Bill Long 8/18/08
A Crippling Gain, A Devastating Loss
In the last decade or so psychologists have finally begun to subject the desire for fame and recognition to the kind of scrutiny they have long given to neuroses and other mental conditions. G. Orville Brim, a "life course" researcher, first probed this issue through his 1992 book on Ambition. Even though reviewers tended to point out the rather "male-centered" view of ambition that dominated the work, they realized his important contribution to a yearning for recogntion that hadn't adequately been studied in "the literature." People mostly say that the two greatest driving forces in human life are money and sex, but those who have either been "bitten" by the "fame bug" or, more ominously, know that the quest for signficant recognition is more indelible than their fingerprints, know that this isn't true. This 2006 article from the NY Times suggests that 30-40% of adults spend time regularly thinking about their "15 minutes of fame," to quote Andy Warhol. This essay probes aspects of that feeling, while the next essay applies some of this to my life.
The Delay in the Rise of Fame-Study
Since money, sex and power have long been subject to psychological study, why so little work, until the last 15 years, on fame-seeking? I think it is because of lingering and possibly unexplored fragments of Puritanism that are still working themselves out of our collective "system." I argued, for example, in one essay that the development of a comfortable shaving razor was delayed so long because of the sense that the person ought to "conform" to the external requirements of "the blade." This would be a secularized form of the Puritan notion that your life is not your own (you belong to God), and that your task in life is to fit or conform to a canon or rule that is established by other authorities (ultimately God; mediately by the Gillette Company).
The Puritan form of American Protestantism, dominant in New England through the mid-18th century, and persisting far longer as it became taken up in secular values, would have subtly worked against the "fame motive." For, the central aspect of the Gospel, as seen by the Puritans, was a humble, self-effacing imitation of Christ, who gave himself for the life of the world. Christ didn't consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. So, all human longings for fame would have to be subjected to, and incinerated in, the humble behavior of Christ. Puritanism would have bequeathed a second principle to the discussion--that one's final and desired destination was not here on earth. The important thing was to seek "fame with God," or acceptance by God, and that meant that you didn't build for the nonce, but for eternity.
Yet these restraining influences of Puritan theology have all but disappeared in the culture today. Some of us born in the "pre-1960 era," however, still feel them very strongly, but most of the images portrayed on screens across our country today show no reason to avoid the pursuit of fame. Indeed, the number of those seeking fame among young people, if surveys can be trusted, far exceeds that of adults.
In most cases, however, this desire for fame is kept in check. As the article says, "Yet for all the dreamers, only one or two in 100 rate fame as their most coveted goal, trumping all others." So, for the most part, people tend to be "realists": they "daydream" about celebrity and being broadly honored in this world but they realize that it just ain't gonna happen. Rather than being overwhelmed at the dissonance caused by these thoughts, they/we trim ambitions, hoping to correlate our opportunities, desires and skills with the realities of living.
Fame and Distress
Even though Dr. Brim and other researchers on fame tend, it seems to me, to have an "integrative" view of life--that is that we generally try to make life "work" for us, and thus are willing to change goals, try again, compromise and grow, than stubbornly cling to things that just dont' work--they recognize that those seeking fame have more than their share of distresses in life [I actually don't share this "integrative" view of life as a desideratum. Sometimes those who "hold out" the longest perhaps do so because they perceive the truth of something very dear to them that others don't yet see]. The distress comes from two sources: the failure to achieve the fame and, surprisingly, the attainment of fame. Because Brim roots the desire for fame in an excessive desire to seek approval from others, the attainment of approval tends to inspire one to seek more of the same. Indeed, nothing may be enough.
So, what do people do as they age? Brim suggests that even if the desire for fame doesn't die, it can be transmuted into another source of approval. "That might be a great love, if you're lucky. Or perhaps it is a deepening belief in God." In other words, the means by which this longing for fame is "resolved," among the small number of those seemingly possessed by the idea, is by substituting one's focus--from the self to another. Others, he recognizes, can do nothing to "solve" this problem. Some who are practitioners of Eastern religions or philosophy realize that the major problem of life is the focus on the self; by being taken up in the great sea of life one isn't as apt to be concerned about the solitary self.
I have written these two essays as "autobiographical" because I want to weigh in on the issue, too. Fame's severly astringent character has also rubbed me raw. The next essay tells that story.
[Note from 9/28--I guess there won't be a second essay--at least for now]