some reflections on fame and influence

My wife and I were holiday shopping.  The store selling compact disks was suitably blackened inside, so that a customer's eyes would be drawn only to the two things that mattered: the racks of juvenile "music" and the two or three pretty salespeople.  Our twenty-something daughter, away at college, had included "Paul Simon's latest CD" on her want list.  Her retro musical tastes run from Marty Robbins and Pete Seeger to the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.

I told the nineteen-ish salesgirl that I was looking for Paul Simon's latest CD.  She regarded me frankly for a moment and then said: "I think I've heard of him."  A pause, then: "Is it instrumental?"

Beth and I exchanged a glance of shared dismay.  There was something utterly shattering in the girl's ignorance.  In the 1930s Albert Jay Nock, a retro curmudgeon with a privileged Midwestern upbringing, published Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.  In one of my favorite passages, he described "invincible ignorance" and his conviction that the invincibly ignorant, just as the poor that Jesus spoke of, will always be with us.  Jesus didn't venture that the poor who would always be with us would be voluntarily, even deliberately poor, although some clearly are.  Nock, however, did make a distinction between people who simply can't learn, whom we accept as dependent, and those who, with self-congratulatory self-assurance, refuse to edify themselves.  These latter have chosen, out of laziness perhaps, or out of an entitlement arrogance, not to tax their minds beyond that degree pressed upon them by society's insistence that they proceed only so far through school.  They may submit, reluctantly, to brief enrollment at a college, but escaping from the torture of learning is their earliest objective.  These are the invincibly ignorant.

I don't know that this describes the salesgirl who was going to help me find Paul Simon among the LL Cool Js and discounted Spice "Girls."  Her immediate ignorance of Paul Simon may have been as coincidental as my immediate oblivion about the defensive line of the New England Patriots.  We found the CD, and my daughter's wish was fulfilled.

I, however, was left with an lump in my gut that I couldn't dismiss.  How could Paul Simon, whose work is pervasive, whose face is an icon, and whose name, for crying out loud, is tied to so much of American culture, be so unknown to a record store clerk in 2001!?

It's not that I haven't desired some renown; I've wondered what it would be like.  If I could have been an Olympic athlete, for instance, it would have been enough for me simply to have been on the team.  I wouldn't have expected a medal.  I wouldn't have berated myself for a less-than-perfect performance.  I would have been thrilled just to know I had stood alongside, and maybe even earned the respect of, the best there's ever been in that sport or event.

The desire for fame doesn't possess me.  That young salesgirl taught - yes, taught - me, though, that even if it were within my grasp, fame would likely be a disappointment even in my own lifetime.  That wouldn't diminish the accomplishment that brought it on.  While I don't applaud everything Paul Simon has composed or performed, I still insist that he is one of the greatest musical talents of the last half century - one of the best there's ever been.  He can take comfort in that.  Centuries hence, an ever-diminishing cadre of music scholars will still know who he was and what he did.  A few of his works will be transformed into public domain sound bytes over time, just as snatches of Rossini and Borodin are commonly heard today without acknowledgement of their sources.

Herewith, a quiz.  Match the names in the top group with the area of accomplishment in the bottom list.  Then ask five adults 18 and older to do the same.  To improve the odds for Americans, no really foreign-sounding names have been included.  But to reduce the odds for Americans, no entertainers are included.   A couple of zingers are in there, so consider 20 a perfect score.  You won't need a statistician to analyze the results, especially after you've seen how well five others complete it.


For many who know their work, these are among the best there's ever been.  And yet, within a generation or two, diplomas will be conferred upon crops of newly-certified adults, most of whom will never know the names above.

This music shopping experience rattled me and left me very unsettled for many months.  I didn't seek therapy, but once I identified the source of my discouragement I began to recover.  It wasn't my lack of fame that I lamented - I've never had it and never will.  Troubling was the realization that those whose work I most respected, that I have most wanted my children to know and ponder and discuss with me and appreciate as I do, are so easily being plowed under by the shrillness and glitter of pop culture with its indifference to depth in education and its emphasis on self-indulgence.

I began to recover.  I understand, and I hope that Paul Simon understands, that the urge to create should be answered without regard for the renown or the rewards.  If the music is in you, let it pour forth.  If someone appreciates you and promotes your work for you, accept the assistance.  If it pays handsomely, accept that as well, and make wise use of it.  If no one appreciates it as you pour it forth, though, sing anyway.  Satisfy yourself!  Satisfy yourself; that was the first lesson I re-learned.

If you are creating readable or singable or visible works of art, or you are making discoveries in the sciences, the next important realization is that you are, in spite of the fact that the law may protect your right to capitalize on your work, giving something away.  The world may be a better place because of your effort.  Those who haven't paid for your CDs will nevertheless hear your tune in some setting.  They will hum it, be inspired by it, and carry it with them.  To those who habitually hum your tunes, you have given something.

If you are an author, others may plagiarize your work, but your words may have changed a life.  Whether you are acknowledged or not, now or five hundred years from now, you did it.

Your painting may show up as a background on a computer desktop because someone snapped a picture of it against the gallery's policy.  Someone was impressed with what you did.  Acknowledged or not, you have soothed someone who may never know your name.

Once your name is no longer associated with your work, your witty phrase turned into an aphorism has also become a random act of kindness.  Everyone appreciates your skillful expression of what others were unable to put into words, but no one knows it originated with you.

I came, then, to the idea of balance.  My discretionary creative efforts, those things I do because I like to - which for me involve, at times, expressing ideas in words, at times arranging musical notes in new and beautiful patterns, and at times crafting tiny objects with my hands - I should do in order to satisfy myself.  The net effect, if there is ever to be any effect, will be to edify, entertain, or inspire as few as one human being who comes after me.  The one who benefits right now is I.  That much I can count on; more than that I cannot.

Something in me, then, wants to know that I am engaged in discretionary work that also benefits someone else in my lifetime.  It's okay to create and hope that it affects others centuries hence, but if I'm the only current beneficiary of my creative efforts, then I need to find other tasks to engage in as well.  If I don't, then I'm like a rich man who hoards his wealth knowing that unknowable individuals will benefit long after he has died and concludes, therefore, that he has been charitable in the future, so his soul is safe.  For those who use the Book of Common Prayer in their worship, the Great Thanksgiving ends with: "And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do."  I need to discern what that work is as well, and include it in my routine.

If I attend diligently to the job that provides a paycheck and health insurance, and if I attend responsibly to the cares of family life, I will have peace on a practical level.  Then a little time will be left to my discretion, to be spent, I hope, in obscure oblivion.  If, in those precious hours that are mine to control, I do some of that which satisfies my creative bent, and I do some of that which my God has given me to do among my neighbors, I think there will be a balance and I will be content.

Yes, I must discern some work that involves some further sacrifice of my time and which does not selfishly satisfy me.  And I must leave a little time to answer the creative call or else I will be a frustrated and unproductive person.  While I may suspect my own creative fulfillment will affect someone unknowable somewhere, some day, I must also dabble in the work the Creator has given us to do.  If I ignore my fellow man in favor of myself and suspected beneficiaries in some unforeseeable time, I have not struck a balance.  For those who believe in the Christ, (and this is as close to a sermon as I will get), it comes home to roost in the line: "Whatsoever you do unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it also unto me."  Ignore the least of these his brethren, ignore him.

I will be content because that which the world finds among my effects when I'm gone, with or without my name signed to it, and that which I have put before the world in my lifetime, either for self-actualization (to use Maslow's term) or in order to do the work I have been given to do, will have been done not in order that my name be made famous - look what fleeting fame Paul Simon has! - but that people unknown to me as I am to them will be a little better off.  And, quickly forgotten as I will be - eventually a mere ancestor on someone's family tree - God may look favorably upon the balance I have struck, and I will have enjoyed myself along the way.