Ship of Fools
The feast day of Diana, saint-in-waiting of bulimia, motherhood, charity and glamour is upon us, and the press has turned the run-up to the anniversary into a pre-season almost as long and tedious as the one belonging to Christmas. Twelve months after her death and the media circus continues unabated; the only difference being that there are no new images of the human being who once stood at the centre of this tornado of destructive devotion.
It might seem no special honour to call Diana an ‘icon’, because so many products of consumer culture are hailed as icons that the word has become a cliche. But Diana’s claim to be an icon goes beyond any of her popular competitors. ‘Icon’ is a Greek word which means ‘image’, and at the most basic level, in terms of sheer numbers, the image of Diana is the most prolific icon of our times, if not of all time.
It has been claimed that more images have been made of her than any other woman in history – including the previous holder of the title, the Virgin Mary – and this is believable. Twice she captured a vast global audience, bringing billions of people to church, first to St Paul’s in 1981, and then to Westminster Abbey in 1997. The Church of England ought to be grateful to her as its most effective evangelist.
The image, rather than the word, was Diana’s native language. She stumbled over her marriage vows, made speeches that were wooden and self-conscious, and for years was rendered mute because of royal protocol. Her famous interview with Martin Bashir was devastating partly because it was the first time in years we had heard her speak freely. It was in pictures that we knew her best.
The whirlwind of images, and the media fixation which produced it, became the central, nightmarish feature of Diana’s life and ultimately destroyed her. Even her last possible moments of consciousness, lying broken in a Paris underpass, were captured on film in images which have become taboo. The French postmodernist, Jean Baudrillard, has talked about ‘the murderous capacity of images’, and in the death of Diana this saying was fulfilled in a way that was both unexpected and inevitable.
Advertisers like to play with the religious connotations of the word ‘icon’, but with the icon of Diana, religious feeling assumes a presence that is uncomfortable. Last year, walking among the hushed crowds outside Kensington Palace, I saw amidst all the flowers, cards and teddy bears something that was very like a shrine to Diana.
It had been assembled ad hoc on top of a sand bunker at the side of the road. The icons of Diana, lovingly cut out of glossy magazines, had been placed beneath a canopy of cellophane, which was covered with a sprinkling of rain. The prayers addressed to Diana on scraps of paper were heartfelt, and the candles and nightlights were winking as religiously as in any church.
There were simple words: ‘Diana, we miss you...’ And devotional words: ‘A light has been snatched from this world to shine more brightly in the next...’ And words which were extravagant in their piety: ‘You should have been Queen of England, but now you are a Queen in Heaven...’
I felt as though I was witnessing the beginnings of a religious cult, tapping the emotions that might have been around just after the murder of Thomas à Becket. All the ingredients were there: her persecution by the Royal Family; her martyrdom at the hands of the press; her ‘miracles’ of love and kindness to the poor; her saintliness and sexuality, always a potent cocktail in the overheated piety of the Catholic Church.
There was even a ‘vision’ of Diana, seen by a number of mourners who queued for up to eleven hours to sign the Books of Condolence in St James’s Palace. ‘At the end of the hall there’s a painting,’ reported a woman. ‘The light is shining on that painting in a particular way and Princess Diana’s face is looking out of it...’
One year on, it is still not clear whether some kind of Diana cult is emerging. It is said that a stone in the ‘shrine’ to Diana at Althorp Park has the words: ‘Whoever is in distress can call on me’, and that David Hasselhoff (of Baywatch fame) recently prayed to Diana at an open-air concert to stop the rain. Diana is clearly not going to be offered any institutional sainthood by the Church, but there is something here which seems to be more intense than the adulation offered to Eva Peron. An Elvis-style sainthood, with sightings, pilgrimages and healings is a strong possibility.
Camille Paglia, the American cultural critic, argued while Diana was still alive that our obsession with her was more than a high-class soap opera. The roots go deeper, she claimed, into the subterranean world of fairy tale, and ultimately into the mythic realm that gave rise to pagan gods and goddesses.
In the ancient world, Diana was the goddess of fertility and hunting, a fact evoked by Earl Spencer at the funeral: ‘a woman given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.’ Back in the 1st century, St Luke, writing in his Book of Acts, captured the fierce loyalty offered by the crowds to this deity in the city of Ephesus: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ they roared.
If Paglia is right, and Princess Diana has somehow become the inheritor of her ancient namesake, tapping into the same area of the human psyche, then it is no good trying to trace her power and fascination to her beauty, goodness or royalty. She lies now, on an island of myth, beyond the reach of reason.