Issue #10: fame

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy

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by New Philosopher on November 6, 2015

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy. And that is exactly the way I see it: I think the pursuit of fame is basically a tragic pursuit.”

Sue Erikson Bloland, integrative psychotherapist and psychoanalyst

Zan Boag: Your father was the eminent psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, winner of awards, writer of acclaimed books, and revered intellectual. As his fame grew, what changes did you see in him?
Sue Bloland: The biggest change was when he first became famous – when I was a child he was not famous. There was suddenly a huge difference when his first book was published – Childhood and Society – and after that people began to relate to him differently. He had always been very charismatic and family friends had always been very respectful and admiring of him. But then I noticed that people were really nervous when they were talking to him, they were not themselves. People who related to him were transformed by his presence.

What was it that made people so fanatical about your father, and what were they seeking when they made contact with him?
I think that they felt that this was a great man and that he had answers to all the big questions about life, and they were hoping that he would first of all notice them and there would be that little bit of transfer of his importance to them. And then that he would say something very wise and they would go away having benefited from having listened to the “great words of wisdom”.

You write that “the purpose of setting up figures who seem superpowerful, infinitely wise or infinitely kind, larger than life itself, is to make us feel safe”. Is this really what makes someone a fan? Or is it driven by the need of the ‘celebrity’ to be revered?
Absolutely – it’s a two-way game. It’s a two-way interaction. Fans are people who need to feel that they are in the presence of someone who is more important than they are. It’s a real transference, it’s a kind of parental transference that makes them feel safer in a world that is essentially terrifying – after all, it’s all very unpredictable. So anybody who seems as though he has wisdom can make us all feel safer by telling us how to be. But then on his side of it, that’s a whole other story. From his point of view, and from the point of view of anybody who seeks fame, I would start by saying – and this is a basic premise – that you don’t get to be famous unless you want to be really famous. It doesn’t just happen to you. It takes an enormous amount of work and a kind of concentration that you only apply if it’s a life and death matter for you. It has to be a fanatical drive on the part of the person who is seeking fame. Anybody who has achieved real fame has been aspiring to that most of their lives, since they were quite young, and haven’t wanted anything else quite as much as they have wanted celebrity, so it has driven them, it has taken over and replaced all of the other pleasures in life. It has become a single goal.

You also write that it was “feelings of inadequacy that impelled my father to seek fame; fame did not simply come to him because he was an extraordinarily brilliant thinker and writer”. Are those who are famous in their lifetime – as opposed to those who achieve posthumous fame – simply those who feel inadequate, and as a result demand that we see them, that we celebrate them?
It’s true of everybody who has achieved fame, whether it is posthumous or not because you can’t have done anything worthy of fame, of real greatness, of having been labelled a ‘great person’ unless you were devoting everything to it before you died. Even if you didn’t get it in person, you were working toward it, or you wouldn’t get it posthumously – you had to have been as driven as everybody else in the fame category. There’s this wonderful movie, the Marlon Brando documentary. He, like very few others, is somebody who was extraordinarily gifted, but he is very honest and he wanted to be understood for what he was really experiencing in his life, which was an awful lot of pain. And he says things about why he thinks he became famous, and I love it because it’s exactly what I always thought. He said from the time that we’re very little kids, we develop some techniques to get the attention we need and in the beginning it’s from our mothers, but eventually it flowers into a way of getting attention from everyone. But it’s something that’s desperately needed – he says that for him acting was not just a pastime, it was survival. That’s a very powerful way to say that it seems to the person who is driven to achieve fame – who needs to think of themselves as potentially great and wants to be recognised as being great – needs this more than anything else in the world. It is a matter of survival for them and that is why they’re willing to sacrifice everything to get it.

You link narcissism, shame, and fame, saying that narcissism is a defence against shame, and the seeking of fame, the projection of a larger than life image on the public screen, is due to a sense of a flawed self. Is this something that applies generally to those who seek fame?
That applies more to people who are famous for being personalities… it’s true in different ways for different kinds of achievers, but if you think about the great physicists I don’t think you would say that they’re seeking an alternate identity. Indeed, they were driven by some force to be extraordinarily accomplished at their task of being physicists. That statement applies to anyone who has created for themselves a public persona, and that persona will be the opposite of the way they feel about themselves – I do believe that as a principle. Anything that you have created as a public image is intended to obscure the feelings that you have about yourself as a deeply flawed person.

There have been significant changes in technology, particularly over the last 100 years with the shift from the written word as the dominant form of communication to a world of images. What effect has this shift had on people seeking fame?
It’s true that there are many more people who have public images, but if you look at someone like Napolean or someone like Alexander the Great – any of the great figures from the past, way before ‘technology’ – their public image was the very opposite of the way they felt deep in their bones. They were deeply shamed people who were overcoming a profound sense of being flawed.

Where once we were aware of people because of what they did, we are now aware of them because of the way they look, because of the way they perform. Do you think the image culture has altered the way people are dealing with fame?
Yes, of course, there are many more people now who are famous because of the way they look than there would have been before television, but the principle is the same. The principle of seeking to be known – if you were a writer many years ago you were still creating an image of yourself and it is striking how different the writer was from the image they were projecting from their work. The principle is the same, although we have much more attention on physical images of people.

You say that people are projecting an image of who they want to be, rather than who they really are. What do you think of autobiographies, is it possible for someone to be truthful in their autobiography?
It is possible for people who are truly gifted and truly able to be honest. I put a lot of attention on Laurence Olivier because he’s the one who taught me about this. Boy, did I learn a lot from him. He could be honest about a lot of the things my parents were not honest about. They were very well-intentioned people, very kind and caring people, I’m not criticising them in any way with any broad strokes, I’m simply saying that they were not very self-aware. They really were not aware of what it is that fame meant to them and why. Whereas Laurence Olivier is honest about his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. And that’s true of Marlon Brando as well… he is open about his most profound feelings of inadequacy.

Is fame a successful defence against feelings of inadequacy?
Not at all. Not at all. And one of the interesting things about Brando – that I really liked – is that he said that after his initial fame, when he was in A Streetcar Named Desire, which was his first Broadway performance and then film and he was incredibly famous right away; such a sudden fame. And he said for about six months to a year he felt great. He said that right after the performance and he got those reviews he felt like a million dollars and everybody – particularly women – wanted him and he was such a celebrity, and he said, well, this is my time, this is my chance, and what a great life. But of course that all faded so fast because it is not a kind of acclamation that you can take in – you can’t absorb that and integrate it into your real sense of your self. It remains entirely something that comes from the outside, it does not get internalised. So it is exactly like having a hit from heroin, it’s exactly like drug addiction – it makes you feel wonderful, it then wears off and in fact leaves you feeling worse than you felt before.

What happens to those whose fame fades? How do they cope with this?
Everybody’s fame fades. It is so rare for somebody in their way older years to still be highly acclaimed, to be in the spotlight, so the problem is that once you have been in the spotlight there’s nothing else like it. Even if you are a very highly regarded person who was in the spotlight, say 10 years ago, you miss it when it’s over. People may still be excited to meet you when you’re at a party, but you’re not in the headlines any more. You’ve had the experience of being on the front page, being given awards – standing up there giving speeches and being celebrated. And nobody goes on being celebrated like that forever, it just can’t be. Unless you’re the king. And even the king doesn’t feel all that great.

The media is obviously inextricably intertwined with the creation of fame. What is the role of the media in creating a desire for fame in the everyday person, the person who hasn’t yet achieved fame? By constantly putting forward ‘celebrities’ is the media creating a desire for fame that wouldn’t otherwise be so strong?
There’s no doubt about it, the media does create it. There are going to be many more people in the population who aspire to becoming famous, who see that as the most important way to become successful. It is our definition of success these days. But the fact is that those who are actually driven to achieve fame – in the way I’m talking about – are driven from childhood because they feel something so lacking. And this is a very important thesis – that there is something so lacking in the attention that they got from their parents, and it’s a delicate formula – there is a parent who is neglectful, possibly abusive as in the case of Marlon Brando, very abusive, and then there is the person who lights the fire, “well, you are good for something, you do have a talent”. There may be many, many people who desire fame, but there are not many, many people who are driven to achieve fame in a way that will get them there.

Young children will vie for their parents’ attention – they desire to be loved and thought special. How different is this to the desire for fame?
I wouldn’t say it is very different. But if you distinguish between the people who dedicate themselves to achieving fame, who are obsessed in the way I’m talking about, well they are desperately hungry for attention. It’s not just childlike “I need attention from my mother”, it’s desperate – in fact, if you think about it there is an actual fear that if we are not important enough to our parents, we will die. And historically speaking, that is indeed true: if children were born to parents who didn’t care enough about them they were much more likely to die. So it’s an inborn need we have that our parent’s care about us – it’s survival. And if they don’t care enough about us to make us feel safe in the world then we figure out some other way to feel safe. As Brando said, “acting was not just something I took up, it was survival. I started doing it when I was a child, in my effort to survive.” And his survival was very precarious – his mother was an alcoholic and was very frequently in the town gaol and his father was extremely abusive. So in his case we’re talking about actual survival. In my father’s case he lived with his mother during his first few years and didn’t know who his father was – never really knew who his father was. He absolutely depended on her for survival and his stepfather didn’t care much for him at all. Again, there’s a desperation in this that’s different from people that we hear in the surveys who want to become famous. I come across them all the time, for example, I lecture in an art school and they will all say yes, they really want to be famous but what I can see is that they are not desperate to become famous. If they were, they wouldn’t even be sitting there. They’d be doing something else in a desperate effort to become famous. Indeed it has to come from that place where it is the only thing that makes you feel safe in the universe.

We’ve been centring on the famous person, but I’d also like to discuss the effect on those around famous people. What effect did it have on your mother to be married to a person such as your father?
In my mother’s case it was a very mixed result for her. She craved fame as much as my father did, but she chose to achieve it through him because she perceived him to be the one with the greater talent, so she in essence pursued fame through him and then was of course greatly rewarded – she made a good choice. If she was choosing to be close to fame, she chose a good way. In the end of course, that reflected on her in a way that could not be entirely satisfying. It is not entirely satisfying to be famous because you are the wife of someone who has done great work. And I think she spent her later years, after my father was no longer productive, she worked so hard to try to make a name for herself, and that was not as successful – she was not brilliant in the way that he was. In the last few years of her life, people were looking to her to carry on the tradition and she wrote a couple of chapters to add to his book. She wasn’t as brilliant. She had other gifts – she was extremely artistic, but she wasn’t intellectually brilliant.

And what about for you and your siblings, how was it to be the children of someone in the spotlight?
It was just overwhelming. It meant that you felt you either had to be spectacular yourself, or not bother. Children of famous people might experience neglect, but it doesn’t mean they have the kind of traumatic childhood that I connect up with those who must have fame. The drive to achieve fame comes from a much more traumatic childhood than mine. I don’t have that background. Everybody who has famous parents, and I know a lot of people who have famous parents, if they’re self-aware and talk about it reflectively, they’re willing to say that, “oh yeah, my parents were always off seeking the admiration of other people and not needing so much from me”. They need to be admired and revered, and you as a child are ambivalent about them. Children aren’t so good at the admiring part, so they can’t get what they need from the children.

Is fame worth chasing?
There’s a new TV program here that I’m reminded of because the title of it is Show Me a Hero, and it’s based on a quote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy”. And that is exactly the way I see it: I think the pursuit of fame is basically a tragic pursuit. It is not something that rewards the way you think it’s going to reward, it makes life much more punishing than you think it’s going to be, and it makes you open to huge disappointments, huge letdowns, and a sense ultimately of abandonment when the fame dissipates.

Sue Erikson Bloland is an integrative psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in New York and Co-Director of Admissions for the Manhattan Institute. From 1996 to 2000, Bloland was Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Midlife Development, New York City. Daughter of renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, in 2005 she published a book about her father called In the Shadow of Fame, and has written articles on the subject of fame for The Atlantic, Psychoanalytic Dialogues and Psychoanalytic Inquiry.

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