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Celebrity Culture

Celebrities: The Zeitgeist Made Flesh


Celebrities are more than mere actors, pop stars, sports stars, models and so on. They're physical embodiments of the spirit of the age: zeitgeist figures. That's why they seem so vivid, why they're so phenomenally successful. When the German philosopher Hegel glimpsed Napoleon riding through the city of Jena to review his army, he imagined he was looking at the world's soul, concentrated into a single point, sitting on a horse, reaching out over the world and dominating it. This is the essence of zeitgeist figures: you think you are looking at the time you live in made flesh.

For centuries, zeitgeist figures were kings and queens, popes and preachers, generals and statesmen; there were even some poets, writers, artists, composers, scientists and philosophers amongst their number. Not any more. The birth of the moving image at the end of the 19th century started the inexorable rise of the modern celebrity. Rudolf Valentino was arguably the first recognisable star of the type we've become so familiar with. Hollywood in its golden age supplied an ever-growing supply of new stars, and then along came Elvis Presley, the first real pop star, paving the way for the Beatles, the first mega pop group.

John Lennon's notorious remark that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ marked the precise moment when the traditional zeitgeist figures of the past were irrevocably replaced by celebrities. Since then, MTV has deified pop stars, Hollywood blockbusters have sanctified modern movie stars, TV has made gods of footballers; soap operas, sit-coms and chat-shows have launched hundreds of TV stars into the stratosphere. And the lust for images of beauty has transformed supermodels into goddesses.

Bill Clinton, with his assiduous courting of Hollywood, his gimmicky playing of the saxophone, his continual glad-handing of celebrities confirmed where true power now lay. Tony Blair, with his ridiculous celebrity posturing (remember the absurd Cool Britannia phenomenon?) merely reinforced the message.

John Lennon was right: celebrities are the new gods. People would much rather worship them than the old metaphysical deities who, it has to be said, lack all star quality, never giving interviews, never emoting, and never going to glitzy parties. The ancient Greeks had their gods nearby on Mount Olympus, able to come down from the heights to interact with mortals. We now have celebrities in glorious gated mansions who pop out from time to time to treat us to their divine presence.

Liz Hurley refers to us as 'civilians'. She stopped being a civilian the day she put on a revealing Versace dress and went to a movie premiere with her then-boyfriend Hugh Grant. That's all it takes to become a zeitgeist figure. Her photo appeared in every newspaper the next day and she was on her way to the summit of Olympus. To be beautiful, sexy, slim, have impressive breasts, a designer dress and a rich, glamorous boyfriend - that's the package that the women of this age desire above all other things. Who cares about talent, intelligence, hard work, integrity, decency? These are all irrelevant in the face of the zeitgeist.

Zeitgeist figures are a mirror of our culture: crass celebrities exist only because society is crass. In a few years, Hurley will be forgotten, like so many zeitgeist figures before her. They are the victims of the zeitgeist moving on, finding new flesh to encapsulate the spirit of the age. A zeitgeist culture never leaves deep roots. It's inherently transient, ephemeral, protean, scornful of long-term values. It's the fruition of the Live for the day because tomorrow you die approach to life. The spirit ofnow cares nothing for tomorrow.

A whole culture obsessed with the zeitgeist, as ours is, is a disaster in the making. Religion, for all its flaws, at least pointed to values beyond the here and now. Religion is no longer credible, but something else must be found to fulfil its function of providing a note of long-termism to counteract the power of the zeitgeist.

Imagine the tragedy of being a great human being - a genius - but being completely unappreciated by those around you. You've failed the zeitgeist test. Nietzsche said, 'Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.' He himself was almost completely ignored during his lifetime, but is now an omni-present cultural figure. Even people who have never heard of him manage to quote him when they announce after some spell of adversity, 'What does not kill me makes me stronger.'

Nietzsche was scorned by the zeitgeist, but the future was on his side. Most of those who are adored in their time aren't loved when that time is over. Those with an eye to posterity should think of shunning the calls of the zeitgeist.

Hundreds of years ago, human life was very different. In medieval times, many people lived their entire lives within a five-mile radius of the village where they born. If they had no horse, they had no means of getting around, unless they were keen on long walks. Many would never have cast eyes on a king, a lord, or even a knight in armour. Their village elder would be the most important person they would ever encounter. There were no newspapers to allow villagers to keep up with the news, no TVs to entertain them. In their entire lives, they would probably see no more than a thousand human faces. Nowadays we can see a thousand faces by walking across a bridge in London.

The zeitgeist struggled to make an impact in the old world because everything was so slow. Now, TV, radio, movies and, especially, the Internet have turned the whole world into a global village of six and half billion people. In hours, a woman became a world-wide phenomenon by sending an embarrassing e-mail about oral sex to her boyfriend. He copied it to friends, they copied it, and soon everyone was copying it. Her e-mail was a zeitgeist e-mail. Hurley was a zeitgeist girlfriend. Princess Diana was a zeitgeist royal. Everyone who succeeds big time nowadays is a zeitgeist figure. The novels, movies, TV shows, pop groups that get to the top have tuned into the zeitgeist. People who are loved by the zeitgeist are just lucky, of course. No one can consciously ride the zeitgeist. It's too fickle, too multi-faceted. It rolls the dice, not you.

We know that beauty, sex-appeal, youth, wealth, fame, instant gratification are the themes of today's zeitgeist, but we can't identify those who embody the zeitgeist until they've been presented to the world. Many little-known beautiful women go to premieres; only Hurley launched a career on the back of it. The zeitgeist chose her, but ignored all the others. Why her? Only the zeitgeist can answer.

So, is it the best thing imaginable, all your dreams come true, when the zeitgeist pays court to you? You might think so, but there's always a downside. For one thing, there's the German philosopher Schopenhauer to worry about. His position was that humans can never be happy. People are either pursuing an objective and are unhappy because they have not yet achieved it, or have achieved it and are now bored with it, leaving them unhappy again. So, they have to set a new objective, and are once more at the start of the cycle of unhappiness. If you could genuinely be happy with something you'd achieved, you would sit back, put your feet up and… vegetate. And being a vegetable would soon make you very unhappy. So, there's no way out. Everyone is unhappy; rich or poor; beautiful or ugly, young or old, clever or stupid. Their unhappiness comes in all sorts of different forms, but they're all united in their underlying misery. The zeitgeist doesn't care about any of that, of course.

Look at the havoc success wreaks. Rehab clinics are full of celebrities recovering from alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, fame addiction. Their success, whatever else it did for them, didn't bring them contentment. 

Someone like Robbie Williams seems perpetually perched on the precipice of destruction. Keira Knightley, only 22, is already expressing her disillusionment with fame and talking of aspiring to a life of obscurity instead of 'the celebrity thing.' She went on holiday in the Himalayas recently and was delighted that no one knew her or cared what films she'd been in. If she'd spent another six months in the mountains, she'd be begging to be allowed back to a movie set.

Happiness can't be found anywhere. Look at poor old Dave Stewart complaining about Paradise Syndrome. He realised he had absolutely everything he wanted, everything was going fantastically well in his life, and he felt utterly inspired, and immediately became very depressed and beset by a host of imaginary illnesses. You see, it's just not possible to reach Happy World. Even if you think you've arrived, it instantly turns against you and slams the door shut.

Ozzy Osbourne said, 'You get success, you have excess. You can have nice cars and houses but if you haven't found out who you are it's nothing.' More worryingly, even if you have found out who you are, it's still nothing.