The allure of classic literature is the simultaneously encouraging and depressing notion that classics contain analogues for every possible political, economic, religious, and social issue the modern world might find itself facing. This is encouraging because it assures modern readers that older, wiser heads have already found a solution to contemporary woes, or at least an interesting way of framing the problem; it’s depressing because it leaves the distinct impression that there is nothing new under the sun, and our society is bound to keep on repeating the same old mistakes.
Both the enlightening and the fatalistic aspects of classical study are present in Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity, a new book by Tom Payne, classics scholar and former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph. In a series of cleverly framed vignettes, he looks at questions both obvious—Why do we always seem to destroy the people we have made into idols? Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by what celebrities do?—and unexpected—How does our perception of fame shape the course of democracy? Why do we become so enraged when celebrities attempt to control their own images?—through the lens of classical literature.
Though he’s on solid ground when he looks to the classics for precedent, citing everything from Catullus to Corinthians to Chaucer, Fame isn’t a simple reduction of modern celebrity culture to we’ve-seen-this-before status, or a cheap attempt to fuse philosophy to the flavor of the month. Payne’s questions and answers have a distinctly modern feel, a semiological argument that recalls Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (which Payne also cites) as much as it does ancient Greek mythology. The book is at its best in the passages where he discusses the symbolic meaning of our perception of the famous, not just its similarity to that of the past. A canny chapter on our interpretation of celebrity beauty focuses on the question of what Kate Winslet really looks like: “On the one hand, we don’t really know,” Payne observes, “but we’re quick to complain when we see a photograph of her that doesn’t look like her.”
The attempts to get readers’ heads around passages like that are the best parts of Fame. The integration of classical events and illustrations is skillfully done, but what’s most impressive is Payne’s ability not just to make the comparisons, but to use the ancient and the modern to ask question that will likely be with us forever.