The Elusive Price—and Prize—of Fame on the Internet
Three of Beowulf’s virtues make sense. The fourth seems more like a vice. He was the man most gracious and fair-minded / Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame. Gracious, fair, kind. But also: more eager than anyone to see his name in torchlights. “Keenest to win fame” is one translation of lofgeornost—lof is “glory,” geornost is “gladdest for.” Some also translate lofgeornost as “praise-yearnest.”
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
We English speakers are praise-yearners from the outset. The signature warrior hero of English literature, Beowulf, was, if not “famous for being famous” (in the 1960s phrase), something weirder still: famous for wanting to be famous. Beowulf’s strengths are not chiefly bravery or even victories in battle; he is renowned precisely for his thirst for fame.
A bit of a blow. Fame in our time is often styled as an unwholesome aspiration, shorthanded “Kardashian” and identified with assorted Instagram sphinxes. Consider one: Kylie Jenner, the 21-year-old mother of one from a reality TV family, whose swollen lips came to national attention in 2015 when a debate raged about whether they were shot through with hyaluronic acid or, as Jenner maintained, merely overlined. Jenner’s eventual I-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree confession that, yes, she’d had her lips enhanced with acid injections apparently defined her as a singularly candid ingenue. She went on to pursue lip care as a profession and in some inexplicable way then became a billionaire with a name better known than Beowulf’s. The yongenest self-madeiost femaliest lofgeornost billionaire.
Sun Tzu of The Art of War looked down on generals who went into battle seeking fame; he considered love of king and country a leader’s only worthy motivations. But in the West, fame has long been the explicit endgame for warriors and lip gloss magnates alike. Leo Braudy, whose book The Frenzy of Renown appeared before social media was a glimmer in the internet’s eye, warns readers of the ’80s against wringing their hands over the fame culture that had lately produced Arnold Schwarzenegger and Madonna. According to Braudy, every era from Beowulf’s to our own believes it invented fame as a goal—and a scourge.
Those keen on fame are generally eager to outdo the stars who have come before them. Alexander the Great, Braudy explains, sought fame like that of the Greek war hero Achilles—a tall order for a human, given that Achilles enjoyed near-invincibility and had seabirds as servants. Julius Caesar anguished over falling short of Alexander the Great. Serial killers long for the legacy of Jack the Ripper. As a young Venice Beach bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger fashioned himself after the pagan gods. John Lennon compared the Beatles to Jesus.
While yearning for celebrity, especially on the scale of Jesus or Arnold, might seem small-souled, aspiring to fame was for centuries considered morally superior to yearning for money or power. In antiquity up through the Renaissance, fame was the name given to humankind’s admiration for individuals who enlighten, entertain, and advance it. Hush, Sun Tzu: Eagerness for fame just is eagerness to contribute to humanity. And sure, to have your name on that contribution for all time—who doesn’t want to touch immortality?
Among the profane human aspirations, fame might be at the top of the Western hierarchy. As Young Thug says, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game.” Fame, unlike power or money, outlives the person who has it and expands infinitely the borders of a single human life. Changes the game.
(Just about every lyric about fame rhymes it with name or game or both. A readily rhymable word, useful in rap or poetry, accumulates power.)
Leonardo da Vinci agreed with Young Thug about celebrity being life’s game-changing apex.
Leonardo da Vinci agreed with Young Thug about celebrity being life’s game-changing apex, and he further believed that the rich and powerful, by pursuing land and money, miss the whole point of existence. “How many emperors and how many princes have lived and died and no record of them remains, and they only sought to gain dominions and riches that their fame might be everlasting?”
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