I hear there’s one guy left in the world who doesn’t want to be a reality star.
The last of his kind, he lives in Connecticut somewhere, but producers keep calling him with offers. “The Man Who Doesn’t Want a Reality TV Show!” they say. “It’ll be huge! No one will believe it!”
And really, no one will.
Even Osama, lurking in his bunker, had his eyes glued to the television, huddled in the seasick glow of his own image. It was the one indelible moment of the last week.
Forget Norma Desmond. He looked like Gollum.
But in this case, the magical object that can magnify your power and make you disappear — not the Ring, but the Screen.
For the past two decades, reality has been drop-kicking Orwell’s 1984. Yes, he nailed the ubiquitous screens. But what he failed to understand was that we’d want them there. Forget being loved. We just want to be seen. Big Brother is watching? If only! But in case he wants to tune in, here’s my ZIP code, a list of all my friends and some embarrassing photos from college that I’m putting online!
Meet Narcissus 2.0. The image we’re in love with? Not the reflection. That might bear some resemblance to life.
We’re a legion of Pygmalions with the misfortune of having carved self-portraits. It’s painfully obvious that the ideal we’ve created doesn’t exist. Reality’s in the room with us, nicking its finger with the chisel as it sculpts a perfect eyebrow.
We are the real thing — disgusting, wrinkled, venial. That magnified, glorious self, with flawless pores and a confident stride and the ability to materialize out of nowhere with a witty quote, is a fabrication. And we know that too well, forever separated from our idol by the aquarium glass of the screen.
No, the vision that captivates us is the highlight reel, the constructed self that exists only on the other side of the screen — on Twitter, on Facebook, on television. It is the self we have created so that others can watch. Sure, the camera adds 10 pounds. But it adds 10,000 eyes.
But you’re never supposed to acknowledge the camera. And you’re never supposed to let them see you caring.
You want to embarrass someone these days? Catch him Googling himself. Caring What Other People Think is a national pastime that falls somewhere just above baseball but below yelling at your television set. We all do it, but, like many other things everyone does — watch “Jersey Shore,” Google “Where does oil come from?” — we never talk about it.
The objects we claim to have found in Osama’s bunker were a litany of modern embarrassments. Herbal viagra? Beard dying? But that pitiful video of the old man with the clicker was more mortifying than any herbal enhancements.
It’s the one unforgivable modern faux pas: being caught staring at your own image.
The layman’s definition of narcissism is “loving yourself so much that you forget to eat.” They’re leaving it out of the DSM:IV manual of mental disorders, although for some more arcane reason than because it’s moved from “disorder” to “social grace,”as we sit in our respective bunkers gazing worshipfully at our Facebook presences.
But unlike Pygmalion, we make the images not for ourselves, but to get others to stare. The sense that one was being watched used to make us nervous. Now it falls somewhere above food and shelter in our hierarchy of basic needs. Don’t believe me? Look at Osama — huddled in the darkness in a prisonlike compound, clinging to the remote, practically murmuring, “My Precious!” Forget Bertrand Russell’s civilization-defining choice between a loaf of bread and the vote — unless that’s a vote for you on “American Idol.” We have demonstrated repeatedly our willingness to live in a box or a glass case or a Hoarder House — if people will just look at us. Our new choice is between the loaf and the Nielsen box.
The video of Osama watching himself was propaganda. But how we chose to show his weakness says as much about us as it does about Osama.
It’s not a video of a pitiful old man playing chess, or reading, or even watching the weather. That wouldn’t be nearly so shameful. It’s not embarrassing reading materials or nude pictures. It’s the image of him watching himself. Not because we don’t do likewise. But because we do.
Celebrities — they’re just like us! Monsters, too.
Narcissus is sitting in a bunker gazing at his own image on a screen.
And it doesn’t have to be a flattering image. There’s a reason “America’s Most Wanted” is the most-watched show in prisons — the same reason Osama was watching in his bunker. Execrate us, paint us as villains — say anything, and we’ll watch. As Oscar Wilde once noted, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
And if you ever doubt that adage, drop by my bunker sometime.