Published October 25, 2005 · Estimated reading time: 6 minutes · Filed under , ,

Fifth Business (Penguin Classics) During the past century, a world once roamed by gods, mythical heroes, and villains, has transformed into the modern world with icons as its staple. These icons are often recognized for some well-known significance and embody qualities which have elevated them into ‘symbols’ akin to the ancient gods. The word “icon” itself roots from the Greek, image, and was used to describe images and objects which portrayed sacred religious symbols. In modern culture, however, the meaning has extended to include cultural, even sacrilegious symbols. As religious icons once were, modern icons have become a vital part of our culture. It is, therefore, critical to understand how they took that role, and what exactly it is that makes a human being or a fictional character an icon.

Throughout history, symbolism has allowed human beings to explore relationships, ideas, concepts and qualities. The creation of symbols and metaphors allowed people to create constants, to which they could hold on in an ever-changing world. Societies, no matter how small or isolated, shaped legendary characters, that were passed on from generation to generation through oral traditions. As Roberson Davies stated in his book Fifth Business, it seems that people have always needed heroes onto whom they could project their personal ideals and values.

With the emergence of the modern era, however, the ancient heroes and villains were superseded by modern icons. As locality was lost to the global village and societies grew more and more interdependent, mass media began to exert influence over populations, allowing global cultural symbols or icons to take shape. Unlike their historical counterparts, who seemed rigidly constrained in the good and bad moral containers, the modern icons came to represent a spectrum of “larger than life” elite, parallel to the ancient gods themselves.

The word “icon” finds its roots in the Greek, eikon, “image”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has had a long history of use, most of which it was associated with religious traditions. Christian icons are paintings or objects that depict Jesus, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints and objects such as the cross. Religious iconography has also had a vital role in Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism, where the “murti” or religious icons are treated as sacred objects of worship. During the past century, however, the meaning of the word has extended to include cultural icons, or representative symbols of modern cultural behaviors and movements.

Staying true to the root “image”, modern icons such as Gandhi and Hitler largely owe their iconic status to the mass distribution of their images by the media. Pacifism has become personified in the image of a small, frail, Indian man in large glasses and a white robe. Likewise, tyranny has been made flesh in the image of a mustached man bearing a broken cross. Photographs, television, videos, and the internet have all aided in solidifying and even creating icons. Their defining role is, perhaps, best captured in the infamous picture of the ‘unknown rebel’– a Chinese man standing alone to block a line of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The image was quickly slapped across the front pages of newspapers and magazines all over the western world, creating an instant “icon”, albeit the man himself remains unknown to this day.

Cameras, which can reduce multi-dimensional individuals into caricatures, can also reduce profound ideas and ideals into the level of still images. During his lifetime, Che Guevara became a symbol of rebellion and revolutionary change. With his execution, his legend became even more potent. To this day he still remains a popular cultural symbol worldwide, his actual doings, though, have mostly been reduced to unimportant. Che’s iconic image has been altered into a hollow card-board character embellishing random merchandize, standing at odds with the ideals the man himself promoted.

In Fifth Business, Davies views people in prominent positions as players cast into roles by society. Attempts to deconstruct modern icons, therefore, becomes a walk between the threshold of reality and fiction, as the icon is authored by, and represents, what the society desires to see as oppose to a real individual. The images of icons can be severely distorted, or exaggerated from the persona of the people they emerged out of. Such is the case with Che Guevara, whose image has now become a staple to both communist propaganda and capitalist consumerism.

Heracles, though a mythical hero and demi-god, was considered in the ancient world to have been an ancestor of Alexander, a real man. Society authored Heracles, a fictional character, into the status of prominence, and promoted Alexander, from the status of a mere man into ‘Alexander the Great’ a mythical figure, and a theme for folk-songs and epics. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James Gatz illustrates himself into a colorful character he names Jay Gatsby, in order to achieve his conception of how life should be. Icons are conjured in the minds of the people in order to fulfill their conceptions. An icon, therefore, does not need to be based on a real individual because it is simply an image, a symbol, a superhuman representation, far from reality.

The Great Gatsby Each era creates its own icons and celebrities. The perceived role of icons in shaping and preserving history, though, allows them to transcend above celebrities and maintain durability. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s mysterious persona, extravagant parties, and exuberant style of living, allows him to accomplish a “celebrity status” among the other characters. His reclusive conduct, and lack of any real impact on most of the other characters’ lives, however, causes his image to disappear as quickly as it first appeared. Nonetheless, since the publication of the book, Gatsby’s image has enjoyed great popularity. His character has been greatly acclaimed, and he has grown into a massive literary icon in Western culture. Much of this can be attributed to the author, Fitzgerald, who drew in Gatsby the modern debonair, the idealistic romantic with whom everyone is fascinated. As one character describes Gatsby, “there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”.

In Gatsby, Fitzgerald personified the 1920’s, or what he coined as “The Jazz Age” as an era marked by suave gentlemen, glamorous ladies, and gaudy wealth. Today, society remembers with nostalgia, the post-war era of enlightenment of the roaring twenties; art deco design, vibrant colors, new social attitudes, and hedonism that emerged with early modernism. People are fascinated with the classic grandeur of the Rockefellers and the Kennedy’s, and the extravagant glamour of modern icons of such as Donald Trump. With his pink suit and eccentric demeanor, Gatsby has become frozen in time as an icon of wealth and romance. His ambition and vibrancy characterizes not only his era, but the “American dream”; a feat which has made the Great Gatsby a durable icon on par with the other ‘Greats’.

Through the mass distribution of images, or iconic ‘snapshots’, modern media has played a vital role in creating, shaping and solidifying society’s perception of modern celebrities and icons. The icon, however, transcends the celebrity in that it is more a myth than a human being. It is an image, a metaphor, onto which society can project its ideals. Fictional icons, therefore, can stand on the same platform as icons inspired by real men and women. As displayed by Fitzgerald’s infamous Great Gatsby, the more an icon is perceived to have shaped or preserved a part of history, the more resilient it becomes to the test of time.

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Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi


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