In 1966, Ralph Harper, the Episcopal priest and expositor of existentialism, found himself in the middle of the alienating twentieth century. Spiritual alienation, of course, existed long before 1966, and long before Harper’s “century of homelessness and exile, of nervous disorder and persecution, of actual enslavement and barbaric cruelty.” And yet the alienation of Harper’s age was different from that of previous centuries, in that it was bound up with the twentieth century’s peculiar anonymity. “To-day,” he writes, “isolation itself must be regarded as the chief symptom of the pressures on man. To-day isolation and anonymity are synchronous.” The mass age is the age of the faceless—and thus the age of estrangement.
It’s tempting to see this as a charmingly outdated analysis of a previously modern condition. After all, the internet has in some ways done away with anonymity altogether—social media broadcasts our images and opinions 24 hours a day; the government and the multinational corporations that work alongside it have almost unlimited access to our ostensibly private lives; and, according to several well-publicized polls over the last decade, Millennials are more interested in becoming famous than the generations that preceded them. But these facts, especially the last of them, actually suggest that Harper’s age of anonymity and estrangement is as present today as in 1966—or even more so.
Harper, in fact, suggests that in an alienated era, the need for recognition becomes a means of self-verification: “Men have to be known by others so that they can be sure they know themselves; there are no objective means to evaluate what one is and what one does. Living has become so subjective that one must appeal to other subjects for a guarantee of one’s position.” Our obsession with celebrity—the sheer amount of time we give over to thinking about the lives of the rich and famous on the one hand or the “everyone’s a star” milieu of the Internet on the other—is, in Harper’s view, an indication of a weak personality. It suggests a person who is fundamentally unsure of himself, unable to ground his identity in anything solid. Ultimately, our hunger for fame is a kind of perverted drive for transcendence held by people with a diseased spiritual sense—and I include myself (a Millennial) in that category, since I’m as bound to the vicissitudes of low culture and to the longing for academic fame as anyone who’s gone through a PhD program in the humanities. I seek what we all seek on some level: I want to be published and to have the self-verification of recognition: I am bright; I am insightful; I have that identity, at least. The idea of publishing this essay anonymous fills me with terror.
The desire for recognition, for fame, is an identity-disease, or, to mix my metaphors, it is a cloak meant to cover the nakedness of the modern soul. Millennials may or may not have the disease worse than previous generations, but no era has ever been immune to the condition. In the seventeenth century, Andrew Marvell had to chastise his own tendency toward it, most notably in his poem “The Coronet”:
When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
With many a piercing wound,
My Saviour’s head have crowned,
I seek with garlands to redress that wrong.
Marvell, over the course of this remarkable poem, moves back and forth between pride and self-reprimand. He writes devotional poetry, in praise of Christ, and he naturally wants it to be of the very highest quality, befitting its subject—but the very act of service is a snare:
Alas! I found the Serpent old,
That, twining in his speckled breast,
About the flowers disguised, does fold
With wreaths of fame and interest.
This is the constant temptation for the artist (and for the academic, for that matter, although our heights of fame are even smaller than those of the poet). In a world of instant celebrity—flash-paper celebrity, instantly ignited and immediately forgotten—even our virtues can be turned into vices. And any attempt to keep them as virtues will only make them more vicious, for success would be something to be proud of. Marvell’s solution is to turn back to devotion:
But thou who only couldst the Serpent tame,
Either his slippery knots at once untie,
And disentangle all his winding snare,
Or shatter too with him my curious frame,
And let these wither—so that he may die—
Though set with skill, and chosen with care;
That they, while thou on both their spoils dost tread,
May crown Thy feet, that could not crown Thy head.
This is also the solution posited by Flannery O’Connor in the best of her short stories, “Revelation,” in which Mrs. Turpin, a woman who has always prided herself on having the wits to do what needs to be done, has a vision of an afterlife in which the first are truly last: “They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” The answer to the problem of our misdirected longing toward fame, it seems, is a forced return to anonymity. Christ removes the crown from Marvell’s head and, just to demonstrate how paltry a thing celebrity is, puts it at His own feet, not even on his head. Mrs. Turpin watches as the things that make her gloriously herself are painfully and violently removed from her.
That the same solution is posed by Christian thinkers as diverse as Marvell and O’Connor suggests that it is not a matter of gender or of denomination or even of historical era. In fact, I don’t think it’s even necessarily a matter of religion. The indie folk band Fleet Foxes were getting at something very similar on their 2011 song “Helplessness Blues,” in which they come to terms with the fallout from our culture’s “everyone’s a star” mentality:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can be
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
The members of Fleet Foxes, as far as I can tell, have no particular commitment to any organized religion, and yet their solution to the problem of the fame-drive is strikingly similar to Marvell’s and O’Connor’s. It is to restore the false transcendence of the fame-drive to a genuine transcendence—to move from the center of the stage to a position in the audience.
In other words, the solution to the problem of the fame-drive is to restore ourselves to a kind of anonymity. But this is not the brutal anonymity of the mass age, the sort of cold facelessness that exacerbates the fame-drive (though it does not create it). This is instead the anonymity of the devotee—Marvell’s laying the crown of thorns at Christ’s feet, or Mrs. Turpin’s long, painful march through Purgatory, or Fleet Foxes’ service as cogs in a larger machine (though this industrialized and mechanized image suggests a certain late-modern spiritual poverty, compared to my other two examples). It is a recognition that the personality of the artisan and even the quality of the art are not as important as the audience to whom the art is offered.
But this movement back into anonymity has a Kierkegaardian flavor to it. Kierkegaard famously admires Abraham not merely because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac when God demanded it but because he simultaneously “believed that God would not demand Isaac of him, while still he was willing to offer him if that was indeed what was demanded.” Thus he sacrifices Isaac and keeps Isaac at the same time—and thus Marvell sacrifices his glory to Christ and nevertheless ends up as one of the most famous poets of his century, and Fleet Foxes renounce their individuality, only to produce one of the most celebrated albums of the year. Not all of us can hope for such a result, of course, but Mrs. Turpin is a better model for us. Her virtues, her glory, perhaps even her personality are burned away from her—and yet presumably her vision will not end with her as a nameless face in the heavenly crowd but with her as herself, with a new identity given her by the God whom she pursues through the river of fire.
Again, then, the lesson taught by all these works is the renunciation of a false route to a phony transcendence—and with it, the renunciation of an identity we feel to be our own but which comes actually from the very crowd we’re hoping to escape. We must work for God, or for some other higher purpose; in so doing we will be given an identity that is as permanent as the thing we love, an identity that goes beyond mere recognition and thus actually transcends the anonymity of our age.