Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us … (Ecclesiasticus 44:1)
“Are you a distinguished person?” I ask my friend in a text message. “Very,” he replies, prompter than usual. “How did you become distinguished?” I ask, not giving up on my research. “I made an application,” he says.
My question to him wasn’t a joke. It came on the heels of a discussion I’d just had at home. My husband, an academic, had been looking for an appropriate title for the lectures he wanted to organise in his department. I’d offered my suggestions, some of which had been taken, but there was one word that I kept protesting against. “Distinguished” — “Distinguished Lecture Series”.
“Why do you need to call something or someone distinguished?” I asked.
His answer was simple: “Otherwise people wouldn’t know that it is”.
“Let people decide whether it is distinguished or not …” I gave up after some time.
“Distinguished” is only one of the many words that belong to the genre of image-building in the world of arts and letters. To many of us it might seem like putting the cart before the horse, for a word like that is meant to force obedience — we’ve been told that it is distinguished, and there is no space allowed for disagreement. This is how consensus is built, but, more importantly, this is how fake news is created. The whisper network has the butterfly effect, but the whisper begins from one person. Quite often, particularly in our times, the whisper about greatness begins from the person whose greatness is about to be proclaimed.
The mode of operation is similar to that of a ponzi scheme (I’m also thinking of the stunt that entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes was able to pull off for years). Like the non-existent company that investors trust their money with, adjectives are conjured to create reputations. It is, of course, a scam. But we are its willing collaborators. One only needs to look at the bios of writers and academics to see its operation. People calling themselves “eminent” in their bios is a sad commentary on the culture of self-advertisement that is necessary for survival, or “eminence”.
“Prestigious” is a word used for forums, but now, like a transferred epithet, also for people. Since it is hard to call oneself a prestigious person, particularly because the sophisticated society I am talking about wouldn’t ever be caught saying “Pata hai mera baap kaun hai?”, we call our endorsers prestigious. This is our way of endorsing those who endorse us, so that their endorsement of us is magnified.
“Famous”, “great”, “well-known”, “eminent”, “excellence”, “esteemed”, “legendary”, “magisterial”, “much-travelled”, “award-winning” — these are some of the stocks; there are the other more common ones: brilliant, unique, original, and, increasingly, “a classic”. This is the moment when I, in spite of my unease with such dictums, think of the MFA instructor’s phrase: “Arrey baba, show, don’t tell”. King, Emperor, Raja, Sultan, Ustad, Pandit, Gurudev — these were once the words designating a special status. In our new economy, the markers of fame have moved from nouns to adjectives. Once upon a time, one could be just a noun: “Professor”. That isn’t enough anymore. The adjectives must be worn like an army man wears their decorations.
There’s a bullying economy in those adjectives, and the sound of the siren that announces the arrival of automobiles with red lights, not very different from Bond’s use of the proper noun: the name is Bond, James Bond. The self-advertisement and self-congratulatory manner have been forced on us. A couple of weeks ago, while looking up a book online, I found an anthologist’s bio that made me pause to check whether I had read it right: They had been called “the most respected anthologist in the country”. Surely there had been a competition among anthologists whose news hadn’t reached me.
There’s a tragicomedy happening in our culture. We are praising ourselves because no one else is praising us. This is only part of the DIY culture that is essential for survival now. We are frantically arranging adjectives like one assembling a piece of IKEA furniture — the result must be as functional. That is the status of fame in our culture — its necessary functionality translating into axiom, like the United States of America calling itself the “greatest country in the world”. First self-belief, in these words, only then will the world outside us believe us.
When I wrote about what we call “literary” as being Brahminical (‘Read, without the sacred thread’, IE, December 19, 2020), there was a sense of anger in a certain group of people. Needless to say, they had been beneficiaries of how the “system” operates. Like the surname that indicates our caste, the words that announce or trail our names are like our surnames — perhaps this explains why Indians, when using the English language, have often conflated “title” and “surname”. Some of these new surnames are names and surnames of other people, often dead: Nobel, Fulbright, Charles Wallace, Windham-Campbell; or Booker and Chevening; or Oxford, Harvard, Rome; or New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, and so on. As if all of this weren’t enough, we also have those who claim Adam-like status: “was the first to be awarded the (some award or fellowship) …” and places which advertise themselves as “one of the greatest institutions in India”.
One must find fame somehow, and the easiest way to do so seems to be contagion: To be touched by the famous, their versions of gurukul, their gharana, their endorsements, deriving pedigree from them like people once used to by virtue of birth and the wealth of connections that brought. As I see the fame toolkit in operation everywhere, I sometimes think of Mark Antony’s words in Julius Caesar, and how he might have substituted “honourable” with famous today: “And… is a famous man”.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2022 under the title ‘The DIY fame toolkit’. Roy is a poet and author