Eating the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is the most famous picture in the world, right?  I mean, it's one of the handful of paintings that I can't remember ever not knowing its name.  The Wikipedia page on the Mona Lisa quotes someone describing it as "The best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world," in the first sentence of the article. So, no matter how famous you are, no matter how much you accomplish in your life, odds are extremely good that you will never be more famous for any of those achievements than the Mona Lisa is now.

And there's an easy way to tell, as the title might have tipped you off:  If you stole, and ate, the Mona Lisa, that fact about you would annihilate the rest of your legacy as a human being.  If the President of the United States stole and ate the Mona Lisa, centuries after the fact, people would say, "Hey, you know the guy who ate the Mona Lisa?  He was actually a president of the United States!"  Pretty much no-one would say, "Here's an interesting list of facts about President Whatsisface:  Despite its passage, he vehemently opposed the Thirty-Second Amendment, he slept on the White House lawn for fear of terrorists under his bed, he once accidentally said that England was a U.S. state and that we'd seceded from Montana, oh, and he ate a famous painting called the Mona Lisa."

It's hard to think of people to whom this wouldn't apply.  If Tim Berners-Lee ate the Mona Lisa, people would say, "Hey, that guy who ate the Mona Lisa was also the guy who invented the World Wide Web."  If Queen Elizabeth II ate the Mona Lisa, people would say, "That woman who ate the Mona Lisa was queen of Britain at the time."  If Martin Luther King Jr had eaten the Mona Lisa, people would say, "The guy who ate the Mona Lisa was actually a very important civil rights leader before that."

Maybe, maybe, the Pope could come away on equal footing -- the Pope who ate the Mona Lisa, not the guy who ate the Mona Lisa was a pope -- but it would still overshadow everything else about his career.

It's very strange to think about it, but there are things in this world so absurdly famous that if you interacted with them too significantly, your life would be plowed down into a footnote in the story of that thing.

I also think this can be a good diagnostic tool for the present obsession with fame, and with narrative relevance:  I brought this theory up at a party with some college students my age, and several of them immediately agreed that, if their other life plans didn't pan out, if they didn't end up being famous for any other reason, then they would, as a back-up plan, endeavor to steal and eat the Mona Lisa.  Because being significant, for whatever reason, seemed more important to them than any other option they could imagine.  They couldn't think of anything about their futures that could be worth preserving if their bid at fame didn't pan out, instead choosing (or claiming they'd choose) to pointlessly destroy art of incredible cultural significance, just so people would remember it was them that did it.

There was an arsonist in ancient Greece named Herostratus, who, in 356 BC, burned down a major temple that was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.  He did it because he wanted to be famous, and as a punishment the local authorities executed him and tried to outlaw anyone ever repeating his name.

It turns out, there's a whole category of people who have been wiped from memory:  it was a punishment in Rome called damnatio memoriaefor people who'd brought dishonor to their city.  Obviously it would be impossible to do this today, but it seems like a lot of people feel like failing to get themselves adequately recorded is a sort of de facto damnation.

I don't really know what else to say about this.  I can't in good faith condemn the trend, because I'm trying pretty hard to be significant.  Granted, my motivations for continuing to try aren't just "I'm supposed to be famous, that's how it works." But feeling that way, and feeling like my life only mattered if I was hugely important to loads of people, was a big part of why I started, so it would be disingenuous of me to pretend it's not relevant.

But also, it's really horrible and irresponsible, and I hope that it starts to deconstruct itself -- I especially hope that the idea that being remembered is worth it whether or not you're remembered for something good goes away.