There was a time when those who felt abandoned by the rest of humanity took consolation in the fact that the Almighty, if no one else, witnessed their tribulations every day. Today that same divine function can apparently be served by going on TV.
I recently discussed this phenomenon over lunch in Madrid with my king. Although I have always been proud of my republican principles, three years ago I was dubbed a duke of the Kingdom of Redonda. I share this ducal honour with the filmmakers Pedro Almodovar and Francis Ford Coppola, and the writers A.S. Byatt, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Fernando Savater, Pietro Citati, Claudio Magris and Ray Bradbury, among others — all of us united by the common quality of being liked by the king.
The island of Redonda, which occupies less than one square mile of the West Indies, is wholly uninhabited, and I believe that none of its monarchs has ever set foot on it. It was purchased in 1865 by a banker named Matthew Dowdy Shiell. As one version of the story goes, Shiell asked Queen Victoria to establish Redonda as an independent kingdom, something Her Gracious Majesty did without hesitation because it seemed to pose no threat to the British Empire. Over time the island fell under the control of various monarchs, some of whom sold the title several times, causing tussles among swarms of pretenders. In 1997 the last king abdicated in favor of the famous Spanish writer Javier Marias, who began to nominate dukes and duchesses right and left.
That’s pretty much the whole story. It smacks of some pataphysical folly — that is, beyond even the metaphysical — but, after all, it’s not every day that you become a duke. The point, however, is that in the course of our conversation over lunch, Marias said something that stayed with me. We were talking about the obvious fact that today people are willing to do anything to get on TV, even if it’s just to wave to their mothers from behind the person actually being interviewed.
Recently in Italy, after earning a brief mention in the press, the brother of a girl who had been barbarously murdered went to a well-known talent agent to try to arrange a television appearance — presumably with a view to exploiting his tragic fame. There are others who, provided they can bask in the limelight for a little while, are prepared to admit to being cuckolds or con men. And, as criminal psychologists know, many serial killers are motivated by their desire to be unmasked and become famous.
Why this madness, Marias and I wondered? He suggested that what is happening today is the result of the fact that people no longer believe in God. At one time, men and women were convinced that their every act had at least one divine spectator, who knew all about their deeds (and thoughts), who could understand them and, if need be, punish them. You could be an outcast, a good-for-nothing, a nobody ignored by his fellows, a person who would be forgotten the moment he died, but you were still convinced that at least someone was paying attention.
“God only knows what I have suffered”, the grandmother would say, sick and abandoned by her grandchildren. “God knows I am innocent” was the consolation for those condemned unjustly. “God knows how much I have done for you”, mothers would say to their ungrateful sons. “God knows how much I love you”, abandoned lovers would cry. “God only knows what I have gone through”, wailed the poor wretch whose misadventures mattered to no one. God was always invoked as the omniscient eye that nothing and no one could elude, whose gaze bestowed meaning on even the dullest and most pointless life.
Now, if this all-seeing witness has vanished, what is left? The eye of society, of our peers, to whom we must show ourselves in order to avoid plunging into the black hole of anonymity, the maelstrom of oblivion — even if it means playing the village idiot, stripping down to one’s underwear and dancing on a table down at the local bar. Appearing onscreen has become a surrogate for transcendence, and, all things considered, it is a gratifying one. We see ourselves — and we are seen by others — in this televised hereafter, where we can simultaneously enjoy all the advantages of immortality and have the chance to be celebrated on Earth for our accession to the empyrean.
The trouble is that, in these cases, people misunderstand the dual meaning of the word “recognition”. All of us aspire to be “recognised” for our merits, or our sacrifices, or any other fine quality we may have. But when, after we have appeared on-screen, someone sees us down at the bar and says, “I saw you on television last night”, he only “recognises” you in the sense that he recognises your face — which is something very different.
By Umberto Eco