Leonardo DiCaprio is, it would seem, wiser than he was ten years ago. According to the Guardian, he “admitted to developing a gargantuan ego after the success of What's Eating Gilbert Grape in 1994, for which he was nominated for an Oscar and compared to a young Marlon Brando. He said his ego was once so big he believed his acting had ‘altered the course of history’.”
So the portrait in Celebrity wasn’t too far from the truth. Give DiCaprio credit for honesty on this point. Doesn’t every author aim at “altering the course of history” just a little?* At least in that little portion of the human universe in which the work will be noticed? Who would bother in the absence of ambition? I don’t mean the desire for celebrity of the sort that Woody Allen so memorably dissects, but what the Greeks called kleios,** or what once was quaintly referred to as posterity, that invisible audience whose judgments eventually decide the true worth of our productions.
Shakespeare had ambition in spades. “Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young.” (Sonnet 19). The notion of Posterity itself has seen hard times lately. It has no doubt always been the case that some authors, in seeking their spot on Parnassus, had other, less exalted aims too. But the fashion in biography and criticism has become to emphasize the sordid, the self-seeking, the immediate advantages to be gained by writing. The conceptual habitation of Posterity is not far from that of the heavenly choir singing its eternal praises; the Deity of the author resides in this world, but like that other Deity it promises immortality. To the author it says “You will not be forgotten: write well enough and you will live”, you and those dear to you, in words “which eyes not yet created shall o’er read” (Sonnet 81, which in fourteen lines compiles virtually all the tropes of survival through art).
To secure the approbation of posterity is, on the face of it, a flagrantly non-economic motive. The economist can, I’m sure, explain even this. If nothing else the anticipation of praise, even praise tendered “when all the breathers of this world are dead”, is a payoff of sorts. All ideals are vulnerable to that sort of analysis. They subsist on the credence we give them; their pull rests upon a mutual conviction, a reciprocal consent to observe them. In my pessimistic moments I wonder what a world in which only celebrity existed—in which Parnassus has been razed to make way for American Idol—would be worth living in. For those who shun celebrity, what remains is the satisfactions of daily life; the attitude of the Stoic or the Buddhist becomes most reasonable. The rest is as nothing, a momentary flatus.
*Actually, no. Sometimes one writes for profit, Muses be damned. Samuel Johnson once said that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” (Boswell, Life of Johnson (1776) 6c3. I thought that Rasselas might be a counterexample, but Johnson wrote it to defray the expenses of his mother’s funeral.
**On kleios, see Marcel Detienne, Les Maîtres de la vérité.