Bailey Kadian: What will we do for fame?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 5:53pm

In one of the greatest works of Old English literature, “Beowulf,” there is a scene in which Beowulf heroically defeats the monster Grendel and is told, “You have won renown: you are known to all men far and near, now and forever.” This is an extraordinary sort of fame, one that will live beyond Beowulf’s lifetime. From ancient texts to beloved stories to our modern realities, our desire for fame appears. Beowulf is the archetypal hero — and his never-ending fame serves as the reward for his act of defeat.

To be remembered is our inherent desire. We hope our identity will stretch far beyond our short-lived existence. It’s intriguing how enthralled we are by the idea of doing something to be remembered. It’s complicated in that much of what we do for our earned recognition is fundamentally good. Why we do it is harder to understand. Some claim their fame came as a surprise, for their efforts towards their campaign, their organization, their business or their movement were totally directed towards a specific purpose. It wasn’t for personal recognition — their fame just came as a byproduct. Others were passionate about the potential of earning fame and therefore used some other platform to go about attaining it.

In leading a movement of some sort, does the glory rest in the original intent? Or perhaps if we traced the root of the movement, would we find a desire for esteem at its core? If the overarching goal is fame, the initial motive or passion loses its significance.

Let’s consider a singer writing her own music. Music starts as a passion, in hopes to reach audiences that can relate to her lyrics and experiences. Maybe after enough years in the spotlight, the artist is encouraged to shift her priorities. Now that she has overwhelming fame, everything suddenly feels different. What once was a genuine interest has now become one strand of a larger image; an image revolving around the person, not the passion.

If I lead a movement to provide clean water for people in impoverished countries who cannot access it, and I gain publicity for my efforts, I imagine much of the lasting impact would be about myself, and not entirely about the act that earned the recognition. The idea we once pursued, a generous act of public service, becomes the thing we must pursue for us. For the fame. For being known. And of course, for that fame to surpass our lifetime.

There is a plaque hanging up on the wall at my high school. My sister’s name is on it. She won some award during her senior year. I can’t remember what the award was called, or even why she specifically won it, other than the fact that she was one of the most talented people who ever joined our school’s drama department, and the award recognized that accomplishment. I remember noting the significance of the plaque, and how it would last for years beyond her time there. Why is that worth more? There was something distinctly valuable about her name being planted on the wall. It was a name that would be known and seen by those passing through the hallways for years following her time there.

We often assume that acquiring fame will make our circumstances better. Or maybe it just reminds us that we have indeed “made it,” in life, because our efforts have been noted by many people, thus making them worth something.

What does this desire for fame say about our intentions? In an age where you can be “exposed” on social media, or publically hated, there is more risk to acquiring fame. In becoming a “known name,” there is great potential for immense criticism, almost to an inhumane degree. If you make one wrong move, it can stain your name. It is permanent — marked with the stamp of impossible removal, for that one mistake is just a Google search away, locked in the histories of our devices that never forget. Our eternal glory may last, but it rests in the hands of all of us, with our widespread ability to make whatever we want known to the world. Our use of technology has bridged the gap between those in the public spotlight and those who simply observe the figures illuminated by the light.

Now, more than ever, we have the ability to be remembered. But it does not promise a favorable result. If anything, there is more risk, more publicity and more knowledge about oneself that can circulate all over this universe. Your name may very well be known, possibly resulting in a lasting legacy, or likely, leaving the remnants of its antithesis — a tainted identity “known to all men far and near, now and forever.”