How to Become a Celebrity

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Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource
‘Marie-Antoinette Hunting with Dogs’; detail of a painting by Louis-Auguste Brun de Versoix, circa 1780–1785

One of the most famous first lines among modern novels—“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953)—has migrated from literature to history and now serves as an article of faith among professional historians. It means: avoid anachronism.

The first line in Antoine Lilti’s historical study of celebrity flies in the face of that injunction: “Marie-Antoinette is Lady Di!” This remark, made by Francis Ford Coppola as he watched the filming of Marie Antoinette (2006), written and directed by his daughter, Sofia Coppola, was splendidly anachronistic. So was the film, which contrasted the youthful freshness of the queen, played as if she were an American adolescent by Kirsten Dunst, with the suffocating protocol of Louis XVI’s court, captured in sumptuous detail by cameras positioned in Versailles itself.

Instead of dismissing Marie Antoinette as a failed attempt to reconstruct the past, Lilti celebrates it as an expression of what he calls “the culture of celebrity,” a long-term, transatlantic phenomenon that first took root in Paris and London around 1750 and now has spread everywhere in the world—even, it seems, to North Korea, where Hollywood’s version of the cult surrounding Kim Jong-un in The Interview produced a combustible confusion between image and reality similar in some ways to the predicament of the French queen.

Not that Lilti himself embraces anachronism. He construes celebrity as a historical subject, and he works it over with all the rigor and originality that he deployed in his earlier book, Le Monde des salons: Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (2005). But he takes Coppola’s remark seriously. Not only does an affinity exist between Marie-Antoinette and Princess Diana, he argues, but Voltaire and Rousseau have something in common with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. That something, Lilti argues, is celebrity. But what exactly is it?

Lilti situates celebrity between two older notions: on the one hand, reputation, a judgment attached to a person by others in relatively close contact with him or her, and glory, a renown earned by great deeds that extends far beyond the range of individual contacts and outlasts the life of the celebrated person. Like reputation, celebrity tends to be ephemeral. Like glory, it reaches many people, moving in one direction: a celebrity is known to a broad public, but he or she does not know them. The knowledge, however, is superficial. It is attached to an image of the person conveyed by the media, whether printed pamphlets and crude woodcuts or films and Facebook. Also, celebrity tends to be double-edged. It may be desirable, but once achieved, it can produce painful aftereffects, such as a sense of imprisonment within one’s public self while suffering damage to one’s true self.



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