Academics today are required to be popular: new funding criteria for universities measure the “impact” of their staff. What better way for academics to generate star-status than to direct their scholarly labors to the stars themselves? In the past few years we’ve had Chris Rojek’s Celebrity, a sociological analysis of the rites and semantics of fame; Stephen Gundle’s Glamour: A History, which tours the celebrity landscape of the past two centuries; and Tom Payne’s Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney, which goes even further back, seeing Britney and Jordan as the successors to the cows and goats sacrificed in Athenian temples. Now Fred Inglis has added his learned, sometimes curmudgeonly, often rhapsodic voice to the chorus, with a book that locates the origins of celebrity culture in the 18th century.
For Inglis, the past explains the present and, what’s more, it largely absolves us of responsibility. “Amiable old fogeys,” himself included, “look at the capers of the celebrities of the present day with varying degrees of distaste, tut and wag their heads and see it all as the end of civilization.” There is plenty of tutting and head-wagging in this book – Inglis, who is 73, enjoys the grumpiness that is licensed by old age. But, unlike some of his contemporaries, he does not bemoan ours as a new era of darkness. Instead, he sees “the most nauseating manifestations of our leading men and women” as “shaped and prepared for in the close and distant past”.
David Beckham, Damien Hirst and Jade Goody have predecessors in Joshua Reynolds, Lord Byron and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Reynolds and Byron were two of the first artists to court contemporary recognition as much as posterity, stage-managing their lives as art. Both conferred celebrity in their turn. The 18th-century would-be starlet was well advised to be painted by Reynolds or, better still, to become his mistress. Her 19th-century successor could have her sexual escapades cataloged in the verse of Lord Byron, who created a public persona mingling life and work. “Confess, confess, you dog,” Byron urged a friend reading Don Juan. “It may be profligate but is it not life… Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world? – and fooled in a post-chaise?… against a wall? – on a table? – and under it?”
Byron is a crucial figure in Inglis’s narrative, partly because his antics above and below tables prefigured those of today’s footballers and US presidents, and partly because his aggrandizement of passion is an important milestone in a lineage of emotion traced from the 18th century to the present. This begins in the Enlightenment, when David Hume commanded that “reason is, and ought always to be, the slave of the passions”, granting feeling primacy in moral living. Rendered more tempestuous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hume’s injunction opened the way into an “age of sensibility”, privileging spontaneity and romantic passion. The stars who loved and died on stage in opera and theater now became celebrities to adore.
This emphasis on the history of emotion is what distinguishes Inglis’s book from the other accounts of celebrity, making it more than just a great hall of historical fame. Inglis sees these emotional shifts as working concurrently with changing social forces that turned life itself into a spectator sport. On Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris, in the pleasure gardens of London, through the pages of the newspapers, 18th- and 19th-century men and women surveyed each other. The most fashionable, glamorous, or notorious emerged as celebrities, by virtue merely of being the most watched.
The 20th century opened with marked cards. Once the novelty of intense passion had started to wear off, people noticed that their emotions were in conflict with each other. For Inglis, Hume’s direct line from passion to action cascaded into a spiral of feeling and judgment as people reflected on the emotions that were meant to prompt action. Now we are trapped in a “frozen sensibility” of “carefully considered inaction”. Hence the culture of personal therapy, and hence the ever rising importance of celebrity.
Those same celebrities who contributed to the impasse of inaction provide a way out of paralysis. Projected on to the cinema and television screen, celebrities do our living and our feeling for us. Of course, celebrity- worship amid paralysis can be dangerous; look where it led in the 1930s. Inglis has a chapter on the “great dictators”, which serves in part as a warning. Contemporary American elections mimic the staged applause, happy crowds, lights and banners of Nazi rallies; the contemporary rock star, like Hitler, gathers up the ardor of thousands into a collective vision. But, although he may lament the vacuousness of Big Brother, Inglis tries hard to be fair, searching “for all there is to celebrate” in the cult of the star. For every Hitler, for every Jade Goody, there are stars, he says, who are “living ideals of sentimentality”. If we are going to allow celebrities to invade our living rooms, we ought at least choose ones who are talented and famous first, and celebrities second; stars such as Sarah Bernhardt (“a touchstone of worth”), Tiger Woods, John Wayne (“The Man”), Cary Grant (“my man, your man, man about the house”) and Marilyn Monroe.
Of these, it is Monroe who emerges as the star among stars; her “irresistible erotic presence” and “brightly lit courage” entranced “people, even the people” and, most of all, Inglis himself. Indeed, Inglis is so entranced that he takes on the suave voice of a 1950s male lead, condemning the term “sex object” as a “damned cliche” as he melts into the heart of a star who brought “new radiance” to the concept of celebrity. Inglis is more likable when he’s slavering over Monroe than when he’s disapproving of “a pert little group of girlie singers called the Spice Girls”. But in both cases, the book’s wider questions seem to have been laid aside. Perhaps this is the problem for scholars investigating celebrity: they are overpowered by the brightness of the stars.
Lara Feigel lectures in film and literature at King’s College London
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