of approving onlookers and clapping hands. A life outside the limelight was not worth living. I suppose it’s a bit like the reverse of the 1990s film The Truman Show. Unless paparazzi were documenting my life, unless I was being talked about and praised, there was no point in going on. When I was twenty-one, I remember saying to a very wealthy young lady in New York, “Only celebrities matter.” She didn’t approve at all.
From the psychological point of view, the origin for this need is clear: I was given up for adoption at birth; I received little praise from my adoptive parents; I had few friends growing up. But even though I have understood my motivations for some time, what has recently helped me more is to have a greater awareness of the very concept of fame, recognition, and status.
Fortunately, over the past thirty years, some very good books have come out on this subject. Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is a witty, smart, fun book. He has also produced a memorable documentary based on his book, available for anyone to watch on YouTube. Even more important, I think, is the massive tome The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy, a professor at USC. It look him ten years to write the book, from the mid ’70s to the mid ‘80s. I have just finished it, and it felt like it took me ten years to read: it’s over 600 pages of small print, and no Kindle edition available. But it was abundantly worth the effort—or I should say, mostly, the pleasure. Until Braudy wrote The Frenzy of Renown, there had never been a history of fame compiled before. His main thesis, which I touched on in my first paragraph, is related to Botton’s, but of course predates it: the concept of fame has been around since the time of Alexander the Great and, especially, the Romans, but it was only in the 18th century, with the coming of liberté, egalité, fraternité, that ordinary people felt they could aspire to anything, be anyone. That was that time of the Enlightenment. Prior to that, for over a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe lived in what some have called the Age of Faith. The Church was dominant in ordinary people’s lives, with its teachings of piety, humility, and selflessness; bliss (or damnation) came in the Life to Come, whereas this life was all about tilling the soil, being virtuous, and knowing one’s place. From St. Augustine’s Confessions:
If I were given the choice of being universally admired, though mad or wholly wrong, or of being universally abused, though steadfast and utterly certain in possessing the truth, I see which I should choose. I would not wish the approving voice of another person to enhance my pleasure at the presence of something good in me. But I have to admit not only that admiration increases my pleasure, but that adverse criticism diminishes it. When this symptom of my wretched state disturbs me, self-justification worms its way into me, of a kind which you know, my God. But it makes me uncertain . . . You have not only commanded us to be continent, that is to restrain our love for certain things, but also to maintain justice, that is, the object on which to direct our love. Your will is that we should love not only you but also our neighbor . . .
Vanity, the need for praise, is a form of lust—not exactly how we define lust nowadays, but a refreshing concept to consider. And for a thousand years this sort of teaching held sway. In the late Middle Ages, with Dante and Petrarch, we have the beginnings of a more modern concept of honor, a revival of Roman ideas within a Christian framework. Men (for it was usually men) were given permission to find honor in this world without having to wait until the next. There was now nothing ungodly about striving for fame and praise. We don’t usually think of Dante as modern, but with him began the fusion of “the Christian emphasis on the afterlife with the classical urge for earthly fame and honor.” And Leo Braudy continues:
Dante [was] the first writer of the Middle Ages to write at length of himself and of the fame of his work, the poet most conscious of reputation and its meaning in the present and the future, the exile whom Ernest Hemingway seven hundred years later was to call (with self-exonerating glee) “the Florentine egotist.”
And he contrasts this with a description of Fame from Chaucer’s “House of Fame”:
On a dais sits Fame herself, who seems at once both tiny and tall, with as many eyes as birds have feathers and as many ears and tongues as beasts have hairs. Around her the Muses sing of Fame. On her shoulders stand Alexander and Hercules… Fame dispenses her favors with total arbitrariness and instructs her herald Eolus, the god of wind, to blow from the trumpet named Slander or the trumpet named Praise as the whim takes her.
A bleak view of fame, and Dante and Petrarch held different opinions on the matter, as did Boccaccio and much later our very own Founding Fathers and Napoleon and Byron and Lincoln and P.T. Barnum and Hitler, all extremely self-conscious and ambitious self-promoters, who developed our own modern concept of fame, which has reached its apogee in the years after World War Two.
I say that The Frenzy of Renown can change your life because with its abundance of ideas, its thoroughness, and the relentless way Braudy has of pursuing his study through the ages, the reader is taken on a historical and sociological journey like no other, and given a complete picture of how we have arrived at our own contemporary notions of fame, honor, and recognition in 2016 A.D. I don’t doubt the book took ten years to write. The author’s patience, restraint, and erudition are extraordinary. I see why there is no Kindle edition (though there should be): this volume is not much in demand by casual readers because, of course, it takes time and dedication to get through, and in scope resembles something the Victorians might have envisioned and brought to completion.
I say that The Frenzy of Renown can change your life because, having come through this journey, you might never think of status and recognition the same way again. The book, in fact, is so important and so dense, that I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it needs to be reread, preferably once every few years. It’s not just about fame. It’s about us—our history, our morals, our foibles, our lusts. And along the way the reader encounters many gems. Here are just a few:
Cicero was probably not the first to wake up at the top to realize that the hunger for recognition is rarely satisfied with any particular object or honor. In 60 B.C. he is clearly suffering from the consequences of his discovery of the hollowness of fame.
Caesar fell, arranging his toga so that even in death he would have control over his image.
Real appreciation, truly filling, truly satisfying, occurs only when the audience is God.
In a sense Francis of Assisi was the Crusades brought home. Instead of liberating the Holy Land, the places of Christ’s birth and ministry, the Franciscan rule brought the meaning of that life out of the cloister, out of the hands of glory-seeking crusaders, and into the world of the towns. His fame would be a fame of the spirit, capitalizing on the theater of earthly life in order to deny it.
So much Greek and Roman biography and autobiography was lost in the Middle Ages, not through some willful attempt to erase the past but because the individual details of someone’s life, what made him interesting or exemplary to Greeks and Romans, were less important to the monk copying ancient manuscripts than those timeless attributes that fit the pattern of a Christian soul.
[T]he increasingly popular French word for fame, renommée, literally “renamed,” indicates the potential separation of the writer from his royal, aristocratic, or merely wealthy patrons to achieve a status of his own.
Boswell’s elaborate self-examination makes him a prime modern case of those who believe that fame and recognition will satisfy their desires to be complete, “uniform,” and filled with character, only to discover that nothing is really sufficient to satisfy the hunger within.
The modern preoccupation with fame is rooted in the paradox that, as every advance in knowledge and every expansion of the world population seems to underline the insignificance of the individual, the ways to achieving personal recognition have grown correspondingly more numerous.
The more dependent on the audience’s approval the performer seems to be, the more the audience is monarchical itself, approving or disdaining in part to titillate itself with its own power.
[T]o be talked about [to be famous] is to be part of a story, and to be part of a story is to be at the mercy of the storytellers—the media and their audience. The famous person is thus not so much a person as a story about a person—which might be said about the social character of each one of us.
Secular failure was called sainthood in the Middle Ages.
Is it any longer possible to do one’s work, whatever it may be, without periodically opening the most impersonal and high-minded ideal only to discover inside the grinning skull of ambition? The fear that something is done not for itself but for what it may mean to others is implanted in our brains by every glimpse of advertising, publicity, and news trumpeting the constant need to slather product with hype, face with makeup, and event with interpretation.
St. Augustine’s paradox: After all the sins have been purged, only the sin of pride remains. And after the sin of pride has been purged, the last and most difficult sin to purge is the pride in being humble, the desire that an audience witness (and applaud) your contempt for it.
So we’re back to Augustine, which is fitting. At no point in Braudy’s book does he suggest humanity was better off in Augustine’s time, or Charlemagne’s time, or Justinian’s. And yet sometimes I do fantasize about stepping out of my meritocracy, my fame-obsessed America of 2016 A.D. and living in a simpler time. Archie Bunker’s song (remember?):
And you knew where you were then
Of course, you don’t have to go far back in time to experience the worst aspects of the Middle Ages. Imagine North Korea today, about the worst place one can conceive of. In this society, no one needs to worry about becoming a celebrity. In this kind of society, there is by definition only one celebrity. In a totalitarian state, Braudy writes, “the leader absorbs and thereby replaces every individual desire for recognition.” But, perhaps romantically, I tend to think of authoritarian Constantinople circa 1100 A.D. as a lot more benign than North Korea. I know they had plagues and short lifespans and they were intolerant in ways we can’t begin to comprehend. And I know the world smelled a lot worse than it does today.
But I can’t help believing something was lost when the Age of Faith gave way to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when Augustine was forgotten and Augustus once again triumphed. We’re not living in “love thy neighbor” times—well, most of us aren’t. Faith versus Humanism. For me personally, for whom the urge for recognition has been damaging for close to forty years (and as if that weren’t bad enough, I attended high school with a conceited fellow who became a renowned novelist, and I apparently graduated in the same college class as our current head of state), Augustine’s words still have resonance. His words give me hope. Humanism might just be a dead end, bequeathing us the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby.