The Pheme. This would combine a resurrection of the Greek notion of Pheme, the spirit or embodiment of fame, (Roman equivalent Fama) with the meme proposed by Richard Dawkins (do visit his site – fine place, intellectually stimulating but non-combative and you can buy a cool atheist A t-shirt). Let the pheme ƒ be the gene of celebrity, the base unit of fame; its only function is to replicate itself by planting the awareness of a given famous person, x, into the host minds of the masses, m. The pheme of x, ƒ(x) does not demand that you like x, respect them, admire them or even know much about them, only that you are conscious of them enough to pass on the pheme in some manner. In fact, I would suggest that a negative attitude to x actually transmits the pheme more powerfully. The fame of someone despised or caught with their hand in the till, a straw up their nose or their knob up an inappropriate fleshly passage transmits more rapidly than the fame of one who has invented something useful or created something beautiful. Interestingly, the collective unconscious of the Greeks (characteristically as wise, poetic and insightful as their conscious philosophy) personifies Pheme as a many-tongued gossip, rather like Rumour in 16th and 17th century English allegories. For a pheme is transmitted by speech, or more properly, by utterance, written or spoken. I’ll leave the mathematical modelling and notation to cleverer heads than mine, but I don’t doubt that some sort of descriptive formula can be produced which will allow us to see how phemes work over time and across populations.
More characteristics of Fame. A good metaphor for fame is the magnifying glass. It makes larger (which is what magnify means) exposing flaws as well as qualities. The blackheads and dirty pores are there for all to see. Like a magnifying glass fame can distort, it can invert and it can (with the glare of publicity behind it) focus the light into a terrible heat that burns the subject until they shrivel into nothing.
In some professions fame is a by-product, an incidental, a “way of keeping score”. If you are a brilliant cricketer, one of the best in the world, then as many as two billion people might know who you are. Even more if you are a successful footballer. A maximum of a quarter of a billion will know who you are if you are a successful American footballer, but at least 5 billion will know you if you are an American footballer accused of murdering your wife and her lover. The OJ pheme buried itself deep in all of us and will, one suspects, remain in circulation for a long time. But then society thought the same of the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle scandal which is now, if not an obscure footnote, certainly far from being the cause celebre of the century despite its seismic notoriety at the time.
If you write books, sing songs, act in films, read the news etc etc, fame will come as a consequence of popular success in those fields as surely as a cough will come to a coalminer. If you murder people on a sufficiently impressive scale, either as an individual or a political leader, your name will get around that way too. It goes without saying that fame has nothing to do with the quality of your achievement. Dan Thingy who wrote the Leonardo Code or whatever it was called, is fairly well known now but will be as unheard of as Rafael Sabatini or James Hilton in fifty years time (though they deserve more fame than he ever did). Tim Berners-Lee is possibly less well known than Bernard Lee (M in the early Bond movies), but in the future the reverse will be true. And so on.
Dan Whatsit and his preposterously awful Leonardo book are actually relevant to our theme. I usually last longer with any best-selling novel, however pathetic, than I did with his. But in his case I knew from the very first word that this was a writer of absolutely zero interest, insight, wit, understanding or ability. A blunderer of monumental incompetence. The first word, can you credit it, is ‘renowned’. ‘Renowned symbologist Henry Titfeather ….’ or something equally drivelling, that’s how this dreadful book opens. How do you begin to explain to someone that you just don’t start a fictional story by telling your readers that your character is ‘renowned’? You show it, you don’t tell it.