It was an extraordinary episode but what does it tell us? Prospect writers (and guests) try to make some sense of the events of the past few weeksby Michael Ignatieff / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The British public wanted a grand send-off for her because they wanted something better for themselves
It was impossible to stand outside her death. Irony suddenly became impossible. People who went to bed on Saturday night thinking, if they thought about her at all, that she was a foolish and inconsequential woman woke up on Sunday morning to find themselves ambushed by their own emotions. She died a horrible death which upset even those who had been unmoved by her life.
The emotions which overwhelmed the country were large but they were never simple. It was never just a national outpouring of grief. Sorrow is more intense when compounded of guilt and ours was a guilty sorrow. We all had a hand in making the myths which killed her.
Our sorrow began with her and then eddied back upon ourselves. When we mourned her death, we mourned our own. People wept for their own mothers and fathers, for lost children, as if all the unconsoled losses of private life had been suddenly allowed to seek public consolation. The people who placed bouquets on the railings of Kensington Palace might have been decorating their own family graves.
One lesson of her death is how much unexpressed sadness and loss there is in our midst, how much ache and loneliness. The churches do not seem to help. The therapists do not help. We talk and talk. It does not help. In millions of us there seems to be a vast amount of unmastered grief. Her death became the catalyst for these suppressed emotions because we knew she had felt them herself. Her often confused expressiveness gave us permission to break the Windsor code of stoic reserve.
Certainly genuine sorrow was mixed with mawkishness and self-pity. An older generation wondered whether the British had lost their proverbial self-control. But by and large the grief was restrained by a determination to honour her life and dignify her death. The campaign for a peopleÕs funeral for a people’s princess became a great popular uprising, not just against the royal family but against the indignity of dying and the impoverishment of our rituals of commemoration. The public wanted something grand for her because they want something better for themselves than hospital deaths and dry-eyed cremations. The popular uprising which forced an unwilling monarch to pay public tribute to Diana was actually demanding the right to define the protocols of public mourning. And they were not demanding it just for her but for themselves.
The native British genius for the invention of tradition crafted her the kind of funeral which honours us all. For one hour life stood still in homage to life. Now that the gun-carriage and the lilies are gone, and the last electrifying notes of Taverners Alleluia have faded away, we have had the catharsis which only great public ritual can provide; but we are also back where we started, with the reality of her death, and the eventual fact of our own.
Had she died as the wife of the Prince of Wales, her death would have occasioned only discreet and manageable sorrow. But she was never a safe and manageable figure. She was a scandal in life and in death, a woman who had died in the company of her lover, a defrocked royal princess who both embodied the aura of royalty and incarnated its failure as an institution. Because she was unique, no one knew how she should be honoured, and a mighty struggle took place for the symbolic appropriation of her memory. At the centre of it all, three great families the Spencers, the Windsors and the Fayeds duelled in public over the ownership of her symbolic remains. The ‘blood family’ claimed her; her putative adoptive family, the Fayeds, sought to convince us that she had almost been theirs; and the Windsors, baffled and battered, struggled lamely to say that they mourned her like the rest of us. While the three families struggled to control her legacy, two institutions, the modern media and the monarchy fought to save their reputations from the stain of her death, and a third, the Labour government, discreetly manoeuvred to capitalise on the discomfiture of the other two. Watching this struggle was a force the British public which at the week’s beginning hardly sensed its power and by week’s end had swept all before it.
In Earl Spencer’s thrilling defence of the claim of the ‘blood family’ in Westminster Abbey, a very British process of social alchemy took place. In life, Diana had shed the strangled accents of her class of origin for the mid-Atlantic idiom of stardom. In the brother’s eulogy, she was reclaimed by her clan and simultaneously offered back to the world as their ‘classless’ princess. When the Earl sat down, it was clear from the applause which began among the crowd outside and then spread through the Abbey to include the younger members of the royal family itself that his words had succeeded beyond any imagining. The elder Windsors could only stare at the floor in silence, knowing that the Spencers had taken their revenge.
But it would be a mistake to suppose that either Earl Spencer or Diana ever represented a latent British republicanism. Their battle with the Windsors was a revenge drama, not a blow for constitutional change. If the country wanted a republic, it would not have mourned her with such intensity. In time, the public anger directed at Charles will wane as reality returns and people recall that divorce is too sad a business to be a matter of easy blame.
This struggle between the families to appropriate Diana’s meaning was soon caught up in a real battle of institutions. The press began the week with the finger of blame pointed at them; by the end of the week, they had shifted it to the royal family. In turn the royal family was forced, in this ruthless struggle for legitimacy, to make humiliating ritual gestures. It is not clear that the public required the Queen to give a clipped eulogy to her former daughter-in-law, but the media, battling to salvage its own reputation, forced her into it to save theirs.
Luckily and most unexpectedly a third institution, the Labour government, intervened on the monarchy’s side. At first, it did not appear to be doing so. When Tony Blair appeared on camera to praise the achievements of the ‘people’s princess’, his choice of words suggested that he sided with the people against the hard-faced family who had turned her out. But in insisting on a large public funeral, in urging the royal family to make a public show of their grief, he loaned them the formidable public relations skills which had won him the election. In the process, he managed the difficult feat of becoming a national rather than a political figure, so that no one save a few resentful Conservatives found it objectionable that a party political figure should be seen on television reading the lesson from Corinthians. In managing the monarchy’s counter-attack, while simultaneously promoting himself as a national leader, and accomplishing all this without appearing to profit from national distress, Blair may have guaranteed himself the kind of hegemony which Margaret Thatcher enjoyed in the 1980s.
Yet, from the first morning, when cameramen found young black men weeping openly in front of Buckingham Palace, the public’s reaction set the pace at which other institutions, the media included, reacted. Certainly the media sought to take control of the popular mood, with those nauseating headlines demanding that the Queen show herself to her suffering people. But the public saw through the media’s attempt to turn the focus of attention away from themselves to the failings of the monarchy. Which is why, in the end, the public allowed the monarchy to regain the initiative, and why, just possibly, a repentant public may force a humbled press to respect the privacy of the grieving princes.
Now that it is all over, will our anguish about fate and death simply retreat back to the inner recesses of our private lives? Will it ever surface again in such a tidal wave of emotion? And what, if anything, will be the political consequence of that moment of empowerment, that sudden determination by the British people that they and not the families and the institutions would shape the rituals of their princess’s passing? These moments of empowerment make revolutions and they have torn down the walls between empires and nations. They are the sudden eruption which tears asunder the damp cloak of acquiescence and fatalism. Everyone who stood among the crowds will long remember the quiet but dignified sense that the moment belonged to them. Such moments are quickly thrown away and the energies released are easily squandered. But if someone has the wisdom to put the people’s sense of empowerment to productive use, the effects may last long beyond that extraordinary week.
Diana helped to make Britain a place where public tears are celebrated it was not a great achievement
Observing the hoo-ha over Princess Diana’s death, from far away in Santa Monica, I found myself baffled by my own country. I am not, I should make clear, ‘anti-Diana’ whatever that would mean. Respect for the dead is a decent instinct, common to almost all cultures. So it is understandable that we might want to refrain from pointing out the many instances of Diana’s abject silliness her colonic irrigations, her healing pyramids, her astrologers, her self-serving manipulations of the press and so on. But respect for the dead means honouring their lives not only with generosity but with some semblance of accuracy. In the case of the Princess an unhappy, uneducated girl who was married young to a man who did not love her that means resisting the temptation to turn her into a sad-eyed saint.
It is said that Diana helped open up the royal family and by extension, British society to the language of pain and feelings and therapy. I do not know how much responsibility Diana bears for Britain throwing off the ‘old ways’. But if she did help make Britain a place where the prime minister can be praised for the brave candour of his public tearfulness, while the royal family is chastised for not sharing their grief more openlyÑhers is not, I think, a very noble achievement.
The modern cult of celebrity and the mystique that monarchy requires are not compatible
It might seem a case of typical British hypocrisy to be canonising Diana, when we could not get enough of reading about her blunders when she was alive. But to call this hypocrisy is to miss an important point about the celebrity cult. Elvis Presley was a drug addict, yet he is worshipped. Marilyn Monroe was a depressive with a knack for choosing the wrong lovers, yet she is still worshipped. The more celebrities show their flaws, the more we love them after they die. Celebrities live out their lives in public, to feed our fantasies of glamour, but also to display our own weaknesses, so we can feel better about ourselves.
Blaming the paparazzi for its excesses is like lynching the pimps after a lifetime of visiting brothels. Paparazzi, like pimps, may not be edifying individuals, but we cannot blame them for our appetites. Just as there is never a shortage of women willing to serve in brothels, people queue up to be celebrities. There is, however, a difference between a media celebrity and a prostitute: a prostitute only sells her body, a celebrity has to sell his or her life. Celebrities must ‘share’ their anguish with us, confess their latest sins, tell us everything they think, and above all, feel. That is the deal, the Faustian pact: they can have fame and fortune, but the public has the right to ‘know’. The celebrity can have dinner at the Ritz every night, but only with paparazzi in attendance.
The modern cult of celebrity is different from the traditional deference paid to royal families. Monarchies depend on secrecy to preserve mystique. The most traditional, and certainly the most secretive, monarchy today is probably the Japanese. The lives of its senior members are hidden behind a thick screen of courtiers. The closest thing to a showbiz monarchy is Monaco’s. The British royal family is in a halfway house. It is still a secretive institution. But when the Queen allowed the BBC to film the family’s private moments some years ago, the Rubicon was crossed.
Diana had no special talent. But she was unique in that her status was based on the royal mystique, which she used to become a modern superstar. She rebelled against the royal family, but insisted on her royal titles and privileges. She was an insider and an outsider. This gave millions of British people the opportunity to support her rebellion against the House of Windsor, without becoming republicans. There is a chauvinistic side to this, too. Writing in the Guardian, Julie Burchill contrasted Diana’s fresh, unpretentious breath of roll-up-your-sleeves, best-foot-forward Englishness to the Gothic gloom of the dysfunctional Graeco-Germans.
There was an atmosphere of protest in the silent crowds queueing up for seven hours or more to pay their respects to Diana. I was reminded of Chinese crowds paying homage to Zhou Enlai in Tian- anmen Square, after his death in 1976. Defying official orders, they came en masse to lay flowers and wreaths. They were not revolutionaries, but their gesture was a silent rebuke to the Gang of Four who still ruled China. The mood among the mourners for Diana was summed up for me by a semi-literate letter on a bunch of flowers laid on the Mall. It began: ‘You was a rose in a garden of weads.’ The message to the House of Windsor was clear: she was one of us, and we will never love you, the way we loved her.
There are those who hope that the monarchy can be saved by following Diana’s example, by becoming more successful celebrities. It is too late for the fidgety, middle-aged Prince Charles to become a superstar. His son, William, might have the necessary qualities. He certainly has the looks. But apart from the cruelty of making someone into a celebrity who might not wish it, there is something wrong with a celebrity-king. A king is born. A celebrity could be anyone. If we cannot get rid of celebrities, we might at least get rid of kings.
She was loved for her beauty not her charity, and the more unhappy she was the better she looked
The day that Diana died was like Christmas: on Christmas Day, one can be out walking and pass a stranger and, although perhaps no greetings are exchanged, there is a shared knowledge of the significance of the date. As I walked past others to the newsagent on 31st August I wondered: Does he care? Does she? And how much?
Diana’s story is a tug-of-war between words and pictures in which pictures win every time. Verbal portraits of her have always tended to be feeble especially her own. Words were not her thing. The Panorama interview was unsatisfactory, partly for this reason. When she spoke, what she had to say was often lacklustre. Her best argument was her image.
Her pictures did more than tell stories, they were a substitute for them. Now her story has to go on without pictures. Once the photographs of the crash have been sold there will be no more. Newspapers have fallen ravenously on old photographs and made themselves fat with them. But the glut of portraits of Diana since her death has been disagreeable. It is more than melancholy to look at these portfolios, this picture pile-up of a life. The photographs themselves seem suddenly dead. Their greatest charge was always that they were of a living princess, a continuing story.
Now more than ever Diana’s story is in the keeping of journalists and what we are being told about her has swerved into an unconvincing Florence Nightingale narrative. But her charitable heart would have counted for little without her beauty. She was loved for her beauty and because of her unhappiness. And, for women, there was the special fascination and amazement of observing that the more unhappy Diana was, the better she looked.
She was the only member of the royal family who looked royal, the only female member not to look like a luminous frump. And so it is no surprise that since her death there have been elegies for her wardrobe, prolonged sartorial laments. It is as though the clothes had to stand in for character, each dress a quality. Each dress had its moment: the blue one that Diana wore in Sydney, just after her marriage to Charles, and the white one that she wore a little later, alive with crystals. It was the white dress that seemed to mark her transformation from cygnet to swan. How little there is to be said about her interior life. Here hangs the brilliant career of a cipher.
It is as if Diana’s life had been handed over to a second-rate novelist who produced a tragic ending for his own convenience. And if you were reading the novel, you would say that the author (who clearly had no interest in comedies of manners) had a failure of nerve, did not dare see Di and Dodi into their future.
The other possible author for this tragic narrative is an angry child. Children cheer themselves up, when others have treated them unfairly, by thinking: you’d be sorry if I was dead, and then imagining their own funerals where their enemies shed tears. It is as if this is what has happened in a larger than life way to Diana. And her critics are having to eat humble pie, big-time.
We are witnessing the marriage of the cult of celebrity with the masses’ peasant religious sensibility
Icon is the Greek word for image or likeness. In the Greek Bible the human being in general, and Christ in particular, is an icon of God. Combine this with the platonic idea that a visible thing may remind us of its archetype in the eternal world, and you see why icons became the objects of such intense devotion in eastern Christianity. They functioned as windows into eternity.
Icons were objects of great beauty. They were used a little like mandalas: you meditated with them. Every home had one; they were credited with the ability to work miracles. But human feelings are ambivalent, so when the cult of an icon became too fervent, it would suddenly tip over and lead to a violent iconoclastic reaction. At such times many precious icons were suddenly destroyed. Something irreplaceable had gone forever.
I first heard Diana, Princess of Wales described as ‘an icon of our times’ in a speech of welcome when she visited Cambridge in 1993. At the time, the revival of the word seemed to be non-religious and even something of a malapropism. But now the old religious meanings are flooding back. In our post-modern media-led culture, after what Foucault called the death of man, it turns out that we are still peasants at heart. The Enlightenment, democracy, science and the robust humanism that exalted ‘man’ as an autonomous rational agent all seem to have come and gone with little effect. Popular psychology remains religious and loves the cult of saints as much as ever. In the US, where half the best brains in every single subject are living and working, the masses believe in UFOs, aliens, Elvis Presley and heaven knows what else. Indeed, one might ask our own government: Why are you so keen on teaching our children science, if it is not going to have any effect upon them? All the signs are that whatever we teach them, they will grow up believing, like their parents, in astrology and alternative medicine. In advanced media societies the masses are still gazing at icons on screens, just as they were a millennium and more ago.
Meeting Diana once, I was as impressed as everyone by her intuitive emotional intelligence. As the Americans used to say, she was ‘all woman’. There is no higher praise than that. She did indeed activate old, archetypal ideas about love and suffering. But the cult of celebrity in media societies makes me uneasy. Where will it lead? It’s religious, alright but it’s not good religion.
Dodi was handsome and rich. He was also an Arab, but as Diana knew you cannot have everything
Mid-august in a battered, yellow cab between Harvard Square and central Boston. The driver, a jovial West Indian with dreadlocks, hears our accent. ‘Hey mon, what about dat Princess Di and Dodi?’ he says, nodding in my direction and smiling impudently at my husband. You white boys sure get twitchy when the brothers come over and sleep with your women.
The driver is perplexed to discover that the white boy sitting next to me is in fact a brother himself a 40-something Arab who went to school with Dodi’s stepfather. I am equally bemused to hear that as a middle-aged mother of four I can still be considered a trophy wife. Well, excuse me while I dust down my cubic zirconia.
But maybe our taxi driver is right. Many of us do, still, feel uneasy about our women being dazzled by foreigners. Few people actively encourage their children to ‘marry out’ of their culture. My family had some reservations when I brought home a towel-head as a prospective son-in-law, and when he asked for my freckled hand in marriage, it was not a cause of great rejoicing in the streets of Beirut either. Thankfully, due to our mutual lack of notoriety, we did not make front page headlines when we had our first kiss in the doorway of the Oxford branch of WH Smith’s.
But then, I married an impoverished Arab student while Dodi was described everywhere as a ‘rich Arab playboy’. Rich playboys have not suddenly been outlawed I hope, so it must be the ‘Arab’ part that particularly sticks in the throat.
I do not care whether Dodi was the ideal suitor for Diana but I cannot imagine that his being an Egyptian would have had much to do with the success or failure of their affair. Few of us find the perfect partner even when we choose carefully from our peers. And if the relationship had not lasted does it really matter? Life is no fairy tale. You take your pleasure where and when you can.
What seemed like a carnival was actually a very familiar pattern of English social protest
Public events in England are invariably focused around a ritualised representation of the taming of overwhelming forces natural, supernatural, social or military. The imagery is concerned with celebrating traditional social organisation, with the crown at its head. Disorder is outlawed or restricted to a ritual jester role. The pattern is one of highly disciplined participants, fringed by spectators, whose role is to be overawed or instructed.
A carnival is different. In the carnival the spectators are also the participants. The festival is for anyone who cares to step into the street and take part. There is no symbolic rope separating the subject from the object. Disorder is its rule.
This was the background which gave the first few days of the Diana fest the novel and alien flavour that all the commentators mentioned, and which was exemplified by the repeated focus of the television cameras on the black and Asian faces in the crowd. Everyone said that there had been nothing like it before. Some even said it was the first moment when most black people living here felt full participants in a great national event.
But with the benefit of a few days distance what also begins to emerge is a familiar, and often less benign, pattern of protest. The shape of the week was like a precise template for the uprisings associated with Wat Tyler, Jack Cade, Lord George Gordon and other climactic moments in British history. The model has rigid outlines. A mood of popular discontent crystallises around the figure of an aristocrat who is said by everyone to have the people’s interests at heart. An explosive event precipitates a march on London, where the mob defies the authorities, trashes the king’s favourites and calls for the monarch to come out and speak to them. The monarch emerges after a great deal of hesitation, to assure the mob that he shares their feelings. The crowd melts away, leaving behind a vague aura of accusation about treachery and betrayal, which (sometimes) prompts mild reforms. Shortly after the ringleaders are hunted down, and hanged.
The royal family will continue to change, Charles needs no prodding in that direction
It is often unwise to dissect a unique experience. Too much analysis of emotion after that emotion has passed its peak can weaken a memory. But the emotion felt in Britain at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, cannot just be left on one side as a memory. It was a huge national event. Many attempts, false and true, are already being made to use it for one purpose or another. Before the flowers fade it is worth considering why in their millions they were laid and what, if anything, they mean for the future.
Princess Diana had long ago achieved the status of a celebrity. But celebrity is not a sufficient explanation for the reaction to her death. Diana was also royal, and after her separation and divorce she stayed royal, whatever her title. This was not just a matter of jewellery and dresses. Having married into the most famous royal family in the world, she learned to mix that ancient magic with her own.
But that, too, is not enough. What caused the experience of that week was, on top of all these things, the revelation of goodness. Princess Diana discovered in herself the power of compassion, maybe coming to it, as her brother suggested in the Abbey, out of her lack of confidence in her own role.
Her service at Westminster Abbey was full of cross-currents. Elton John sang of Diana as the rose of England a few moments before her brother confirmed that she wanted to leave England for good. His bitterness on her behalf against the tabloid press had not been softened by their behaviour in the days since her death. They had tried to wriggle out of their responsibility by rousing meanness and malice among their readers against other targets the Queen and Prince Charles.
Others tried to enlist the feeling for Diana in support of some particular doctrine. This proved difficult because she was not a woman for doctrines. She talked widely and openly, and said different things to different people. There was no deceit in this; her own opinions and emotions moved across a wide spectrum. I knew one side of herÑa princess anxious for help and advice on how she could do the best abroad for Britain and for her own charitable causes. (She was much easier to help and advise than some other members of the royal family; and like everyone else I have glowing memories of time spent with her.) I do not recognise the portrait of Princess Diana as a revolutionary. She was irked by protocol. But she would hardly have been at home in a humdrum ‘reformed’ monarchy.
The idea most widely connected with her death was the doctrine of the soft upper lip. This has led to absurd criticisms. My daughter, aged 12, is normally rebellious about going to church. Listening to the discussions about the famous Sunday service at Crathie, she said to her mother: ‘Well, if you died, I would want to go to church.’ Exactly. No one knows how the two princes were comforted in private. The proposal that they should have been cuddled in public was a tribute not to the memory of Princess Diana but to the power of the paparazzi. Dignity and restraint are not vices. Many of us would be numbed in a culture of compulsory cuddling and counselling. Families and individuals handle grief in different ways and must be allowed to do so if we are not all to go mad.
The royal family has changed during this reign, although not all the changes have worked well. The main innovators have been Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal. The handling of royal money, the new openness to the media, the style of speeches, the range of engagements have all been transformed. Change will continue under the growing influence of the Prince of Wales. He, as I know well, has worried himself into a thorough knowledge of the failures of modern Britain. Not content to make speeches he has organised remedies, often forestalling the policies of government. He does not wield the magic of the Princess; but he uses his ingenuity and position to help the workless, the minorities, the young. He needs no prodding to ensure that his sons achieve a wider education and range of experience than he did.
The press, suffering from a hangover, is full of good resolutions. What will happen when the hangover wears off? If the public expects the royal family to behave like film stars and if the acts, words, tastes and gestures of the next king and his sons are…