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Belmont Club

Fame

September 25th, 2012 - 1:03 pm

By the 1990s he was world famous. PJ O’Rourke traveling through China saw his likeness everywhere:

Omnipresent amid all the frenzy of Shanghai is that famous portrait, that modern icon. The faintly smiling, bland, yet somehow threatening visage appears in brilliant hues on placards and posters, and is painted huge on the sides of buildings. Some call him a genius. Others blame him for the deaths of millions. There are those who say his military reputation is inflated, yet he conquered the mainland in short order.

See if you can guess the identity of this man. A panel of distinguished guests had difficulty doing so in 1963.

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Yes, it’s Colonel Harland Sanders. The irony is that over the long haul the celebrities of “What’s My Line” proved to be less famous than their unknown guest. Perhaps that should not surprise us. A New England food writer believed that most of us will remember childhood restaurants long after we’ve forgotten the musical idols of our youth.

While peers of mine in the 1970s were mourning the deaths of rock icons Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, I focused my respects on the passing of restaurants like Angelo’s in Arlington, MA, and Jack and Marions deli in Brookline, MA. A great pizza and corn beef sandwich rang more true than an amplified guitar riff, I thought.

Restaurants leave us all the time. You thought that special place would last forever because no one would ever close a place so near and dear to your heart. Then you see that “For Sale” sign one day and your childhood temporarily goes right down the drain. You think, “How could they close this place when I liked it so much? Why didn’t they contact me first before closing?”

The idiosyncrasies of human memory have long puzzled the people who live long enough to compare the actual with the remembered. A Yahoo forum asks, “Why does history remember Joseph Stalin as a hero instead of a cold blooded murderer like Hitler?” The most popular answer was ‘what who knows what history remembers?’

“History” is a big, rather abstract concept. I’m not sure that it’s possible to say how “history” remembers Stalin.

But it is possible to say how a given cultural elite think history will remember something. In general they believe history will recall things just the way they wrote it.  They believe that they write Fame; that they write History.

The prospect of their success is another matter.The mainstream media of the pre-literate age attempted to memorialize rulers by creating vast monuments and statuary to them. Yet in many cases, as described in the famous poem ‘Ozymandias’, the monument itself was forgotten and those to whom it referred were lost to memory.

Of even greater interest is the phenomenon of figures who became famous in despite of their persecution of the cultural elites of the day.  The people who became famous even though none of the cultural gatekeepers of the day thought them important. The most famous instance is perhaps Jesus of Nazareth.  Doubts over the historicity of Jesus are old hat in intellectual circles. How could He have existed? Nobody who was famous invited Him to a cocktail party.

He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.

In other words, nobody in the New York Times of the day sought to feature him in the lifestyle section. And worse, the earliest written accounts of His life were set down a generation after Calvary. No wonder Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is the ” winner of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s ‘Awards in the Visual Arts’ competition, which was sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects”.

It may come as a surprise to many that Mohammed (or as the President puts it, The Prophet Mohammed) is in much the same or worse case. As Daniel Pipes notes:

In a well-known and oft-repeated statement, the French scholar Ernest Renan wrote in 1851 that, unlike the other founders of major religions, the Prophet Muhammad “was born in the full light of history.”

Indeed, look up Muhammad in any reference book and the outlines of his life are confidently on display: birth in CE 570 in Mecca, career as a successful merchant, first revelation in 610, flight to Medina in 622, triumphant return to Mecca in 630, death in 632.

Better yet, read the 610-page standard account of Muhammad’s life in English, by W. Montgomery Watt, and find a richly detailed biography.

There are, however, two major problems with this standard biography, as explained in a fascinating new study, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books).

First, the massive documentation about Muhammad derives in every instance from Arabic written sources – biographies, collections of the prophet’s sayings and doings, and so on – the earliest of which date from a century and a half after his death.

Not only does this long lapse of time cast doubt on their accuracy, but internal evidence strongly suggests the Arabic sources were composed in the context of intense partisan quarrels over the prophet’s life.

To draw an American analogy: It’s as though the first accounts of the US Constitutional Convention of 1787 were only recently written down, and this in the context of polemical debates over interpretation of the Constitution. …

Startling conclusions follow from this. The Arab tribesmen who conquered great swathes of territory in the seventh century were not Muslims, perhaps they were pagans. The Koran is a not “a product of Muhammad or even of Arabia,” but a collection of earlier Judeo-Christian liturgical materials stitched together to meet the needs of a later age.

Most broadly, “there was no Islam as we know it” until two or three hundred years after the traditional version has it (more like CE 830 than 630); it developed not in the distant deserts of Arabia but through the interaction of Arab conquerors and their more civilized subject peoples. A few scholars go even further, doubting even the existence of Muhammad.

However that may be, no one can deny the fact that Mohammed is famous today, whether he existed or not. But is it not more precise to say that the fame of Mohammed that is famous and that is all that counts? Of Mohammed himself, what can we say? Like Colonel Harland Sanders, who is now deceased, our memory of the actual man comes from the iconography he left behind. Few if any alive today remember Harland Sanders. The “Colonel” Sanders of the white suit and string tie was his public persona. What most remember is the fame of his fame.

Harland Sanders

Maybe that goes double for Mohammed. If what we remember of Sanders is the logo floating above every one of his chicken restaurants or the likeness printed on the boxes of the food they sell, what do people really know about Mohammed?  Well enough for the President to say before the UN General Assembly today that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

W.H. Auden pondered over the mystery of fame when WB Yeats died. Why are some famous and not others. He might have added, “for how long”?

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

But even Auden could mistaken. Who pray tell, is Paul Claudel? About the most that can be said is that History will remember who it will; that by some strange process, only those who resonate over time, who act as a lens that concentrate the eternal fears and hopes of Man will persist. And not because they are ‘remembered’ — perhaps we actually remember nothing — but because they are somehow ever-present, like a shorthand for something that never dies. Maybe Christ, like Mohammed, is the name we give to a presence, a spirit, a condition that never leaves us until we decide to shift our paradigms.

When a civilization ‘forgets’ Christ or ‘abandons’ Mohammed, it is not history which has been retroactively extinguished.  Rather it is the civilization itself closing the door on its correlative.  It is shutting a chamber in its own inner spaces and opening another perhaps darker room. Perhaps the most important question for historians to ask is not ‘who do we choose to remember’ as much as ‘what do we choose to forget?’

If so, Harland Sanders will have as great a posterity as anyone. Since eating will not go out of fashion any time soon ,”finger lickin good” will have at least as much staying power as the slogan Hope and Change.


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