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DUNLEVY: Mourning celebrity deaths is nothing to be ashamed of

Column: Tempus Fugit

 Cast your mind back to 2016 — at the time, regarded to be an unfortunate year due to all the beloved celebrities who passed. 

I recall friends of mine who wept at the loss of particular favorite actors and musicians. It is perhaps a strange thing, to feel such anguish over the departure of an individual whom one has never met, never contacted, never had any interaction with and who, were the positions reversed, would likely have no idea altogether.

It is perhaps a callous angle to take, but it is not without defense. Ultimately, the matter is much more than a case of rife attachment — to divorce an analysis of people and their idols from larger society is in and of itself a blatant disservice.

Idolization is nothing new — far from it, in fact. The ancient Greeks venerated their heroes and the virtues they exposed with shrines scattered the countryside in honor of the glory and might of these noble fallen, and cities defined themselves by the dead men they lauded.  

Through time, societies not only remember their greats, but also strive to pattern themselves after them. Look at the Christian saints who have been ever noted as paragons of the faith – some of them have been celebrated since the very beginning of the Church.

Advancing in history, look at the heroes enshrined by their nation-states: From founding fathers to generals, from freedom fighters to kings, certain larger-than-life figures are created. In all these cases, there is a particular good — a certain virtue — that these individuals exemplified, or at least are perceived to exemplify, whatever it may be. 

These people, themselves only human, become emblematic of a certain idea and thus become an idol.

This process and relationship is very clear in these contexts. The relationship between idol and ideal is abundantly clear. The area between these sorts of idols and “celebrity” idols, for lack of a better term, is where the concepts become much more nebulous. The best starting point here is without a doubt, Franz Liszt. 

Liszt, aside from being an absolute genius of a pianist, was Europe’s coolest dude as a young man in the mid-1800s. Touring across the continent, rocking out on the keyboard, he was perhaps the first superstar musician. “Lisztomania” was what they called it, and his fans could not get enough of him.  

Swarms of adoring admirers would swoon to his music as they tried to get their hands on any keepsake they could — his hair, his trash, you name it. Traveling across the German Confederation like an industrial era rockstar, Liszt is perhaps the first and finest example of an idol beloved primarily not for virtue itself (a charitable humanitarian though he was) but instead because he was just that cool.  

Moving on to the present, the perception of a celebrity is much more in this vein than any other. Indeed, there are still those extolled for their virtues in a traditional sense, and everyone likes to hear that their favorite actor or singer is actually an alright person in real life. 

But contemporary celebrities are, without a doubt, dominantly entertainers, emblematic of a certain sort of coolness or a lifestyle, rather than something more explicitly concrete.  

Nonetheless, what remains is that this perception is only that: a perception. The heroes of lore came to represent a perfect unyielding ideal, perhaps living up to this image in their time or not. Regardless, idolization tends to disregard human folly or any actions or sins contrary to this ideal. An idea is taken, in a way, to its extreme.  

Likewise, a celebrity needs not truly in any way resemble in private the image that has captured their admirers — they are judged and defined by the public, so only the public perception matters to their idealization. And so, largely speaking, people lament when this figure they have idolized the same way humans have always idolized certain figures that have passed, because the relationship is not a personal one, but a memetic one.

Childhood idols are one of the best examples of this relationship — the death of an entertainer who was young during one’s own youth can be a particularly upsetting thing.  

Aside from the fact that such guarantees they shall never grace a production again, it is a very overt memento mori, one that is not always welcomed. While there are doubtless those who could not care less to hear of the passing of even an old favorite, it can come as no surprise that many are compelled to lament and mourn. 

A relationship that is dear enough and severed suddenly is an upsetting thing, and it is only a natural human reaction to be upset at this.  

Such is the inherent byproduct of idealizing the living, and it should not be a thing to be mocked, but rather be understood as a healthy and human response.

Ash C. Dunlevy is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in plant science as well as agriculture and food systems. His column, "Tempus Fugit," runs on alternate Mondays.


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