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Diana: Remembering The Present

pdTEN days after Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash, she was still the top story on the nightly network news. Money pouring in to the charitable fund established in her memory had reached $150 million. Flowers sent to her island grave entirely carpeted the island and were causing environmental problems. Crowds were still lining up to sign the books of condolence at Kensington Palace and at British embassies. A Tory MP reports that people signing the condolence book in his constituency did more than sign it: they copied out heartfelt testimonials to her drafted ahead of time. What explains this extraordinary outpouring of grief? Diana’s photogenic beauty?

Not alone, surely: there are other women as lovely or lovelier. Her good works? But Mother Teresa, whose life was devoted to others, received respect rather than adoration in death. That she was a wronged woman, Diana the Sad?  We saw a flawed, beautiful, willful, well-meaning woman go from fairy-tale romance through modernity’s prosaic discontents to the climax of a death borrowed from grand opera.

Even so, the excessive grief that we have displayed says more about us than about the Princess. To a greater degree than America, Britain is a post-Christian society. In both countries, however, the comforts and explanations of traditional religion exert less power over many people — and the result is an increase in cults, sects, New Age superstitions. In this Joseph Campbell territory, Diana was the stuff of several myths — Cinderella (with Charles and Camilla as the Ugly Sisters), Diana the Hunted (with the paparazzi impersonating the Furies), one-half (Juliet, Isolde, Anna Karenina, etc., etc.) of a pair of doomed lovers, and finally Marguerite in the last act of Gounod’s Faust, transported from misery and death to Heaven. It is hardly surprising if there should be a slight whiff of goddess-worship about the extreme grief Diana has evoked. But she was also an icon of the cult of celebrity. Some celebrities achieve their status ex officio — American Presidents enjoy the trappings of celebrity. Others achieve it by a combination of office and deeds — Pope John Paul II. But many celebrities make the grade on very little. Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, two of the greatest icons, had talent, but neither was a genius.

Celebrity is a by-product of modern life and the modern media. Without a sense of history or contact with meaningful institutions, modern men feel arrayed in loneliness against society as a whole. The media, especially television, distract them with clutter and entertainment (which only exacerbates their underlying estrangement). But they also console them with celebrities, shimmering disembodied companions with whom to identify. But the celebrity companion is a cheat — a relationship empty of real contact or authority. No one believes in nothing. Modern men believe in anything — movie stars, athletes, princesses from fairy tales, goddesses torn untimely from us.

pd1Grief on this scale has public consequences. Tony Blair’s government has appropriated the Princess as the symbol of an emotionally spontaneous New Britain not afraid to cry and show compassion. This body-snatching is not only repellent; it is absurd. New Labour is the most buttoned-down, dried-up, straitlaced movement in Britain since Cromwell’s New Model Army. But the argument has nonetheless swayed both British and American commentators. Similarly, Britain’s small cadre of republicans has used Diana’s personal charisma to argue for an end to a traditional monarchy alleged to be ”boring,” ”dull,” and emblematic of British repression.

As Ferdinand Mount has observed, this kind of agitation is little more than a displacement activity for middle-class intellectuals deprived of hope in a socialist future. Again, however, it is taken seriously –and in one specific sense it should be taken seriously. Personal charisma is a force that undermines institutions as often as it sustains them. Political institutions, monarchical or republican, need the more reliable buttresses of tradition and duty. Mass emotionalism and febrile celebrity-worship are hostile to any long-standing constitutional system, which, with the passage of time, is bound to seem stuffy as well as solid, remote as well as impressive, and archaic as well as historic.

We must hope, then, that the unhealthy emotions of the last ten days in both London and the American media are something we will look back on with embarrassment and shame — as if we had been gorging on melodrama. If not, then the Western democracies, no longer held in check by the challenge of totalitarianism, may be entering the Age of Diana, an age of necromancers and seers, gurus and priestesses, charlatans and astrologers, star-worship and celebrity-stalking. It would be an age hostile to established authority, whether political, religious, or intellectual, and correspondingly hungry for new gods to worship, new images to love, and new lords to follow — with few guideposts to point us in the right direction.

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