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Jul. 24 2010 - 10:37 pm | 186 views | 0 recommendations | 19 comments

Mystery Versus Celebrity

Greta Garbo.

Greta Garbo. Image via Wikipedia

I liked this piece in The New York Times, on the loss of mystery that is the concomitant cost of 24/7 visibility:

Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st century. I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona. And it’s not just because she was the product of an ancient Hollywood studio system that insisted on keeping its stars fixed in a distant firmament. (A photographic publicity image from the 1920s grafted Garbo’s head, I swear, onto the body of a sphinx.)

Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that Garbo sustained so well. Everyone who possesses a cellphone now is a potential member of the paparazzi. Let a latter-day Garbo poke her head into a cheese shop, or slip out to pick up a toothbrush at the drugstore, and you can bet her image will be all over the Internet in a matter of minutes.

The romance of people discussing their Garbo sightings in hushed voices, as if they had seen a ghost or an indigo bunting out of season, would be replaced by the diminishing boasting of trophy hunters comparing shots. Disgruntled friends of Garbo’s, whom she’d stuck with the check perhaps or cut out of her life, would start anonymously posting unflattering tidbits on the Web about the size of her feet and her infantile sense of humor.

“Oh, her again,” you’d say, when her face popped up on Gawker or TMZ.com. And were the divine Greta (oh, perish the thought) reduced to posting desperately, “I vant to be alone,” we would all snicker in knowing contempt. “Yeah,” we’d snarl, “you and Lindsay Lohan, baby.”

The world, you see, no longer has any tolerance for — let alone fascination with — people who aren’t willing to publicize themselves. Figures swathed in shadows are démodé in a culture in which the watchword is transparency.

The current obsession with “knowing” a lot about total strangers — (the utility is…?) — strikes me as bizarre. I have been ordered, albeit nicely, to start Tweeting asap about my new book, which is still a work in progress, so as to build an audience, which, of course takes time. Gotta sow the field now to harvest the crop of fame and fortune next year.

I will do it because I am occasionally obedient, certainly eager for my book to succeed, but it runs totally against my principles and values. The thought of bleating into the ether on a regular basis….who has that much (interesting) to say? I find blogging challenging enough in this respect.

Being modest, whether about one’s body or spirit, is now seen as the mark of a rube. I love modesty and prize it in my friends and loved ones.  I like the idea, and the reality, of slowly discovering a new friend or partner at their speed, learning new things about them over months or years, maybe even decades. There are still many things I don’t know about my partner of a decade, and vice versa.

I think this is a good thing.

It took two friends more than a year to get up the nerve to each tell me they’re gay, which I’d suspected all along. Trust takes time. I hate it when someone I barely know tells me a lot about themselves, and that includes celebrities. When it comes to my own relationships, if I’m interested, I’ll ask, or more likely assume they’ll share intimacies when ready.

Maybe never.

That’s the delight of mystery.

Do you value it? What are we losing by denying it?


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  1. collapse expand

    Well, actually I’m a Gemini so … my one twin values privacy and mystery to the utmost; but my other twin can’t stand keeping secrets.

    I’ve written this before: when I was a teenager my motto was “what they don’t know won’t hurt ME.” I still subscribe to that motto only now I give small glimpses into who I am and wait to see how those are received before I tell more.

  2. collapse expand

    I am also Gemini. I can be both extremely private and very revealing — so people think I’ve told them everything. Hardly. While I have written some personal details in this blog, none are anything I’d be embarrassed to have a would-be employer know or ask me about, and there are many things I would never discuss here.

    Like you, I think it’s only prudent to share carefully. I’ve been very badly burned by trusting the wrong people.

  3. collapse expand

    I live in the land of early tech adopters and most of its denizens have pretty much written off the concept of privacy as a quaint notion. My take on it is that the data companies–Equifax, Experian, and the like–already know so much about our financial lives, that it seems somewhat futile to protect personal life details. So why not go with the flow and “manage” the digital projection of yourself? Better for you to craft your persona than have someone else do it for you by default. We have all, by necessity, become our own best PR managers, with shameless self-promotion a mandatory by-product of this age.

    Do I like it? To a degree. But I do worry about the consequences of this new order in the hands of the less skilled or the most manipulative. Schools and teenagers in particular are really grappling with the exponential network effects of cyber-bullying and its potentially devastating impact on targeted kids, and we are certainly witnessing the political gamesmanship of doctored video posted on YouTube automatically assumed to be factual. (I’m sure Shirley Sherrod has a few things to say on this subject.)

    We’ve offered Driver’s Ed and sex ed in high school for decades to make sure kids are safe on the road and in their bedrooms. I would suggest we also need Internet Ed to ensure the avoidance of dangerous pitfalls on the web.

  4. collapse expand

    I hear you, but disagree about giving up/in and managing our personas. The whole idea is so abhorrent to me. Be a PERSON, not a persona. I want to know real people with real stories, not be subjected to their edited, mindless, narcissistic preening.

    I agree heartily about some way of educating younger people about the dangers.

    But…if we adults don’t model it for them, who will? Ergo…

    • collapse expand

      Unfortunately, it’s a bit like wishing for the days of horses and carriages; that train has already left the station and it’s not coming back.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      I think you hit the nail on the head … be a person, not a persona.

      If I hear one more person talking about their “personal brand” I will throw up. To me, it suggests they’re for sale – just another commodity on the shelf to be comparatively shopped.

      Mystery is sexy. Over-sharing is boring at best and more often than not, borders on vulgar. Call me old-fashioned but I believe this “online-all the time” mentality shall too pass.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hello Joan,

        We all have a persona, often many. We are not the same outward person in church (synagogue, mosque, &c) that we are at work or with out childhood friends or or with our family or alone by our selves. We adjust our outward expression to better interact with different people in different situations. Further, most of us have too many different elements to our psyche to capture and express in one single persona, we often need to loose ourselves in different personae. Of course this can be problematic if carried to extremes with “disassociation” and “multiple personality disorders” being examples. At the other extreme there repressed, introverted neurotics who cannot release and express themselves.

        It is often thought that there is an inner “true” person who is disguised or hidden away by social masks. I do not think that this is correct. It is the psychotic who often is constantly expressing his or her inner thoughts and feelings without any consideration for who or what is around them. It is our personae which are our “inter*face*” with other people. The persona is what allows us to successfully exist in society. The trick is to develop personae which smoothly transition between each other as well as with other people, which allow all elements of our pysche to be expressed in a health fashion in the appropriate time and place.

        This is actually more true for celebrities than the rest of us. They are in a much more complex and demanding social situation. This is why I think that the idea of “stage names” is so positive and health for many celebrities, I think more should do it. Lady Gaga is a great example, she has a public persona and name that exists only in public. Few ever sees her “out of character” or knows what she looks like or where she lives or even what her “real” name is. If she were to walk down the street out of character, no one would recognize her. Dolly Parton is the same. Without her wigs, make-up, and costumes, she is unrecognizable. She routinely goes about here business without crowds of gawkers.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Just because everyone is behaving a certain way — i.e. blathering endlessly about themselves — doesn’t dictate how the rest of us need respond. Surely peer pressure is not this powerful past adolescence?

    I am not arguing against technology; I use it here. I argue against inane “self-revelation” that does nothing to foster intimacy but creates cyncism, bordeom and weariness instead. We’re still at choice.

    • collapse expand

      I think it’s beyond peer pressure at this point, Caitlin. I really do believe this is the primary way we’ll be communicating from now on, for better or worse. As such, online etiquette is still evolving through trial and error. Transparency has its positives and negatives, but I think the former has the potential to outweigh the latter by far. For every always-on idiot who never knows when to shut up, there’s an always-on web cam demonstrating the chaos caused by BP, for example.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        imho … You raise an excellent point. This is an evolving paradigm and we are collectively working our way through it. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing in a more moderate direction and someday people won’t feel compelled to share each and every intimate detail of their personal lives.

        But to compare a FB status update to real time footage of a major corporate ecological disaster is a bit apples and oranges.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Not really. It’s all based in the same principle of real-time information. The comparison I would make is the variety of TV content: For every deeply important Frontline documentary on PBS, there’s also about 1000X more reality TV drivel. In other words, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. One medium,lots of different uses. Some more relevant and newsworthy than others.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    I try to never think I am so interesting that people would want to know so much about me :-)

  7. collapse expand

    So interesting how differently we see this — imho, joan, reba and I.

    I also grew up in a culture (Canada) that is MUCH more private. I used to do cross-cultural training with Berlitz, i.e. prepping execs to move to Canada from the U.S. and vice versa. It’s a known fact that Americans overshare verbally and now visually as a cultural feature and many other cultures find it — online or not — uncomfortable and abhorrent. In my culture, you do not blather on about all your deepest personal issues until you are truly intimates, which takes time.

    In the U.S. people immediately tell you all sorts of shit and I simply can’t believe it. Why do they think I care?! And if I don’t care, why are you bothering me with it?

  8. collapse expand

    “But to compare a FB status update to real time footage of a major corporate ecological disaster is a bit apples and oranges.”

    I am all for corporate transparency. The endless striptease of personal information, no. My post, and my argument for mystery, is focused on personal data, not corporate, economic or political.

  9. collapse expand

    Ms. Kelly,

    Some animals live into a collective where there are no single animals, there are single members of a corporate whole. This is both in a very real physiological sense and an mental sense, they have “hive mind”. Ants, bees, and naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber, you can google those) are examples this extreme. At the other end of the spectrum are orangutans, tigers, leopards, jaguars, rhinoceros, and some sloths who lead solitary lives and only socially interact during mating.

    In between are human beings, we are very social animals but hardly a hive species. As such, we find other human beings very interesting, we see ourselves in them and vice versa of course. Studies have shown that the images that most fascinate infants are pictures other infants. Anyone in advertising can tell you, the number one image to put on a billboard or TV ad to draw attention is the face of a human being. It is what all of literature is about, supplying the information that we as human beings desperately need to know, something about other human beings. For better or worse, it is one of the things that makes us human.

    Like anything else people do, our fascination with other people can be cheap, superficial, and tawdry or deep, complex, and satisfying. It is the latter end of the spectrum where we get Aristotle’s catharsis. How much we want to know and about whom (e.g. real vs. fictional) varies with individual, cultural, and epoch but those are differences of degree, not kind.

    Humans cannot live without the knowing something of the souls of other human beings.

  10. collapse expand

    David, I have no quarrel with curiosity; as a journalist, I earn my income by observing, interviewing and describing other people and getting them to share stories and details.

    I think we can be intensely curious but there is no need to satisfy it, beyond commercial gain, prurience or voyeurism. There is much printed and broadcast now that is, in my view, excessive and, in this respect, narcisisstic. No one is that interesting.

    This is a real and timely issue for me as I complete my book, which contains a fair bit of personal detail. I have found this quite challenging; just because people want something doesn’t mean it’s the best choice to give it to them.

  11. collapse expand

    imho, I hear your point….but the larger issue is when, how or if people will ever just shut up. We are deluged with absurd detail about nothing. We only have so much time, energy, attention — bandwidth, if you will.

    A documentary about rape in the Congo or sneering at Snooki — and every minuscule detail about one silly girl? No contest.

    I live by “need to know.” None of us needs to know 95% of the junk shoveled at us daily. Staying mum or retaining some level of modesty/privacy sets an example others might admire or, possibly, even follow.

  12. collapse expand

    I share your reticence on random acts of openness. My mother had a phrase she’d spout (undoubtedly from her mother) when she’d see graffiti: “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public spaces.”

    But that was then. This is a new millennia and not everything online needs to be like an anatomy section of the Encyclopedia Britannica with the acetate pages that peel back each layer until there’s nothing but bones… while it’s meant to describe the nature of a living being when it’s all peeled away it’s really indistinguishable from being dead.

    Having been a newspaper columnist, blogger, Facebooker (but not a Tweeter), I entered each realm reluctantly. Almost never have I written about me– don’t get me wrong, I’m as vain as anyone and likely more than many– but as writers, we know that one has to know their readers. As I well may be very interesting to me, depending on the day, few people are apt to care what shirt I’m wearing, what i had for breakfast, or what the dog is doing.

    There is a new baseline for privacy it seems, but I think the digital tsunami will create a greater value for realtime, real life interactions. And for sequestering ourselves from the rising tide, to head for the higher ground, to find an inner and outer quiet.

  13. collapse expand

    lp, this is all true…

    I had never, ever wanted to blog. I did not think (still do not think) that I or my opinions are terribly interesting to anyone beyond my circle of intimates or, when framed and polished as written essays, to a few editors. But when 15,000 people showed up in May and 238 people have chosen to “follow” me….I guess someone is finding it worth their time.

    I do write about my life, but I try to do it only when it can relate to men and women (my readers are 50/50 male/female) and across a wide range of ages. Not easy to do. I try to focus on our (pardon the kumbaya phrase) mutual or common humanity — our hopes and fears and dreams and wishes. I do not think we are all so deeply different on some levels and we hunger for connection.

    I am trying hard(er) now to see friends face to face and, with those far away, skedding phone dates — two today, with NM and Colorado. I weary of email and FB.

    And, freshly back from vacation and much silence, I am deliberately trying to scale way, way back on TV and radio, and, to some extent, print. I sat still, alone, for 5.5 hours on a beach (waiting for fireworks) and it made me realize I never do that here. Just. Sit. Still. I need to.

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    About Me

    Former reporter and feature writer for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor) about -- what else -- my divorce. I've been writing frequently for The New York Times since 1990 on almost any subject you can think of -- yup, I'm a generalist. Author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" (Pocket Books 2004). Canadian born, raised and formally educated, I've lived in New York since 1989.

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    I’m writing my second book, a memoir for Portfolio/Penguin, of working retail in a suburban mall for more than two years. My 11 Reporting Tips from daily newspaper veterans appears in the May issue of The Writer magazine.

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