"What was that all about?"

Dolores E. Brien criticizes the general public’s response to the death of the princess Dianna. She finds that, in the public mourning and in the mountains of flowers, gifts and in the general outpouring of emotion, a kind of contagion that was in no way authentic.   

 "What Was That All About?"
An Editorial on the death of Princess Diana by Dolores E. Brien

"At year's end, surely there were millions of people who had participated in the great global crying three months earlier and who were wondering, perhaps a bit sheepishly, 'What was that all about?"' George Will, Newsweek, 12.23.97

It has been some months now since the death and funeral of Princess Diana. Enough time has passed, as far as the public memory is concerned, to hear from "Those Who Felt Differently." Such was the title given to nine interviews published in the British journal Granta with individuals who had not been swept up in the general hysteria of that extraordinary event. What they did feel was a sense of alienation and of isolation from what was going on around them. While no one remained unmoved by Diana's death, what they found hard to take was the response of the public and the media. Here are some of their comments: "Diana was very good at being a celebrity. But if she'd had a harelip, none of this would ever have happened. I don't mean to be cruel, but can you deny the truth?" "A lot of people present were tourists--it was a very superior tourist experience." "We kept being told that the country was united, which it was in the sense that we were all watching the same television program. But in any other sense--that the divisions of class and race were being healed, for example--well, it's crap, obviously." "My strong sense was that she was a consumer item, and that this was mass consumption postmortem, a feeding frenzy partly fuelled by guilt. This was how people defined themselves, how they felt connected to the world, and I felt it was completely pathetic. It made me despair."

There also seemed to be a consensus among those interviewed that to have expressed to anyone that they did feel differently would not have been tolerated at the time. As one wrote: "I felt scared when I saw all those flowers. It seemed a kind of floral fascism. . .a country patrolled by the grief police." And another: "...it began to seem that not to feel unqualified grief was something of a heresy." No one was free not to go with the flow.

Princess Diana's violent death was sad and affecting. Few are hard-hearted enough not to mourn her sudden and violent death. Whatever one thought of her private and public life, we were fascinated by her glamour and cannot help but feel the loss of it. But why did the mourning for Diana take on such gross proportions, why did it trigger such an unrestrained public display of emotion? We are all too familiar with the spectacle of it, given the relentless coverage by the newspapers and television, the weeping in the streets, the mountains of flowers and gifts, the long lines to sign the book of condolence, and the anger directed at the monarchy for their apparent coldness to Diana's fate.

The pressure put upon the monarchy to make a public display of their sorrow was hailed gloatingly by the media as a victory for democracy. The crowd in the streets and television demanded and got a show of mourning from the Queen and her family albeit a restrained one. In contrast, the most satisfying display had to be the eulogy of Diana's brother from the pulpit in which he damned the media and none too subtly the monarchy itself for having in effect brought about her death.

The crowd mourning Diana had no use for what we might call, if not a virtue, an attitude of reserve, of reticence. To be reticent about one's inner feelings and thoughts is to be thought insensitive, cold, and worse, a snob. It arouses suspicions that one has something to hide or that one is severely repressed, unable to vent common human emotions--the Queen being a leading example, as had been pointed out numerous times. We do not know how the Queen, or Charles, or his sons reacted at the time they heard the news of Diana's death nor should we be privy to that knowledge. Undoubtedly, an official message from the monarchy would have been forthcoming, but the crowd was petulant and would not wait. "Tell us how you feel," they demanded to know.

The sentiment "Let it all hang out" still saturates our culture. Every evening on our national and local TV news programs, predictably, there is someone weeping into the cameras, because a child has been murdered, a teenager has been killed in a crash, or a boyfriend or son has been mowed down by a gang or by the police. It is true that such brutal and wanton killings are not merely a private woe, but a public one as well, since they are the consequence not so much of blind chance but of our violent culture. Yet these nearly ritualistic displays of grief before the camera, genuine as they may be, evoke the voyeur in us rather than the outrage of the citizen.

The popular talk shows consider no subject too sacred to expose to the world, nor do they find it difficult to find individuals willing to be their exhibits. The personal lives of show-business celebrities or politicians are fair game for the public. It all goes under the aegis of "the public's right to know." Not only to know all about you, but, with camera spotlighting you and a microphone in your face, we want to know too, "How do you feel?" We want to feel your pain. We want to weep with you.

There is something purgative, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, in this unstoppable release of emotion. Personally, we all need once in awhile "a good cry" but what finally, if anything, does it leave us with? We still have to ask ourselves, "What was that all about?" Crowds everywhere, throughout time, have given themselves up to public demonstrations of grief. There have been many such in recent years, think only of that which followed the deaths of John F. Kennedy, the Ayatollah Khomeini or Elvis Presley. Although the crowd knows who it is weeping for, it is not as sure about why it is weeping. Was it Diana the crowd wept for, or did her death provide the psychological trigger which released feelings which could not be named or identified? And, that these feelings ultimately had little, if anything, to do with Diana's death? Were they weeping for the failure of their own dreams and the prospect of their own death? Already numerous explanations have been offered, some helpful, most of them not. Among Jungians there is a tendency to interpret such a phenomenon in archetypal terms, as if labeling an event archetypal sufficed in and of itself to explain the event.

After all the flowers were swept up and trashed, did the mourning public find their lives changed? Are we different afterwards than we were before? If so, in what way? Now, for a price and a short time each summer, we can gaze upon the island where the princess is buried. Some will see, of course, deep symbolic meaning in this new ritual. But isn't it just more of the same, more kitsch which substitutes for a genuine inner life and more evidence--as if we needed it--of a culture that is long practiced in manipulating our psyches?

© Dolores E. Brien 1997.