Celebrity and Desire

The one time I’ve felt like a celebrity was travelling in India, about a dozen years ago. Simply by being a tallish young American, travelling alone for most of my trip, it seemed like everyone wanted to buy me a cup of tea, tell me their opinions about the BJP and Congress parties, show off their contempt for Hindu stricture by buying eggs for me and eating one in my presence, take me to the monkey temple, bring me to meet their sister (“yes, I am crazy about cricket!”) ask me if the American propensity towards Caesarian section during childbirth was an attempt to increase sexual pleasure later in marriage (not a topic I had opinions on), take my picture with their family, buy me a cup of tea and bring me to meet their roommates, living far from home (“The Third Eye Guesthouse is our Bachelor Pad!”), rate different Bollywood movies and movie stars, review my intended itinerary  (“and after Rampur? What then?”), buy me a cup of tea and tell me slightly risqué stories about long-ago maharajahs (“But she knew that her husband was thinking too much about the naughty business and not enough about the war, so she sent him her severed head on a plate!”) along with all the innumerable touts trying to get you to look in their shop or stay at their hostel or send them money via Western Union that you expect traveling anywhere reasonably poor.


I wonder if that’s a little bit- a tiny flavor- of how Obama felt when he moved to Chicago. Before that, he’d been an intelligent but not extraordinary New Yorker, hanging out more with rich Pakistanis than with black people, working in nondescript jobs. But moving to Chicago, he was not only young, gifted, and black, an aspirational model for the black people he met in community organizing and in local politics. Returning to Chicago after Harvard Law, and touched by national distinction as the first black President of the Harvard Law Review, he was an answer to the prayers of powerful white Chicagoans for a black leader untouched by private animus or the demons of America’s past. His intellect and charisma explain that he was successful, sure. But they don’t explain why, say, the University of Chicago offered him a tenured position at the law school without his ever publishing an academic paper, or the Joyce Foundation asked him to become their President at a million dollars a year, before he had really done much of anything but written a long book about himself, lost a Congressional primary, and been sensible and well-spoken at various public events. Only the sense that in Obama, Chicago’s rulers had found a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Obama’s own sense of his exceptionality and grand destiny, that allowed him to decline these august gifts.


An acquaintance knew him reasonably well before his fame, and mentioned that when he saw him in Hyde Park in 2003 and said, “hey, Barack, how are you doing?” to which Obama replied “I’m thinking of running for Senate,” it seemed ridiculous at the time. But Obama knew that both the winds of fortune and the desires of whites and blacks well beyond Hyde Park, would speed his ship to harbors far and wide.


Cities and Desire 1.

There are two ways of describing the city of Dorothea: you can say that four aluminum towers rise from its walls flanking seven gates with spring-operated drawbridges that span the moat whose water feeds four green canals which cross the city, dividing it into nine quarters, each with three hundred houses and seven hundred chimneys. And bearing in mind that the nubile girls of each quarter marry youths of other quarters and their parents exchange the goods that each family holds in monopoly — bergamot, sturgeon roe, astrolabes, amethysts — you can then work from these facts until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future. Or else you can say, like the camel driver who took me there: “I arrived here in my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying along the streets toward the market, the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind. Before then I had known only the desert and the caravan routes. In the years that followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and the caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on that morning in Dorothea.”

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

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