Well, perhaps meeting is a slight exaggeration. But I did sit down with a group including Roger Ebert one day back in the 90’s. It was back when I taught English at the University, and used to drop in at the Faculty Club on Friday afternoons with a group of fellow English instructors. On this day when I dropped in, I saw at one end of the group gathered in chairs around a coffee table the unmistakable form of the man who had helped to make “Two thumbs up” such a well-known catch phrase.
“That’s a famous person,” I said to a colleague, who nodded in agreement. We were sitting at the other end of the group, and I never got introduced to the famous person, and didn’t say anything to the famous person, which is why I wouldn’t exactly call it “meeting.” Still.
For however long we sat there the famous person regaled us with stories of Hollywood, film-making, and the like. I don’t remember any of them, but what I do remember is the reverential air that descended on us. Now, this was not a generally reverential group. It was composed of smart-alecky, bright young PhD-types whose most common mode was satire or sarcasm.
Sarcasm, by the way, as I notice by perusing dating sites, has become a positive quality somehow. Women promote themselves by saying things like, “I have a sarcastic sense of humour,” though they sometimes qualify this by adding that they are not mean-spirited or harsh. I don’t know; it seems to me that the essence of sarcasm is mean-spiritedness or harshness. When a woman announces that she’s sarcastic, it’s a red flag for me; I back away, slowly, keeping my back away from her.
Anyway, our group back then, twenty years ago or so, tended to sarcasm. Perhaps it should have made me back away, but then what would I have done on Friday afternoons after a week of teaching or working on my PhD? Perhaps I was even guilty of sarcasm myself; I tend to take on the coloration of the group I’m in … Or can that be true? I often fancy myself as the outsider in any group I’m in. Does everybody feel that? Perhaps I became a sarcastic outsider.
Anyway, on this day with Roger Ebert, no one was sarcastic, certainly not towards Roger Ebert. “Oh, Mr. Ebert,” someone would say, “tell us about so-and-so.” Or, “How was it to work with so-and-so?” Or “Is Hollywood really as nasty as people say?”
I was astonished. What had happened to the sharp, cutting intellectuals who used to dominate the group? Had they been replaced by a bunch of adoring fans? Does fame have such power? In the absence of other things to worship, do we turn to celebrities? (Well, the answer to that last seems obvious now that I write it.)
But there must be some other path besides sarcasm and adoration, it seems to me. Maybe treating people as equals, though I hasten to say I don’t mean to put myself on the same level as Roger Ebert. Or is that just adoration sneaking in? I did register that he was a famous person, and I was rather mute that afternoon, perhaps as a result. Was that just silent adoration?
And I wonder what the famous person felt about the adoration. I’ve occasionally been on the receiving end of that sort of thing: when introduced to the friend of my girl-friend at the time, who was totally tongue-tied around me, in an admiring way, because I had just published a novel. I remember thinking, Well, this is nice in a way, but I’d rather just be able to talk normally with someone rather than bask in this admiration. But maybe that’s just me.