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The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  – because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

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18 thoughts on “The Legendary Test”

  1. Yes Max, I should probably be careful whose death I foretell in future.

    For his part, Vidal must be laughing in Hades. Not only did he outlive Hitchens, but his death not long after Christina’s, speeded-up the business of forgetting him.

  2. I think you may be on to something, Uroskin. Gore Vidal has largely been upfront about where he stands. Legends, love ’em or hate ’em, present an indelible image. The clearer that image, the great the legendary status. Madonna and Hitchens have defined their images by the times and prevailing fashions. There is no there there. As they’ve changed their images, they’ve diluted their fame and relegated themselves to the celebrity sans legend.

    Tom Cruise may be a ball of contemptible crazy aging frat boy smugness, but he has always been that. That’s a tough act as legends age. Vidal stayed the course, and James Dean had the good sense to drop before he could change, get married, do sitcoms, star in a CBS variety show, and otherwise ruin the image. It’s why he’s a legend. He did his thing well throughout his short adult life. It’s something Lady Gaga may have a very hard time with.

  3. I would define a legend as a person who has stuck to his/her style, opinions and artistic and political integrity: Derek Jarman, Michael Foot, David Lange, John Lydon, David Hockney, Michael Powell, Alan Bennett, Jo Brand, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Malcolm McLaren, Richard Dawkins, Ewan MacGregor, Vivienne Westwood, Pim Fortuyn

    Definitely not legends because they have disappointed me over the years: Camille Paglia, Julie Burchill, Juergen Habermas, Jeremy Clarkson

  4. re; “I thought that the brit baby’s cawing at Vidal WAS the tangential part, the hook on which to hang a more “fabulous” discussion of fame and legend”. Being introductory to the legend discussion, I suspect that it is less than central. The problem with legends always has been that they depend on who writes the history. I suspect that it always depends on who writes the history, whether the people be infamous or famous very good or very bad. How for instance is it that something as recent as Roman history, which is written by them, leaves no mention of the Celtic nation which dominated Europe and far exceeded Rome as a civilization in most every respect. Would Osama be a “legend ‘because he was the excuse for Bush to murder hosts of Arabs.? or did he destroy the trade towers(an issue of Vidals) at all(was he incidental)?

    Of course I live in the U.S.a recent fact about how our children learn history became evident. The Texas Schoolboard determines what will be in our books. Being a right wing State they eliminated mention of founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson (truly legendary ) and replaced them with Ronald Reagan and Geo. Bush as national legends.

    There is actually a differance between maybe people of legenday stature and people who are made legends. Of course hardly anyone here knows who Gore Vidal is unless they are at least 50.

    But then it looks prety certain that the U.S. is about to implode so someone else, probably chinese will write history and we’ll have to learn chinese to know who’s who.

  5. Like Palin and Limbaugh, I suppose that if a legend is nothing but a poop who provides bread and circus effects for the tres ignorant masses he can have that as democracy (at least in the U.S.) gets taken for the biggest ride in History. Keep posted, With Sarah Palin at the helm and Rush by her side, and Hitches correcting their spelling as they try to figure out what Martial law is, we can all feel confident that even if all the fags end up in jail, it won’t last for long. Not long at all: I guess that would be fame: of the ben Laden variety.

  6. straightonlyinbed: For the most part, I agree with your assessment of Hitchens. I think
    that if he was in possession of any facts(at all) and had something like a conscience, he might be a good writer; also, you present him as being slightly more frivolous than he has tended believably to be. Schizophrenia, shouldn’t be confused with versatility.
    ; neither should be taken for an honest opinion. He does try to write for periodicals as different in view as “the Atlantic” and “the Nation”. Mrs. Sullivan, in contrast, is in possession of a few more facts on the odd occasion but can’t think or write at all; also,in his defense, with a crucifix buried up his ass, he must surely be distracted. At least he doesn’t sell out to his original dense proposals.
    Hitchens had only his head up his ass. He did have enough facts and opportunism to postulate that the U.S. would welcome a Marxist about as warmly as London took to Nazi air raids. There never was a” left” in America to speak of; indeed no one even knows what “that other ism” is apart from some ugly association that the right has promoted with Stalin. If Americans understood him they would bury him in that old humanist suit.
    The closest most get to an idea of Marx here is the image of Marx Bros. comedians. Instead of some, but somewhat honorable position Hitchens just dove in the fray with any values stuffed and absolutely no sense of history and took the side of the most fascist American elite who own the Media, but represent the diametrically opposite position he previously had. It’s as if he signed a contract like the “war experts” with Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Sec’y of Defense to falsify information regarding the Iraq War for the media(N.Y.Times report). He’s simply a mercenary willing to drag his betters through the mud, if it pays. Vidal overestimated him completely.

    Had Hitchens not made a direct about face politically, from Marxist to Neoconservative, –the far ends of the spectrum– without blinking– even slight departures such as complaining about Bush(who should be his hero) or liking Obama should be feints to make people believe that he was thinking. I don’t know If there is such thing as Social democratic libertarianism, since libertarianism degenerates to pragmatic opportunism.. Not much different than the inconsistency between neoconservatism and democracy. No one with any credentials for thinking promoted the Iraqi war-ever. Unfortunately he sounds as if he thinks- his writing sounds like that of a real thinker and possibly a man of conscience (It takes very little on the Right, to convince). which hardly anyone one of substance is willing to make a joke of. But he’s as ordinary as any bottom feeder for hire in America only with a pointy hat and tinsel on his brow.
    Then too though, in his early Marxist history, gossip has it, he gave up his ass to several school classmates who later went into Witch Thatchers cabinet. He probably never cared who he gave it up to really.

  7. If I’m a Jungian, than I’m an accidental one.


    I don’t think “standing against your time” is a good criterion for legendary status. The point of legends is that they can stand within any time including their own. I live in Alaska, so I’ve experienced the Palin phenomenon first hand. As much as people claim otherwise, it simply is not about policy or ideology that drives their reaction. She has such an acute, concentrated persona that people can base their own happiness on whether or not she succeeds or fails. When someone can set off a firestorm for writing some words on her hand, you know you have the makings of a legend.

    Limbaugh is also a legend. Right-wing punditry is producing a lot of them. So are Glenn Beck and definitely Ann Coulter (though not Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, though he’s the most popular).

    I agree Andrea Dworkin is a legend; she’s feminist shame personified. It’s humorous to watch feminists disavow her even though they actually agree with her.

    Andrew Sullivan, however, is not or could even approximate a legend.

  8. I think we can all agree that Ms Dworkin is a legend. One of those scary ones that children are told about to get them to eat their greens. I think we can also agree that straightonlyinbed regularly writes comments that are much better than the original postings. Damn his eyes.

    tu quoque/Artic Jay: thanks for the explanation. You may well be right about personas and legends, and you certainly write persuasively. But as I say, I’m not a Jungian so that kind of archetypal definition of ‘legend’ doesn’t appear self-evident to me. That said, I am rather partial to a femme fatale and a bit of Gorgon.

  9. straightonlyinbed

    I thought that the brit baby’s cawing at Vidal WAS the tangential part, the hook on which to hang a more “fabulous” discussion of fame and legend.

    One advantage youth has over age is the possibility of performing stunts to gain fame. Vidal said, under Bush (and he might say it today too) that if he were twenty years younger he would overthrow the government with an army raised in Canada (but I suppose it would descend into comedy as they would be too polite). Hitchens, with his fair health, however, can still subject himself to water boarding to report on it (and denounce it).

    I don’t think Hitchens was ever even famous as an individual. When he was a leftie, he was a star because it was hip to be a leftie and all the sorta leftie media promoted him. Just like PC and feminazism were promoted by that media, when it was hip.
    So few are legends because so few stand against their time. Limbaugh, Palin, etc don’t really matter much as individuals. They found their markets and their niches and they go with the flow therein. Hitchens is exemplary in that he was a social democrat libertarian, vociferously (or am I misinformed?) when it was hip-acceptable, a war monger when it was the only thing to be, and an anti Bushite, anti police state speaker when Bush was in the loo and the mood was for CHANGE. While Obama has support only among the apolitical center right of the US (so the biggest single chunk of Americans), Hitchens follows that mood and criticises Vidal for speaking out politically. Sullivan, too, wrote a little nothing against Vidal for a non-respectable comment made about a recent rape non-controversy controversy. And since American thought-police gays promote themselves as more shocked at the injustice of heterosexuality than even Andrea Dworkin could be (she’s legendary, not only present tense but even future conditional is allowed on her subject), he writes that which must be written.
    (Of course, that attitude will earn him his wedding because what “traditionally moral”, atavistically wedded Americans value more than anything is career women’s rights and children’s rights. And they hate, more than anything, overly assertive, chest thumping, sleazy-sneaky predatory men.)

    It’s no wonder Hitchens has his puny crusade against religion: he doesn’t stand for or believe in anything, wrong or right.
    These copycat voices get lost in the current. What legend could possibly be spun thereof?

    You know how I know about Hitchens’ attack out of VF? I was googling “Gore Vidal 2010” in the hope of finding SOMETHING contemporary to read of interest.

  10. The discussion seems to have wandered and become entirely tangential to Mark’s subject: Hitchens on Vidal. Hitchens , sadly like the great bevy of pseudo-journalistic media whores, quacks like any of the great lot of Right Wing didoes writing ad hominum blather to earn a blood smeared paycheck from the very monsters Vidal is bewailing as the deathblow to American Democracy (the Empire).

    If Hitchens had any dignity or self respect in the least he would have been honored to accept Vidal’s earlier praise and stayed his course. That was back when he was an honorable man, and felt he could tell the truth without ramifications. Backstabbing Vidal, selling out, taking up the cause of the neoconservative warmongers, that of capitalism and globalization, he has proven himself to be the real wing nut, and moreover no more than one of many rotten apples. In lining himself up in the hall of halfwits with the worst of the worst, withthe likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Bill O’ Reily to destroy any society to remember anything. If this is all that is presumably what is ‘intellectual’ in the media today we can all be sure we are totally screwed.

  11. “But defining legendary status in anything other than objective terms can be a tad hubristic.”

    I’m confused by this sentence. I was trying to define “legendary status” in objective terms. Who’s being hubristic?

    “Resonating in the primal parts of the psyche sounds fun, but what does it actually mean?”

    As we acquire experiences derived from the people in our environment, we subconsciously recognize patterns of behavior and the physical characteristics associated with them; we learn that people come in bundles of physical and behavioral attributes or “personas.” Some personas, like the femme fatale, catalyze deep and powerful emotions. That’s what I mean by resonating with the primal parts of the psyche.

    As for Elvis, yes there will always be some men who’ll regard a man who flirts with androgyny as a “fag” no matter how much swagger and dominance he imbues it with. But for a man like Elvis to wear mascara and gold lame suits and swivel seductively and to be a role model for so many men is nothing short of astonishing.

  12. straightonlyinbed

    If Obama achieves legendary status, it won’t be for what is hoped/remembered to be hoped for.
    It will be, unbelievably, for having one more foot in the mouth than the imbecile prince did.
    You just watch. Any administration that can proudly announce, in the age of panic-over-puny-terrorism and dirty bombs by “cells”, that it promises not to nuke other signatory nuclear non proliferator nations, has enough imbecile up its sleeve to rival the clowniest clowns.
    “America will be nice and not nuke you, aren’t you feeling good now?”. That’s legendary.
    And possibly a touch of menaissance.

  13. straightonlyinbed

    I like to think I have some small sense of “History” and “historicity”. Yet, I’m so a product of my time and all it inherits that I can’t imagine… to live in a world where Elvis, mr thick limbed pre-hippy hairdo, “fonzie” precursor, would be considered a sissy? A nightmare world where every male is an Eisenhower aspiring downward to the even shittier Truman. All hail the death of the manly man. That world would have done away with the likes of me in no time.
    I think I’ll pay my dues to this age by buying some sexy male bras and feelin’ good tonite.

    I think blame for the celeritous celeb, the literal 15 minute famer, should indeed be lain upon the public at large. The masses in the West are just getting impossibly stupid and dissipated.

    It isn’t just civilization’s celebrities which don’t last because they don’t work at it. Nature doesn’t hold anyone’s interest, even when she deserves it. Haiti is one the great natural disasters of history and most people don’t remember what month it crumbled. Kleist would have written a famous story on it: voodoo, sexy assed women, social corruption from head to foot and dancing that transcends the ages, destroyed in apocalypse after the death of god. All we’ll get is some PC movie with c.g.i. that nobody will see. And even worse novel(lettes). Not to mention the tsunami. The Indian ocean rising up out of itself? Booooooring.

    What’s upsetting is the smugness. “They” who can’t wait for a hero, they don’t even settle for bemusement. “They” pump up their instant celebrities as if ’twere the legends they’d been waiting for.

    Nothing with a grain of salt. Ever. But they still dispose of it over their shoulder before a snack.

    It wasn’t Obama who became the instant celebrity. He just absorbed that status by coincidence. He happened to be standing in the place of a corrective to Bush. And as we now see, whoever was the true corrective wasn’t in their place. Obama clearly isn’t that sorely needed corrective, so why would he receive it’s glory when there’s no longer any mistaken identity?
    Kerry would have enjoyed the same favour, had he won. At least for a while.

    Madonna will be and is a legend for her 80s career. Energy, sex, multiculture (but still white enough to be a “real American”). Vidal keeps up the fight (and looks sexier and more sensuous doin’ it at 80 than Lady Gaga), so he keeps his legend alive. But Madonna can poison and deface herself all she likes, when they look at her, all they hear is “like a prayer”. Michael Jackson could have videotaped himself sodomizing dung in a sewer, at 69, and he still would have received his (debasedly) royal send off. I didn’t even know he was over 40 until he died. I still don’t.

    Not only will Hitchens be forgotten. He only exists for a few minutes when seen on tv. None of his “career” is known or followed or remembered, even by those who saw it all. Right now, his entire story is just a poor man’s Bill Maher or Dick Dawkins. So, a poor man’s poor man.

  14. Yes, it’s true. I like to beg questions. But defining legendary status in anything other than objective terms can be a tad hubristic. Resonating in the primal parts of the psyche sounds fun, but what does it actually mean? If you’re not a fully paid-up Jungian?

    As I recall, Elvis was called a sissy when he was a lad for his long hair and Mommy fixation. And probably ‘that fag’ by several dads when he was older and wearing mascara on national TV, swinging his degenerate hips around. To some extent his ability to appear entirely masculine today is a trick of the passage of time: we’re the children and grandchildren of Elvis fans.

    I might well be wrong about Madonna, and I’m probably more motivated by spite than I realise, but I suspect that once her lifeless bony hand drops the crystal ball to the floor, Xanadu will be auctioned off.

  15. This essay seems to beg the question. You assert Vidal is a legend because he will be remembered in posterity; well, what is being a legend other than being remembered in posterity?

    I think what confers legendary status, at least concerning entertainers/artists, is a persona that resonates in the primal sectors of our psyches and a body of work that can translate cross-culturally and across generations.

    Take Elvis, an indisputable legend. He was an exemplar of the glamorous male, one who could don smoldering androgyny and never come off as a sissy or even gay, an art that seems completely lost nowadays. He will always be admired as long as there are men who desire to be the sexual object while retaining their masculinity, and there will always be a lot of such men.

    His appeal runs in the opposite direction as well: two hundred years ago, he would have been Lord Byron.

    If timelessness is the test, I’m not sure some of your predictions hold up. Madonna seems destined for legendary status, as she’s now synonymous with the steely female businesswoman who refuses to accept gender and age limitations, a cyborg Lady Lazarus. And her songs are well-crafted. I can easily imagine them being hits in dozens of other decades. Lady Gaga, however, sounds very time specific, not even of the oughts, but specifically 2009.

    I’m not sure yet about Obama as he’s unbearably dull. I think he only ascended to popularity because he seems, at least demographically, a corrective to Bush.

    My predictions for legendary status for those who came out of the oughts: Britney Spears, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin.

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