Good history opens up sightlines not only to the past but to the present as well. It allows us to see aspects of our current circumstance as the product of developments that are deeper and richer than we knew. Yet once revealed, these same developments can seem obvious, so much so that we wonder how we could ever have missed them. By making plain what was hidden before our eyes, good history, we might say, has a way of making us feel a little dumb.
Antoine Lilti’s The Invention of Celebrity is a book that does just that. A chronicle of the origins and development of our modern société du spectacle, it provides a genealogy of the media-driven world of celebrities and personalities who now dominate our headlines and crowd (out) our public debates. Far from being the product solely of 20th-century developments or the perversion of a less starstruck age, argues Lilti, the culture of celebrity has in fact been with us since the 18th century. ‘Celebrity’, Lilti writes, is ‘a characteristic trait of modern societies’. It was present at their birth.
Although it is true that other scholars – notably Fred Inglis and Tom Mole – have traced the origins of celebrity back to the 18th century, none has done so in as thorough or ambitious a manner as Lilti. Covering developments on both sides of the Atlantic in the critical formative period between 1750 and 1850, he works with impressive scope and sweep. His central focus is on Great Britain and France, where the term ‘celebrity’ (or célébrité) emerged in the 18th century, in competition with such older rivals as ‘illustriousness’, ‘fame’, ‘glory’ and ‘renown’. The new word was used to describe a new phenomenon – what the French writer Nicolas Chamfort defined as ‘the advantage of being known by those who do not know you’.
Chamfort was familiar with the predicament. His rapid rise in the Parisian republic of letters in the second half of the 18th century seems to have induced in him a certain alienation and disgust. How could one really be known by those who do not know you? Celebrity was a fiction of intimacy, producing illusion in the eyes of the beholder and imposing, for all its advantages, a kind of burden on those beheld. It was, Chamfort later quipped, a ‘chastisement for merit and the punishment of talent’.
Lilti is adept at teasing out the ways in which contemporaries – both celebrities and their fans – responded to and analysed this novel force. He presents familiar figures in a new light, showing how the likes of Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and later Byron, Chateaubriand and Liszt, wrestled with the dilemmas of their fame. Rousseau in particular plays a starring role, appearing as the subject of a long, bravura chapter in which Lilti convincingly interprets his life and work as an unprecedented effort to come to terms with his meteoric rise to European celebrity in the 1750s.
Lilti also draws attention to a host of now mostly forgotten figures, such as the vaudevillian actor Volange, who, at the time Voltaire was making his triumphant return to Paris in 1778, was hamming it up before popular audiences at the Variétés-Amusantes and dining out in character, to the delight of high society. There were the great castrati, including Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, who kept himself in London’s limelight, both on the stage and off, with a steady stream of rumours, scandals and sexual intrigues. Defying belief, Tenducci eloped and fathered a child (by dint of a third testicle, he told an enraptured Casanova, that had miraculously escaped the fate of the other two). Finally, Lilti touches on the great actors, singers and dancers of the theatre and opera, such as François-Joseph Talma, Augustin Vestris and Marie-Madeleine Guimard. These names may be less familiar today than those of their British counterparts David Garrick and Sarah Siddons, who also receive their due. But while to be forgotten is often the fate of celebrity, all were unquestionably celebrated in their time. When the aged Talma finally passed away in 1826, some eighty thousand fans marched in his funeral procession. Siddons, for her part, was so hounded by admirers that she had to lock her doors and windows to try (unsuccessfully) to keep them out. Gawkers would not be denied.
These individual portraits make for entertaining reading. But ultimately Lilti’s focus is less on individuals than on the processes and practices that made their celebrity possible – from the economics of theatres and ticket sales to the innovation of handbills and the rise of impresarios, who created ‘buzz’ by planting stories and cultivating relations with the public. At the centre of such publicité (also an 18th-century neologism) was what Lilti describes as the ‘first media revolution’ in print and visual culture, which allowed for the emergence of daily newspapers and scandal sheets that traded in gossip and fashion, while feeding the unprecedented demand for cheap reproductions and caricatures of the faces of the famous. Puppet shows and the world’s first wax museums presented celebrities in the intimacy of 3D, and enterprising merchants exploited the market by peddling figurines, medals, cups, plates and other souvenirs in the image of the stars. A new genre of biography and ‘lives’, as well as obituaries, helped satisfy the desire for insight into the experiences of the famous. An expanding postal service did the same. Deftly making use of surviving missives to celebrities such as Talma, Lilti traces the rise of the ‘fan’ letter and the attempts – sometimes comic, sometimes tragic – to know those whom one did not.
The result of all this adulation was a new form of greatness. Unlike reputation, celebrity was never merely personal and local, but mediated from afar. And unlike the glory of heroes, renown or classical fame, celebrity did not need to be based on great deeds or accomplishments. Indeed, it didn’t rely on merit or greatness at all. Lilti draws attention to the rise of celebrity criminals and scoundrels, such as Cartouche, Mandrin and the poisoner Trumeau, who fascinated by virtue of who they were, despite what they did.
In delineating these distinctions in the minds of contemporaries and developing celebrity as a category of analysis, Lilti shows how celebrity was fundamentally democratic, in that anyone could attain it, and also keenly adapted to modern individualism, in that it encouraged empathy with individual people, not social types. Yet all along, he emphasises its fundamentally double-edged nature – for celebrities and their publics alike. Reifying and distorting, celebrity made private individuals into objects of the public’s fancy, granting immense privileges but exacting huge costs. Although it could be put to the advantage of political power – a point Lilti illustrates nicely with insightful treatments of such varied figures as Pasquale Paoli, John Wilkes, George Washington, Mirabeau, Napoleon and Garibaldi – it could also be all-consuming and provoke hostility, as Marie Antoinette, among others, learned to her cost.
The queen, Lilti shows, became a celebrity and, for a while, the public’s princess. But celebrity is a modern form of status and it undercut her royal standing, in effect placing her on a par with people of fashion (writers, actors, even criminals). She became the subject of popular appeal. And given that the popularity of celebrities is always sustained by strong, frequently erotic emotions and affective ties, it is as fickle as the sentiments of the heart. Marie Antoinette remained a celebrity even as she was imprisoned and stripped of her crown. But she was no longer in fashion. In her case, celebrity proved fatal.
The publicity that surrounds famous people, Lilti writes, ‘is the non-critical face of the public’. It is one of the strengths of his book to show that this face has been part of modern public politics and public opinion since their origins. To those who would conceive the public sphere as a ‘place for rational, dispassionate argumentation’, somewhat like a philosophy seminar, Lilti answers that it was never so. ‘In reality, the modern public sphere in capitalist, mediatized societies is, by its nature, full of passion and desire’, emotionally charged by the fleeting and affective longings of fans and the celebrities they love – and love to hate.
We must face up to this reality, Lilti contends. There is no point taking ‘refuge in a nostalgia for an ideal democracy that has never existed’, just as there is no point in believing that rational discourse will be stronger than it is. Living, as I do now, in the USA, a country in the clutches of a celebrity who is not a statesman, but who plays one (badly) on television, it is easy to feel a little dumb. After reading Lilti’s book, I take hope not so much from the strength of reason, but from the prospect that tastes and fashions change.