Love and grief in a savage society
The death of Princess Diana evoked an outpouring of public grief that has few parallels in living memory. Jeremy Seabrook attempts to explain how the demise of this "first truly global icon" could elicit such an overwhelming display of emotions.
THE death of Diana has all the elements of fable: pursued by the vengeful furies of celebrity who finally destroyed their quarry. The press reached for the most sublime references it could find - a Greek tragedy, the stuff of myth, an epic death.
And not only the media. The avalanche of public grief has no parallel within living memory. Elderly people, children, standing for hours in the chilly September night to sign books of condolence at 42 desks in St James' Palace; hundreds of thousands of bunches of flowers in their plastic wrappings shining in the sun like an expanse of glass bubbles outside the gates of Kensington Palace; black people, moved by Diana's readiness to touch, hold and caress leprosy sufferers, victims of land-mines, AIDS patients, who saw her rise above a racism which official Britain repudiates, but which remains daily reality. Over all this, the sweet imported scent of imported flowers - lilies, carnations and freesias.
The tributes were heartfelt, passionately sincere; but in a society where the sense of religion has decayed, the reaching for transcendence is often banal. Your body crucified like that of Christ, said one card; Guide us eternally from above, besought another. The messages showed that people still believe in an infantile heaven - Dodi and Diana together in paradise. In heaven you will have privacy and peace at last; even though one might have thought that privacy was not the distinguishing characteristic of heaven. A light has gone out of the world; a new star has appeared in the sky; you were too good for this life; people didn't recognise your true worth until it was too late; the sleeping beauty; another star has appeared in the sky - a mixture of fairy-tale and folk-religion: a faith for the consumer society.
What can it all mean? How is it possible that a woman whom few of those tear-stained faces can ever have looked on in the flesh can inspire such a sense of loss and sorrow? All the paraphernalia of solemnity which the BBC had in readiness for the death of the 97-year-old Queen Mother, was called into premature service to record the passing of Diana who, within days of her death, had inspired shrines to be set up to her memory all over London - the places where she ate, the gyms where she worked out, the hospitals she had visited - it seemed almost every place she touched had become a place of remembrance.
And of pilgrimage. The only thing missing to make the parallel with the Middle Ages complete was sightings of her; rumours that she is not dead or mysterious healings at the shrines. On the very day she died, she and Dodi were reported to have visited a psychic in Paris. It seems that millennial fervours are abroad; who can say what achings and absences it all betokens in the lives of some of the most privileged people on earth?
This sad event is a parable for the dying years of the century. It is a story of human sacrifice in the primitive society that is late capitalism. The photographers who were following on motorbikes were competing for the best shot; and competition, according to the economic dogmas of the age, is the supreme motor of all creativity and achievement. Legislation against paparazzi, maybe; legislation against competition in the age of Globalisation, hardly.
A sacrifice to Globalisation, too: the ubiquitous imagery of glamour, fame and style - the principal agents for spreading the version of the Western promise around the world. Diana was the first truly global icon to perish, and in that she presaged and accelerated forms of cultural integration, whereby her image was as familiar in the villages of India as on the streets of London. She embodied an iconography of wealth and success, but allied to a deep humanitarian commitment; the perfect emblem and emissary of everything we stand for; yet snuffed out in a meaningless and banal accident.
The questions are many, and they will come in the weeks following her death. For one thing, her loss has been spoken of as a blow to the poor and outcast. Clinton said as much: the poor and needy have lost a voice. Is it possible that our humanitarianism may be jeopardised by the loss of a single life? Surely such things cannot be so shallow-rooted. Social and moral transformations are not brought about by the advocacy of individuals. Or are they? Does the compassion of Diana demonstrate to the world the limits of change, the death of dreams of social justice, which has now been replaced by the lachrymose exaltations of private charity?
She was also a sacrifice to the perpetuation of the house of Windsor; to ensure the continuation of a lineage that may yet outlive its throne. The effect her death may have upon that is another story; events showed that she immediately became a greater threat to the monarchy than when she was alive: mere flesh and blood, however regal, cannot compete with the idealisation of the dead.
She served her purpose, which was to assure the succession; and then was discarded unceremoniously. Cynically taken up, an apparently ingenuous young girl, who could have foreseen the trouble she would cause them in one way or another? The spectacle of the royals reclaiming her dead body, after they had expelled her living one, and enfolding her to their arid collective bosom was scarcely calculated to do much for the restoration of their image. Nor their belated tribute, the crowds surging around Buckingham Palace, that bleak house with its railings and unpeopled forecourt, and the Daily Mirror begging 'Speak to Us Ma'am'. In the event, the young princes - whom the royal family were supposed to have been protecting in their Balmoral seclusion - were propelled in front of the crowds on the eve of the funeral, counters in the survival strategy of the Monarchy, real-life victims in the chalk circle of the Spencers versus the Windsors.
A sacrifice, too, to the elevation of celebrities: our lives are governed by maybe 1,000 famous individuals, whose doings, comings and goings, lives and loves are remorselessly paraded in front of us - why? What role do they fill for us? Is their lofty position calculated to reconcile us with our station, our lowly status? Certainly we have learned to behave ourselves with proper humility in the presence of those representatives of the various branches of showbiz, that aristocracy that has usurped the role of those formerly called to a station in life that set them above us.
Yet the emotions are spontaneous, the grief authentic. But since we cannot really grieve for strangers, there is surely another element in the sentiments released by her death. In part, we are weeping for ourselves: a feeling of possibilities foreclosed, of options cancelled, of futures no longer to be contemplated. We are weeping for our own helplessness in the world; perhaps a sense of the unalterability of things in a social and economic order which are now no longer susceptible to change, no longer open for negotiation. Such speculation is tantalising, since no one can know with certainty. But when people spoke of her compassion and kindness, they are also, not only criticising the Monarchy, but also expressing their impotent anger against the pitilessness and unkindness of the unappealable judgments of the market economy. Tony Blair said that her enduring legacy must be a more compassionate society. Given the unmerciful necessities of Globalisation, this scarcely bears scrutiny.
Diana's life was played and re-played on TV, each image, each dress, each occasion evoked and re-evoked endlessly, in ways that our own lives never can. The real question is, how do our emotions take such deep roots in the existence of those who, after all, remain for us shadows, in spite of the incessant glaring light in which they are portrayed? Are the emotions more pure, when they flow in the one-way direction to objects who never disappoint, never let us down, never fail to offer a mixture of entertainment, emulation and hope? We are sheltered from any reciprocal interaction; our relationship with them remains untainted by actual contact. Perhaps this is the greatest tribute to the power of an extreme inturned individualism, that we prefer to keep a large part of our life apart from the vicissitudes of living; a portion of purity, of which she became the unfortunate, doomed projection.
In the rich consumer societies of the West, death has been banished: after all, it spoils the atmosphere of money, sex and fun to which we are now committed. The brutal intrusion of this violent death of a vibrant young woman brings home to us elements of existence which we prefer to ignore. In this way, there has been a realisation that, in spite of economic well-being, and the spend, spend, spend of consumerism, we are still mortal. Or perhaps, because after all, most of us are not kinsfolk or personal friends of Diana, it has been, not so much grief itself, the consumption of grief that has caught us up in its compulsions; certainly it has given rise to a fresh burst of economic activity - floral imports from Holland, Israel and Columbia have doubtless been given a formidable boost, while all the picture postcards of her were sold in no time, and even the latest magazines which bore her image were reported to have been changing hands at inflated prices.
The curious ways in which various institutions marked her passing showed how awkward we are in the presence of death. The National Lottery decided not to suspend its draw on the Wednesday after her death, but not to televise it. Pressure was placed on the Scottish Football Association to postpone an international match scheduled for the day of the funeral. Shops closed until the funeral was over. Carlton TV (the commercial TV channel) cancelled the commercial breaks. Was this a recognition that in everyday life commerce crowds out our humanity, or was this the noblest sacrifice which imagination, stunted by publicity, could conceive?
Other issues arise, some of which were also touched on by the media. Who demands the pictures that only the most ruthless photographers can give us? Where does the hunger for yet more intimate revelations come from? There must be a market for it, as indeed, the sellers of intimate photos of the rich and famous well know. The media were anxious to dissociate themselves from the public anger directed against journalists and paparazzi: it is the public which is at fault, those who buy the newspapers which publish the pictures of the freelance photographers. As always, it is the people who must ultimately take the blame, for their own prurience, for 'demanding' what they want; for everybody knows that what the people want cannot now be denied.
We are that market; and that is why we must find scapegoats for our own morbid interest in the lives of strangers, even while our own marriages fall apart, our lives disintegrate, our children are dancing their lives away in a stupor of mind-altering substances, and we drink more and more each night to assuage the strange emptinesses of existence.
Change in sensibility
A woman in flight from that which she depended on; whose anguish found itself reflected in the unhappiness of people with AIDS, victims of land-mines, abandoned children, the shelterless; something of all these elements in her life and in her death. It is, perhaps this element which makes people feel that they knew her: she acknowledged the pain of being, and there is no outlet for that in the hedonistic high-consuming environment of the late 20th century.
At the same time, this version of the pursuit of happiness represents a significant change in the temper and sensibility of Britain - and indeed, of the rest of the Western world. The openness of emotions, the hugging and demonstrations of affection, the heart-on-the sleeve culture is the psychologically appropriate sensibility in an age of consumerism. It is essentially an American import, and displaces earlier forms of stoicism, understatement and reticence that used to be characteristically British: the stiff upper lip has cracked under the strain. This is the real tragedy of the royals: the Queen, aloof, subordinating public duty to private inclination, has become an archaism, while the spontaneity, the primordial importance of feeling borne by Diana is what the commentators mean when they speak of 'modernising' the monarchy.
There are both positive and negative elements in this: but there is no doubt that the outpouring of feeling marks a significant and symbolic break with an older, dominant upper-class psyche. Stoicism is the proper response in a society where industrial discipline is what is required for the people; it looks foolish and outdated when hedonism is the norm.
The new way of being is the way of hyperbole, excess and pushing at the limits - the culture of the megastars, the heroes and celebrities who revolve in the firmament above us like the permanent invitees of a celestial cocktail party whose glitter we crane our necks to observe, and at whose good fortune - and often tragic end - we can only wonder and marvel. This is why the media commentators looked with such eagerness to America, to monitor the reaction there. On the day of Diana's death, the BBC newsman asked how the TV channels in the USA had interrupted their programming to cover the story. Is it the media, or is it America which must authenticate our feelings, give us their blessing, justify our reactions?
Diana's candour and sincerity in discussing publicly her own unhappiness clearly came from an identification with the 'poor and needy', who are dragged into the posthumous media spectacle as walk-on parts in the tragic drama. They have lost a persuasive voice, lament the commentators. Yet how have need and poverty been diminished for all her concern and intervention? Millions of pounds have been raised for charity, but as we know, charity does not transform the structures of inequality in the world, charity does not wipe out prejudice and bigotry and racism, charity does nothing to mitigate institutionalised social injustice.
How sad and significant, and how revealing it all is; yet how unlikely that much of what it tells us about ourselves will ever reach the glaring searchlights of the media which prefer, after all, to leave certain things in the deepest shadow. (Third World Resurgence No. 86, October 1997)
Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in London.