Recently, a wonderfully witty and satiric book of poetry came my way -- Paul Fericano's The Hollywood Catechism. Among other things, it takes a playful look at the way celebrity worship almost resembles a religion. Here's the first poem:
The Actor's Creed
I believe in Brando,
the Godfather of enormous weight,
creator of mumbling and angst,
and in James Dean, his only ward, our Jim,
who was sold into celluloid by Jack Warner,
born of the hustler Strasberg,
suffered under Rock Hudson,
was speeding, died, and nominated;
descended into gossip hell;
and on his third film was chosen
again from the dead;
ascended into Giant heaven,
and is seated in a bathhouse with Brando
the Godfather of enormous weight;
from where he will come to judge
I believe in the Holy Spielberg,
the holy casting couch,
the communion of press agents,
the forgiveness of Sally Field,
the resurrection of my career,
and life everlasting without Tom Hanks.
Anyone who was raised Catholic will recognize that this is a rewrite of the Apostles Creed, recited during every Mass. Living up to its title, Fericano's Catechism features a number of poems that recast prayers, substituting famous movie people for sacred figures. There is "The Director's Prayer," which rewrites the Our Father, "The Halle Berry," a redo of the Hail Mary, and in place of the Sign of the Cross, here's "The Sign of the Double Cross":
In the name of the Bogart,
and of the Cagney,
and of the Holy Edward G.
We Have Never Been Disenchanted
As I was thinking about why these poems work so well, I came across a fascinating essay by cultural critic Eugene McCarraher. In it, the author takes issue with a cliche about modernity -- that with the coming of science, technology and the skepticism of the Enlightenment, our world became, in the words of Max Weber, "disenchanted" (i.e., divested of the spirits, oracles and animism of an earlier age).
McCarraher argues instead that "we have never been disenchanted." For once the old gods and spirits fled the modern world, the holy beings and objects of popular culture replaced them: movie stars, celebrities, and an endless chain of luxurious products that carry their own magical auras and promises of power.
McCarraher reasons that this new "mysticism" is made possible by the spectacles of Capitalism, in which the rich and famous are portrayed as nearly miraculous, and the products they promote almost sacramental. All of which suggests that we are just as brainwashed by this new creed as people once were by older beliefs.
The Pragmatism of Celebrity Worship
Such ideas are useful for explaining the source of the wit in Fericano's book -- for what these poems do is make explicit what's implied by celebrity culture: they pretend to take the idea of celebrity worship literally.
But I say pretend (and this is where I differ a bit from the essay I mentioned) because, of course, no one really worships celebrities. Ripping a picture of Brando in half won't get the same reaction as doing the same thing with the Pope's. Despite the common belief that we're living in a "secular age," there's still a hierarchy of the sacred and profane. If this weren't true, these poems wouldn't be as funny as they are.
All of which leads me to wonder -- if we don't use celebrities in search of a (lost?) sense of transcendence, what are they good for?
I think a poem like "The Actor's Creed" offers a clue. Actors do, after all, follow a creed: the vocabulary of gestures established by the "greats" who came before them. And so do we. Like actors, consciously or not, we also sometimes incorporate the mannerisms, expressions and even fashion sense of our favorite stars into the way we perform our identities and the roles we're asked to play. Among other things, this is a way of displaying a sort of (pop) culture literacy.
In other words, instead of using such images to transcend daily life, we take them up as tools to participate in it. (See Alva Noe's Strange Tools.) This is why, as "godly" as they are, such figures are always marked by an amusing sense of worldliness.
It's also why invoking them in poetry, usually thought of as the realm of "high art," can sometimes have a satirically corrosive (and populist) effect -- even when it comes to literary "holiness." In this book, for example, Ginsberg's Howl becomes The Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr. (the actor who played the Wolfman in the classic 1941 film).
Frank O'Hara once wrote that people shouldn't be forced to read poetry, especially because most of it wasn't "as good as the movies" anyway. I like to think he composed poems beginning with lines like "Lana Turner has collapsed!" to help remedy the situation.
In The Hollywood Catechism, I found lots of the same sort of irreverent attitude -- and fun.