Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am famous. Sort of. A little. To some infinitesimal extent. There are people who have heard of me who are not actually family members. (Then again, the sheer vastness of my family tree — my mother had seven siblings — insures that I have some fairly close relatives who wouldn't know me from Adam Levine. Or, for that matter, from Irving R. Levine.)

Mostly, I find the condition amusing, if not downright risible. I wrote back in 2005:

I've never been even in the shadow of celebrity, unless you want to count that time in the Galleria in Sherman Oaks where I thought I caught a glimpse of Shelley Long from here down, and I don't, particularly. Nothing in my life lends itself to that sort of thing, although I did once get an email from Roger Ebert. There were those two local television appearances, one horrible, the other slightly less horrible, but those don't count for much.

In point of fact, I twice got email from Roger Ebert. I take heart in the fact that even if he remembered it, which I doubt, he's not in a place where he's likely to be questioned about it. And I consider myself fortunate that even if that television footage still exists, no one cares about it.

This is, of necessity, consistent with my 2005 view of myself:

Officially, I'm quite content with my anonymity. (I draw some inspiration from Conan O'Brien, who, in his first press conference after being named the host of Late Night, responded to the question "Why would NBC entrust this show to a relative unknown?" with a brisk "Sir, I am a complete unknown.") And I have no desire for the trappings of celebrity; I don't need a black Amex card, a lodge in Gstaad, an S-class Benz.

Not that I'd turn down any of those things, were they offered.

Still, I'm inclined to insist that I dwell near the intersection of Unrecognizable and Obscure. Yes, there are three actual books, with ISBNs and covers and bindings and everything, that mention me in some context; yes, I have about five hundred people wander by this site each and every day, some browsing their way in, some relying on the RSS feed; yes, it's possible for me to be recognized on at least some streets in this town. I still find it all rather improbable. And I will tell you, if you ask, that I didn't do anything to deserve this measure of fame: it simply exists, for reasons I can't fathom.

In the role of the Fathomer this week is Dr Peter Sheridan Dodds, director of the Complex Systems Center at the University of Vermont. He argues that when we think fame is deserved, we are wrong:

We humans are storytelling and story-finding machines: homo narrativus, if you will. In making sense of the world, we look for the shapes of meaningful narratives in everything.

We also instinctively build our stories around individuals. To see evidence for this fact, we need only to look to local coverage of a recent disaster. For example, one article in The New York Times on Hurricane Sandy discussed the (unproven) fact that more babies are generated when generators fail. It opened with the line:

"Late last October, Hurricane Sandy pumped six feet of water into the lobby of a residential building in downtown Jersey City, trapping Meaghan B. Murphy and her husband, Patrick, in their apartment and leaving them without electricity for days."

Times-style? Of course. But find me a newspaper that wouldn't open it that way. (Maybe Investor's Business Daily.)

Professor Dodds continues:

These two traits — our compulsion to tell stories, and our bias towards the individual — conspire to ruin our intuitive understanding of fame. They cause us to believe that fame is earned, that it is the result of the intrinsic properties of the famous person or object. Consider, for example, the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting in the world. Its fame is ascribed to all manner of intrinsic qualities: the subject's mysterious smile, her changeable expression, the way her eyes follow you, da Vinci's novel use of sfumato, the individual genius of Leonardo himself.

This has the makings of an excellent story. It's simple and causal, and it means that the Mona Lisa's fame was inevitable, and deserved. But it's the wrong story. If we travel to the Louvre, we find ourselves bemused immediately by the surprising smallness of the Mona Lisa — it's only 30 inches by 21 inches. We observe that museum-goers pause for a few minutes at most in front of the painting. And we wonder if this is really the best we could do. As Donald Sassoon lays out in his book Becoming Mona Lisa, Leonardo's now-great painting took 400 years to become world-renowned, and jumped in fame only after being stolen and later vandalized [in 1956] — certainly not events dictated by some intrinsic quality.

Jesus Christ, who had intrinsic qualities beyond our imagination, was nonetheless aware of this tendency of ours. Asked "Art thou then the Son of God?" Christ replied "Ye say that I am." [Luke 22:70, KJV] It didn't matter so much if He said it, so long as they said it.

So whatever measure of renown I may possess, it's not because of anything I am; it's because people have responded to what I've done, be it the five million or so words on this site, forty thousand tweets, or, yes, half a dozen (so far) stories about pastel-colored cartoon ponies. I have done my best to obscure my public appearance, but I can only truly destroy it by destroying what I have done. That task awaits whoever gets stuck with cleaning up my affairs after I shuffle off to whatever Next Life may await.

The Vent

#839
  1 October 2013

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