Celebrity Is the Chastisement of Merit and the Punishment of Talent

Nicolas Chamfort? Emily Dickinson? Franz Liszt? Garrison Keillor? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The dark side of celebrity is now widely recognized. Celebrity worship encourages self-absorption, arrogance, and callousness while celebrity hatred causes denouncements, calumnies, and physical endangerment. The following saying has been attributed to the eighteenth century French epigrammatist Nicolas Chamfort and the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson. Here are two versions:

(1) Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent.
(2) Celebrity is the reproof of merit and the punishment of genius.

Would you please help me to determine the author and find a citation.

Quote Investigator: Nicolas Chamfort died in 1794. A collection of his writings appeared in 1796 under the title “Maximes, Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes” (“Maxims, Thoughts, Characters and Anecdotes”). The adage appeared in a section titled “Pensées Morales” (“Moral Thoughts”). Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1796, Maximes, Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes (Maxims, Thoughts, Characters and Anecdotes) by Nicolas Chamfort, Chapitre 5: Pensées Morales, Quote Page 88 and 89, Published in Paris and reprinted with T. Baylis, located at J. Deboffe, London (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

La célébrité est le châtiment du mérite & la punition du talent. Le mien, quelqu’il soit, ne me paraît qu’un délateur, né pour troubler mon repos. J’éprouve, en le détruisant, la joie de triompher d’un ennemi. Le sentiment a triomphé chez moi de l’amour-propre même, & la vanité littéraire a péri dans la destruction de l’intérêt que je prenais aux hommes.

Here is one possible translation:

Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent. Mine, whatever it is, seems to me only an informer, born to disturb my rest. I experience, in destroying it, the joy of triumphing over an enemy. My sensibility has triumphed over my self-love, and literary vanity has perished in the destruction of my preoccupation with men.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The famous Hungarian composer Franz Liszt employed the adage within a letter he wrote in 1865. He credited “Champfort” (Chamfort). Here is an English translation of the pertinent passage:[ref] 1894, Letters of Franz Liszt, Volume 2: From Rome To the End, Collected by La Mara, Translated by Constance Bache, Letter Number: 37, Letter To: Madame Jessie Laussot, Letter From: Franz Liszt, Letter Date: March 6, 1865, Letter Location: Rome, Start Page 96, Quote Page 97, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Only at certain moments I fancy that that judicious maxim of Champfort is somewhat applicable to me: “Celebrity is the punishment of talent and the chastisement of merit.”

In 1894 the saying appeared in “Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopædia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors” compiled by Maturin M. Ballou:[ref] 1894, Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopædia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors, Compiled by Maturin M. Ballou, Fifteenth Edition, Topic: Fame, Quote Page 168, Column 1, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent.—Chamfort.

In 1926 “Maxims and Considerations of Chamfort” included a translation of Chamfort’s commentary performed by E. Powys Mathers:[ref] 1926, Maxims and Considerations of Chamfort by Sébastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, Translated by E. Powys Mathers, Volume 2, Chapter 5: Moral Considerations, Quote Page 11, The Golden Cockerel Press, Waltham St Lawrence, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Celebrity is the reproof of merit, the punishment of genius. I consider mine, such as it is, as an informer, born to trouble my repose. As I destroy it, I feel the joy of triumphing over an enemy. Sensibility with me has even conquered self-esteem, and my vanity of authorship died in the destruction of my interest in men.

In 1988 Claude Arnaud published a biography of Chamfort in French, and in 1992 a translation by Deke Dusinberre included this rendition of Chamfort’s remark:[ref] 1992, Chamfort: A Biography by Claude Arnaud, Translated by Deke Dusinberre, Chapter 8: A Cabal Against Mustapha, Quote Page 72 and 73, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

“Renown is chastisement for merit and punishment for talent,” wrote Chamfort. “Whatever my own talent may be, it seems to act only as informer, refusing to leave me in peace. In destroying it, I experience the elation of vanquishing an enemy.”

In 2005 radio personality Garrison Keillor published “Good Poems for Hard Times” which included a brief biographical sketch for each poet featured in the book. Each sketch ended with a quotation attributed the poet. Oddly, the sketch for Emily Dickinson contained the quotation under examination:[ref] 2005, Good Poems for Hard Times, Selected by Garrison Keillor, Section: Biographies, Entry: Emily Dickinson, Quote Page 306, Viking Penguin: Penguin Group, New York.(Verified with scans) [/ref]

At her death, 1,775 poems were found in her papers, a few of which were published by her sister Lavinia in Poems by Emily Dickinson, in 1890. Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent.

In 2008 the quotation with an attribution to Emily Dickinson was posted to the popular website Goodreads.[ref] Website: Goodreads, Webpage title: Emily Dickinson > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Timestamp of first comment on webpage: Apr 28, 2008 at 07:45PM, Name of first commenter on webpage: Nicky, Website description: Goodreads asserts that it is “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations”. (Accessed goodreads.com on February 12, 2022) link [/ref]

In conclusion, Nicolas Chamfort deserves credit for this adage based on the 1796 collection of his writings. A few different translations of the remark into English have appeared over the years. The ascription to Emily Dickinson is unsupported. It is conceivable that she repeated the saying, but QI has not yet found evidence for this.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a red carpet used at showbusiness premieres for perambulating celebrities. Image from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Chee18 whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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