Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
13th November 2010

Celebrity Metaphysics

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One Thousand Malkoviches:

Reflections On the Cultural Phenomenology of Celebrity

An Essay by John David Ebert

(The following piece is an outtake from my book “Dead Celebrities, Living Icons” that did not make the final cut due to space considerations)

(“The Birth of Narcissus” [1976] by Arthur Boyd)

Department Store Monitor

Everyone, by now, has had the following experience: you’re walking through a department store and you round the corner, momentarily caught by surprise at your own image reflected back at you upon the store’s video surveillance monitor. You pause, realizing that you have walked in front of a video camera, and then move on again without giving the matter a second thought. Its very banality has rendered the action insignificant.

However, this phenomenon of bumping into yourself is actually quite strange. In fact, it is something that is only possible in a culture moving at light speed, as ours has been doing since about 1840, the time of the invention of the electric telegraph. This is a very recent phenomenon of human culture, and today we have created the conditions, for the first time in history, in which it is possible to bump into an electric image of oneself on a fairly regular basis. Through digital cameras, computers, DVD players, YouTube and movies, we have been cloning electric duplicates of ourselves for a little over a century. Indeed, since the advent of photography, invented just a decade or so earlier than the telegraph, we have been capable of creating technological facsimiles of ourselves. Photography, though, is not in origin an electrical process, but rather a chemical one. Consequently, to contemplate a still photograph of oneself may also be an unusual phenomenon when set against the backdrop of thousands of years of human cultural evolution, but in the case of photography one is not confronted with a living image of oneself, an image that is capable of talking and acting (apparently) on its own. Or at least, that is the way things seem when one watches oneself on television or on YouTube. Who is that person, anyway?

In such a situation, you are suddenly confronted by the very strangeness of yourself, for by means of electric technology, your own mirror reflection becomes a separate, detached — and highly portable — entity. Hence, an electric doppelganger, the modern incarnation of the detachable shadow of fairy tales, stares back at you from out of the pixilated abysses painted onto the screen of the monitor by flickering showers of linear rows of electrons.

In our society, we live at the speed of light, and so we reproduce ourselves electronically as a routine part of our daily existence. By means of the flow of electric current, we create a separate, but parallel, universe running at right angles to our own physical world, like a gigantic mirror reflecting all of creation. A simulated universe, filled with the electric revenants of human beings which go about their lives apparently completely independent of our own. And without ever exhibiting any signs of ageing, illness or decrepitude.

But what if, for the sake of argument, we were to assume for a moment that the electronically generated shadow of yourself that you passed in the department store monitor really isn’t innocuous? What would happen if we imagined that such a shadow could take on its own life and become more real than you? So real that it began to tyrannize over you, making demands, even insisting that you exit from this world so that it could live in peace without being troubled by the brute factuality of your existence?

Thus, Marilyn Monroe’s electric double contrived to actually push her out of existence altogether, so that it could have her audience all to itself. And Elvis Presley’s phantom twin which replaced the biological one that had died along with his physical birth, would eventually come to stand in place of the real physical Elvis made out of flesh and bone and blood.

Apparently, fame is more hazardous to your health than most people realize.

The Myth of the Doppelganger: Ancient Origins

This phenomenon of the electric image is a new development in the world, barely a century old. And yet, the myth of which it is a technological reconstruction is not new at all.

In fact, the myth of the double is at least as old as Egyptian civilization. According to the texts carved into their tombs, the Egyptians believed that each one of us has a secret, invisible double that follows us around throughout our lives, a double which they termed a ka. This ka was but one of the many components which they saw as making up the architecture of the subtle body, which also included entities such as the ba, the khaibit and the ren. Each of these entities led its own numinous existence, but it was the ka which was thought to embody the visual image, or carbon copy, of one’s self. Representations of the archaic creator deity Khnum show him manufacturing a human being who stands beside a duplicate of himself, his ka, at the time of his birth.


The ka was a sort of genius which followed one around through life, and though it came into being with the birth of one’s physical body, it was thought to survive the death of this body, which became a corpse, or khat, until the mummification process transformed it into a sahu, or a living eternal being. The ka, however, was tied to the sahu as though with an invisible umbilical cord, since it could not leave the immediate vicinity of the dead body. Its function was to hang around the tomb and receive the offerings of food and drink made to it from the deceased’s relatives, for this food and drink were thought to be actually consumed by the ka, which therefore kept the sahu alive. In doing so, this made it possible for the ba to transform itself into a human-headed bird and fly away from the tomb in order to journey to the underworld. In fact, the ba could metamorphose into any shape it desired, and travel anywhere in the cosmos it wished, while the ka remained confined to the immediate vicinity of the tomb.

In the case of the Egyptians, the human being does not ever seem to have been in any danger from its ka, and indeed the phrase “to go to one’s ka” was a euphemism for death. However, it is in Greek mythology — specifically the myth of Narcissus — that we find the first warnings that an individual might come to a bad end at the hands of his own image, for Narcissus fell to his death while pining away for his own reflection in a pool of water. In this myth, the image or double actually becomes stronger than the real human self and demands the sacrifice of that physical self. Since the pool of water in which Narcissus sees himself is essentially a type of mirror — and this moment, therefore, corresponds to that of its celluloid twin when the character Chance, played by Peter Sellers in the movie Being There happens to see himself in a video monitor on display in a store window — the Greeks seem here to have been prescient about the dangers of a technology of Xeroxing the human self along with its concomitant possibility of losing track of the very substantiality of that self in order to feed this mirror image. In the case of the Egyptians, only the dead person’s image, or ka, demanded nourishment: with the Greeks, it is the reflected image of a living person which demands the sacrifice of the physical self which cast that image.

Now of course ancient mythology — especially Native American myth — is replete with stories of twins and their attempts to destroy one another, but it is important to remark here that it is not the phenomenon of twins that I am talking about. Twins embody a dual analogue of cosmic powers which are no more duplicates of each other than are light and darkness, night and day, summer and winter. Twins, that is to say, are asymmetric polarities, not identical images. Narcissus encountered not his twin, but an exact duplicate of himself. The Egyptian ka, likewise, is a double, not a twin. The Roman genius, furthermore, seems to have been an idea similar to that of the Egyptian ka (for the genius is related to one’s own ability to procreate, while the word ka originally meant “bull’s phallus”), and one normally sacrificed to one’s genius on the day of birth (or in the case of women, to the Juno). And, as in Egyptian myth, there is no evidence of one’s genius ever having posed a danger to oneself.

Throughout history, cultures have exhibited a decided ambivalence toward the technology of mirrors. There is, for instance, a Japanese folk tale that is a sort of equivalent to the Greek Narcissus story, in which a man who returns home to his wife and daughter from a business trip to Kyoto opens up a bamboo basket and presents his daughter with a doll and some cakes and his wife with a beautiful mirror. The story says that the woman had never seen a mirror before and that she had the distinct impression of another woman looking back at her as she looked at it. (Hence, that strangeness that I was talking about).

Not long after his return home, the story continues, the woman becomes ill and on her deathbed, gives the mirror to her daughter as a present, telling her that whenever she feels lonely, she must look into the mirror and there she will find the face of her mother staring back at her. The mother then dies and the father remarries a woman whom the daughter dislikes, and so she often goes off into a corner of the house to gaze at her mother’s image in the mirror. The stepmother, assuming that she is practicing some kind of black magic, asks the girl’s father to investigate the matter, but when the father finds out that his daughter is merely gazing lovingly at her mother’s image, he and his new wife rejoice at this act of filial piety and hold the girl up as a model of respect for her elders.

Thus, in Japan, the mythology surrounding mirrors becomes inflected in such a way as to show a positive Japanese attitude toward the Ancestors. Yet we cannot fail to remark that the mother’s death coincided with the introduction of the mirror into the house, whereupon it seems to have stolen her image. The point of the story, then, is the same as that of the Narcissus myth: the reflection survives, while the real physical person, the source of the image, languishes and dies.

Mirrors, in myth and folklore, are often gateways to the realm of the dead. This story clearly shows that the mirror has captured and preserved the spirit of the dead mother, and there is, furthermore, an old European custom of covering all the mirrors in one’s house when someone dies, as though out of a fear of glimpsing the dead ancestor looking back from the beyond. In Chinese mythology, likewise, the god of the dead, Yama, has a huge mirror which he uses to show the spirits of the dead what their future incarnations will look like. According to these traditions, then, mirrors make hidden spirits visible, and this is how mirrors are used in the Russian vampire movie Nightwatch (although this reverses the normal use of mirrors in vampire mythology, since vampires abhor mirrors precisely because they fail to reflect the dead).

Mirrors, then, are traditionally imagined as portals to the realm of the dead, and in a certain sense, we are using our modern electronic mirrors — video cameras, satellites, etc. — to create an electromagnetic sphere surrounding the planet with a bubble of grainy, low-resolution icons of dead celebrities that surround the earth, and which have thus taken the place of the ancient sphere of ghosts and angels which was once thought to encompass the earth.

It is not, however, until the Renaissance that mirrors begin to become dissociated from the realm of the dead and turned around, so to speak, to become objects that not only reflect the world of the living, but do so in a way that is absolutely veridical. Lewis Mumford remarks that improvements in the technology of mirrors during the 16th century went hand in hand with a new introspective interest in the self. The rise of the fashionable use of mirrors to decorate the home — for with the rise of the new sense of perspectival space in the Renaissance, the realm of the dead became completely separated from that of the living — was coterminous with Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Descartes’ discovvery of the ego as the final authority on all matters of truth, Newton’s Opticks and the development of depth perspective in painting. This was an age in which the authority of the eye reigned over all things. In Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas, a mirror occupies the center of the composition in such a way that the vanishing point terminates directly into it (whereas only two centuries earlier, the vanishing point in Leonardo’s Last Supper had terminated in the head of Christ seated at the center of the composition. The object of revelation, that is to say, had by the 17th century shifted from the non-corporeal world of the Spirit to the physical realm of the eye and its optical laws).

Thus, mirrors constituted a new kind of authority in the Age of the Eye, for their reflections could tell no lies. This shift in the ontological status of the mirror from something allied with supernatural powers to an absolute authority on all matters of Truth is reflected in the story of Snow White, in which the wicked witch’s mirror on the wall refuses to mollify her with the lie that she is more beautiful than Snow White. The mirror now seems bound to an oath of truth in this new age of realism.

But in the nineteenth century, all this began to change, for the role of the mirror as incapable of falsification was replaced by the photograph which was, however, capable of lying, since photography was thought to be akin not to Truth but to the delicate arts of weaving light and shadow that had previously been the domain solely of painting since the chiaroscurists. The image could no longer be trusted for a true to life portrait, especially as Euclidean space and depth perspective were breaking up into the funhouse elongations of non-Euclidean geometry and aperspectival painting beginning with Manet and Cezanne. The mirror, as a result, could no longer be trusted as a true reflection of the physical world, and so reverted back to its ancient role as a gateway to a parallel universe, which is precisely how it appears in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which Alice steps into a troubling world of doppelgangers, devils, clowns and tricksters.

Poe and Dostoyevsky: Doubles

This brings us to a pair of stories, doubles of one another, if you will, which lie at the threshold of the new world of electrical society. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story whose doubling title echoes its thematic concerns “William Wilson,” (and which already foreshadows such later doubling phenomena of pop culture as “Marilyn Monroe”) which was published in a magazine in 1839. Poe’s Russian double Dostoyevsky, having read and metabolized Poe’s fiction, produced his doppelganger of Poe’s story, titled simply “The Double,” in 1846. These stories, written at just the time when the first of the great electric inventions, the telegraph, was coming into being, are weirdly prescient of the splintering effects of electric technology upon human life.

Poe’s story is a first person account of a boy named William Wilson who grows up in a rural village outside of London. On the very day that he enters school, another boy arrives bearing the same name and who physically resembles him. William  later finds out that the boy is from the same town and was born on the same day as himself. The two become friends, but also rivals, and Poe furnishes us with an account of their childhood antics. The boy grows up and leaves for Oxford where, however, he becomes a debauch, a drunk and a cheat. One evening at a game of cards in which he has won through cheating, his double shows up and exposes him to the players. Humiliated, William leaves and his double disappears. He flees to the continent, to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Rome, but his double follows him everywhere, always waiting to expose his frauds and lecheries. Finally, at a carnival in Rome, the two confront one another, and William stabs and kills his double. His attention is momentarily diverted by someone trying the door of the antechamber into which they have taken their duel, and when he turns back to perceive his dying double, he thinks for a moment that he is looking into a mirror, for his double’s features are identical to his own in every respect. But then he insists that it was not a mirror, and recounts his double’s dying words, which are also the last sentences of the story: “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward are thou also dead–dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist–and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou has murdered thyself.”

Thus, in Poe’s story,the double has taken on a life of its own and proceeds to undermine and sabotage every action which William Wilson embarks upon. It is important to note that the appearance of the double at the very moment of the first beginnings of electric technology is significant, but it is also important that we note that Wilson’s double is absolutely antagonistic to him. Thus, Poe is prophesying that in the coming days of electric civilization, the image multiplying effect that will become one of the primary attributes of this culture is bad news indeed, for the replication via electric technology of ourselves means trouble for ourselves.

If Poe’s narrator is able–just barely–to overcome his doppelganger and stop him from ruining his life at the last possible moment, in Dostoyevsky’s novella, “The Double,” the protagonist is not so lucky, for his doppelganger ruins his life, utterly. Dostoyevsky’s story is more urban than Poe’s in its concerns, for it is set in St. Petersburg in the middle of the 19th century, a city that was then as cosmopolitan as London or Paris. The story’s protagonist is a man named Golyadkin, a nervous, anxious and very paranoid individual who works in an office where he processes paperwork all day.

After recounting a day of Golyadkin’s life in which he is spurned and humiliated at a party given at his employer’s mansion, a man turns up at the office next day, seated directly across from him, who is an exact physical duplicate of him. He even has the same name and seems to have come from the same town. At first, Golyadkin is hostile to him, but when he discovers that the man is poverty stricken and has no place to stay, offers his home for the night. There, the two get to know each other, carouse, get drunk and fall asleep. When Golyadkin awakens the next morning, his double is gone and when he arrives at the office, he discovers that his double now seems to be insolent. He snaps at Golyadkin’s heels, shows him up at his own job, makes fun of him and in general makes him look ridiculous in the eyes of his coworkers. Gradually, this new Golyadkin replaces and takes over the life of the old Golyadkin (just as the electric image clones of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe took over the lives of their originators). He becomes socially accepted in the very circles in which Golyadkin had tried and failed to become accepted. Golyadkin attempts, on a number of occasions, to discuss the situation with his double, but his double is so flippant that he is unable to get anywhere with him. By the novel’s conclusion, Golyadkin’s double has gotten him fired from his job and has replaced him successfully in every way. In the final scenes, Golyadkin is taken away to an institution, and we begin to realize that we have been inside the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic all along.

Dostoyevsky and Poe, then, are engaged in writing a study of the future, specifically, of the coming cult of the celebrity, for their stories read like dress rehearsals for the biographies of such twentieth century celebrities as Jim Morrison, John Lennon and James Dean, each of whom wrestled with their own public personae, which constantly tried to subvert and overthrow their lives wherever possible. Marilyn Monroe, for instance, when she did the movie Bus Stop, tried to perform an assassination of her own image stereotype; tried, that is, and failed, for she soon found herself back in the same old straight-jacketing roles in Some Like it Hot and The Prince and the Showgirl. But her clone would have none of that and so contrived to have the real flesh and blood Marilyn killed and out of the way so that it could enjoy her spotlight untroubled by the doubts, hesitations and complications of real flesh and blood human beings.

Celebrity Mythology

In a way, Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic film Sunset Boulevard is an updating of the stories of Poe and Dostoyevsky for Cold War America, and serves as an elegant synopsis of the whole myth of the celebrity who is held hostage by his or her own doppelganger.

The story concerns a man named Joe Gillis, a Hollywood screenwriter whose career happens to be in a slump. His B movie screenplays aren’t selling and he is three months behind on rent and car payments. One day, pursued by repo men, he turns up a driveway in order to hide his car at a dilapidated old Hollywood mansion.

After securing his car, he wanders about the property, whereupon he is mistaken for the undertaker whom the mansion’s principal occupant, an ageing movie star from the silent era named Norma Desmond, has summoned to perform the last rites on her pet chimpanzee. Gillis insists that he is a writer, not an undertaker, and he recognizes Norma, who is just about to dismiss him when she hesitates. She suddenly insists that he read her screenplay, an historical epic about Salome which she intends as her comeback to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille with whom she made 12 famous silent films. Gillis reluctantly agrees and finds himself finishing his reading of the screenplay several hours later. He tells her that the screenplay is terrible, but Norma offers to pay him to rewrite it for her. Again, he agrees reluctantly, since he is penniless.

Soon, he finds himself more or less a prisoner to the plush comforts of Desmond’s finances. While working on the screenplay, he becomes a kept man to Norma, who lavishes great wealth upon him. But soon he falls in love with another, younger woman, a budding screenwriter herself, with whom he begins a collaborative and romantic affair, in hopes of jump-starting his career. When Norma discovers this rival to her affections she become distraught, buys a gun and threatens to commit suicide. When the other woman shows up at the mansion in an attempt to rescue Gillis, he tells her to go away, that he is caught and will not return to being poor. The girl leaves, but then when he begins hurriedly to pack his things, Norma shoots him as he is on his way out the door. He plunges into the swimming pool, like Narcissus, and dies.

In the film’s famous concluding scene, Norma descends the staircase of her mansion to greet the cameras of the press for her last and greatest role as murderess. Once again, the cameras are upon her and her second coming is at hand.

Norma Desmond is the prototype of the  mega-celebrity whose fame is based upon the creation of an electrically replicated image of herself. The image was, in its time, so powerful that it has actually taken her hostage and now holds her mind captive, frozen in a 1920s timewarp. Her house is surrounded by shrines which she has erected as devotional relics to her own image. Photographs of her multiple selves crowd one another upon dusty tables lit by oily candles. She has even built a movie theater inside her house at which she only shows movies starring herself. For Gillis’s amusement, she performs scenes from her own movies. Norma has created her own religion with her electric persona cast in the role of primary divinity. Since her 1920s doppelganger has taken her mentally hostage, she has taken Joe Gillis as her hostage, and attempts, unconsciously, to transfer her plight onto him. And Joe, the willing victim, submits to this fate, allowing himself to be cocooned by threads made out of Norma’s own moth-eaten images of herself.

Such is the fate of the fan who is captured by his adoration of a celebrity whose image becomes so overwhelmingly suffocating that the fan then takes it upon himself to kill the celebrity in order to take back his own life. When Valerie Solanas was asked why she attempted to gun down Andy Warhol, she said it was because “he had too much control over my life.” Likewise, when Mark David Chapman was asked why he shot and killed John Lennon, he said it was because he, Chapman, “was a nobody who wanted to be somebody.” In the case of Sunset Boulevard, the typical situation is reversed, for it is the celebrity who shoots and kills her “fan,” although the point is still the same: Gillis had been taken captive by the Muse of Old Hollywood and he would never again regain control of his own life. In order to do so, he would have had to kill Norma himself, but Gillis was not the type. Sunset Boulevard throws a metaphoric light upon the agony of the psychologially unstable fan who becomes a “kept man” to the celebrity he idolizes. And furthermore, it gives us, I think, an accurate portrait of the domineering ego of the celebrity whose self-importance looms so large as to become a virtual religion unto itself. The celebrity who casts herself in the role of an icon at the center of her own bhakti cult of devotional worship should not be too suprised, then, by the type of fate she karmically attracts, since it is the typical fate of gods and avatars to be assassinated.

Sunset Boulevard, then, which appears in 1950, announces in seed form the whole great drama of the Cold War cult of the mega-celebrity that was then about to unfold, beginning with the car crash of James Dean, which would take place just five years after the film’s release. Twelve years after its first showing, Marilyn Monroe — who, had she lived, just might have ended by becoming Norma Desmond — would be dead of a drug overdose (recall Norma’s suicidal attempts to free herself from captivity by her own persona). And 47 years later, the entire epoch will come to an end just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the occurrence of another great car crash: that of Diana, princess of Wales. Thus, from the Little Prince to the Welsh Princess, the Age of the Multimedia Celebrity will rise, flourish, crash and collapse into ruins, where it has lain ever since.

And so, that innocuous little image of yourself that you bumped into in the department store video monitor may not have been so harmless after all, for under the right conditions, you see, it can grow to become a demon seed which, if brought to fruition, contains the potential to wreck your life.

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  1. 1 On December 5th, 2010, Jesse N said:

    Hey Mr. Ebert,
    I really enjoy these meditations spanning an array of references, mediums and topics into a main theme. I remember as a child making wild gesticulations and faces watching the image move in the mirror and thought it was so strange, it didn’t seem like it was me…and it wasn’t! The commentary on mirrors used in film made me think of The Matrix, which uses Alice in Wonderland as a pivotal reference throughout the movie. The scene where Neo is being ejected from the Matrix by touching the mirror is his venture down the rabbit hole, and on to his adventure. This scene is also a type of Narcissus mirror where upon touching his reflection his body is enveloped and destroyed by that image. It’s a neat spin on the myth because this destruction is not of his physical body but of his electronic being in the Matrix. This type of destruction of perceived reality is what I also enjoyed about Las Meninas. I never focused too much on the mirror in the center of the piece and its significance. Thanks for getting my mental gears spinning!

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