Vanity Fair, like Jezebel, is one of those various publications that embraces, and tries to transappropriate (emphasis on the trans in this case), a negative (usually Christian) term. We all remember Jezebel, the hateful vicious idolatrous wife of Ahab, but perhaps the allusive source for Vanity Fair has become obscure to modern audiences.
It’s from Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Pilgrim’s Progress is widely cited in the Top 10 best-selling books of all time (which the Bible handily tops). Here’s the passage from Bunyan’s masterpiece describing Vanity Fair:
[Vanity Fair] is no new erected business; but a thing of ancient standing. I will show you the original of it.
Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and BEELZEBUB, APOLLYON, and LEGION, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the City lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long. Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms; lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts – as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.
And moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be deceivers, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues and that of every kind.
Here are to be seen, too – and that for nothing – thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood red colour.
So that’s Vanity Fair: a parade of various amusements and divertissements designed to distract the simple-minded from anything of real importance until they have amused themselves entirely to death.
Though Vanity Fair the magazine may very well have designed to turn Bunyan’s originally pious vision wryly on its head, it has succeeded in nothing more than straightforwardly upholding the vapid, vacuous, hoodwinking, heart-shrinking, mind-obliterating vanity of its namesake.
Its most recent cover story is a classic example of all of this. What more than vanity is this, in both the narcissistic and fruitless senses? They call it courage when it is nothing more than a typically Kardashian risk-free stunt for attention and publicity. They call it seeking the true self when it is nothing more than prosthesis, Photoshop, and cosmetics. Yet we call it disgusting and vile when it is actually inconsequential. All you need to have a successful publicity stunt is press. Good or bad, it doesn’t really matter. It’s why I have hesitated to talk about this at all.
Because the trick to passing through Vanity Fair is recognizing the vanity and keeping your eyes focused on more important things:
Thirdly: but that which did not a little amuse the merchandisers [in Vanity Fair] was, that these pilgrims set very light by all their wares – they cared not so much as to look upon them; and if they called upon them to buy, they would put their fingers in their ears, and cry, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity;” and look upwards, signifying that their trade and traffic was in heaven.
Vanity is not worthy of attention. Even negative attention will keep you in Vanity Fair. The Westboro street preacher screaming about how much “God hates fags” is as much a part of Vanity Fair as the next person. He stays there focusing on how vile and despicable the wares are in that one corner kiosk under the rainbow circus top. And he never leaves.
It’s no different for us in this newest stunt from Vanity Fair and the Kardashians. I don’t hate Bruce Jenner. I pity him a good deal for all the pain he has gone through and will continue to go through. I pity him because he will find out soon enough that none of this has made anything any better for him or for others, no matter how many talking heads pat themselves on the back for their so-called “acceptance” and the great “progress” we’re all making in “tolerance.”
But mostly I want to encourage people to stop giving so much traction to these kinds of stories. There are things much more worthy of discussion and inquiry out there. And nearly all of them require that you first pass through Vanity Fair.