Stars in a Galaxy of Our Making
by Afsheen Farhadi
Our culture privileges lightness over darkness, inherent in the representations and uses of each term. Inspiration and ingenuity are lit bulbs above one’s head; to see the light is to see something clearly, for what it is, a metaphor for truth and enlightenment. Darkness, on the other hand, is the ambiance of ignorance and dull-wittedness. To be in the dark is to be blind to the visible splendors of our world, a metaphor for death and sadness, for loneliness, for the depravity of human nature. In part, the reason our culture attaches such meanings to these terms may come down to the single defining difference between lightness and darkness: light has a source, while darkness is the inglorious, natural state of the universe.
Each person chooses their own source of light. These sources are so personal, so subjectively translated and latched on to, that one person’s source can very often befuddle another. The idols we choose, the people we worship, are various, as close to infinite as we can reach without broaching infinity. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but admiration and worship and the designation of a being, idea, or principle as profound source of light is even more subjective than beauty.
These sources are very often institutionalized, a constructed and ever-shifting hierarchy. When the Pope visited New York City in September of 2015, I was invited by a photojournalist friend who works for a popular newspaper to accompany him on assignment. I accepted, despite being unmoved by the Pope’s religious significance or celebrity, because what most interested me was the idea of being among a crowd of the devout, those for whom this man and the religion at which he stood atop was as profound a source of light as could ever be imagined.
In fact, celebrity itself is not so fascinating to me. I can easily imagine the gradual inflation of ego that comes with fame, and what that inflation may do to a person. What does intrigue me, though, are the conduits to fame, the fans, the fandoms, the worshippers. In the few times in my life that I’ve been to any church-like place of worship, the words of the sermon are difficult to pay attention to, so engaged am I in watching the reactions of the congregation. So on the day of the Pope’s visit, I was tantalized by the idea of such a vast congregation, a crowd so vast I imagined its enormity would amplify its own reaction.
My friend and I met in front of Trump Tower on 5th Avenue, between 56th and 57th street. The crowd lining the street was sparse, had not yet built any sort of mass, least of all the mass of gyrating worshipers I had hoped to encounter. My friend and I commented on this more times than necessary, less in disappointment than in benign disillusionment. Further down 5th, tall black barricades separated street, where the Pope-mobile would pass, from sidewalk, where his followers would watch, cheer, and hope to catch his eye. Because where we stood was not barricaded, it seemed questionable we were even on his direct route. I was with professional photojournalists, for whom my friend seemed to be their appointed chief. Every so often they would flank him with vague, conflicting updates: We were at the starting point of the Pope’s tour. We were just beyond it. We were nowhere close. A local television anchor, in heavy, gray, square-shaped suit told us the Pope would come to the cameras. That’s why he was here, after all. But others were less certain. One journalist told us there was no guessing what this pope would do. He’s known for changing plans last minute. It’s his thing. Many speculated about what they assumed would be a grand gesture of humility: the Pope would start in his car, would order the driver to stop, and would walk the rest of the way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he would deliver the evening prayer.
All of the speculation was less enthusiastic than obligatory. Though I could easily imbue the event with all sorts of charms, that of a disciple to your lord, of a fan to your celebrity, of a journalist to your big story, those around me seemed to mirror my disinterest in the proceedings. To the journalists, this was a job, one without an interesting arc, one they were merely assigned, last minute.
In a quiet moment alone, my friend and I sat on the sidewalk and talked about whether their existed a celebrity who we truly cared about seeing. I listed a few possibilities. He said the only person he wanted to meet was Jane Goodall, and he had met her last year. Here, I should mention that my friend and I went to graduate school together. Though we were both writers it was clear his strength was in photography, which had taken him far, not just to New York to work for this well-known paper, not just to meeting Jane Goodall, but to having won two Emmys for stories he was proud to have told. I hadn’t seen him in years, and for me, the talk of Emmys was astounding. My friend had two. One of his coworkers, who spent stints during those hours sitting with us in speculation, had nine. They said the Emmys didn’t mean a whole lot to them. It wasn’t the end goal, they said. They spoke with the type of humility that has the exact opposite effect of what humility should accomplish. They dismissed something good, and in doing so appeared even better.
Looking back, the struggle for humility was mine as well. The Pope’s presence meant little to me, and yet, I wanted to be among those for whom his presence meant a lot. Why was I there, if not to establish myself fully as a witness to the spectacle, to be in it enough to proclaim my standing above it? To take this further, it seemed I was merely deluding myself with the idea that the structures, the hierarchies, of fame meant nothing to me. Because the mention of Emmys peaked my interest, the idea that those statues I had seen on television were things that a friend of mine owned and would show me when I went to his house and would likely ask if I wanted to touch. To which I would either do my best to be as nonchalant as he was, or would give in and have my picture taken with them, a brief source of self-satisfied light to enhance the obscuring darkness of a little known existence.
All of which gives me new perspective on the apathy of the journalists. This was an event whose eminence was divorced from them. It was not the obscure story they could spotlight with their cameras, would not earn them the acclaim of their peers and critics. This was an already bright source of light to which they had no particular, distinguishable, unique claim.
There is, of course, something noble in this. The convolution of selfless charity for selfish reasons is one that is often difficult to parse, some would say needless to parse, some would say cynical. Rather than see the journalists as unenthused because the viewpoint they offered readers and viewers was not particular to them may have been a cynical way of looking at it. Rather, there were stories out there more important and more deserving of the attention they could provide, backed as they were by huge multimedia corporations that had to ability to take obscurity and turn it into light.
Either because of this propensity to seek out the story-behind-the-story, or because of the uncertainty of being able to capture the forefrontal story, my friend and one of his colleagues decided it best to build the piece around audience interviews. A woman from Argentina, who had camped out on the street since very early in the morning, was being interviewed by another news outlet. When the interview concluded, my friend and his colleague approached. It didn’t go well. The woman spoke little English. My friend asked if I knew Spanish. I didn’t, and what little I did know left me as soon as I was called upon. The interview followed a predictable pattern: the reporters asked questions in very loud, carefully enunciated English; the participant answered with many ponderous mumbles before returning the only relevant words she knew: Catholic, Papa, Argentina, I, Love. Everyone was relieved when it was over.
My friend decided that the others in his crew would bring their footage back to him. Rather than shoot, he would edit and distribute. As we waited on the sidewalk, a woman sat next to us and began asking questions about the Pope’s arrival, things we didn’t know. She said that if she were us (thinking we both worked for the popular newspaper) she would ask him what he was wearing under his robe. My friend didn’t reply, not interested in humoring her feeble attempt at humor. I forced a laugh, perhaps for the fact of a certain union I felt with her, someone in attendance for either less-than-noble reasons, or no discernible reason at all. However, others around us had all sorts of earnest advice: where to stand, what to say if we got the chance, even suggesting camera angles and visual swoops and pans. Some of this advice, I thought, was usable. But my friend dismissed it with a quiet don’t-tell-me-how-to-do-my-job indignation.
While he was used to it, perhaps aggrieved by its abundance, I was charmed by the attention awarded us as members of the press. As the crowd finally gained mass, so too built a general din of enthusiasm, the camaraderie of a large gathering of like-minded individuals becoming friendlier by the second. I began taking notes, which I would eventually use to write the piece I am now writing, this piece that hasn’t been commissioned by anyone, and may very well be my last act of impersonation in a string of such acts, so that I may somehow feel connected to this event which has since come and gone and of which I was an undocumented and unremembered witness. I’m attempting to do what my friend and his colleagues and all the other journalists wanted to do, put individualized spin on a story so large, an event so sweeping, individualism isn’t really a part of it. I can attempt this, of course, only because I am untethered by the obligations of the other journalists: affiliates, concision, objectivity, a general and pre-determined yes-attitude to what has been deemed a nice moment in American culture, a nice moment in the continued story of a pope who seems a generally decent person.
Among a crowd of people gravitating toward the bright, imminent spectacle, I had my own source of light, being among Emmy-winning journalists, being with them, being able to see myself in their shadow, at the very least. My source of light had much to do with my simultaneous inclusion and detachment from the proceedings. My source of light was, singularly, painfully, me.
As my friend’s colleagues started bringing him footage, he needed a place to sit. We went into Trump Tower, to the second floor lobby. As he began editing, showing me the steps in the process, it seemed the uneventfulness which I had previously witnessed was now being shaped in a way that made it remarkable. The action was moving—juxtaposed images combined to tell a story profound in its economy. The basics of storytelling were on display. So too was the drudgery of the work, the hours it took to secure a strong enough wifi-connection to send the finished product back to headquarters. As the sights and sounds of the street, the interactions and reactions began to fade into indistinguishable boredom, I left my friend and ventured back down.
Ninety minutes or so before the Pope was scheduled to appear, the crowd was now at full density. And a crowd of people, gathered in motionless waiting, as well as the presence of hundreds of reporters with hundreds of cameras, searching to cut a story through a monolith of uneventfulness, is something those hoping to keep their light burning cannot pass up. Case in point: Donald Trump, who came down from his tower, surrounded by security guards, a small crowd within a larger crowd with its new, orange-hued center. People flocked the circle, though they couldn’t get close to Trump himself, who paced back and forth, moving his hands as if to part the crowd and keep it at bay, doing so needlessly, since the security guards were doing that work for him.
Though I had previously thought I would be as equally unmoved at seeing Donald Trump as I would be seeing the Pope, I couldn’t help the gasp of excitement and surprise with which I met him. Though now I feel a sort of shame at remembering that gasp, at the moment I felt nothing but a brightly lit flash of recognition, a miracle of nature, to have this person who I thought only existed behind the glare of my television, now step out from the machine and into real life, a real life that with him in it, suddenly felt less real.
I can explain my reaction this way: there is a world on television that feels to occur only in and of itself, and we can watch and engage in this world at will, but only up to a point. We can watch and we can know and we can criticize, while protected in an aura of passivity, resulting from the one-sidedness of the arrangement. When we see these television-world participants (or celebrities) in person, the one-sidedness of the bargain is demolished; they hold authority over us, in direct proportion to the authority we, when watching on television, hold over them. The privilege of being real is no longer ours alone. Though those gathered to see the Pope, and those congregating around Trump, and I, with my self-satisfied delusions of being a part and above it all, each had separate sources of light, the true distinction was between all of us and the Trumps and Popes of the world, for whom their light is absolutely literal, stepping out into public and being met by thousands of cameras twinkling like stars in a universe constructed with them at its center.
On this type of celebrity, I have little to offer, having little experience with it. However, in this regard, what most intrigues me about the press, is that they are conduits between the watchers and the watched. And they must report to the watchers what the watchers want to watch. The reporters were in attendance because of this obligation, when what they really wanted was to report something unique, something smaller and therefore more deserving of the attention they could provide. But they were given the assignment, by an editor, who was perhaps following orders of a higher up or orders of the market economy, of Capitalism.
Standing among that crowd, I began to feel like one in a swarm of consumers. I began to feel cheap. I began to feel like my detachment and inclusion, that strange balancing act that accounted for me feeling anything at all, was exactly what we were all feeling, from the most devout to the most begrudging. We come to these events, we watch, we call them important, precisely because we are told that these are events worth coming to and watching and are therefore important. But there is a chicken-and-egg feeling to this interpretation. The media follows the numbers, the large demands of its viewership. And yet, it seems that viewership’s demands are equally conditioned by the trends and assertions of importance that the media conveys. So while there were people there, like the Argentinian woman, whose devotion to a religion and its figureheads is seemingly unaccounted for in this essay, there were also people— like me, like the woman who coached us to ask the Pope what he wears under his robe, like the journalists with their stern and tired faces—there for no essential reason other than that it was proclaimed to be a big moment, a benchmark on the long, ever-unfolding history of humanity, as evidenced by its coverage and attendance, which we had all contributed to.
So why were we there? Perhaps one reason we move toward these bright, gleaming spectacles, is because we feel important for having been there, though we know, on some level, we are not, that we are merely one in a thousand as opposed to the one in a million or billion we normally are. And of course, regardless of whether we are there and excited, there and begrudging, or there and aloof, I imagine the end-all feeling it leaves you with, which is the end-all feeling it left me with, is a sort of emptiness. Because this means something to us only because of the hype that someone at the top of this strange and abstract structure of commands has created and to which we helplessly and by various methods attach significance. In other words: trickle-down significance.
When Trump disappeared down the block, I went back up his decadent tower and told my friend about the sighting. Another photographer was already there, uploading his footage onto my friend’s computer. I watched, wondering whether or not I was captured. I wasn’t. By now, I’m grateful.
My friend decided to finish editing back at the office. I had an engagement downtown. It was an hour or so before the Pope would arrive, but suddenly it no longer seemed worth the time. My friend had other photographers who would capture footage of the small parade. I would be able to see it on television, at angles and perspectives more intimate than possible standing twenty yards away from the thing itself. We said our goodbyes, promised to stay in touch, and departed, finding that because of the crowds and the barricades and the closed off streets, it was even more difficult to leave than it had been getting there.
Afsheen Farhadi‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Witness, Redivider, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can find him on Twitter @AfsheenFarhadi.