Fame, Sainthood, Personhood, Failure
I’ll begin with a commentary on a commentary on a commentator of texts. Last night over noodles in a food court in Flushing, Queens, a friend told me about an Egyptian poet who probed the connections between commentary and silence.
In the September 29 New Yorker, Louis Menand has a piece on the literary critic Lionel Trilling aptly titled, “Regrets Only.” In particular Menand brings out Trilling’s ambivalence about his own success. “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world,” he could write in his journal.
It is the thing I have most wanted from childhood—although of course in much greater degree—and now that I seem to have it I have no understanding whatever of its basis.
And also: “The thought makes me retch.”
What Menand goes on to present is mainly the portrait of a man over-analyzed and chronically unsatisfied. But Trilling’s paper trail speaks from the contradictions in any reach for fame, sainthood, or even plain personhood.
When you think you are a saint, say the medieval manuals on holiness, is exactly when you are not. Avila, Augustine, and à Kempis agree on this point. Certainly Lisieux, their more recent inheritor. The only possibility of being a saint, say the saints, is believing as thoroughly as possible that you are not one. Mother Teresa (taking her name from Avila and Liseux) knew this plenty well. She lived in a world of darkness, of distance from God, and of longing. As a result, she spent her life being saintly.
With the Reformation, Martin Luther introduced the possibility that one might know one’s own sainthood—by conviction, by confidence in faith, comes rescue. But with this comes also the certainty of sinfulness. Protestant conviction means the conviction that one will not see one’s true self until the end of days. To be fully is to know one’s true being is still to come.
In its perverse ways, this same paradox unfolds in the madness of modern celebrity. The people we admire and long to be so often dissolve themselves in drugs and suicide and any available excess. On the one hand they seem unable to believe, without such things, that they are what they’re supposed to be. On the other, it is through these habits that they reach the extraordinary in our eyes. As a rule, they cannot see what we see in them.
(I just met a man named Joseph in the subway station. He sits in a wheelchair and draws pictures of UFOs blowing up subway cars. Medium: black marker and colored pencil. I asked why he drew that. He said he used to draw other things—landscapes and so forth—but when he draws UFOs, people actually buy them. Sure enough, a fashionable girl heading on the L train to Williamsburg bought the one he’d just finished.)
The rest of us “ordinary” people are no exception. You could say: we know not what we are. In all the things we do, we know not what we do—how our motions ripple out into the world and into time. Famous people, who see reflections of themselves constantly, glimpse what the rest of us can happily or unhappily ignore: we are each many things at once, many drops, many ripples, and many tides. To be someone, from one perspective, means being someone else from another.
tags: authenticity, becoming, celebrity, double truth, paradox, powers, saints