From Heroes to Herostratus

An address to the Friends of The New Criterion, New York, April 18, 2001

Hilton, Roger, distinguished Friends of the New Criterion. I’m here this evening as, a kind of representative—as I am in the magazine itself—of the vulgarity of the popular and media culture that it is otherwise so successful at keeping out. Month by month I visit that culture on behalf of my more scholarly and serious-minded colleagues and report back to them that, for the most part, they are quite right to ignore it.

Not that they are usually in doubt about the matter.

But tonight I want to talk not only about the mind-boggling triviality of the media culture, the only culture which is shared by us all, I also want to make a comparison between it and that which it has replaced. For what it has in common with more primitive forms of media culture — the audience of the Homeric epics comes to mind — is its guardianship of the great and mysterious force of reputation.

In Homer’s time, of course, reputation meant honor. As in all primitive warrior cultures of which we have any knowledge, fighting men were obsessed with their honor or reputation and homicidally jealous of being, in the argot of today’s violent street culture, “dissed”— or “disrespected.” When Achilles is dissed by Agamemnon he goes and sulks in his tent. All appeals to his honor fall on deaf ears until his protégé, Patroclus, is killed by Hector, whereupon he must emerge to avenge him or suffer a serious loss of reputation. He can’t allow anyone to think that he might be afraid of Hector.

Homer’s bronze age heroes were arguably only concerned with their contemporary reputation, the outward sign of their place in the military and social hierarchies. As in any children’s playground, everyone knew who were the toughest, the strongest, the meanest, the most formidable boys, and where the matter was in doubt a fight would soon establish the “pecking order,” as we have since been taught to call it, among Argives and Trojans alike. But Homer’s own success as a literary chronicler of the heroic honor culture led those of more recent historical periods to think of their honor as being not only the measure of their social status but also as something that might be left behind them when they are gone.

To such people, it was of course important that there should be poets and even more important that the poets should give them their due. In the great Anglo-Norman epic, Le Chanson de Roland, the mighty Roland and the twelve peers of France go down to their deaths defending the rear of Charlemagne’s army against an overwhelming force of Saracens — the “Islamic fundamentalists” of their day — for no better reason than that, as Roland sternly points out, to blow his horn and summon the help of the main army might mean that someone would “sing a bad song about me in France.” He, too, cannot bear that anyone should think him afraid. Only when the rest of the rear guard has all been slain, and at the cost of his own life, will he blow the horn, allowing the returning Charlemagne to avenge his death.

Nowadays we might think such behavior bizarre or pathological, but once, and not so long ago either, it was thought of as wholly admirable. As recently as when I was in college 30 years or so ago, I remember Senator Russell Long of Georgia being quoted as saying that Roland and his horn were the most thrilling thing in all literature to him. Senator Long, of course, came out of the vestigial Southern honor culture which was still disposed to believe that this was the kind of stuff of which heroes were made. That’s what made them heroes, in fact — caring more about their reputations than about their lives.

But the heroic anxiety of brave men who quail before the spectre of some footling balladeer on whom their immortal fame depends at some point merges with the doubts expressed by wise or holy men skeptical of worldly glory in general and inclined to doubt that fame is ever justly distributed at all. “For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten” says the preacher of Ecclesiastes — which is why he concludes that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

During the Christian era, this kind of lament was often treated by pious writers and preachers as an admonition to the secular and military culture surrounding them not to trust to worldly fame, but “to lay up your treasure in heaven,” as Jesus put it. But for most of that period, soldiers were still necessary, and so the reputation of reputation remained high. When Beowulf was described as lofgeornost, or most greedy for glory, the fact was not thought to be to his discredit. When Shakespeare’s Henry V confessed to his men before the battle of Agincourt that “if it be a sin to covet honour/I am the most offending soul alive,” he didn’t expect to get back an argument that, indeed, it was a sin and he ought to have considered himself an offender.

At least no one thought so before the great flowering of literary-critical ingenuity during the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, the preservation of the heroic texts themselves bears witness that, up until only 40 or 50 years ago, people in general were willing to admire those, like Beowulf and Roland and Henry V, whose professed purpose was to win our admiration.

It is true that, over the centuries, there came to be many more things than bravery for which gentlemen liked to be reputed — including fencing, horsemanship, courtesy, liberality, good taste and even, by the Victorian period, certain kinds of moral behavior. It is also true that during the Christian era literature, like the church, has always had a somewhat ambiguous relations with the honor culture. On the one hand, it is the vehicle for preserving the fame of great men to the world and to future generations; on the other hand it is largely the product of clerkly and sedentary minds disposed to take a skeptical view of worldly honor. Thus it was that Milton (in Lycidas) called a thirst for fame “the last infirmity of a noble mind.”

But if an infirmity it was still noble, and from Horace at least until the era of Hardy and Housman the most characteristic literary attitude has been one of regret for those Horatian shades who, “unmourned and unknown [are] covered by the long night because they lack their sacred poet.” In essence both fame and the expectation that men would desire it–women much less so–had remained unchanged from the days of Achilles to those of General Eisenhower.

Of course the sacred poet might not be merely absent. He might deliberately distort or falsify. As Lionel Trilling observed in Sincerity and Authenticity, it was meaningless to ask if Moses or Achilles or Beowulf were sincere. It is only with the Renaissance and its paradigmatic figure, the Machiavel that the problem of sincerity becomes culturally exigent. Shakespeare, indeed, was obsessed with it, and seems to share Hamlet’s fascinated wonder at the fact that “one may smile and smile and be a villain.”

For some reason I think of that line whenever I watch the network news programs. Shakespeare, I often think, was the first media critic, and he expressed the anxiety of the heroic culture out of which he sprung at the growing power and importance of those who merely reported. Hence Hamlet’s words to Polonius about the players — “let them be well used, for they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.”

Hamlet himself clings to a heroic notion of reputation, and as he lies dying pleads with Horatio not to follow him by taking his own life:

O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

In this as in other ways I believe that Hamlet was like his creator, and both would have agreed with Mowbray in Richard II that “The purest treasure mortal times afford/Is spotless reputation.” Perhaps his most considered view of the subject comes in the famous speech from Troilus and Cressida in which Ulysses pleads with Achilles to leave off sulking in his tent:

Time hath, my lord,
A wallet at his back, wherein he puts
Alms for oblivion, a great-sized monster
Of ingratitudes. Those scraps are good deeds past,
Which are devoured as fast as they are made,
Forgot as soon as done. Perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright. To have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail. . .

Though in one way reminiscent of the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, with its lament that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” this passage is in another way its opposite, since it implies that there is “remembrance of the wise more than of the fool”— if only the wise man will keep busy enough to keep his reputation, like his armor, brightly burnished.

Yet Shakespeare also knew that the “reputation” that men seek “even in the cannon’s mouth” was a “bubble,” and he must have had at least a sneaking sympathy with Falstaff’s view that posthumous honor was “a mere scutcheon” because “detraction will not suffer it.” He was, after all, a member of the media as well as its critic (as all of us are), and he wasn’t above using his powers therein to threaten and cajole his lovers, real or imaginary, in the sonnets where he could promise with more truth than anyone else who has ever written in English that “your name from hence immortal life shall have” — though of course the name is the one thing he left off.

Surely he must have shared the medieval view of fame’s fickleness, and he would have known of Chaucer’s unfinished dream-poem, The House of Fame, and other medieval poems that dealt with this subject. Chaucer had depicted the muse Calliope holding court in the temple of fame and listening to the requests of those pleading with her for good fame. Some are good people wishing to be known for their good deeds, some are good people wishing not to be known as such — in keeping with Christ’s instruction not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing) — and some are bad people wishing not to be known as bad. And to each group, the muse grants the request of some and denies that of others, seemingly on the merest whim. As in Ecclesiastes, fame is fleeting and fickle.

But the last presentation to Calliope in Chaucer’s poem is the case of Herostratus, the man who was said in the chronicles of Valerius Maximus and John of Salisbury to have burnt the temple of Diana at Ephesus only to become famous. This was an instance, then still so unusual as to seem almost delightfully perverse, of a bad person who wanted to be known for being bad. When the muse asks the man (whom Chaucer does not name) “wherfor didest thou so?” Chaucer has him reply that he wanted to be famous as other people were — “I wolde fayn han had a fame/As other folk hadde in the toun”— even though their fame was owed to their virtues or strength (thewes). It occurred to him that bad people — shrewes, he calls them — had as much fame for their badness or shrewednesse as good people did for their goodness. And since he couldn’t have the one kind of fame, he wouldn’t do without the other, which is why he burned down the temple.

And sith y may not have that oon,
That other nyl y noght forgoon.
And for to gette of Fames hire,
The temple sette y al afire.

When he asks that his fame be trumpeted to the four winds, the muse answers: “Gladly!” Chaucer may or may not have been able to see it coming away far off in the distance, but it ought to be clear to us at least that we live in a Herostratian age.

But what in the age of Herostratus has happened to honor, that familiar daily concern of military and governing élites from pre-historic times up until the day before yesterday? This is a big question which I am currently writing a book to try to answer. But tonight I’d like to turn briefly to what we of the dominant culture today have instead of honor. Nature (as the scientists assure us) abhors a vacuum, and into the moral vacuum created by the disappearance of the idea of honor from our public life has rushed a horrible mutant substitute that goes under the name of “fame” or “celebrity.”

I know and apologize for the fact that this is old, rather tiresome news, but I thought it might be instructive to see the connection, tenuous though it is, between our celebrity culture and the honor culture which preceded it. If Roland preferred death to the prospect of a bad song being sung about him, his successors a millennium later look upon it with more equanimity — where they do not, like Herostratus, positively relish it. Roland never knew what we have come to regard as almost axiomatic: that, to adapt a familiar saying, no song is a bad song.

Yet it is not quite true to say that there is no moral content in the celebrity’s renown. I know that one of the two things about celebrity that everybody knows that somebody said–a case of the quotation as celebrity — is Daniel Boorstin’s dictum that “the celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.” The underlying assumption here is the same as it is in the other celebrity quotation about celebrity, Andy Warhol’s: “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.” Yet it is obvious that both are exaggerations: like celebrities also in being larger than life. For even the most Boorstinian celebrities are known for something besides their well-knownness. Moreover, in an age of celebrity being well-known is itself a virtue.

If there is an echo of the old honor culture in the new celebrity culture, I think it comes in the substitution of what Trilling called “authenticity” for bravery, virtue or strength. Indeed, authenticity as validated for the contemporary sensibility by suffering is often spoken of in terms of bravery and courage. Who dares to tell the cancer patient or the accident victim or the sufferer from any of a growing number of addictions that suffering is not, in and of itself, courageous? Not I! At any rate, everybody knows that clever celebrities, or those with clever press agents, confirm themselves in celebrityhood by public suffering — which can sometimes be drawn out for years and years, like that of Elizabeth Taylor or Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, who has managed to go on suffering even after her death.

Monica Lewinsky saw the potentiality for joining this august company in her television interview with Barbara Walters. And it seems to have worked. Only the other day I noticed that a gushing piece in the Washington Post’s “Style” section about the Oscar-night party given by Vanity Fair–said to be “the alpha and the omega of annual post-Oscar bashes”— was illustrated by a photo of pudgy Monica in a black evening gown smiling among the “billions and billions of stars” who are said to have turned out for the occasion.

How she would have laughed if someone had told her that once women would have been ashamed to be known by all the world as dispensers of casual sex to powerful men. If she were asked about the matter herself, she might well reply in the Herostratian vein that “sith y may not have that oon,/That other nyl y noght forgoon.” Obviously, it would have been nicer for her to have achieved her present eminence by virtue of beauty, talent or intellect but, not having any of these things, she’ll settle for such fame as she has.

For the remarkable thing is that, once you are a celebrity you get the beauty, talent and intellect ex officio, as it were. Hence Miss Lewinsky’s book and her TV interview and her photo-spread in Vanity Fair. It was recently announced that she would be making a documentary about her experience in, um, government which according to the New York Times “will primarily revolve around discussions that Ms. Lewinsky will have with graduate and undergraduate students of constitutional law, women’s history, psychology and American history from various colleges and universities.”

“Authentic” may not be the first word that springs to the lips of most of us in describing Monica Lewinsky. But scandal lives by its own rules, and among these, I take it, is the rule that scandal participants are authentic by definition—so long, at least, as they don’t deny that they have behaved scandalously. Thus it was that Bill Clinton’s soi-disant “apology” for the affair was deemed by the media to count as suffering and, thus, authenticity, and so to have confirmed him in the popular imagination as a true celebrity and not just a politician. Politicians and journalists–for instance Joe Lieberman and Maureen Dowd — who only days before had been calling for his head suddenly reversed field, denouncing instead of Clinton his cruel pursuer, Kenneth Starr. Clinton knew that celebrities are treated with an indulgence not available to lesser folk, and that the short route to celebrity lay in his claim to victimhood.

But the demand for fame so far outstrips the supply that lately we seem to have found in “reality TV” a route to the top that confers an even more attenuated version of authenticity upon people than scandal does. As Matthew Parris puts it in The Times of London: “We no longer live in a village but we need to gossip. Information technology has made us a virtual village to gossip in, but it also needs to make us the people to gossip about.” Hence the phenomenon of “Survivor” One and Two. Here we have a celebrity manufactory which even provides the necessary dollop of suffering as part of the package.

Of course, some of the contestants are better than others at exploiting the opportunity. But in both series, and even in the tryouts for contestants, according to the New York Times, they all strive from their first moments on camera to establish their own claim to authenticity by distinguishing themselves as individuals. This they do, in turn, by taking an appropriate part in the drama, however silly and artificial it may be, which the network has kindly constructed for us.

And for them, of course. The ostensible purpose of their participation is to win a million dollars by being the last to be voted out of the little community of contestants deposited in some remote place, though it quickly became apparent, even in the first series, that the competition is not only for CBS’s money but also for the money and fame that will come to the most successful at establishing a publicly identifiable persona.

In the first series, the winner of this unofficial contest, Richard Hatch, saw that the short route to public recognition was to go around without trousers, and thus with one of those camera-supplied blurry spots below his midriff. He ended up winning the official contest and the million as well. In the new series, the winner has not yet been revealed, but you’ve got to like the chances of the guy Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post calls “America’s Nicest Guy,” Mr. Rodger Bingham of Crittenden, Kentucky. Even if he doesn’t win, the Governor and state legislature of Kentucky already consider him enough of a famous son of Kentucky to have named an overpass on Interstate 75 in the vicinity of Crittenden after him.

Others on the current series are already doing such certified celebrity activities as charity benefits, one woman auctioning off a brassière autographed by herself to raise money for children with life-threatening illnesses. I notice in the latest edition of Movieline magazine a fashion photo-spread featuring Miss Colleen Haskell from the first series. “Some may have accused her of being spacey on ‘Survivor,’” reads one of the captions, “but Haskell’s no dim bulb–she parlayed her TV fame into a starring role opposite ‘Saturday Night Live’ funnyman Rob Schneider in the film Animal. Strapless white dress with black lace accents by Joanna Mastroianni, platinum necklace by Christian Tse.”

Starring opposite Rob Schneider! Is no price too high for fame? But Miss Haskell’s photo-spread suggests the extent to which fame has become self-validating. Her claim-to-fame is not just having got herself known as the spacey one on “Survivor One” but in having “parlayed” that little bit of fame into a movie part, the current photo-spread and presumably other fame-conferring activities to come. Merely getting herself known is an achievement in authenticity, and one which confers additional honor on her because so many others want to do likewise. According to an estimate in the New York Times, as of last November, there were a quarter of a million people world-wide broadcasting some part of their lives over the Internet, seeking to gain that toehold of public recognition that they, too, can “parlay” into fame and fortune.

Well, it can’t be helped that we live in a democratic age — and that those who would take the surest route to celebrity among the masses have always known how to do it. “Poor soul, his eyes are red as fire with weeping,” says one of Shakespeare’s sweaty-nightcapped Roman crowd in response to Mark Antony’s funeral oration over the body of Julius Caesar. Yet it does not seem to me impossibly utopian to expect our modern-day minstrels and poets of the media to be as discerning as their predecessors of more aristocratic times and therefore as capable of distinguishing between deserved and undeserved fame — between, that is, fame and notoriety, a word which has tellingly become its synonym in popular usage.

Of course, no one is asking anyone to be “judgmental” — another significant neologism of our time. But mere honesty and intellectual fastidiousness would lead, one might hope, to two changes in the way the media go about their job. The first is to recognize that the celebrity culture as we know it is quite a new phenomenon, nor is it permanent and inevitable. Just as many of our predecessors on the planet have looked at fame differently, so might our successors learn to do so. For this reason it is better not to look at history like Hegel’s schoolmaster who knows himself a better man than Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar because “he has not conquered Asia nor vanquished Darius and Porus, but enjoys life and allows others to enjoy it too.”

Here, for instance, is how Rachel Campbell-Johnston of The Times of London reviews a new exhibition devoted to a certain well-known queen of Egypt:

Cleopatra set the style in stardom. And tomorrow, with the opening of its Cleopatra of Egypt exhibition, the British Museum hosts the archaeological equivalent of a Hello! magazine interview. The last free potentate of the empire that built the pyramids offers up her secrets like some Ptolemaic Spice. In a show which moves from history to myth, from Horace to Hollywood, the pin-up of Roman rulers tells her true story for the first time.

Not having seen the exhibition myself, I don’t know whether Ms. Campbell-Johnston is making fun of the exhibition or, inadvertently, of herself, but either way the point is the same. It doesn’t take an inordinate amount of respect for the distinguished dead to allow that their lives were not exactly like ours. It is making no huge concession to reality to recognize that there were important differences between Cleopatra and Posh Spice.

The second thing that I think it not unreasonable to expect the media to do is to recognize when they are being manipulated. Of course, they are being manipulated all the time, and they are usually quite happy to remain oblivious to the fact. But when it comes to serving the turn of unquestioned Herostratian shrewes, you’d think that for once, and for the sake of basic decency they’d refuse to play the game.

It is not so, apparently, in the case of the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Last week Attorney General John Ashcroft pleaded with the press:

“I don’t want [McVeigh] to be able to purchase access to the podium of America with the blood of 168 innocent victims. . .Please do not help him inject more poison into our culture. He’s caused enough senseless damage already . . . I would ask that the news media not become Timothy McVeigh’s co-conspirator in his assault on America’s public safety and upon America itself.”

Attempting later to explain what he meant, Ashcroft elaborated: “Obviously if no one were to call him and interview him, he would have less platform than he would otherwise have.” Obviously indeed! But not obviously enough to make an impression on Marvin Kalb, the director of the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, of Harvard University. According to the Washington Post, Kalb responded to Ashcroft’s plea by saying that the use of the term “co-conspirator” was “an unfortunate choice of words,” adding that “I cannot imagine any editor softening the impact of this story because a prominent government official asked him or her to do that. . .The story is so compelling it cannot be ignored.”

But “co-conspirator” seems to me to be le mot juste. What Kalb means, of course, is not that the story itself is compelling. Nothing new or interesting is likely to be learned about the criminal or why he committed the crime. What is compelling is the urge to sensationalize it and make money off it by catering to the sort of appetite that will read about or watch the monster out of nothing more than morbid curiosity. And, as a result of this treatment, McVeigh will get a little more of the Herostratian fame that he craves while those who have been taught by the media’s lack of restraint that their urge to be titillated is always right and deserving of priority over all other considerations will be — titillated. Societies, like individuals, can have a bad song sung about them after they are gone, and ours, in prospect, is not looking very good. That’s, of course, if anyone still cares.


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