First published on the Drum in 2008.
We are in the midst of an obsession with celebrity. Mistakenly, many people think fame, real or vicarious, will enrich them spiritually as well as materially. But, the joy of being anonymous in a large city is one of the great achievements of modern civilisation. So why are most people desperate to ignore this source of liberty and joyous engagement with the world around them?
Anonymity is a comparatively recent phenomenon in human history. Most of our ancestors knew everyone they came into contact with on a daily basis. And everyone knew them. In a village or a nomadic tribe, everyone knows you and your business. There is no such thing as privacy, everything you do, every move you make, is subject to scrutiny.
When a villager or tribesmen doesn't know someone, that person is a stranger - a mysterious person with possibly harmful intentions. Before the emergence of large cities, everyone was on alert in the presence of a stranger. And for many people this sense of strangeness has been transferred to the city itself and the crowds that fill it.
Most of us merely tolerate difference to a greater or lesser degree. We still by and large prefer the congenial company of those who are like us. Our friendships tend to reflect us in many ways in class, religion, sexual orientation, marital status and so on. We congregate together, in small groups, like villagers amid a sea of unknown, and strange, humanity.
This resistance in the face of strangeness is one reason for the popularity of celebrity. Celebrity seems to work by convincing us that we are just like lots of other people and that they are just like us. Celebrity reassures us that we are not alone or isolated. We imitate the clothes and opinions of the famous to solemnise our connection with them.
Celebrity is a false promise for the observer and it can be catastrophic for the celebrated.
The observer must cling to the illusion that there is a village-like connection where none can possibly exist. To the commercial beneficiaries of celebrity, the observers' hopes are not important. They are only important as consumers of movies, clothes and music.
For most of us, the illusion that we may yet enjoy some sort of relationship with our confected heroes dies with fading youth and our interest in the famous may settle down to a harmless past time. If it doesn't, it may morph into the sort of insanity that drove Mark Chapman to murder John Lennon. In fact, the famous are often stalked by deranged fans clinging to the illusion of some 'relationship' too literally.
Many of the famous do not cope well. They rage and lash out like animals caged in a bizarre zoo. Think of Britney Spears. Or the sadness of Heath Ledger, rich and lonely in Manhattan. Or the public disintegration of Australian football stars like Ben Cousins, Andrew Johns and Wayne Carey.
The famous can never take a step outside their gilded prisons. They are under scrutiny. A simple walk to the park or a local shop is out of the question. Any indiscretion or personal misfortune is liable to be intensified through front page coverage. The shekel-seeking photographers are ever present, eager for the 'money shot' that conveys some drama like Britney freaking out yet again.
In this celebrity culture being anonymous, or unknown, conveys the sense of missing out on something important that our civilisation has to offer.
But for those of us who can do so, walking through cities observing the beauty and drama all around us is an intellectually and spiritually enriching pleasure that has only recently been available to humanity.
In 19th century Paris, the great poet, Charles Baudelaire helped to popularise, in certain circles, the idea of the flaneur. The flaneur, from the French word meaning 'to stroll', was traditionally a rich gentleman who displayed his wealth through idle walks in Parisian cafes.
As 'flaneur' became a literary concept it came to mean someone who engages emotionally and intellectually with the unknown crowd around them; the literary flaneur observes the people he encounters with interest and empathy, not with fear and resistance.
Many of these literary flaneurs were, and are, novelists. Dickens was a frequent and extensive walker and his novels are filled with his evocative observations of people and places like the Cheapside market visited by Pip in Great Expectations: "all asmear with filth and fat and blood... the great black dome of St Paul's bulging at me."
Perhaps the greatest, and most famous, of flaneurs in modern literature is James Joyce's Leopold Bloom. Bloom is perfect because he is a citizen of Dublin but, being jewish, also an outsider. He is known by many of those he meets but as a lower middle class seller of newspaper advertisements he is essentially inconsequential. He is free.
Joyce gives us Dublin through Bloom. His most important character is interested in every aspect of the city's life as it unfolds around him. He is empathetic with the people around him; he seeks to understand, he wonders how it feels to be other people, to live other lives. He wonders about the connections between his observations and everything he already knows.
Bloom, or any flaneur, is only possible because our major cities allow most of us to move about freely subject to only to a minimum of scrutiny and interest from those around us.
Our cities today are, in many ways, far more diverse, complex and interesting than the Dublin of 1904 or even Victorian London. Yet, most people rush through the crowds getting between point A and point B almost oblivious to the wonders of the world around them and unable to shed their feelings of strangeness.
The sights, smells and sounds on any day, in any major city are fantastic and far surpass anything that could be encountered through a screen. You don't need to be a Baudelaire, Dickens or Joyce to revel in it. You just need to engage - to observe and think for yourself.
Sadly, many people believe the famous, and the lives of the famous, must be so much more interesting than themselves and their own lives. That's, perhaps, the most horrible by-product of our celebrity age. It's an illusion sustained by our failure to engage fully with the life going on all around us in these incredible cities.