We’ve gotten it all wrong.
Oprah didn’t leave daytime television.
She had her apotheosis, on-air.
The final show was a sort of Oprah’s Last Supper, with the Queen of Daytime sitting down and reminding her flock to Abide By Her Teachings and Do This In Remembrance Of Me. But the instant the cameras stopped rolling, a fiery chariot no doubt appeared and whizzed her out of sight — and maybe the cocker spaniel from the final shot as well.
I do not mean this with any disrespect to Oprah. A friend of mine once meant disrespect to Oprah, and all his window treatments turned on him.
But you’d think from all the fuss that She-Who-Must-Be-Named-Over-And-Over-Again-By-Maya-Angelou wasn’t just leaving broadcast daytime television.
You’d think she was about to ascend.
I once suggested that Oprah’s departure from the air wasn’t a big deal, and everyone gazed at me, aghast.
“It was with Oprah that we first witnessed the Revelation of Tom Cruise and the Jumping Upon The Couch!” they hissed. “Hail to Oprah! It was from Oprah that we learned that our houses should rise up to greet us and symbolize all that we wanted to be! Have Compassion Upon Us O Oprah, Lady of Compassion and Baby Steps! In your absence, our lives are uprooted!”
What hath Oprah wrought?
Oprah is in our kitchens. She’s in our bathrooms. She’s under our sinks. She’s hiding behind our boxwoods murmuring divine messages.
In general, the news that “she’s in your house. She’s in your car. She’s in your desk drawer” causes us to call the police and scream incoherently for several minutes. Instead, we smile complacently. After all, we brought her there.
There are two ways to love yourself, Oprah says. Loving yourself, and loving Oprah, because Oprah is Just Like You, But Better.
That’s the divine secret, the whisper that This Could Be You If You Only Ate Like Me and Thought Like Me and Walked In My Ways. That’s Oprah’s allure. But her ways are hard. She hardly sleeps. She once lost sixty-seven pounds. Sometimes she causes cars to materialize out of thin air. She made us read Tolstoy. No mere human could do that! People attend graduate school for years to study Tolstoy, and some of them still don’t read it, getting by instead by nodding and murmuring things about the inevitability of decay and “really, isn’t this just Madame Bovary but in Russia?”
“You have taught us how to be,” said Jada Pinkett-Smith during the two-hour “Surprise Oprah” spectacular. On the final show, Oprah quoted from an early fan: “Watching you be yourself makes me want to be myself.”
If there was once a focus on doing things, Oprah put the carefully chosen Nail of the Month in its coffin. She is the Queen Be, determining our paths not by what she does but by who she is. You aren’t reading Tolstoy because you want to read Tolstoy. You’re reading Tolstoy because you want to be a Person Who Has Read Tolstoy.
No wonder we worship her. After all, being is the ultimate modern art. We don’t want to do things. We want to be somebody. Doing things is an inconvenience reserved for people with bad noses who can’t Make It In The Biz.
There’s a word for when a powerful guru who has taught you how to exist passes into a new realm. Of course there’s been such a frenzy. We are not mourning the departure of a beloved talk-show host. We are keening for a departed god.
“The words of a dead man,” Auden wrote, “are modified in the guts of the living.” So are Oprah’s words. And she’s still here!
It’s no wonder that people have based entire books on their Year of Doing What Oprah Told Me, or have bought millions of reissued classics, or are no longer wandering the streets in ill-fitting bras.
You can tell that someone has cut her teeth as a deity once she begins bestowing it upon others. Look at the flotilla of demigods Oprah has amassed, each with a dedicated shrine. In the bedroom and the consulting room are Doctors Phil and Oz. In the kitchen, Rachael Ray. But these O-lympians have to bow before the one, the only, the inimitable Oprah, the Zeus to their Hestias and Aphrodites.
So the question, “Who is the next Oprah?” is a little bit like asking “Who wants to start a benevolent cult of personality?” Her benevolence was at the heart of the cult. Oprah could not steer us wrong — she was like us. We felt safe handing Oprah the keys to our lives because she was happy to hand us the keys to her cars.
Oprah was the mythical hero who kept on giving. Most boon-bringing, Joseph-Campbell-style heroes stop at one boon. “Here’s the secret to enlightenment,” they say. “I’d stay, but I have to go develop some hubris.” “Here’s the secret to enlightenment,” Oprah says. “And a new car!”
She reshaped us in her image. In an age that has been defined increasingly by an insistence on being rather than on doing, she was the guru to whose knees we clung.
The worst part about this departure is that it is not a departure at all. Oprah is leaving the air. So what? She is becoming a part of all that she has met, transfiguring from her first form as a TV goddess to become something more modern, more all-embracing and possibly even more ubiquitous. One show? She’s a network! One woman? She’s a Brand — 2011 for “deity.” She is not gone, but here, among us, in this drawer.
Please, Oprah. You never left. It seems you never will.
All hail Our Lady of Baby Steps.