The recent death of Whitney Houston elicited the handwringing and lamentations that are the hallmark of American journalism. Poor Amy, poor Whitney, poor Michael, poor Notorious—they were so young, and they had so much to live for. What a tragedy!
The word tragedy is no longer applied to the death of worthy people who made mistakes or even to young people in fatal traffic accidents. Now it is a tragedy when someone who has been seeking death for years—through drugs or alcohol or obsessive sex or criminal violence—finally finds it. It is quite wrong to insult these poor people after they have gone, but it is almost equally wrong to pretend that their wounds were anything but self-inflicted.
In a sane society, the deaths of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Tupac Shakur, and Mickey Mantle would serve as a warning to others. But even more exemplary than their pathetic deaths were their miserable lives of self-indulgence. With the exception of Mantle, who played a hard game with discipline and grace, they—like most celebrities—did nothing worth doing, and all of them who lived long enough to know their careers were sagging tried desperately to withdraw from reality. And yet, if one were to poll a few hundred 12-year-olds about their career dreams, a large number would say they wanted to be a rock star or a celebrity athlete.
Twelve-year-olds, I cheerfully concede, are stupid children whose opinions are not worth considering, but how grown-up are the adults who waste their money on pop concerts at which untalented retreads lip-sync their greatest hits, and their time on televised games in which steroid-pumped gorillas beat each others’ brains out? The money that Americans have spent on Michael Jackson revival tours or on NFL games is an investment into the aesthetic and moral imbecility of the United States. It is also, like the lottery, a stupidity tax.
Here is the time for the usual disclaimers. I enjoy some popular music, especially country songs from the 40’s and 50’s, though my current favorites are Mel Torme’s collaborations with George Shearing. Even a well-crafted song I might hear accidentally on the radio will attract my attention and admiration—e.g., Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” which tells the cheerful story of a man who has to choose between his wife and fishing. I grew up in a baseball-loving family, and that fine sport paid for my college education. Although I was a short and clumsy white boy, I enjoyed playing baseball and football and go to an occasional college game with friends.
I am, therefore, not railing against sports and pop music but exploring some of the less-attractive nooks and crannies of the American Dream. There are many reasons why Americans adore the celebrities they often, in more rational moments, hate. Celebrities give off the halo of divinity that used to be emanated by ancient heroes and medieval saints, and like the heroes and tyrants of old, celebrities get to do what they want without paying the consequences, at least not right away. Mae West was among the first to make a career out of being offensively immoral, but her imitators (of both sexes and several genders) are legion.
If “making it” is the American Dream, then celebrities like Madonna and Donald Trump are our heroes, our role models. In fact, we do not much admire the craftsman who paints a painting or the industrialist who creates and produces a fine product. We may concede the utility of what they do, but we reserve our admiration for celebrity purveyors and promoters of schlock. Andy Warhol, Don King, and Jerry Springer, as much as Elvis, Marilyn, and Michael, represent the Dream. This principle extends beyond what is conventionally considered the realm of pop culture. We love bogus TV preachers like Robert Schuller, John Hagee, and the Reverend Ike, and we adore bogus TV presidents like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Even if Rick Santorum were the principled Christian conservative he claims to be, it will mean nothing if he cannot be taught to acquire the aura of a rock star. (By the way, he isn’t, and he can’t.)
Our cult of celebrity, nonetheless, is a symptom and not the cause of our national imbecility. Even before the beginning of the last century, writers as different as Mark Twain and Henry Adams were commenting on the American obsession with getting rich quick. At least since the Gilded Age, we have been a nation of Ralph Kramdens, ready to give our money to any Bernie Madoff who promises us returns on our investment that are not only beyond the dreams of avarice but also beyond the laws of usury—when we still had laws on usury. My father told me of a brilliant Ponzi artist who, when accused of bilking his clients, turned around and charged them with practicing usury!
Time for another disclaimer: The spirit of enterprise and craftsmanship is far from dead in America. I know of entrepreneurs who make and sell fine cheese and wine, run excellent restaurants, and I know good carpenters, painters, and even a stained-glass maker. If this country is ever turned around, they—and not the Bill Gateses and Donald Trumps—will be the ones to do it.
But in the current cultural climate, carpenters, painters, and wordsmiths are decidedly out, while our cultural landscape is dominated by promoters, Hollywood film producers, and NRO bloggers. To take the example of movies, the goal of nearly every major producer appears to be to milk some writer and/or director of a halfway good idea to make one slightly interesting film that he can rip off and repeat ad nauseam. George Lucas is so good at wrecking his own franchise that angry fans are producing their own versions of Star Wars films. Jamie Benning, a real-life television editor, has become a geek celebrity for his “filmumentaries” such as Building Empire and Raiding the Lost Ark.
In American consumer capitalism, repeatability is the key to success: The object of the game is to sell millions of tickets to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, millions of iPhones and Taylor Swift recordings, and billions of identical McRibs and the thoughts outside the bun otherwise known as hamburger tacos. A consumer economist once told me that the success of chain restaurants did not derive so much from their branding and commercials as from repeatability and predictability. Driving down the highway, you see two signs, one for Ma’s Diner and the other for McDonald’s or (if you are really lucky) Steak ’n Shake or Chick-fil-A. Most people pick even a chain they do not particularly like, because they know, more or less, what they are going to get. Ma might make wonderful homemade food, but she also might serve up dishes of hot steaming ptomaine.
I plead guilty to this line of reasoning, though nothing, these days, can induce me to stop at the big hamburger chains. However, if we run physical risks by going to Ma’s or Pa’s, we run greater moral risks in sticking to the corporate chains. The lesser risk is that we become unadventurous cowards who think having it “your way” consists in being able to choose between ketchup and mustard. While it is true that I have been stiffed in Midwestern Duckburgs like Metropolis, Illinois (home of the Superman Museum), I have also been agreeably surprised by a Mexican taco place outside of El Paso, a wonderful diner in Pueblo, Colorado, and numerous chicken and barbecue joints in the Carolinas.
Spending a trip eating at chain restaurants is a lot like spending your life watching football games or the Grammy Awards on TV. With a DVR one can play the same shows over and over. Repeatability is made possible by money, whose very nature is to be convertible into goods, which in the conversion process turn from goods into commodities. Repeatability is the point at which capitalism meets addiction.
When we were small children, my sister and I played a game in which we “destroyed” a word, as we said, by endlessly and mindlessly repeating it until the sound lost all connection with reality. To this day I have to concentrate for half a second when I hear the word stoker, which we so successfully destroyed. I think this is what the absurdist songwriter Lou Reed had in mind when he repeated the same phrases over and over—for 15 to 20 minutes in a song like “Sister Ray.” “Over and over,” as he said of Andy Warhol’s films that turn the viewers into mindless insects, “reducing things to their final joke.” Repetition Repetition.
In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, Ransom sips juice from a gourd and experiences “a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on Earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.” He is on the point of plucking a second gourd, even though he is completely satisfied, but he holds back. “Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.”
Perelandra is not so much a work of science fiction as it is an allegory of the Garden. Ransom’s experience with the fruit is intended as a reflection on the sin of Adam and Eve, and Lewis seems to be suggesting (not just here) that sin originates or at least can originate in the desire to repeat an experience. Elsewhere, he speaks of the pleasure of beginning the study of a new language and the temptation to give up making an advance in Greek or French in order to re-experience the thrill of beginning a new language again. Even in our intellectual pleasures, it seems, we are inclined to adultery.
I have sometimes wondered if we are not corrupted by the desire to experience something or “to be something.” I am not thinking simply of thrill-seekers or beat writers in search of kicks, but more generally of people who want to be in love or to think of themselves as poets or artists. The only way of being a poet—if that phrase means anything—is to write the best poetry one can, and the only way of experiencing love is not to fall in love but to love, which is to dedicate one’s self to another person. Being in love is generally a selfish indulgence in subjective feelings, while loving is a self-sacrificing action.
Men and women who are forever falling in love are selfish and immature. They are seeking to repeat a feeling they had once experienced with greater sincerity. If it is mainly sexual pleasure they seek, we refer to them, in the fashionable psychobabble of our time, as sex addicts, but the less carnal types might just as well be described as love addicts, art addicts, rainbow-and-vista addicts.
That is why, in our culture, so many rich and famous people who have “got it all”—rock stars and athletes—spend their lives on sex, drugs, and TiVo, constantly trying to repeat the insect experiences that used to get them high and now at least numb their consciousness. By the end they are black holes that suck energy out of those who care for them. Poor sad Elvis, poor sad Michael, poor sad Whitney. We love them because we can truly say, “There, but for the grace of the God who keeps me poor, go I.”