All those stars – with W.H. Auden


Is there a better testament to love and loss than the beautiful lament of W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Funeral blues’? I don’t know. It’s a farewell of stunning quality. However, rather than dwell upon the essential meaning of the poem I want to focus on something rather different:

Auden’s poem also has, at the beginning of the fourth verse, the line: ‘The stars are not wanted now; put out every one …’ and it is this line that makes me think of the strange, powerful and seemingly universal phenomenon of being ‘star struck’. I am interested in this phenomenon because it seems to have both positive and yet highly dangerous aspects.

I had an unusual upbringing and I think this has something to do with my response to this particular line in Auden’s poem: my unusual upbringing was in no small way due to the character and perspectives of my mother – who was, herself, part-Austrian and part-Pole. She came to the United Kingdom as a refugee in 1939 and although she hardly ever referred to this experience she did once tell me something fascinating about her childhood. She originally lived in that part of the Czech Republic that was, from her point of view, known as the Sudetenland; when the German troops arrived (as part of Hitler’s policy of expansion) my mother was obliged – along with all the other citizens – to go out and line the streets in order to provide an enthusiastic flag-waving welcome for the invaders. In a curious and eccentric sense my mother found herself welcoming the National Socialists. However, my mother maintained a kind of emotional and spiritual distance from the event. She could see that it was easy to get caught up with the mentality of the ‘crowd’: ‘Hitler,’ she told me, was apparently seen by many of the people in the crowd as ‘superhuman’ – a kind of star to outshine all stars; she cautioned me against losing my reason and getting carried away by pure emotion, by the mentality of the crowd; in so doing she also cautioned me to be sceptical about all people who become ‘stars’.

But it does look as if the phenomenon of the star and being star-struck is fairly ubiquitous. There is, for example, on French television, a truly awful show hosted by someone called Michel Drucker; it features sycophantic interviews with a collection of French celebrities. Somehow the studio audience is prepared to sit and listen passively to the banal emptiness of the verbal exchanges. The show is broadcast on television and lasts for ages. What is so striking is that very large numbers of french people sit at home in their living rooms and watch the programme. But why? Why are they rendered so passive and quietly awestruck by the ‘stars’? Nothing of any depth or merit ever gets expressed. It’s a trade in superficialities.

And related to the phenomenon of the ‘star’,  one of the UK television channels recently broadcast a final ‘tribute’ to the late Michael Jackson. The programme was entitled ‘This is it.’ I did not watch much of the programme but I did note the remark of one young American dancer who was included in the dance troupe supporting Michael Jackson’s last show. She told us that when, as a young child, she had seen ‘Michael dance’ she thought it ‘the coolest thing ever’; from then on, all she had ever wanted to be was a dancer – and, in some way, to emulate her hero. She’s not at all uncommon. And it may be that young people have a deep tendency to heroise people. (Way back, I used to think that Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and a host of rock singers were creatures that I would have very much liked to be …)

The examples of people defined as ‘stars’ can go on and on. There are stars of politics, of screen and television, stars of sport – and art and religion. In fact, we seem to find the ‘star’ everywhere. (Even hereditary royals – people with whom we may never ever interact with directly – enjoy a sacred transcendent status.) It’s all very odd.

How do we explain this? How do we explain the creation of stars and celebrities and our tendency to be beguiled and enchanted by people with whom we have no first-hand knowledge? And why do we go beyond acknowledging that the person may have been very good at something – like driving a racing car or playing tennis or acting the role of Henry V – and then conferring additional worth and value upon their person?

I have no sophisticated theory to make sense of the phenomena. But I do know that the brilliant humanistic psychologists identify the power and significance of various intricate psycho-dynamics as well as the ego-defence mechanisms – such as projection. They suggest that, through our powers of imaginative phantasy we ‘become’ in a metaphysical sense the ‘star’. They also warn us to ‘own our projections’. They suggest that we project various attributes onto the ‘star’ that have no business being there. They tell us that the ‘star’ may have some limited authentic authority, expertise and/or some special ability – but that’s it. They remind us to concentrate on sorting out ourselves and to express more of our own capacities and abilities.

In short they say:

Don’t give your power away. Don’t dissipate your energy. Be more of you – and, maybe, a bit less of them.

I think this makes good sense.

Footnote: The photograph a person playing a piano – late-night style

3 thoughts on “All those stars – with W.H. Auden”

  1. Agreed, Rob. I suspect that celebrities have always been with us, and it is the ubiquity of television that makes some of us shocked at the banality and cupidity of those apparent members of mankind, whose views, tastes and opinions are phenomena of which we should be otherwise unaware.
    What a shockingly arrogant statement, and how much abuse it would cause on one of those very chat shows, which are the essence of the celebrity culture!
    A further irony is that it is now possible to become a celebrity by knowing about celebrities, and so the monster grows.
    I am tempted to become an anti-celebrity by writing an update to The Rise of the Masses, by Ortega y Gassett – but had better not…

  2. Hello Peter – Yes, it does look as if celebrities and ‘stars’ have always been with us. But I suddenly realised that I hadn’t really studied the phenomenon as carefully as i might have – and I wish I had better theory – especially as I should have thought more deeply about all this in relation to our work on leadership. Doesn’t Freud have a lot to say about the ego ideal – and the idealisation of the mother and father figures?
    Your comment about Ortega Y Gasset is brilliant. In fact, it was his term ‘spiritual distance’ (in relation to a capacity of the artist to ‘see’ clearly that i used in relation to my mother’s experience of the invasion of the Sudetenland.
    With many thanks and very best wishes,

    1. Dear Rob
      Very good.
      You know more about Freud than I do.
      I am sure you will have read widely on the psychology of the crowd!
      Your mother’s experience in the Sudetenland would have been very interesting. I wonder how may more border changes we shall see in central Europe?
      Ortega y Gasset, as I understand him, argued that in the 1920s we lived in an age of narrow specialism, in which because X was an expert on Y, so he believed himself to be an expert on everything.
      I believe that we have gone beyond that stage, in that many off us do not recognise (or indeed reject) any hierarchy of status, knowledge or opinion. One person, one vote, yes – but does that mean that all opinions are of equal value? I do not think so! But it would appear that Mr Trump may have proved me wrong. If all opinions are of equal value, then no opinion is of any value (as Nietzsche might have said, before he embraced the horse.)
      Keep writing, please!
      Best wishes

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