The Magazine

THE CULT OF DIANA

Sep 7, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 49 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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THIS TIME LAST YEAR, I arrived in London just days after the death of the princess of Wales. The city was paralyzed by the rites of mourning. Every park and monument was piled yards high with floral tributes, sometimes for blocks. Amidst the bouquets were thousands of tiny, elaborate shrines -- photos nestled among burning candles, adorned with pieces of costume jewelry, teddy bears, and ribbons. These handmade shrines had a New Age quality, evocative of many religions but obedient to none. One showed the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus and John the Baptist, suggesting a parallel to Diana and her two sons. In a giant chalk drawing made by a street person on the Embankment, a dark-haired Diana merged with a Hindu goddess; the picture, entitled "Tears for a Princess," was surrounded by burning tapers, with a kind of cause-way marked off on either side, evocative of the cargo cults of New Guinea, full of chalk inscriptions, prayers, and poems left by passers-by. When I started taking photos, the self-appointed priest ran toward me shouting, "You're the ones who killed her!"


The effect was bizarre, the overall impact simultaneously moving and embarrassing. The crowds were hushed, not only from reverence but also from the sheer stupefaction of those like me who could not explain how millions of people in the land of the stiff upper lip had suddenly descended into paganism. The outpouring, moreover, was not just a British phenomenon. The funeral service in Westminster Abbey was seen on television all over the world. For Diana, in her apotheosis, was no longer just the princess of Wales. She was, as one of the floral tributes proclaimed, "Diana of Love," our first global celebrity princess.


This Diana stood for moral abstractions like Peace and Compassion. Her televised obsequies -- complete with Elton John's musical eulogy (a reworked tribute to Marilyn Monroe), its CD proceeds designated for charity -- were in a line of celebrity love-ins going back to the counterculture of the sixties and the peace movement of the eighties: from the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" (1967) to John and Yoko's "Give Peace a Chance" (1969) to the mass celebrity anthem in aid of African famine victims, "We Are The World" (1985). Through these rituals of virtual community, celebrities function as a new global opinion elite, aiding the impoverished of Bangladesh, battling landmines, or championing Tibetan Buddhists on no authority other than their fame. However worthy the causes, what the cult of Diana has in common with the earlier celebrity-led effusions is that it places few demands on its followers. No need to know much about actual events or issues or the background to public policy. Just have the right gut feeling. Diana married the venerable glamour of the royal family to the New Age aristocracy of caring.


By the end, of course, Diana far transcended the Windsor connection. Once she divorced herself from the royal family, she was caught up in currents she did not comprehend. She became an icon, and onto her millions of people around the world projected their yearnings and fantasies. If celebrities are the new opinion elite of our increasingly depoliticized culture, in death Diana, who loved the company of the glitterati, became their celestial monarch. At a recent tribute, Baywatch star David Hasselhoff prayed to her to end the rain, and claimed she did.


Today, vast participatory rites of spontaneous sentimentality about moral and political issues not only encroach on the sphere of religion, they are celebrated as if they were more authentic than action grounded in narrative history and received wisdom. People today do not, for the most part, acquire their perceptions of major events from schools (where the teaching of history has languished) or from reading. They receive them from the mass media -- television, movies, and popular music. A worldwide satellite feed of celebrities singing that Mankind Is One is more real to a young person, more in tune with the quicksilver impulses of his adolescence and the vagueness of his education, than the dense complexities of diplomacy, strategy, or political psychology.