Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Art of Fame-Immunity

The following remark was on the top-front of the New York Times site Wednesday evening, beside a picture of the benighted Mel Gibson:

An earlier apology acknowledged "despicable" remarks, but never specifically mentioned their anti-Jewish tenor.

Let me be very clear: I have no sympathy and no cause for respect for this fellow. He's a wingnut goon who makes B-movies that generally fall into the artistic class of the John Wayne genre. He is an embodiment of the American image-obsession, which says that what you look like, what you seem to be, means more than who or what you are.

But Gibson is also an obviously diseased man who needs medical and probably psychiatric help. Don't rub his face in the dirt of his disgrace—especially not on the front page of the leading voice of America's print media. He has apologized; he is seeking treatment; he has sustained major damage to his career and his life. Is that not enough? For all our supposed progress in this culture, we've never quite managed to put away the wooden stocks or the tar and feather; we simply use more devious means to the same punishing purposes.

Incidentally, I feel the same way, and have written as much, about Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly: they are ill, and they require treatment far more than publicity. In fact, fame is a great part of what has thrown these people into their respective pits of addiction, disease and delusion. You see it in professional athletes all the time; that it is spreading further through the realm of small-time art and into the arena of political punditry is merely another mark of the decline of our American society.

I have never been famous, and so I can only go by the evidence around me to judge the psychological effect of public adulation. But let's be clear: I am not talking about recognition. Many artists and writers, and even a few athletes, are able to be well-known to the public and receive the material rewards of their work, yet without stepping into the snare of fame.

You have to be susceptible to its poison in order to fall prey to fame. Part of building up a "fame-immunity", I suspect, is to recognize that your accomplishments are not yours alone. Every great deed or creative work is achieved with the essential help of energy-streams on the plane of consciousness that both surpass and include the individual. Mel Gibson forgot that part, and now he's paying the price for his ignorance. I don't think he needs our pity; but he does deserve a measure of forebearance while he retreats into what we hope will become a complete and regenerative healing.

A couple of guys who show a remarkable evidence of this fame-immunity are the comic political satirists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. These two have done more to resurrect the moribund art form of satire than any artist who has come along in the last generation. It is an impossibly difficult art form to adopt via pretense; the proof of that can be found in the failure of any hack who attempts to force it through formula or stereotype (for a recent example of such hackery, I would offer the New York Times' David Brooks, whose bumbling effort at satire I discussed here).

Colbert is especially fascinating, because he has to personally separate himself and his life from his public persona. Yet he is so good at what he does, that people are still often misled by his satirical facade. I can recall watching his skit at the White House Press Dinner over and over again, longing to know exactly what was going on inside that thin Bushian cranial cortex: how long did the Crawford Cashew imagine that Colbert was really praising him, was truly "on his side"? (there's a link to the video in my sidebar, just above my Blogroll). And just yesterday, this was brought to my attention:

Despite the fact that (I hope) the audience of "The Colbert Report" watches the show because it's funny rather than inspiring, that didn't stop rabid Colbert fans from crashing Wikipedia's servers.

Now this woman, a writer for the geek news site C-Net, clearly had no understanding of what Mr. Colbert is all about. But once again, she is not alone: even many guests on Colbert's show miss his act. Those who do, such as the Democratic candidate for Senate in Connecticut, Ned Lamont are able to both entertain and inform Colbert's audience (vote for him, you Huskies! Vote for him!).

Obviously, Colbert is funny AND inspiring. That's because he is genuinely satirical, and because he knows that his art is not himself, and that it is drawn from a source that surpasses his private identity. In a biographical spot about him on the 60 Minutes program, Colbert confessed that he rarely let his kids watch his own show, because he worried that they'd take it all literally. Clearly, he has enough of that problem with the adults.

Great satire undresses ignorance and stupidity—but slowly, teasingly. So it has been from Juvenal to Swift to Twain; and I would be of a mind to place Colbert squarely in that company. But Colbert himself would never hear a breath of that—he would call it nonsense; and for him, that would be the correct response. Now we must hope that Mr. Gibson will one day learn that he is not an indomitable Braveheart or a fault-proof Jesus. For if he does, it will deepen his life, purify his heart, and heal his distraught body-mind. It could even elevate his art.

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