The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield came out in 1993. I first heard of the novel when people began asking me if I had written it. My wife bought us a copy, but neither of us really got through it. I found the style flat and the content not my sort of thing—bits of Carl Jung in a sort of New Age Jell-O. As the book climbed to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there, I found myself telling people that I would cheerfully have written a book that bad if I could sell that many copies, but that “bad” is evidently not a sufficient condition. I told our twelve-year-old son that we should write a sequel entitled: The Cellophane Prophecy, or The Nine Insults: How to Survive Seventh Grade. Maybe we could sell a few copies too.
Now, gentle reader, please pause and reconsider that last paragraph: the tone is unpleasant, is it not? George Bernard Shaw said you can say anything if you get the tone right, and the whole difficulty of writing this account has been a struggle with tone. In the previous paragraph this has taken the form of a struggle with envy. Most academics, and most authors I assume, have a more-or-less secret dream of writing a bestseller. We tell ourselves that we would like the money—and we would—but what we really crave is the recognition. We want our work, in all its craggy peculiarity, to elicit the respect, the passionate admiration, the love, of millions of people. And this secret dream feels to us so disreputable, so infantile, so desperate, that we protect ourselves against it by assuring ourselves that of course our work is too good to be popular. Then most of us—at least those of us raised in the great tradition of American populism—become ashamed of this defense, and in turn defend against it by an ironic confession of the very grandiosity against which the whole structure is a defense. Hence clever remarks like mine about “sufficient condition.”
Envy surfaces, nevertheless, every time someone actually does score. The last time this happened in my immediate proximity was with The Closing of the American Mind. I had known Allan Bloom since we were in college, and when that book was published in 1987 he and I were colleagues in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. When it came out I noted with pleasure that Allan had written another book; it did not occur to me that he had produced a bombshell. But he had, and he enjoyed the experience quite a lot; in fact, I think the best thing about that book was the pleasure it gave Allan. Since, as Saul Bellow said at his funeral, “Allan’s idea of what to do with money was to throw it off the end of a train,” the book produced a lot of pleasure in his vicinity as well. Among Allan’s colleagues, however, the main response was envy. Why him? people wanted to know. He is brilliant of course, but I’m brilliant too! In fact he’s not that brilliant, he got a lot of these ideas from other people (subtext: unlike me). He does not deserve this (subtext: also unlike me). Fortunately, Allan did not care much about being liked; he wanted to be loved or, failing that, feared. He took envy and spite as the compliments they are.
The Closing of the American Mind, furthermore, is a very different animal from The Celestine Prophecy. Allan’s book was written as the manifesto of one faction in the culture wars of that time, a faction within which Allan had long been a force to be reckoned with. Everyone involved with it expected it to sell quite a few copies, although I think everyone was astonished that it did as well as it did. The Celestine Prophecy, on the other hand, was self-published because the publishers turned it down. Only after its author had already sold thousands of copies out of the trunk of his car did Time Warner take it up and sell a great many more. No one had ever heard of the author until he burst upon the scene. The book thus fulfilled every author’s dream in its most infantile form: They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but stopped when I started to play! As soon as my work gets out everybody will pay attention to me! Maybe nobody believes in me, but I have only to believe in myself! I can be great too.
That was the beginning of the story I have to tell: someone with my name had achieved one of my infantile wishes. The first thing I learned was that the wish, while ineradicable, was infantile and unlikely ever to be realized for me personally. This other James Redfield thus became for me a “shadow” (to use the Jungian term), the embodiment of an unrealized and to a degree unacknowledged aspect of the self. His was the road not taken.
I am not famous, but I am known. I have published quite a few articles and two books. The first edition of my book Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector sold about six thousand copies, which is about 0.2 percent of the sales of The Celestine Prophecy, but is considered an excellent result for a scholarly book. It has been translated into three European languages, and was reissued by Duke University Press with an additional chapter. (You are encouraged to buy a copy.) This book brought me an international reputation in my field, so that I am listed in a number of the basic biographical sources. Because this other James Redfield, although famous, was unknown, people often found me instead.
At some point I began to get a certain amount of mail—invitations to take part in book fairs, letters from Germany, Japan and elsewhere asking me for my autograph, fan mail. I came to know what the other James Redfield looked like because I got a picture of him with a request that I sign it. One woman sent him a long letter telling him the difference he had made to her; when I sent my more-or-less standard explanatory reply, with apologies that I had no idea where she could find the James Redfield she was looking for, she responded with an even longer letter saying that I sounded like a nice person and telling me more about her life. I realized that being another James Redfield could become a career in itself.
This fantasy became a reality in March of 1997, when I received a letter from Mikhail Gorbachev. As president of the Scientific Committee of something called the Fondazione Pio Manzù he invited me to come to Rimini in October to a conference on the Daimon of Well-Being; I was to give a talk on Medicine in the 21st Century. It was accompanied by another letter from Giandomenico Picco, the vice president of the Scientific Committee, asking me to receive on live television a medal from the Italian government. These letters came with a box of publications in full color with many photographs of previous conferences organized by the Fondazione Manzù, featuring Gorbachev, George Bush and Princess Diana. I observed that their Scientific Committee, very international, included Christiaan Barnard, the first surgeon to successfully perform a human heart transplant; Senator Gary Hart; and both Tofflers, people who like to talk about the future. I was promised a first-class ticket to Rome, air-taxi transport to Rimini, lodging in the Grand Hotel there and good security arrangements. There was a leaflet about the Grand Hotel, and a list of all the people who had been invited to the Daimon of Well-Being, including Hillary Clinton.
This letter was properly addressed to me as the Howard L. Willett Professor, Department of Classics, University of Chicago, and it made no reference to The Celestine Prophecy. Nevertheless it was obviously intended for the other James Redfield. In my irritation at receiving yet one more piece of mail intended for my shadow, I accepted.
And here is the place where it is hardest to get the tone right: my most discreditable feeling up to this point had been envy; now I acted out my envy, and about that I feel a certain amount of shame. These people in Rimini had written me in all innocence—and, as you are to hear, gentle reader, they turned out to be so nice to me and to my wife—that it hardly seems to my credit to have proceeded in this manner. It is in fact difficult for me to resist launching yet another defense, introducing at this point many considerations in justification. But neither explanation nor apology would set the right tone at this point. Perhaps the simplest thing to say is this: the rest of the story happened as a result of this act of mine, and whatever you think of my behavior, you may wish to hear the story to its end.
I determined to play it straight, not to volunteer information but to respond truthfully to whatever questions I was asked. I certainly did not at this point think I was going to Rimini, but I was curious to see how the whole thing would play out. And, truth to tell, I thought there would be some kind of story in it eventually. I answered that I would be glad to come, that I would be at Stanford in October and would therefore have to fly in from there, and asked whether they would prefer me to speak in English or Italian.
My response was acknowledged by Gerardo Filiberto Dasi, the Secretary-General of the Foundation, confirming that arrangements could be made from California and stating a preference for Italian. After some months I received a request for my vita so they could write up the citation for the medal. I assumed that the penny was about to drop. I sent them my vita—the long one, with all the bells and whistles on it—and at my wife’s suggestion I sent them a draft talk (hastily composed in English) for their consideration. The talk was on “the body and soul” and asserted that in order to reorder our conception of welfare for the next millennium we should repair the split made between body and soul by classic Greek philosophy and move back to the more archaic conception of the person found in Homer.
I received an immediate reply from Prof. Dasi, saying that the vita was indeed an impressive document and that the talk looked excellent: both were being referred to the appropriate departments. I was puzzled. Could they have failed to notice that The Celestine Prophecy appeared nowhere on the vita? Possibly they were so embarrassed by their error that they had determined to carry it off. Possibly the people who had originally selected James Redfield were different from the people who were now writing to me, so that the mistake had not been, and perhaps never would be, realized. Possibly (my vanity hoped) they had decided, on reading my vita, that I might make some contribution in my own right. Receiving their communications was a kind of black-box experience, a feeling about in the dark.
The next request from Rimini, some weeks later, was for a photograph for their publications. I tried to get the university news office to send them one, but I’m not sure if I succeeded. Perhaps I did not try as hard as I might have, since I felt that if they published my photograph they would be stuck with me. I was beginning to think that I might somehow end up in Rimini, but I knew I could not accept any invitation without clearing up the question of The Celestine Prophecy. If they didn’t raise it, I was going to have to.
In July, there arrived the draft citation for my approval. Besides noting my academic title, fields of study and “immense knowledge of ancient Greece,” it proclaimed that my book, “The Celestine Prophecy, published in over forty countries, is, in fact, a contemporary bestseller and its success has enabled its author to reach out to a world-wide readership, ushering in a new literary era, with the avowed intent of directly communicating ‘the new perceptions, sensations, and phenomena characterizing life at the dawn of the new millennium.’” The description praised me not just as a storyteller but “first and foremost, as a man of art and culture.” For these and other outstanding merits, I, James Redfield, was to be awarded the medal of the Italian cabinet.
It was time to drop the penny. I immediately sent them by fax (all our correspondence was by fax) a letter stating: “I am not the author of The Celestine Prophecy; it was written by another James Redfield, a distant cousin, I believe. I have never met him, and cannot even tell you how to find him.” As a parting note I added, “It is regrettable that this confusion should have arisen, although it is perhaps in the spirit of those mysterious conjunctions of circumstance of which he writes in his book.”
Within 48 hours I received a reply from Dasi: “I have just received your fax dated 28th July and am deeply dismayed at the terrible blunder we have made, which, I assure you, is unprecedented in our thirty years of activity.”
“As you yourself point out with understandable irony,” he continued, “perhaps it would not be out of place to describe the mishap as one of the quirks of fate or ‘mysterious conjunctions of circumstance’ which The Celestine Prophecy is studded with.” Dasi explained that they had been “misled not only by the obvious case of homonymy, but also by your outstandingly impressive and eclectic curriculum,” which was in itself “more than a sufficient reason for inviting you to participate in the Pio Manzù Congress and receive the medal, as proposed.”
This was unexpected, and provoked a family conference, in the middle of which I received a transatlantic phone call from a charming young woman named Daniela Tamburini from the Conference Secretariat, who in good English restated the letter and added some informal suasion: “By this strange accident, we have found,” she said, “this interesting professor of classics.” I thanked her for her kind words and said I would be in touch. The family thought I should go, and there was some sentiment for accepting the medal, particularly from Claire, my eight-year-old. “You deserve a medal,” she said, “you should have a medal.” My wife Kathy wondered if she could come. I was somewhat apprehensive about going among these strangers, not exactly under false pretenses, but after a process not 100 percent sincere. Certainly if Kathy and I could go together, and it could become an adventure we could share.
After some days I replied as follows:
Dear Professor Dasi:
In the first place, let me say that absolutely no apology is necessary. Such confusions occur; the name actually is not at all common, and it has been odd to share it with the author of a bestseller.
Your last fax—and the very charming phone call which followed it up—came just as I was moving house and embarking on a long car trip with the family to our summer home in Vermont. I apologize for the delay.
My thoughts are as follows: I cannot take the medal. Whether or not I am an appropriate recipient is an issue which in this context simply does not, in my view, arise; what counts is that this kind of stochastic—even if sometimes serendipitous—process is not (in my view) an appropriate process for determining the recipient of a medal. It might be, however, an appropriate process for finding a speaker; I am interested in the theme of your conference, have some thoughts I think relevant to it, and am prepared to come and give a talk.
I understand that this leaves you with an unallocated medal. My suggestion would be that you invite the other James Redfield; he could receive the medal originally intended for him, and could speak, and we could meet each other (for the first time) in Rimini!
One further point: your original message spoke of first-class passage. These are lavish arrangements. My question is this: Would in be possible for you, on the basis of less lavish arrangements, to broaden your invitation so that (if she can disengage herself from other obligations) I could bring my wife, Kathleen Atlass, with me? She has both theoretical and practical qualifications as a psychotherapist, and is also interested in the theme of your conference.
This fax produced another phone call from Daniela, who (I am told) had a moment of panic when my son answered and turned out to be yet another James Redfield. She urged me to take the medal, and we went over the issues. Sometime later Dasi wrote me again, and not only extended an invitation to my wife but also emphasized that the center would be “most honored if you would accept the medal as a token of our esteem and that of the Italian people.”
I observed that the name of the medal had been changed. What really reached me, I think, even though I knew it was a complete formality, was the phrase about the “esteem … of the Italian people.” Since I fell in love with the country at thirteen I have shared with Robert Browning and so many others that strange cardiac complaint: “Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy.’” Here was on offer a trip with my wife to Italy. And, of course, it was a chance to find out what was in that black box. By this time I was feeling some concern for the Manzù people; I determined to do my best to make them look good and feel okay about themselves. Certainly, after the initial mistake, they had done everything right.
I wrote another letter. “After all these efforts on your part,” I wrote, “it would surely be churlish of me refuse a distinction offered with such appreciative warmth. I shall therefore be honored to accept the Medal of the Italian Senate.” I stressed that I was “particularly pleased that you have also invited my namesake, and I hope that we shall finally meet under your kind auspices.” To tidy things up, I explained that for the past twenty years, my work had centered on the Greeks of ancient Italy, in my opinion among the primary makers of our Western tradition—in art and literature, and particularly in politics and philosophy. This work was being pulled together in a book titled The Locrian Maidens, which centers on a study of Epizephyrian Locri, with special reference to the relation there between Orphism and marriage. Signing off, I thanked him again for his grace in coping with “all the complexities this strange chain of circumstances” had drawn us into.
The next thing to do was to arrange some tickets. I called United and ordered two business-class tickets to Milan with a stopover in London. These came to something over eight thousand dollars. When I faxed Rimini a copy of these arrangements I got an embarrassed call from Daniela saying this was more than they could do; they were already bringing me from farther than expected. She really did not have to go on; in fact this call confirmed my growing affection for these people. An organization with budgetary limits turned out to be grounded in the real world after all. Daniela said she could handle five thousand dollars’ worth of transportation. I called my agent in Chicago, and with her customary legerdemain she did the whole itinerary including business class to Milan (economy return) for a little over four thousand. We were all happy.
I also got a revised program, with both James Redfields on it. Hillary Clinton was not coming; Christiaan Barnard would be there, and the centerpiece was to be Deepak Chopra, who was to receive a medal, speak on one of the panels and also give a full-scale evening presentation of his own. Sixteen medals were to be presented at the ceremony on live Italian television, and an additional gold medal was being given one evening to Luciano Pavarotti “for his humanitarian work.” One morning was to be devoted to the question of urban transport: Rimini was in the process of creating a light railway and apparently the mayor wanted to talk about it with a couple of light-railway people from Strasbourg. One evening was given over to a lecture about a triptych by Giuliano da Rimini (a contemporary of Giotto’s). Otherwise the main focus of the conference was health care and entitlements. About 80 percent of the participants were to be Italian—none of them (except Pavarotti) people I had heard of. I got the sense that this was a conversation within the Italian technocratic community, to which certain outsiders had been invited to add diversity, that the outsiders had been chosen primarily for their celebrity, and that our focus (since I had been swept up with the other James Redfield) was to be a New Age take on health. That was as much as I could see so far into the contents of the black box. The new Newsweek, which I brought with me on the plane to Italy, had Deepak Chopra on the cover.
In Milan we were met by the airport’s VIP official, who held us in the VIP lounge until we could be joined by Trump’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, and his wife Deborah Pines. They turned out to be nearly as bemused about being there as we were. Schwartz was listed on the program as “Sociologist” but he described himself as a freelance journalist who had been invited (he thought) because he had written a book on New Age healing—from which, however, he had rather pointedly omitted Deepak Chopra. The four of us were taken by car to an airport on the other side of Milan, where we were joined by Christiaan Barnard, just arrived from South Africa. There the five of us climbed into a jet and were flown to Rimini. There we were met by Giandomenico Picco, a number of unidentified men in black suits who seemed to be the good security arrangements, several newspaper photographers and a remarkable figure who was to haunt us throughout our stay. This was a small well-built man with a video camera that he handled through the mediation of some kind of apparatus keeping it at a distance from his hands, and so cunningly counterbalanced that the camera was insulated from the shocks of his motion—to such a degree, indeed, that the camera appeared to float in the air. He was dressed down (as press people often are), almost in rags; in his extraordinarily graceful motions with this machine and his evident lack of interest in anything else he appeared as a kind of ritual jester or celebrant of some rite—which in this case was evidently the rite of publicity. His camera circled us—or, rather, circled Christiaan Barnard and us with him—as we came across the tarmac. I thought him a figure right out of Fellini.
The association was of course overdetermined. Rimini was Fellini’s town, the town represented in Amarcord, and on the ride to the Grand Hotel Sr. Picco told us that in this hotel Fellini spent the last three years of his life. Very kindly he promised us a copy of the film, and later we had the privilege of viewing the tape in our room in the very hotel in which much of it was shot. At the gala lunch Kathy sat next to one of Fellini’s close friends, who also appears in the movie, and on our walks in town we spotted many of the settings. So our adventure had partly the curious shape imparted to an experience whenever a work of art guides one’s response to its original and source—like seeing Hannibal, Missouri through the eyes of Tom Sawyer.
Altogether we had a great time. We were superbly housed with a view of the ocean and the Piazza Fellini; Tony Schwartz walked around our room and terrace repeatedly saying: “Your room is much nicer than ours.” We saw a good deal of the Chopras. The other James Redfield did not come after all, but appeared twice by satellite hookup on a large video screen. His appearances succeeded in making Chopra by contrast seem profound.
When my turn came I silently received my medal (it turned out to be Of the Italian Cabinet after all) while the Fellini camera dancer circled me. Tony got one too, and said afterward: “Your medal is much larger than mine.” Later I gave my talk. A man called my room to say that he had been attending these conferences for thirteen years, and that over all that time my talk was the most entertaining, and the most penetrating. On the strength of this encomium we invited him to dine with us. He turned out to be the translator for the Foundation and thus the actual author of the letters quoted above. According to himself, he was also the first to suspect that I might be the wrong James Redfield. We liked him quite a lot.
We got to meet Daniela, who was even more charming in person, and Prof. Dasi, who turned out to be a small excitable man of great energy—the life and soul of the party. Although no one would take me for a native speaker, my Italian is reasonable, and I was therefore more able than some of the outsiders to meet the Italians—including Dasi, who had no English and entertained the Chopras through a translator. At the gala lunch I sat next to the prefect of Rimini, who told me about its police problems; it is a city of 130,000, which in August grows to a million. The Albanians are the worst, he said. The Russians are not so bad, they only come to shop. After he left the table, I found myself talking to my next neighbor over, who had not been on the advance program anywhere: Ilya Prigogine, the Russian-born, Belgian-reared Nobel laureate in chemistry who was a leading figure in chaos theory. We had a long and lively conversation accompanied by a good quantity of white wine; finally he said: “You obviously have a sound foundation in physics; I’m going to send you my book!” The lunch lasted about three hours in all; I think I was one of the few who ate all six courses. Afterward Tony said, “You had a much better time at lunch than I did.”
Talking with Prigogine was my favorite moment of the conference, not so much because of the entirely unmerited endorsement (he did send me his book; I understood about half of it) but because this conversation felt, how shall I say, real. He had never heard of me but he had never heard of the other James Redfield either; he knew the University of Chicago well and tended to think that anyone from there might be worth talking to and would just as likely have a sound foundation in physics. It gave me a break from being the other James Redfield.
As for the contents of the black box: in Italy it usually turns out when you get a black box open it has another black box inside it. We did make some inquiries and learned that Pio Manzù was the son of the sculptor Giacomo Manzù, and that he set up this foundation for general humanistic purposes. At some point in the late Seventies, Giulio Andreotti got involved in its affairs—the same Giulio Andreotti who was several times prime minister of Italy, and who was put on trial for his connections to the mafia. At that time the concerns of the Fondazione Manzù shifted over to various geopolitical issues, and its resources were supposedly augmented by a certain amount of Middle Eastern oil money. Then the oil money disappeared, and the foundation was not feeling so opulent—nor without hopes, I suspect, for its return.
While the media star of the conference was Deepak Chopra (he got a whole page in the culture section of the Corriere della Sera), the guest of honor for internal purposes was a Saudi prince, who was introduced as the backer of the first Planet Hollywood in Italy, and who apparently had promised that if the one in Rome worked out the second one would be in Rimini. There were several other Saudis; I had lunch with one of them, one of twelve brothers, he told me, evidently every one of them extremely rich.
The Fondazione Pio Manzù existed, as far as I could tell, to hold its annual conference in the Grand Hotel, Rimini, and to produce a few publications as a result. Dasi seemed to be the whole thing; I was unable to determine how much the Executive Committee, the Scientific Committee and the Programme Planning Committee actually functioned, or how much was actually determined by the Annual General Meeting, but it was hard to imagine anything happening at these conferences of which Dasi actively disapproved. At the same time, the health-care theme was one of great importance to the Italian nation; they would not be able to join the euro if they did not get their entitlements under control, and the Italian people had made it clear that they were sick to death of the lira and would pay a substantial price to join up with a European currency. The question was: Exactly what will this price be, and who will pay it? From this point of view the function of the conference seemed obvious: it brought together some of the Italians who were going to have to make these hard decisions and got them talking to each other. The function, then, of the celebrities—Deepak Chopra and Ilya Prigogine and James Redfield and Luciano Pavarotti (who only came in for a couple of hours)—was to liven things up for the participants, attract a little media attention and possibly add a word or two to a conversation which could do quite well without them. We were the frosting.
On the other hand, at certain moments I could not help suspecting that media attention was the actual cake, that the choice of a serious theme was essentially a screen behind which the organizers could shelter while enabling their own network of supporters to enjoy themselves, do favors and be photographed with people whose photographs would be widely reproduced. The Andreotti connection, after all—especially in conjunction with oil money—gave me reason to think there might be something more going on. How did it happen that the Fondazione Manzù gave medals in the name of the Italian government? Why was it a consultative body to the United Nations? What were the relations here between politics, social issues and culture—not the abstract issues but the concrete relations in terms of specific personalities, power and interest and favors done? These, after all, are the true Italian questions, and have been since Cicero taught (in the De Amicitia) that the principle of friendship is utility. At Rimini, if these questions had any interesting answers we never found them.
The tone here, gentle reader, is one of slightly paranoid insecurity, and it is, I hope, that last discreditable feeling I shall have to confess today. I was in Rimini as a thoroughly marginal person—however fine a speaker, however deserving of my medal, I would surely never have been invited to this conference in my own right, and in that sense had no right to be there—and the marginalized are prone to conspiracy theories. Furthermore, the Italian insistence on figura, on keeping up a good front no matter what, provokes suspicion about what after all is behind the façade. I was involved in something and I didn’t really know what; I literally had no idea what I was doing there, because I couldn’t quite figure out what was really being done.
I came to realize that being in this company evoked in me a latent desire to be a celebrity, which is indeed an aspect of my shadow. I passed up my chance in the late Sixties, when the University of Chicago experienced the longest student sit-in in the history of the United States. I was during those years the youngest among the core group organizing the university’s resistance—I would rather say, organizing on behalf of orderly debate—and I suppose I was one of the more articulate; in any case I was regularly suggested by my colleagues to the media as someone to debate these issues on television and elsewhere. I refused all such invitations, partly out of shyness, partly from the sense that I would get little joy from being typed as a defender of the status quo (even though I was one), partly because of my stereotypical belief that nothing intelligent is ever said on television. It seemed to me peculiarly appropriate that the other James Redfield was appearing at this conference only on television. I decided to begin my talk with that point.
We had a great time in Rimini. We liked the people, the talks I heard were interesting, and that was quite enough. I was glad to take the medal home and show it around; Claire took it to show-and-tell. With the guilty feeling that these were somehow stolen pleasures, I looked about for some way to make myself useful.
I was on the “New Age” panel—I was naturally paired with the other James Redfield since I had come there as his avatar—and so I decided to play the part of his shadow. He promised the future; I was going to assert the past, and that the idea of the future has a history. The Future, after all, is not just the next necessary thing but what the French call an au-delà, another world; like the next world or outer space or the mythical past it is the home of our dreams, fantasies and projections. I decided to say something about this. I had brought my talk with me about two-thirds done and in the light of what I was now hearing I revised and finished it up on the terrace overlooking the sea. I wanted to see if in my own small pedantic voice I could make a contribution.
The gist of my argument was to reconsider what Plato (or, to be more precise, Plato’s Socrates in the Republic) called “the ancient argument between poetry and philosophy.” It is odd that he called it “ancient” since in his day it must have been quite new, which is to say, modern. In the fourth century BCE, toward the close of the period we call “classic,” philosophy and her sisters the sciences were the “New Age” developments, novel ways of thinking that promised an end to delusion and disappointment, a future freed from the accumulated errors of a confused and desperate present. In those times, poetry and myth were the established ways of thinking; theirs was the prestige and acceptance, and Plato was therefore compelled to join issue with those obstacles in his way, particularly with Homer. Two millennia and a bit later, things have changed; now we are tired of science and bored by philosophy. It is time, then, to return to Homer, more specifically to his concept of the person. My thesis was that in Homer the person, the human animal, was an integrated whole; it took the philosophers, the moderns of the classical period, to divide the person by splitting off body from soul. But we, the moderns of today, begin to see the need to repair this split and recover the unity of the person. We hope to find the original unity in the experience of the conscious person, who functions, and is conscious of that functioning, and of its value. Perhaps it is well to remember that we gave away that integration in exchange for the hope that our souls would live forever. In order to recover the unity of personhood, I claimed, we must again learn to accept our mortality.
Whether the talk made the slightest impact on anyone except the translator I shall never know; I got no real response to the content. I think I might have gotten through better if like Tony Schwartz I had spoken in English and relied on the simultaneous translation. As it was, I did get a number of compliments on my Italian (which I think impressed them like the dog walking on its hind legs). The Italians perhaps need the New Age as their Catholic faith wanes, but they do not need it in a way that makes them eager to think about it. They needed the other James Redfield, not me; he gave them a good feeling, and he helped them score with the media. He was a celebrity, I was not.
But what does make a celebrity? A few are born celebrated: crown princes and septuplets. In democratic politics, in sports and entertainment, people achieve celebrity exactly by succeeding at whatever it is that they do. The difficult cases, which hold such anxious fascination for an academic like myself, are those who have celebrity thrust upon them. Sometimes they are people, like Christiaan Barnard, who manage to do some great thing that captures the imagination of the public. Not all great things capture the imagination of the public, however, and not all things that capture the public imagination are truly great, so that here we begin to explore the difference between success and celebrity. In the field of bestsellers this difference becomes most obvious. Surely it is not a sufficient condition of mega-sales that the book be bad; it is not even a necessary condition. But it is necessary that the book meet some widespread human need.
In our time the greatest number of bestsellers are books that teach something about how to live. Many are explicitly marketed as self-help—obviously the public has a great hunger for instruction in this field. I suspect that what transformed The Closing of the American Mind from an ordinary success to a blockbuster was the fact that it tapped into this market. This is not a matter of being simplistic; Allan’s book is extremely complex. It is a matter of having a message.
When Martin Buber visited the University of Chicago many years ago, he did a number of things; one of them was a small meeting with the local rabbis. One of them, a young man, asked Buber: “Can you tell me something that I could take back to my people that will help them?” Buber looked at him in astonishment. “If I had something like that,” he said, “wouldn’t I be a terrible person if I didn’t tell it to everyone, everywhere?” Buber devoted his life to helping people know how to live, but he didn’t have anything like that; perhaps that is why, for all his influence, he never had a true bestseller. And I have always known that I would never have anything like that—in this particular respect, Allan Bloom may have been more like the other James Redfield than like me. Both had something they were sure was worth telling everybody, everywhere.
So maybe that is what the celebrity issue comes down to for me: those of us who do not know what life is all about are sad about it and envious of those who think they do, envious and defensive against that envy, as we always are with our shadows. It is worth remembering that the shadow is always the carrier of real values, and that if we pay attention to Jung we shall not attempt to expunge it from ourselves but to integrate it. There is good energy in the self-certainty that these true believers bring to their work, and some genuine charity in the effort they put into getting others to see the value of what they know. They can make us academics, who have set up limited circles of evaluation—which we rely on for recognition and which license us to look down on their celebrity—seem rather gray and old.
The Homeric heroes knew that they must die and that death is forever; what can live on is their story. Their poet promises them that their stories will be told forever, and so far this promise has been kept. This is fame; true fame is eternal, and perhaps is the only immortality we mortal cultural creatures can aspire to. Celebrity, by contrast, is ephemeral, the mortality of immortality; it is measured, I suppose, in Warhols (one Warhol = fifteen minutes of notoriety). Even if celebrity lasts quite a long time there is always the question of how long it will last—because it is not founded on anything that we cannot afford to have disappear. If it is founded on anything like that, it becomes fame.
Nor is the aspiration to fame, insofar as it is the aspiration to a good name founded on an irreplaceable reality, at all disreputable; it is only that, in the enormously crowded, noisy world in which we live, real fame seems unthinkably out of reach. Perhaps it is this sad fact that gives us our tense, envious, shamefaced and somewhat paranoid relation with those who achieve celebrity, particularly when their success in this world is founded on their fluency about some other world where their information cannot be checked, the mysterious Past, or Heaven, or the Future. By placing immortality somewhere else they achieve their few Warhol units of significance—and then I suppose are forgotten. But isn’t that better than never being noticed in the first place?
At the end of the conference, I was briefly interviewed for Italian television. They asked me a few questions and then, finally: “How does it feel having a famous name?” “Well,” I said, “I do get some of his mail… and I suppose he gets some of mine. Why don’t you ask him?” I don’t think they used it.
Art credits: Fabrizio Corneli, “Rame e acciaio,” 2023. Copper and stainless steel, LED Dimensions of object 20 × 22 × 24 cm. Dimensions of shadows, approximately 180 × 140 cm. / Fabrizio Corneli, “Atena Lemnia,” 2005. Sandblasted glass sphere, brass, LED, shadows. Dimensions of sphere 10 × 10 × 10 cm. Dimensions of shadows, approximately 200 × 150 cm. Courtesy of the artist