IN THE LAST DECADE many historians and commentators have become fascinated by the apparent similarities between the eighteenth century and our own times. The free-wheeling commercial development of the Georgian era, its unabashed enjoyment of consumption of all kinds, the importance of print culture in everyday life; all these seem to be precursors of our own day. So too does its obsessive interest in all kinds of fame and the diffusion of what we now call a culture of celebrity. Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity, appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee-houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements.
In the delight at recognizing ourselves in the mirror that the past seems to hold up, we have perhaps forgotten to ask a few pertinent questions. Are we gazing at ourselves, or at something altogether different? Are we forgetting to look past our own image in the glass to that other picture that lies there, half obscured, refracted through our present, but perhaps still traceable?
Celebrity today has a particular narrative that describes and defines it. The story may be different in different places but the elements are common enough to run through all Western culture. This narrative, put simply, is one of rise (often from obscurity, poverty and ugliness), stardom, fall (usually through moral failure) and rise again. To sustain their celebrity, stars in all walks of life need to be tested. A rock star is compromised by drugs, a ballerina crippled by injury, a president tempted by an intern, a soccer superstar surrounded by sirens. These trials haunt them, refine them, strengthen them and, if all goes according to the script, they emerge stronger, more brilliantly shining, more durable and admirable. The story is partly classical, making of every celebrity a wandering Ulysses, but it is mostly Christian: the carpenter's son born in obscurity who achieved notoriety, was tested by temptation, was humiliated and crucified and who rose again to immortality. When Bill Clinton humbly atones in a thousand interviews for the sin of his affair with Monica Lewinsky we know that his resurrection has begun. His period in the wilderness and his 'crucifixion' in the press (for so the English-speaking world describes the darkest days in the celebrity story) are over. But when we read the scorn heaped on footballers Francesco Totti or David Beckham for showing their arrogance and vanity, we understand that their trials are just beginning. Few in our culture of many stars make it into celebrity Elysium; some never emerge from the wilderness, many we forget about, a few step out of their own story.
This narrative, though, is new, a creation of the twentieth century. Even the persona of 'a celebrity', the translation of a bundle of attributes and behaviours into a proper noun, is only a century and a half old. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first printed use of the word 'celebrity' as applied to a person in 1849, and the persistent identification of individuals as 'celebrities' only entered everyday culture, in England at any rate, with the explosive growth of the popular press and mass literacy at the end of the nineteenth century. I have never read it in any eighteenth-century letter, journal, novel or newspaper. 'The celebrated Dr Johnson'; 'the season's most celebrated beauty'; even, remarkably, the philosopher David Hume writing that people saw in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's odd behaviour 'an act to gain celebrity': those formulations are there, but never the notion that a person is, or wants to be, 'a celebrity'. Although one might argue that the reason for this is that the phenomenon was so new that no noun, had yet emerged to describe it, I would like to suggest that in the absence of that noun lies the difference between our own culture of celebrity and that which was created in the eighteenth century. …