Think of a stadium filled to capacity with screaming Beatles fans; or the baseball fans who stand for hours in line to watch the Boston Red Sox break Babe’s curse; or dead-headers who devoted their lives to following the Grateful Dead; or the red carpet on Oscar night where people strain to glimpse their favorite celebrity arriving by limousine; or the lines of mourners at Graceland who gather each August to pay homage to The King. Our affections for our favorites are exclusive: there are people who know every word of every song on U2’s Joshua Tree, but nothing of Van Halen. There are readers who adore Mark Helprin, but snore if the subject is Borges or Calvino. For and Against mark the passions of a fan. We all have our idols. What comes over us when we give ourselves up to such frenzy? What makes a fan possible?
We know about this sort of frenzy first hand. We are post-Woodstock after all. We honor great singers, actors, novelists, playwrights, musicians, tennis and basketball icons, and other bigger-than-life people. They appear like sudden meteor showers, steam across the sky, lighting up the night for moments, hours, or even years until they drop from view and then from memory. While riding high, their fans gaze at them, reporters hound them, strangers ask for their autographs; their glamour and riches make them the wonder and envy of many.
The mystery of all great artists is that they cannot call up their talent at will, nor can they pass it on to others. Unlike knowledge, which is shareable, the artist is alone in the grip of something greater than himself that he cannot control and cannot understand. By force of the divine, the poet becomes the primary magnetic ring, while his imitators are just the “middle ring” through whom the Muse “drags the soul of human beings wherever she wants, transmitting the power by hanging it upon each successive member of the chain. And as if hanging from the loadstone a great chain of choral dancers, teachers, and subordinates are hung from the sides of the rings which hang from the Muse.
He, too, finds himself drawn in by the power of this or that Muse. He becomes transfixed by this or that celebrity, awed and pressed to favor him, look to him, to seek his company and counsel as though the star knows whence his talent and fan affection arise. For a while, it is as though men agree that “to be thought divine is far more noble ” than to be considered a master of knowledge or expertise. But when the bright light burns out, as it will and must, the star and his fans will be left as much in the dark as they were before he shot across their night sky. Throughout that heady time, though, other pressing matters—of education, goodness, justice, and governance—must be left on the back burners of life. Such is the danger of a culture of celebrity, however unavoidable it is.
For although it makes all the difference to humankind who the magnetic man on stage is—Billy Graham, Mahatma Gandhi, or Adolph Hitler—every inspired man must have sharp awareness of his incredible power to make us forget ourselves utterly. He will continue to glow in the night sky only so long as he succeeds in honing that power. How he succeeds or why, he has no clue. How he was chosen, or why, he cannot say. He is flying intoxicated toward a horizon he cannot see, dragging his fans with him, and he and they neither need nor want an explanation. The glory, fame, and the seductive glamour provide all the fuel he and his fans require. Perhaps it is his divine and unavoidable fate. But we participate in his journey at our peril, whatever his message, whatever his song.