Have you noticed famous people live concentric, insular, lives that restrict their ability to relate to real people or to find footing in the common dreams of Jedermann?  Yet, somehow, the famous believe they represent us all from their suffocating cocoon of Yes People and manufactured adoration.  The famous spin in circles within circles with no direction or grounding.


My training presses me back into the lesson of the Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem masterpiece — “Peer Gynt,” written in 1867 — where the peeling back of the layers of an onion reveals nothing of substance in the middle once the concentric cores are ripped away:

No Kaiser are you ; you are nought but an onion.
I’m going to peel you now, my good Peer !
You won’t escape either by begging or howling.

[Takes an onion and strips of one coat
after another.]

There lies the outermost layer, all torn ;
That’s the shipwrecked man on the jolly-boat’s
keel.
Here’s the passenger layer, scanty and thin ; —
And yet in its taste there’s a tang of Peer Gynt.
Next underneath is the gold-digger ego ;
The juice is all gone — if it ever had any.
This coarse-grained layer with the hardened skfti
Is the peltry hunter by Hudson’s Bay.
The next one looks like a crown ; — oh, thanks!
We’ll throw it away without more ado.
Here’s the archaeologist, short but sturdy ,
And here is the Prophet, juicy and fresh.
He stinks, as the Scripture has it, of lies,
Enough to bring the water to an honest man’s
eyes. .
This layer that rolls itself softly together
Is the gentleman, living in ease and good cheer.
The next one seems sick. There are black streaks
upon it ; —
Black symbolises both parsons and niggers.

[Pulls off” several layers at once.]

What an enormous number of swathings!
Is not the kernel soon coming to light ?

[Pulls the whole onion to pieces.]

I’m blest if it is ! To the innermost centre,
It’s nothing but swathings — each smaller and
smaller. —
Nature is witty !

[Throws the fragments away.]

The devil take brooding !

How does one even become the natural core of an onion without disintegrating before the enrapturing?

Why is so much value social value and economic contentment provided to the famous?

Do we admire the famous because of holes in our everyday lives and their fame fills the niches of us yearning to be acknowledged and fulfilled?

When fame dissolves, what is left behind?  Nothingness?  Or a burned out used-to-be?

21 Comments

  1. Once in awhile you get someone that uses their fame for the greater good – see Paul Newman.
    I think people that rose to fame from more humble beginnings have a greater chance – though not 100% – of staying sane and rational, as opposed to people who are born with a rattle from Alfred Dunhill.
    I also think that fame admiration comes from the desire to live viscerally; see “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, “Cribs”, and every magazine like Hello! and OK! that for the most part shows us the wealthy doing things that only the wealthy do but also include photos of the wealthy drinking Starbucks, to show us that they are just a bit like us as well.

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  2. It may be that some don’t get fooled by their fame, Gordon, but in the end, fame is a coreless hollow that entraps even the good-hearted. Paul Newman knew he didn’t deserve his fame and that became part of his undeniable charm. He didn’t want fame but he had it anyway. He made some money and donated it to charity, but he knew the reason he was able to do that was because he had a pretty face and a branded name. He wasn’t under the delusion that there was something of substance at his famous, empty, center.

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  3. What a fine poem, David! Thank you for sharing this. I love Grieg’s music for the play and didn’t know about the play till now!
    I suppose there are many famous people who, once they’ve discovered the nature of their fame manage to regain their grounding.
    Especially nowadays, that so much of fame – and the people that it is thrust upon – is a byproduct of the popular culture industry.

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  4. Those wheels are tough on the eyes!
    I LOVE the Onion.
    I admire people with real talent – even though some are the tragic geniuses who have a flawed personality that seems to often allow that genius.
    I am not a follower or admirer of the self manufactured celebrities such as Posh and Becks – although I have to admire (to some) extent the way they have branded themselves and the wealth they have created in doing so.
    However money is not everything – neither is fame.
    But to answer to your question “When fame dissolves, what is left behind? Nothingness? Or a burned out used-to-be?” – they are one and the same thing surely?

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  5. Hi David,
    Thanks for reminding Ibsen and the next thanks goes for the image! It’s awesome!
    Well, back to the point, I think we put too much emaphasis on fame because being famous is equivalent to being rich and consequently having power over others.
    In fact, some “famous” have a pretty solid head on their shoulders but unfortunately most of them don’t.

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  6. Peer Gynt is a human classic, Dananjay! You must read it. The onion peeling scene is incredible when done right on stage.
    I saw Richard Thomas’ (John Boy Walton) spectacular performance in Peet Gynt in a two-part, five hour, production in NYC in 1989:
    http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?res=950DE2DD1639F932A25757C0A96F948260
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001796/
    One you are famous, you lose yourself entirely. You either accept the brand and its constrictions or you dissolve into your celebrity only to melt later.

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  7. Yes! The wheels are enchanting you with their fame, Nicola! SMILE!
    I, too, love that onion speech. It is so often referenced, but wrongly told, in the modern media, and few people actually take you right back to the exact source: Onions are jokes from the devil as nature laughs. Take it apart and you have nothing but pieces!
    I think David Beckham has tremendous talent for kicking a ball and he deserves his riches — and he seems to be slightly aware he’s made all that money from a child’s playground game — and that self-awareness is enchanging. His wife, on the other hand, is a fallow shell of nothingness and I am disappointed he chose her.
    I know many talented geniuses who are not famous. Does that make them inferior or merely undiscovered? Or is the better word, “lucky?”
    To me, nothingness means there was nothing there from the start. The residue of ash means, to me, that something of substance was once there but it was burned away by the white-hot light of celebrity.

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  8. There’s an old saying here in the USA, Katha, that it is better to be rich than famous because being famous without any money is a curse — and that it is… the streets of NYC and Los Angeles are littered with forgotten stars and fallen celebrities and they have no place to hide from their shame because — like the song says in the opening for the television comedy “Cheers” — “everybody knows your name.”

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  9. Hi David,
    True, sometimes the substance gets lost in transit – that’s sad.
    I can have money without being famous, I can be famous and have money but if I start falsely identifying myself with the fame then I lose myself and coming back to the reality after the “fame” is gone – is a terrible blow.

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  10. Katha —
    Right! I would much rather have money than fame and the truly powerful in the world — are non-famous. They know their power is best wielded from the shadows. When they are identified and famous they have no more ability to seamlessly pull strings.

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  11. I wonder what David Beckham’s initial motivation was – I suspect to play good football and to be the best at what he did – I wonder where he crossed the line to become the brand – possibly his marriage to Posh?
    I know many talented geniuses who are not famous. Does that make them inferior or merely undiscovered? Or is the better word, “lucky?”
    Undiscovered and lucky from my perspective – although if they are suffering or impoverished as as a result as some no doubt are then it is a shame.
    I take your point about the difference between nothingness and ashes. I would think it was some and some – if you have made something out of nothing you will dissolve to nothing – those that had talent and get enmeshed in the cult of celebrity and who burn out because of it will have the ashes. I guess the trick is to control it as much as possible and not let it control you.

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  12. From the little I know about Beckham, I think he was a talented footballer and his genius for kicking a ball into a bend brought him fame and fortune. More power to him! I’m sure once he was able to afford the finer things the women found him for company and longing and he could have his pick. The one he picked, though, is still confusing for me. She is a manufactured fame that doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny: She’s famous for being famous. If you see the “before” images of her pre-fame, you see a real person of substantial kindness and now you see a medically transformed monster. It’s unsettling.
    Most of the undiscovered geniuses I know are pretty content in what they know and in knowing that the world will finally catch up with them one day — even if it means long beyond their death. They don’t need fame to stay alive. It is the idea of the notions they invent that feeds them daily.
    If we are talented and prepared — and somewhat lucky — fame can be easy to achieve; but the line between infamy and fame can be difficult to negotiate. It is sometimes better to live a quiet life of reclusion than to be fed into a national spotlight. I appreciate famous parents that vow their children will not follow in their footsteps or live a public life as they did — those parents understand fame is ultimately hollow and meaningless and quiet deeds, anonymous works, are the better path to create and leave behind you.

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  13. Yeah, I love reading the “old” NYTimes articles Dananjay because they’re plain and “ugly” and non-webinized for reading on the internet. I like the plain text and somehow that makes the writing so much better.

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  14. I agree – I find her very unsettling indeed. My grandmother had a saying that sums up some of the factors at play here – “More money than sense”
    “They don’t need fame to stay alive.” Maybe that is their true genius? They are not distracted by fame and remain focused on their wonderful ideas.
    I would like respect from a chosen few – not fame – I would not want to give anyone “ownership” of me.

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  15. I love your grandmother’s saying, Nicola! NYC is the land of the trust fund babies — and while they have more money they’ll ever need for their entire life without having to do a single thing to earn it — they are some of the most miserable, awful, people I have ever met.
    It’s better to be poor and work hard than to be rich and idle — work defines you and deeds are what you leave behind. If you’re just playing all day and sulking all night — what sort of life is that?
    Yes, focusing on the idea is important. Marshall Jamison, my original writing mentor always told me, “Don’t worry about selling it. Make sure it’s good first. Then it will sell itself.” That is the test I use to this day: “Is it good?” If it isn’t, then I have to make it better.

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  16. Trust fund babies and helicopter mummies!
    Disastrous combination – they never have to learn the work ethic.
    That is a good test to set yourself – also good if you can bounce of respected peers as well.

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  17. Oh, yes the helicopter mommies, Nicola! What a pair they are with their money babies. SMILE! Yes, there are lots of tests and processes we must use to make our work effective and wholesome in its total.

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