Great Ones Must Not Unwatched Go

posted by SWC on December 12th, 2009 · 2 Comments | | Printer Friendly Version

Why do we seek fame? John Milton had a famously simple answer in Lycidas.  It was an “infirmity,” some kind of flaw, possibly verging on the pathological; a human condition.  It “spurs” us on to noble deeds, though inevitably this “fair guerdon” is trumped by death.  And so fame is, or attempts to be, the undeath, a touch of the immortal.  James Dean lives on we say.  Florence Nightingale lives on.

Here’s another question: why are so many of us attracted to the famous?  For the same reason, many have said. The famous transcend the here and now.  They will live on, and we are enlarged by emotionally funding that transcendence. That is an engaging myth.  Allow me to personalize it.  But first a useful clarification.

There is a broadly held distinction  between heroes, people we greatly admire, and the famous–“celebrities” if they are presently alive.  Obviously, and here I am a relativist, one person’s hero might be merely famous to another ( or possibly not well known at all, for instance my grade school shop teacher, Mr. Steenstra, who taught me to love the fragrant ambience of shellac and freshly sawed white pine).

One example from recent history:  Churchill and Hitler were each heroes but not for the same people, and no one would disagree that each was famous.  Unlike heroism, fame is value-neutral, in theory anyway.  But in fact there have always been fame-worshippers as there have been hero-worshippers.  Sometimes it is not easy to see the difference: people who once  breathlessly reported a Garbo sighting; the swooners at a Presley or Beatles concert.  I had to steady a friend one day in a supermarket because she thought she saw an actor from the cast of As the World Turns.

(My Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-IV, has not cataloged the altered state induced by high-level celebrities, although I am inclined toward “Dissociative Trance Disorder.”  However, this trance disorder is not culturally sanctioned–which means they might put you away–but what I am describing here appears to be universally accepted.}

On the subject of fame one’s own experience is sometimes more helpful than cultural theory.   Because of my life in the word trades, I have met my fair share of celebrities: writers, actors, musicians, politicians and so on.  A few of them have been my heroes.  Approaching a hero requires an emotional steadiness that I have not always had at my command.  I am then like a young man who courageously introduces himself to the belle of the ball and stiffly asks for the next dance.

The poet W. H. Auden qualified as a hero for me.  This is how things went one evening when fate arranged for both of us to be smoking in the vestibule at the entrance to Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMHA where he was scheduled to read.

Do I just smile and nod affably, I asked myself, or do I say something, preferably brief and cannily sensible? Autograph? Never.  If he were a stranger one of us might have said something like, “Are you a fan of Auden?” and then go on to speculate about which poems he would be reading.  But when it is Auden himself what does one say? This was awkward.  Should I simply depart for the auditorium and look for a seat?  That would be cowardly.  And when would I have another chance to speak to him? I could tell him that I love his poems.  But he must know that, or why else would I be here?  Isn’t there some boilerplate expression for occasions like this? Yes there is. . .  Just say it.

“Mr. Auden, ” I said. “Reading your poems has given me much. . .very much pleasure.”

At first he said nothing; then Inhaling deeply, he tilted his head back and artfully expelled the smoke as at last he answered evenly, “Oh rilleh.”

That was my conversation with W. H. Auden.  But it wasn’t quite the end of our asymmetrical relationship, because fate slipped another wild card into my deck when some years later I discovered that we were living a few houses apart on St. Marks Place in the East Village, where we would often pass each other similarly burdened with bags of laundry or groceries.  I cannot say why exactly, but until he left his digs at No. 77, to return to England and soon to die, I never spoke a word to him.

It could have been that for a time his formidable craggy face blended too well into the St. Marks scene: the flower children, the rebels, the assorted fallen angels.  Or it may have been that in those days I thought that time had no end, and that I could always steel myself to say hello when next we passed.  I was wrong about that, but still I have always kept a copy of his poems close at hand.


  1. Then there are those who are “famous for being famous”, scorned but nevertheless hounded after, like Paris Hilton, soon to be forgotten when beauty fades.

    But I guess it will be awhile before we hear ” Tiger who ?”

  2. have lost your e mail address. is it

    loverkins from the babe

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