James Dean, Marilyn, Elvis... Fifty years ago, a classic book defined celebrities in the TV age as "well-known for their well-knowness," and, it often turned out, as disposable as Kleenex when their fame burned out.
Historian Daniel Boorstin was inspired by the Kennedy-Nixon debates to write "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America," a prophecy now having its umpteenth replay as a survey shows Charlie Sheen getting more Internet and social media attention than Barack Obama since the first of the year.
Confusion about reality has gone global, with a Chinese newspaper chiding Americans for being "unfilial" and making Boorstin's point about pseudo events by confusing Martin Sheen's role in "The West Wing" with real life: "He [Charlie] ignored his own father's advice to keep quiet, who was once the president of the US. Sheen is a disgrace, unfilial to his father and his fatherland."
In the half-century that fame has been uncoupled from achievement and appearances from reality, aided by cable TV and the Internet, the world we think we live in has become a 24/7 soap opera, designed to keep us watching and reading between commercials and pop-up ads.
As Sheen's latest cell-phone rant goes viral, his antics become fodder for fighting off boredom while, in the obscurity of sanity, his family suffers and goes on with real life, completing a devout film, "The Way," starring his father and directed by his brother, about "small miracles on a daily basis."
Charlie Sheen's meltdown may have the perverse effect of calling some attention to this modest effort, but it will pale compared to the near-pornographic interest in his personal drama.
At the time Boorstin's reflections on fame appeared, the poet Randall Jarrell was also musing about the subject:
"If Time, Life and the television shows are full of Tom Fool this month, he's no fool. And when he has been gone from them a while, we do not think him a fool--we do not think of him at all. He not longer exists, in the full sense of the word 'exist:' to be is to be perceived, to be a part of the medium of our perception. Our celebrities are not kings, romantic in exile, but Representatives who, defeated, are forgotten; they had always only the qualities we delegated to them."
Charlie Sheen's 15 minutes are almost up, but the sadness will linger on.
Update: From the inscrutable Orient comes word that the Chinese OpEd about Charlie Sheen was "a spoof," with the writer explaining, "Chinese people like a good laugh as much as anyone else."
Yeah, as I remember. Chairman Mao had us in stitches for years.