Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chesterton on Celebrity

Someone at lunch today pronounced the familiar epithet for Paris Hilton: "She's famous for being famous." It's an appropriate characterization (although, when you think about it, it's more charitable than it is accurate). You might think that this form of celebrity is a feature of this-mess-we're-in (whatever you want to call it: postmodernism, consumerism, the Internet age, the last days). I certainly did. But take a gander at this passage from G. K. Chesterton's "The Scandal of Father Brown" (1935). The narrator claims that in America:

       A girl of great beauty or brilliancy will be a sort of uncrowned queen, even if she is not a Film Star or the original of a Gibson Girl. Among those who had the fortune, or misfortune, to exist beautifully in public in this manner, was a certain Hypatia Hard, who had passed through the preliminary stage of receiving florid compliments in society paragraphs of the local press, to the position of one who is actually interviewed by real pressmen. On War and Peace and Patriotism and Prohibition and Evolution and the Bible she had made her pronouncements with a charming smile; and if none of them seemed very near to the real grounds of her own reputation, it was almost equally hard to say what the grounds of her reputation really were. Beauty, and being the daughter of a rich man, are things not rare in her country; but to these she added whatever it is that attracts the wandering eye of journalism. Next to none of her admirers had ever seen her, or even hoped to do so; and none of them could possibly derive any sordid benefit from her father's wealth. It was simply a sort of popular romance, the modern substitute for mythology.

So what is to blame for this vapid form of celebrity? American journalism? The absence of a traditional American mythology? What do you think?

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