During the long week following the accident that killed Diana Spencer, many feelings and thoughts about her, her life, and the world in which we all live have crowded into the interstices of my daily life. Writing on the day of her funeral, I'm moved to reflect on some of those thoughts and feelings.
My guess is that despite close ties between the cultures of Britain and America, one probably cannot fully experience these events without being British. Internationalization probably made more remarkable her life cut short, but I believe that only Brits can really know what Diana was and what she meant in her own country.
The British monarchy in our day stands primarily for ceremony, pomp, and an increasingly remote style of uniquely English snobbism. The epitome of this style is Elizabeth II herself. I don't think the queen is a bad person, but in her public persona neither is she a notably good one. Nor are her sons or daughters. When toward the end of the week there was public outcry against royal remoteness, I thought the queen was quite right to assert the need for private time for Diana's young sons.
But even then it distressed me that the boys are never referred to without their titles. There is a time when humanity transcends tradition, and I think -- perhaps I am biased by the fact that it meant so much to me at the time -- the death of one's much-loved mother is such a time.
Americans seem to need royalty, as though we were somehow not articulate enough to express ourselves. Our apparent need for closeness, however vicarious or distorted, to public figures, and especially to the famous, the rich, the beautiful, the powerful, is to me a great riddle. Forced to find some explanation for it, I would venture to say it has to do with a sense of emptiness, incompleteness or frustration, impelling people to identify, albeit tenuously or illusorily, with what they apparently hope is someone better than themselves. At base, it may be an issue of expressibility: not knowing what or who they are innerly, they look to external symbols as vehicles for self-expression.
Perhaps it is mainly passivity, the instant availability of ready-made imagery, an influence of the press that fulfills a complex role in society generally and in these events especially. Much has been made of the tabloid press in particular, focusing on the negative aspects of its insatiable thirst for private images.
Despite all the exchanges of blame and recrimination that have filled this week of shock and regret it's my guess that we will likely never be able to say with conviction what it was that caused the accident. Nor do I feel that Diana's death, the manner of it especially, will have a long-lasting effect on media patterns, because the forces shaping those patterns are far larger than any person, even larger than wars and natural disasters. But it would be nice, I think, for there to be some restraint about private matters. At the least, it could lend respect and credibility to the press's proper scrutiny of public figures.
As for my own feelings sparked by Diana's death, they fall into two broad categories. For one thing, I didn't know many of the things about Diana that have since her death become the focus of public praise. What I knew was the sentimentalizing of her marriage. What I felt was great sympathy for Diana when the news of conflicts and unhappiness in her marriage came out. At the time of the divorce itself, I felt strong contempt for the Windsors, their stuffiness, their attempts to distance themselves from events in which they had after all played a central role.
Afterwards, I didn't stay tuned to Diana's activities. It was news to me that she had made a point of not wearing gloves when she held the hand of a person with AIDS, that she was leading an effort to free the world of the barbarity of land mines, that she was involved in so many charitable causes. So it was with some surprise that I learned of these things and I have indeed been impressed by them. They have greatly humanized Diana for me.
But the main conduits for an emotional response to Diana's death, for me, have been two: a sense of loss made more tragic by her being on the cusp of potential great happiness with Dodi El Fayed, and most of all, the loss her two sons must feel, the more so because they are so young and vulnerable.
Nothing moved me more than seeing the flowers at the foot of the casket as it was borne out of Westminster, bearing a card addressed, simply, "Mummy." That says it all, I think.
September 6, 1997