During a recent fashion perambulation, inspecting the latest clothes as a pretext to showing off our collection of the old, we ran into an idol. Not, to clarify, an obsession. They were not the subject of white-hot adolescent infatuation. Neither were they the object of the more lasting, and therefore more complicated adult devotion: a figure responsible for professional or political conversion. These latter, the inspiration for our public and civic selves, almost require the cheery hand-pumping of a party conference. When life is stalled, a look of chilly resentment. We were at our encounter, by contrast, speechless. Starstruck.
It’s mostly the fault of the internet. Public figures to whom we would in antediluvian times have cultivated a seasonal relationship, we now, thanks to the algorithm and push notifications, pass significant periods of each year. The artist we once confronted for intense but incidental review—a musician at the back of the CD case, returned to the light by a road trip; a painter in a coffee-table book at a holiday home—we now review with academic rigour, a websearch providing a detailed knowledge of the life and work. Thus we possess, by the standards of an earlier time, the knowledge of a superfan for artists of passing interest, and that of the near-homicidal hyperfan for those that truly interest us.
We were reminded of M.’s intoxicating and intoxicated dinners with Saint-Loup at Rivebelle during our narrator’s first visit to Balbec. Asked by the two young men to describe a fellow regular, a solitary diner at a neighboring table, the restaurant manager expresses his amazement: “you mean to say you don’t know the famous painter Elstir?” The boys don’t, though Elstir’s work has been recommended to M. by Swann.
So it is that “There are, in such restaurants, as there are in public gardens and railway trains, people enclosed in a quite ordinary appearance, whose names astonish us when, having happened to ask, we discover that they are not the mere inoffensive strangers whom we supposed but no less than the Minister or the Duke of whom we have so often heard.”
We didn’t thrust ourselves upon our idol, whose work and ideas, always thought-provoking, we do know well. Not even a thank you, although we flatter ourselves that we exchanged with them a look of recognition. Why not? With adulthood comes risk and an appreciation of privacy. We are no longer like the boys at Rivebelle, impelled to scribble at note to Elstir from “admiration in the abstract, the nervous envelope, the sentimental framework of an admiration without content, that is to say a thing as indissolubly attached to boyhood as are certain organs which no longer exist in the adult man; we were still boys. Elstir meanwhile was approaching the door when suddenly he turned and came towards us. I was overcome by a delicious thrill of terror such as I could not have felt a few years later, because, as age diminishes the capacity, familiarity with the world meanwhile destroys in us any inclination to provoke such strange encounters, to feel that kind of emotion.”
And yet, we did share, at the sight of our idol, similar passions to M.’s at Balbec. During his first days at the sea, M.’s self-consciousness as a newcomer among the Grand Hotel’s circumspect regular guests is stirred to romantic fantasy at the sight of the daughter of a local nobleman, Mlle. de Stermaria. Tipped off by his friend Bloch to the hidden licentiousness of all women, M. imagines, with the help of a prestigious reference, assignations with the girl.
His fantasies, however, are sustained by a trick. His dreams proceed not directly to sensual pleasures, but first of all to her home, her native region, the places and stuff of her memories. “Together we should have roamed that island impregnated with so intense a charm for me because it had enclosed the everyday life of Mlle de Stermaria and was reflected in the memory of her eyes. For it seemed to me that I should truly have possessed her only there, when I had traversed those regions which enveloped her in so many memories-a veil which my desire longed to tear aside…”
The trick is to place the girl in the romantic historical context of her life in order to make the pursuer of sensual pleasures believe that there is more to the chase than the purely erotic: “by the illusion of possessing her thus more completely, they may be forced to occupy first the scenes among which she lives and which, of more service to their imagination than sensual pleasure can be, yet would not without that pleasure have sufficed to attract them.”
This is of course, only a trick or an illusion the first time the man falls for it. After which, there is no excuse. He is a cad.
Meeting an idol is similar. Our dreamland consists of all the experiences and places reflected in the memory of their eyes. The great shows, the creative output, fellow celebrities met and befriended, famous events which took place when we were small or ungestated. We are sure we celebrate them by our fandom and speechlessnes. But that too is a trick, and like M.’s, a very personal one.
We may not (though often we do, too) desire sensual pleasure with our idols, about which we are misled by a journey into their past, but we are almost always reckoning with a history of ourselves, of the life we have lived during our long attachment to them. In this autoerotic pleasure, a meeting which is an unexpected narcissistic thrill, the idol represents our own life and history as much as their own. The sensual pleasure—itself, as our narrator insists, a selfish preference transferred to the unnecessary canvas of another person—again is confused for more noble context.
It is no wonder then that the most common pose struck by celebrities on meeting an insensate fan is of a half-turned, uncomfortably smiling silhouette, the look of a witness to a surprise and, to the bearer, unknown moment of nudity. This moment, they know, has very little to do with them.