Most students of psychology by the time that they graduate will have heard at some stage of the experiment conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the 1890’s exploring a theory known today as Conditioned Reflex. Colloquially known now as ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ the theory refers to an experiment that Pavlov set up, where he measured the salivation of dogs when they knew that food was being brought to them. Pavlov noted that the dogs did not salivate on seeing the food – but began salivating when they heard the footsteps coming of the assistant who usually brought the food to them. Pavlov on observing this, changed the sound of footsteps to a metronome, and then played the metronome prior to meal-times. The dogs began salivating when they heard the sound of the metronome. The dogs connected this sound with being fed. In reality a metronome has nothing to do with canine nutrition – but not in the minds of the dogs. They had been conditioned to respond in a certain way; hence Conditioned Reflex.

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Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella known as Rudolph Valentino (1896 – 1926), was during his time one of the world’s most famous celebrities. Valentino’s name is synonomously used to define the original ‘sex-symbol’ a term describing a Hollywood actor or actress famed for their sexual attractiveness.  A ‘star’ of the motion picture industry during the silent film era, the adulation Valentino inspired from his mainly female audiences was close to hysteric, so much so that on his death, one hundred thousand people lined the street in New York. Disturbingly, a spate of suicides occurred across the world with women killing themselves not wishing to live in a world without Valentino. One woman, Agatha Hearn (outside the funeral parlour, that was embalming Valentino’s corpse), shot herself, the police finding in her clutched hand photographs of Valentino and a note informing others of her inconsolable grief as to Valentino’s death. A dancer in London, Peggy Scott killed herself leaving behind a similar note. In Japan, two girls held hands and jumped to their deaths. Such was the psychological effect of Valentino’s death on women in Italy that Mussolini called for calm exhorting women to think about being wives and mothers and not suicides. ‘Grief riots’ occurred throughout the world. The exact number of Valentino-suicides, and attempted suicides, no one will ever know.

What was completely forgotten in this pandemic of grief, was that real people were throwing their lives away over an illusion; killing themselves believing that they were existentially attached to a person through the ‘silver screen.

What was completely forgotten in this pandemic of grief, was that real people were throwing their lives away over an illusion; killing themselves believing that they were existentially attached to a person through the ‘silver screen.’ Essentially there was a complete loss of reality by the fans. The reaction to Valentino’s death seemed to warn as a precursor the era of fame-fan based hysteria. It is well known that Adolf Hitler deliberately used the media, to incite hysteria among his followers. In the second half of the twentieth century, millions of young women and men became hysterical at the thought of seeing the Beatles, screaming so loudly that the point of listening to the Beatles’ music became irrelevant. This response to the Beatles led to the coining of the term – Beatlemania – a form of hysterical reaction to the celebrity and fame of The Fab Four. Moreover, ‘fame’ does strange things to the psyche of the fan – people wanting to be like the famous – and throwing their bodies and souls at the famous, like mindless slaves. The ‘famous’ basketballer, Wilt Chamberlain, claimed (with no one who knew him seriously disputing this claim), that he had sexual intercourse with no less than 20,000 women. So the virtue of chastity meant little to Chamberlain and to the 20,000 women in the queue, all because Chamberlain was famous for bouncing a basketball.

It is well known that Adolf Hitler deliberately used the media, to incite hysteria among his followers. In the second half of the twentieth century, millions of young women and men became hysterical at the thought of seeing the Beatles, screaming so loudly that the point of listening to the Beatles’ music became irrelevant.

Many people, it would seem are conditioned to believe that fame and being famous is something to almost give their lives up for. The popularity of the television programme, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, is evidence enough of this – with the viewers coming from a wide cross-section of society; the Kardashian Family tragically being popular with the younger and impressionable demographic. It is astonishing that people waste hundreds of hours of their precious lives, watching people whose only claim to being famous is that they are famous. (As an aside, I have only been slapped once in the face by a woman – and that being when I criticized Elvis Presley’s drug taking, in a conversation I had with a Presley fan. She took grave exception to my commenting on her ‘friend’ whom she had never met, and never spoken with).

It would seem that the major reason we thirst after fame and the famous is that we wish in some way to share in the ‘love’, ‘respect’ or ‘honour’ that these people receive from broader society, or to share in the character trait or talent that the celebrity is famous for portraying, so as to be adulated as well. Perhaps that is why sports teams have their legion of fans. In the case of Valentino, we may wish to be a romantic hero, or to be loved by such a romantic hero; in the case of Adolf Hitler, to feel powerful by being near someone so self-confident in themselves; in the case of Chamberlain to say or feel that they were desired by someone who many desire; in the case of the Beatles – to lose control in a forum where everyone else is feeling without inhibition. Bob Geldof is said to have remarked that he came away from Beatles concerts during the height of Beatlemania with the rancid smell of urine as a lasting memory; the mania evidently having led many, most likely the younger members of the audience, to incontinence.

In the case of Valentino, we may wish to be a romantic hero, or to be loved by such a romantic hero; in the case of Adolf Hitler, to feel powerful by being near someone so self-confident in themselves; in the case of Chamberlain to say or feel that they were desired by someone who many desire; in the case of the Beatles – to lose control in a forum where everyone else is feeling without inhibition.

Returning to Pavlov’s dog. How many of us, go weak at the knees when faced with celebrity? In truth, I suspect we all do – as we are involuntarily conditioned. After years and years of viewing or listening to these celebrities we have built up in our psyche the potential to over react in some way to the celebrity. As a personal example – one day as a Doctoral Researcher in Uppsala, I was walking down the main street – Svartbäcksgatan. When I looked up coming toward me was my ‘crush’ when I was a little child growing up in Australia – one of the lead singers of ABBA – Agnetha Fältskog. I suddenly stopped still and looked at her; she also stopped, a metre apart. There we were; she thinking that she knew me; me knowing her as a celebrity but not as a person. Something told me to just move on without saying a word. I thought my stunned reaction to be silly. My regret is that if I had that time back, I would have said that I appreciated her music as I was growing up. The next morning I was reading the Upsala Nya Tidning (Newspaper), and read the interview she had given while in that city.

It would be nice to treat all people with considered dignity – especially those who are nearest and dearest to us. I see too many children crying over their sports heroes yet treating their parents who: clothe, feed, educate and shelter these same children with complete and abject disrespect. I also know too many people who worship: Brad Pitt, Richard Gere, Angelina Jolie, and Cindy Crawford or the like, but who similarly neglect their husbands and wives who work so hard; still more so – they treat their spouses as serfs and minions hardly even noticing them. Perhaps they wish they were married to these ‘stars’ – yet be careful what you wish for; for none of these ‘sex symbols’ found happiness with their ‘sex symbol’ spouse. So happiness cannot be found arbitrarily in the arms of a ‘sex-symbol’.

After years and years of viewing or listening to these celebrities we have built up in our psyche the potential to over react in some way to the celebrity.

The fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, spoke these words from the pulpit of Hagia Sophia: “We may observe people worshiping statues, and we accuse them of idolatry. We say that these lumps of wood, clay, or metal are lifeless, and so possess no divine qualities. Indeed we find the idea of worshiping statues so bizarre that we even laugh with contempt at those who do it. Yet far more dangerous than statues that are visible are the numerous idols which are invisible. Power is such an idol. Some people who possess powerful personalities desire power for themselves, and in this way make it their idol. Others like to be under the sway of a powerful personality, who makes decisions on their behalf, and in this way releases them from the task of making moral choices for themselves; thus they make the powerful person their idol. Fame is another invisible idol. Some people with the gift of speech love to bask in the warmth of adulation, and so make the admiration of others their idol. Those others find perverse pleasure in treating the gifted speaker as a god, whose every word must be treated as infallible. What I am saying is that the most dangerous idols are not outward objects made of wood and clay, but reside inside the human heart.” (On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom, Liguori Publications. (Homily 23) Kindle Edition)

St. Thomas Aquinas writing nearly one thousand years later addressed the same issue as Chrysostom – asking all his readers to stop and reflect about ‘fame’. Aquinas wrote that: “On the other hand, man’s good depends on God’s knowledge as its cause. And therefore man’s beatitude depends, as on its cause, on the glory which man has with God (I-II,2,3) (Cf Ps 1:6; Mt 7:23; Jn 10:14). To Aquinas we should not aim to bask in man’s glory as man is finite and fallible – and in time will be exposed for being defective because of his sinfulness and fallibility. The two Japanese girls who fell to their deaths in some way believed that Valentino’s demise was greater than their own – and lost the importance of their individual relationships with God, that was far more important than their ill-perceived relationship with Valentino. These children are ‘famous’ now for destroying themselves, over an illusion as ‘unreal’ as was Valentino’s heroism on screen. Valentino’s ‘fame’ blurred their ‘reality’.

The basic issue with fame – is that our thoughts of others are based on what is projected through to us by the media, or word of mouth – and these thoughts might be polar opposites to reality; and therefore not being the Truth, could well be a whole lie.

Truth is defined by philosophers as that state where thought conforms to reality. The basic issue with fame – is that our thoughts of others are based on what is projected through to us by the media, or word of mouth – and these thoughts might be polar opposites to reality; and therefore not being the Truth, could well be a whole lie. All we can do – is live our lives seeking the Truth, that is God – by not making either ourselves false idols, or worshipping others as idols; for all that is not God Himself, will in turn, become ash – no matter how immortal the celebrity may appear at the present moment in time. Ask any woman living in 2021 if she would die in grief for Valentino today – and there is your answer to the illusion of fame.

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

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