It has occurred! On the evening of 9/10/12, we talked with actress Lucy Lawless about fame. Listen to the episode. She’s been a great supporter of the Partially Examined Life, and if she is to be believed (and her piercing stare will make you believe it), our little discussion group product inspired her to go back to school and study philosophy, in between flying back from New Zealand to the states to film things, saving the arctic, and tweeting. She was a great sport, and regular listeners will be pleased that the recording came off much more like a regular PEL episode than a fawning celebrity interview. Much as when we have had a comedian or artist on in the past, Lucy was there to provide a reality check on our wild speculations about that divide between the numinous and the civilians.
The jumping-off point for our discussion was a 2010 book, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity by Tom Payne, who’s a British classics dude who wrote book reviews for The Telegraph and now teaches classics (i.e. not philosophy) at the Sherborne School in Dorset, England (here are some of his articles at Huffington Post, to get a flavor of his writing). The book combines stories about Homeric heroes and Roman emperors with discussions of people like Britney Spears and Kate Winslet. His thesis is that celebrities fill a social need, an outlet for our collective aggression, that we can trace back to ancient times, where young maidens were lavishly bestowed with fineries and then sacrified. We idolize them, but set them up to disappoint our expectations, at which point we turn on them and raise up a fresher, younger replacement. The book is fun to flip through, and transmits and applies some interesting ideas, largely from anthropologist James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890). From wikipedia: “Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king.” Another key source is Walter Berkert’s Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (1972). Also from wikipedia:
The book’s core thesis is that when paleolithic man became a hunter, in spite of the generally omnivorous orientation of the great apes, lack of a predator instinct was made up for by turning patterns of intra-species aggression against the prey: Homo necans means “man the killer”. Thus, the animal hunted by ancient man automatically acquired aspects of an equal, as if it were of one of the hunter’s relations. In a first attempt at applying ethology to religious history, Burkert confronts the power and effect of tradition in uncovering traces of ancient hunting rituals so motivated in historical animal sacrifice and human sacrifice (by his thesis unified as deriving from the same fundamental principle) in specific historical Greek rituals with relevance to human religious behaviour in general.
As a warning, Payne’s is not a book that claims to be philosophy, so while the comparison of these ancient rituals to our treatment of celebrity is interesting and has a nice Freudian feel, it’s not developed in the book so much through argumentation as through a cavalcade of anecdotes. Payne’s knowledge of philosophy seems limited to the ancient Greeks (and in that, it’s got a classics bent, in that knowing the allegory of the cave is much different than slogging through the Theaetetus) and things that literary critics learn about, e.g. he brings up Saussure and Levi-Strauss at one point. This may explain why the stylistic organization is a bit disconcerting; it’s not always easy to figure out what the point of a chapter or some of its contents is and how exactly it relates to the overall thesis. It might be easier to think of the book as variations on a theme: musings about celebrity culture in light of cool historical and literary tidbits.
Still, it gave us a platform to ask questions like whether celebrity worship is necessarily aggressive and whether the rise of famous individuals is a natural byproduct of the associations that make up a society (along the lines of our Aristotle’s Politics discussion). Maybe wanting to be a celebrity, and wanting to take them down are simple matter of Will to Power a la Nietzsche. Is the behavior of stalkers and Internet trolls representative of the extremes of a tendency that we all share, or are they just nuts? Do celebrities occupy the same brain space in our lives as people we actually know? If you’re talking to a celebrity, should you let on that you already know what they’re telling you about their lives because you read it online? Does Tony Danza think that Lucy has some splainin’ to do? All these answers are revealed, and more!