Who has achieved real fame? Musicians, film stars, television personalities, celebrities? In yesterday’s Irish Times business journalist Siobhan O’Connell reported a decline in interest in celebrity culture:
The media focus on Jade Goody’s terminal illness has marked a new low in society’s celebrity voyeurism. But there are tentative signs that the public is growing weary of the celebrity gossip and photos that have provided a bonanza for magazine publishers in recent years.
According to latest circulation figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, OK! Magazine , which bought the rights to Goody’s recent wedding, saw its shop sales fall by 20 per cent through 2008 to 480,000 copies.
It was a similar story with two other tittle-tattle titles, Chat and Heat , which were both down 10 per cent . . .
Celebrity status tends to be very local; even on this island, personalities that might be household names in Dublin will be unheard of in Belfast.
What about politicians, people of power? Surely they will have lasting fame? How many people remember who was Taoiseach before Jack Lynch? Who can name the prime minister of Britain before Harold Wilson? What about the time of the Wall Street Crash, an experience that has come home to haunt us, who was US President? (A leading German politician last month, confused the name of the president in 1929 with that of the head of the FBI in those times).
Even the Bible acknowledges the fleeting nature of fame. Ecclesiasticus Chapter 44 ponders the fact that names known in their own generation may be gone completely in the next:
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
The Lord hath wrought great glory by them
through his great power from the beginning.
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms,
men renowned for their power,
giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
Leaders of the people by their counsels,
and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people,
wise and eloquent are their instructions:
Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
Rich men furnished with ability,
living peaceably in their habitations:
All these were honoured in their generations,
and were the glory of their times.
There be of them, that have left a name behind them,
that their praises might be reported.
And some there be, which have no memorial;
who are perished, as though they had never been;
and are become as though they had never been born;
and their children after them.
How many people remember a single name from the Second Century BC, when the book of Ecclesiasticus was written? Apart from the professor of biblical studies in college days who became passionate about such matters, I suspect not many.
So who are the really famous people?
The newspaper that reported the decline in the sales of the gossip magazines also reported the the Kepler mission, the launching into space of the telescope that will search the galaxy for habitable planets. who was Johannes Kepler? Not the sponsor, but a 17th Century scientist whose name lives on. Which are the other names that live on through the centuries? Composers, writers and scientists, especially the scientists – Galileo, Darwin, Einstein.
I wondered what the spiky haired Swiss post office clerk whose theories have shaped our thinking would have made of a conversation I heard in a local pub when one person asked his companion, “Do you think I’m ******* Einstein?”
So, if you want to be really famous, you have to stick to those maths books. Glossy magazines are here today and gone tomorrow, theories are the stuff of real fame.