Too much thinking can be bad for you. For 10 years -- 10 years! -- Richard Schickel has thought and thought and thought about the subject of celebrity, and now he has come forth with this monumentally stupefying study of it. "Intimate Strangers" is an exercise in thumb-sucking, a derisive term used by journalists to describe interminable pieces of "news analysis" or "commentary" that are long on wheeze and short on what Sergeant Friday wanted: the facts, ma'am. In "Intimate Strangers" page after page passes without the appearance of what is recognizably a fact; but there is enough wheeze to power an armada.
This is a pity, for Schickel is an intelligent writer and he has chosen an interesting subject. He is an experienced movie reviewer and in an earlier book, "The Disney Version," he wrote what remains the most provocative study of a man whose influence in American life remains vastly underrated. From his vantage point in the movie theater he should be ideally situated to examine the matter of celebrity in contemporary society; but if he has made an earnest effort to do so, he nonetheless has produced remarkably little of interest.
"Intimate Strangers" probably could have been a fine magazine article; distilled to its essence, it might have been pithy and stimulating. But stretched out into an excruciatingly long book, it is largely repetitive and flaccid. There is only so much, after all, to be said about its central themes, which Schickel summarizes in a single paragraph:
"Thus was it established, the basic structure of our celebrity system -- the community and the others, the favored and the unfavored. Mutual dependency was implicit. For a convention was quickly established to govern the relationship between the two groups. It held that the favored, should they step too far out of line, could have their favors stripped from them, be returned to shameful anonymity at any time. It also held that, America being the land of opportunity, the unfavored might at any time be lifted up and granted favor. In our popular mythology, the talent scout is the messenger of the inscrutable gods, rainmaker to a populace ever parched for fame. In actuality, neither sudden doom nor sudden ascension would happen very often, but the possibilities added spice to the drama. And symbolically, there was accuracy in the portrayal."
From this Schickel goes on to consider the various manifestations of the relationship between the favored few and the unfavored many. He notes, accurately, the tendency of the public to regard television celebrities "just as if they were, in fact, friends," though eventually this leads him to the rather wilder speculation that "at a certain point of overexposure to the endlessly transmitted, symbolically weighted images of famous people, these figures take up permanent residence in many inner lives as well, become, in fact, omnipresent functionaries in their reveries and fantasies, guides to action, to sexuality, to ambition."
Similarly, Schickel notes that this relationship between the known and the unknown implies an intimacy that is inherently false, just as the relationships between celebrities themselves are inherently false. He points out that ours is an age of public confession and self-display, both of which present the appearance of intimacy without, in fact, the actuality of it. He describes, though with precious little originality, the effect of celebrity and television on politics, advancing at great length the shopworn observation that in the age of television, "personality would be everything in electoral politics."
It is no overstatement to say that Schickel sees celebrity, and "our individual celebrity dreams, our furtive lusts and fugitive longings, our fantasy relationships, whatever their emotional tone, with this or that famous person," as wholly malign influences in American life: corrupting our politics, debasing our culture, suppressing our individuality. He describes this as "our new tyranny of the image," and closes the book in an extraordinarily self-righteous cry of protest: "We cannot redeem the world. But we can, we unhappy few, redeem ourselves. If we cannot say no in thunder we can at least whisper subversion among ourselves."
This smacks of rather too much time spent in the movie theater and before the television set. Celebrity as it now takes shape most certainly is an odious business, as indeed seem to be most of the people who attain it, but its threat to the roots of the republic seems more a matter of Schickel's overheated imagination than of reality. As Schickel himself acknowledges, it is not going to go away, so the best course would seem to be to learn how to live with it; for that, "Intimate Strangers" is no help at all.