The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Why be famous? Subtract sleeping, eating, working – how much time remains for being famous? Of course fame has benefits, comforts, luxuries, considerations – but all these are available, in degrees equal or better, to people who are not famous. A star may not be better off than a dentist; most, not so well.

Why be famous? To have your name, your face known? But no one is present in a picture. Heroes do not feel people wanting to be them; sex symbols do not feel people wanting them. And as for names – though his name is taken a billion times a day, what good does fame do the Earl of Sandwich? People recognize you, but what do they recognize you as? Not as a person; the recognition that fame supplies is less than being personally known. It is the kind of recognition that people give to types and roles – that a proper name is used does not make the recognition different than the patronizing recognition given to one who matches an ethnic stereotype.

Why be famous? What is gained when the switch flips in the brain between “I am not famous” and “I am famous”? Is it self-respect? But you do not respect people because they are famous; why should fame give you respect for yourself?

Why be famous? Is it attention? That is a little stronger: attention is enough like a commodity that famous people can lend it out on their own credit. But that only when they are not too famous: the movement that recruits too prominent a spokesperson only adds a cause to fame, not fame to a cause.

Not all fame is permanent; people who have been briefly famous seem to value the experience, but not wish to repeat it. (Though whether as a drug too addictive to return to, or an ordeal that leaves them with nothing to prove, I do not know.) Sometimes a person with transient fame can be observed having found a worthy cause to spend it on. This seems healthy and sane.

All people who are famous and sane seem to have certain qualities in common: a sort of fatalism, a sociable sense of irony, and taking their fame as a windfall, not a right. But most people who are famous are not sane; and though it would be tempting to argue that fame only attracts the insane – as it likely does – I do think fame drives people insane.

But I am begging the question. If fame is so insubstantial, so inconsequential, what traction does it have to drive anyone anywhere? If there is no good answer to “Why be famous?” there cannot be a good answer to “Why not be famous?”

Contrast fame and glory. Glory must be earned with great difficulty; glory is impersonal – has never invited presumptuous familiarity, instead discouraged it; and glory is enduring – is sought as the one thing in life that lasts forever. Altogether glory seems a finer and more human thing than fame. Yet the love of glory – so we are warned by the records of the times when it was in fashion – the love of glory was itself madness. If so straight a thing as glory is confounds us, how much more so must crooked fame?

The real question is not “why be famous” or “why not be famous” but another: Why give fame?

Fame begins with a humane feeling – with the recognition that there are no rewards reserved for extraordinary merit. For the invention of calculus and the discovery of gravity, Newton was made Warden of the Mint; but what did his predecessor do? His successor? There is no prize or position in the world where merit has not been mixed with legacy, celebrity, and safe choice. There is no recognition which the world can bestow on the worthiest which has not sometimes been bestowed on the unworthy.

So when we are moved to admire something extraordinary, we search for something within our power to bestow, something that cannot be bought; and we find only our attention. This is well meant. Attention is the kindest thing we can give. But what is kind from one person may be cruel from many.