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What Our Republic Needs Is Celebrities Who Know Their Place

January 12, 1986|LEWIS H. LAPHAM | Lewis H. Lapham is the editor of Harper's magazine. and

If the number of national celebrities could be fixed--no more than 2,000 but no fewer than 1,000 in a given year--the country at long last might give institutional form to its love for pagan superstition. Most Americans seem to want to prostrate themselves before the powers once assigned to nymphs, satyrs, dryads, oracles and fauns. Rock video stars satisfy some part of this national longing, and so do the principal actors in "Miami Vice," but the current state of affairs is still far from satisfactory.

Too many celebrities come and go too quickly through a market glutted with the publicist's cheap imitations. Nobody knows whether a newly minted celebrity will last as long as a week. Given the babble of competitive images, who can attain the desired state of credulity and awe?

The restlessness of the American temperament rules against institutions comparable to the French Academy or the British House of Lords. Suspicious of intellectuals and wary of inherited rank, Americans don't have the patience for the statelier forms of worship. They prefer movement, light, spectacle and noise. A troupe of performers capable of displaying the proofs of happiness more nearly fits Americans' specifications. Bearing this in mind, I offer some tentative notes toward the establishment of a national repertory company:

--Celebrities are ornamental figures, and their appointment to the company should reflect the media's adoration of individuals for whom the society has the least use. The keeping of celebrities bears comparison to the keeping of pets, and it is a mark of a society's affluence that it can indulge its passion for exotic breeds. The cost of maintaining Frank Sinatra or Barbara Walters exceeds what even John Jacob Astor could have afforded to pay for a racing stable.

--The number of places allotted to the professions should reflect the order of precedence operating elsewhere in the society--400 film and television personalities, 250 athletes, 100 rock singers, 100 notorious criminals, 75 faith healers, 50 new millionaires, 23 business magnates, 14 politicians, 9 real estate developers, 6 authors, 4 generals, 3 presidential candidates, 2 foreigners, 1 physicist, 1 poet, 1 mathematician, 1 engineer, and so on.

--The chosen celebrities agree to a Faustian bargain. They confess their smallest fears and acknowledge their most barbarous desires, processing the entrails of their lives into the products of myth. They grant all interviews, pose for all photographs, answer all questions and publish their bank statements and medical histories.

In return for their availability to the public feast, the immortals receive the gifts of wealth and ceaseless applause. If at any time during his or her term of office a celebrity complains about the loss of "my private life," he or she must sell the tennis court and decline all invitations to the Carson show.

--The company reserves four places for nonentities--the "wild card" or "Cinderella" appointments awarded during the course of the year to previously anonymous people who hijack airplanes, win lotteries or Nobel Prizes, assassinate heads of state or give birth to quintuplets. Their sudden eminence proves the media's power as an alchemist capable of changing crime into philanthropy and lead into gold.

--Whenever they go among the common people, the immortals must dress in the costumes from which they derive their principal source of reputation. Joe Namath always appears in football uniform, Clint Eastwood as a late-19th-Century cowboy, Joan Collins in a peignoir. Any attempt at disguise (dark glasses, baggy trousers, old sweat shirts, etc.) results in immediate expulsion from the sacred grove.

--Celebrities must ride the subways, stand in line at supermarkets and travel coach class on commercial aircraft. The reassuring favor of their presence comforts the populace with the hope of immortality, prompting people to say to one another that if Kenny Rogers is on this subway, then no thug would dare to pull a knife, that if Joan Rivers is on this plane, not even God would strike it from the sky.

--Because their performances sustain belief in the worth of American success, the immortals take exemplary and unambiguous pleasure in the emblems of that success. They always smile;they deeply enjoy network television and Marriott Hotels. They never sound ungrateful and they never show sympathy for leftist causes.

--Every city with any pretension to civic pride maintains a temple dedicated to the worship of celebrity. Adorned with the images of celebrity--posters, T-shirts and signed photographs--the temple is redolent with the scent of "Dynasty" perfumes. Wandering divinities (on their way to speak in Detroit or play a football game in New Orleans) sit behind a screen in the sanctuary, listening to the dreams of success. The faithful who come to make confession never know whether they're speaking to Henry Kissinger or Dan Marino. This, of course, makes no difference.

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