The Living Death of Being Unknown

05/07/2014 02:58 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2014

Why would anyone want to become famous--I mean really famous, like an A-list movie star?

Of course, fame is often convertible into other things that we crave: money (selling your story to the newspapers), sex (admirers throwing themselves at you), power (for actors and politicians). But what's enjoyable about being so well-known that you can't walk down a sidewalk without the risk of being mobbed?

You might enjoy such attention the first few times, yet the need to protect yourself would sooner or later make it burdensome, and sometimes dangerous. Not everyone will be satisfied to admire you from afar. You can't simply turn off your celebrity when it is inconvenient, because it doesn't belong to you. Your appearance, words, and actions are publicly available and scrutinized. Famous people can't help getting caught up in our fantasies about who they (and we) are. People relate not to you but to what you mean for them. Remember what happened to John Lennon?

Lennon's kind of fame is a relatively recent development. It requires modern media such as newspapers, television, and now the internet. Of course, since the beginning of civilization there have been some famous people, usually rulers and conquerors. Kings had bards to compose songs celebrating their achievements, to record their exploits for posterity. There were also religious leaders such as Jesus and the Buddha. One of the most famous figures in pre-modern Europe was Saint Francis of Assisi. He was renowned because of his sanctity--that is, his close relationship with God. His fame was a side-effect of what he was believed to be.

What was life like for all the other people during his time who were not famous? Today we take for granted a longing for personal fame, yet according to historians medieval people had no such desire. So why has the prospect of fame become so seductive to us? Why are so many of us eager to make fools of ourselves on "reality" TV shows? And why are the rest of us so keen to watch them?

New technologies offer new possibilities. It's no coincidence that the modern world began roughly the same time as the printing press. Print offered not only a new medium for fame but also a new kind of fame: the bestselling author. As with Saint Francis, Shakespeare's reputation was a side-effect of something else--in his case, an unparalleled literary imagination.

Today, however, we have celebrities: people who are famous for being famous, since most of us have forgotten how they became famous. No one questions this because fame is now accepted as an end in itself. Celebrities continue to be celebrated because the media need them as much as they need the media.

In the last century the number of famous people has proliferated because everyday life has become so much more dominated by the digital media, which now function as our collective nervous system. At the same time, desire for fame has become so ubiquitous that we no longer notice it, any more than fish see the water they swim in. It has infiltrated all the corners of our culture, even Christmas carols ("Then how the reindeer loved him/ As they shouted out in glee,/ 'Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer/ You'll go down in history!'").

What does this fascination with celebrity mean for those of us who aren't famous? How has it affected our own self-image? We can't make sense of it unless we consider the alternative. We don't understand the attraction of fame until we realize what is unattractive about being not-famous. In a culture so permeated by print and images, where the media now determine what is real and what is not, being anonymous amounts to being no one at all. To be unknown is to feel like we are nothing, for our lack of being is constantly contrasted with all those real people whose images dominate the screen, and whose names keep appearing in the newspapers and magazines. In his book The Frenzy of Renown, Leo Braudy sums it up well: "the essential lure of the famous is that they are somehow more real than we and that our insubstantial physical reality needs that immortal substance for support . . . because it is the best, perhaps the only, way to be."

If self-justifying fame is the way to become more real, then one way to become real is to be really bad. "How many times do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?" wrote one serial killer to the Wichita police. Only with his sixth murder, he complained, had he begun to get the publicity he deserved. According to Braudy such fame "promises acceptability, even if one commits the most heinous crime, because thereby people will finally know who you are, and you will be saved from the living death of being unknown."

People in low-tech medieval times had their own problems, but the living death of being unknown was not one of them. Since fame was not really possible except for a very few, anonymity was not the curse that it has become for us. But what makes that person on the screen seem more real to us, if not that we're all looking at her?

The basic problem is that preoccupation with fame plugs all too easily into the sense of lack that haunts our (deluded sense of) separate self. Being a construct means that the sense of self is ungrounded and therefore insecure. That it's a product of psychological and social conditioning means that the self develops in response to the attention of others, especially parents, siblings, and friends. Even as adults, therefore, we quite naturally try to reassure ourselves with the approbation of other people. Even much of the value of money for us is due to its supposed effects on the opinion of others. As much as Donald Trump may enjoy his wealth, he obviously craves public admiration as much.

One difference between medieval people and us is that they believed in a different kind of salvation. If they lived as God wanted them to, he would take care of them. Today fewer people believe in God or an afterlife, which makes us more susceptible to secular solutions that promise to fill up our sense of lack right now.

The irony of a celebrity-obsessed culture is that, whether you're famous or a nobody, you are equally trapped if fame is important to you--that is, if it's your way to become more real.

If I'm not famous, I will worry about remaining that way. If I am famous, I will also worry about remaining that way--that is, about losing my fame. Although the media need celebrities they are readily replaced. Even if my celebrity continues, I can never be famous enough--because no one can ever be famous enough, any more than (as the Duchess of Windsor famously said) one can ever be rich enough or thin enough. When fame symbolizes becoming more real, disappointment or disillusionment is inevitable. No amount of fame can ever satisfy if it's really something else that I am seeking from it, which it cannot provide.

As Lewis Lapham put it, "Because the public image comes to stand as the only valid certification of being, the celebrity clings to his image as the rich man clings to his money--that is, as if to life itself." Yet there are wealthy people who do not cling to their money, and some people are not attached to their fame.

For example, the Dalai Lama has received the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps humanity's highest honor, yet he provides an admirable example of how fame, like money, can be valuable when employed as a skillful means. He is such a fine Dharma teacher because he has evidently not been personally affected by his reputation as Buddhism's foremost Dharma teacher.