Does Steven Cohen know something that Shakespeare didn’t? Cohen, you may recall, is the high-living, art-collecting hedge fund owner whose reputation took a severe hit a few years ago after it was revealed that he had failed to police insider trading by employees at his firm. (More than his reputation suffered: He was barred from managing other people’s money for two years.)
Shakespeare, you may also recall, is the playwright who wrote Othello, a play in which one character declares that reputation is “the immortal part” of ourselves: Once lost, it’s never to be regained, and everything that remains is “bestial.” But whereas Cassio and pretty much everyone else in The Moor of Venice
Has Cohen chosen the right time to retool his image, or is he planning his comeback at the worst possible moment in recent history? In the social media age, never has reputation seemed more important and pervasive, and yet never has it seemed more elastic, more malleable.
In the social media age, never has reputation seemed more important and pervasive, and yet never has it seemed more elastic, more malleable.
No wonder our attitudes toward it are so incoherent. On the one hand, you’ve got #MeToo—a “Shakespearean” moment in which the merest breath of an allegation is sufficient to destroy a reputation and a career forever. On the other, there’s the Trump presidency, which seems to thrive on the kinds of outrageous scandals that would have sunk entire governments a generation ago—suggesting that having a “good” reputation may not matter at all compared with simply being famous. (Or infamous.)
Plus ça change… Long before Shakespeare’s confident assertion that what others think about us is “immortal,” we were obsessed with reputation—our anxiety about how to create it, our terror that we might lose it. The first great work of the Western tradition, Homer’s Iliad, is, in fact, about the fallout from an insult to one character’s reputation.
The epic begins with the public humiliation of its hero, Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior. His commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, has appropriated a slave girl whom Achilles won in battle, and the resulting diminution of Achilles’s war spoils—which is the measure of his reputation—so enrages the hot-blooded warrior that he withdraws from the conflict.
This may seem like “junior high cafeteria stuff,” as a student of mine once huffed on a midterm exam, but much of Western literature has been struggling with the subject ever since.
Homer’s heroes worried so much about reputation because they were part of what anthropologists call a “shame society.” Who you were depended so heavily on what others thought of you that members of the society could be effectively controlled, massaged into the “right” behavior, by fear of public shame. (Today we heirs to the Abrahamic religions belong, by contrast, to a “guilt society”; we’re taught to feel guilty—an “interior” emotion—if we violate social codes.)
Still, some Greeks tried to fight the tide. Four centuries after the Iliad, Socrates critiqued the Homeric model, playfully arguing that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing (what would Achilles have said?) and claiming, a bit more dangerously, that as far as he knew, “those who have the highest reputation are the most deficient,” an assertion that was part of the ornery philosopher’s attempt to rethink the entire code of ethics of his time. Those who had the highest reputation weren’t pleased to hear this, needless to say, and they made him drink hemlock.
As long as society lived by rigid standards for public behavior, literature flourished on the tension between private desire and public appearance—between, as it were, self and reputation.
As long as
As time passed, the pens kept blazoning, partly because women were still expected to be “paragons.” It’s no surprise that the most highly surveilled members of male-dominated societies are the frequent subjects of literary explorations of reputation—whether written by men or women.
Surprisingly little changes between Shakespeare in the early 17th century and Jane Austen in the early 19th; what comes between what Austen’s characters want and what they’re allowed to say or do is the perennial anxiety about what people will say, about the consequences to their reputations if they seek fulfillment. No one puts this better than a character in Pride and Prejudice who, ironically, has few romantic options herself: Elizabeth Bennet’s prissy and intellectual younger sister Mary, who observes, “Loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable… Her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful.”
The double standard, it would seem, goes for reputation, too. Achilles can get his reputation back, but Elizabeth’s oversexed sister Lydia, who elopes with a dashing soldier, never really can. She’s soiled goods and has to be exiled from the novel as quickly as possible, out of sight and out of mind.
Anxiety over pristine reputations persisted well into the 20th century. Fans of The Crown (which is nothing if not a drama about an entire institution trying to remake its reputation) will appreciate the fact that the present
Many things have changed since then. Prince Harry is marrying an American divorcée and all Instagram is rejoicing (the queen too, so we hear). And whereas a scant generation ago Gary Hart’s presidential campaign foundered merely on rumors of “womanizing,” the revelation in January that President Trump paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star he’d had an affair with after the birth of his youngest child barely dented the national consciousness.
So what are Steven Cohen’s chances? On the one hand, there are rumors that he has had trouble winning over the hearts (and purses) of investors; he reportedly set out to raise $10 billion last summer and has landed somewhere closer to $3 billion. On the other, it’s 2018, and this is America, a country that loves a redemption narrative.
Partly because of that, partly because of the relaxation of social attitudes in general, partly because new technologies in media have made it easier than ever to create, manage, and massage our public reputations, and partly because, however much we’re obsessed with “memory” these days, the same technologies have made us more forgetful than ever—for all those reasons, the last half-century has seen a tidal wave of second acts, from Bill Clinton to Mel Gibson to Britney Spears, that would have confounded our grandparents.
So move over, Desdemona. Tonya is ready for her close-up.
This story appears in the April 2018 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors