It is nearly a quarter-century since Britain’s Princess Diana lived and breathed – the space in which we put one generation. Prince Charles has become an old man; everyone born then has now grown up, at least on paper.
My memory is of a dreadful time: absorbing figurative blows from angry newspaper readers when I failed to join in the spectacle of mourning; then the chaos of a visit to Calcutta (“Kolkata”). This was because Mother Teresa also died, several days later, thus saving me from being eaten. I stayed on in Bengal for another week after her newsworthy funeral, writing stories about the glories of Calcutta, to prolong my holiday.
It had never occurred to me to be “mean” to Princess Di, especially now that she was dead. But neither had it seemed that she was a goddess, or ought to be confused with a saint. Merely pointing that out brought the outrage of Canada’s newspaper readers to my door.
This was a most powerful experience of what has long been known as “the madness of crowds.” As a hack journalist, I have directly experienced it several times, and as a young child was first caught up in a street demonstration. One needs to be sensitive to the signs that this madness is emerging, for it can turn very ugly, and very quickly, even when the event is officially “happy,” and everyone starts in a good mood.
But when the clouds begin dark, the promise of heavy rain is largely assured. It is not, exactly, the spirit of public grief that becomes so excited; but feigned or artificial grief, which is much more common and commonly destructive. It begins with mourning for people we never knew. It continues in other products of the imagination.
The anniversary of the Princess’s death has not actually come yet, and I’m playing it safe by writing in advance, to an audience that can be calculated not to care very much. I use the event as a ruler – a temporal ruler to measure time.
A quarter of a century “is this long,” as I now calculate. I have grown so old that I can comfortably accommodate half a century, as well as a quarter one. Through all the time I have been at leisure thanks to cardiac surgery, I have been almost involuntarily measuring time, and learning things of no importance from it.
For it was fifty years ago I was coming out in the world as an (arguable) adult, and when I think that everyone so well remembered from then, is now fifty years older – and even once new neighborhoods have acquired fifty years – I feel displaced in time.
In this sense, Princess Di was doing me a favor. By placing such a big event at that intersection, she (unintentionally, to be sure) made an arbitrary mark. She left her shoes at that location, as it were. She made it as useful as any other mark in history, that is commonly remembered.
Going back to the years when I was a student, I was taught a form of history that involved learning many precise dates. These became solids in some sense; one could hurl them about in class, even aim them like mudballs.
The world takes on a historical structure by this, but it is entirely an imaginary structure. In the absence of incontestable historical meaning, whatever is specific establishes itself in memory.
Oddly, it competes (successfully) with things that stay the same.
Looking through old pictures – from at least fifty years ago – I am astounded to count the number of things that either haven’t changed, or are otherwise “boring.” It is the opposite of the games that are played in, say, commercial magazines, where one is shown the house or city of the future, with everything thoroughly changed.
The attentive student will notice that, in studying pictures of the past, nothing changes, except style. True, we may notice that the devices depicted in the background of each scene are nominally different; they may perform their purpose better or worse; may have different names; may sometimes be depicted in the foreground.
But they all do the same things. And even “revolutionary” objects that fly or move underwater merely transport goods and people to another location. There is an element of farce in designing them to convey a revolutionary purpose, which they cannot have.
Similarly, in all other dimensions. It is, perhaps, genuinely shocking when people die; and more so when they die “out of their time,” very young or old. But, as others have observed, they all die; in this respect, they are quite predictable, and our excitement at this and other “milestones” of life requires, at the most basic level, some dramatization.
Perhaps this is especially so for our own death or personal catastrophe. If one survives the catastrophe, it wasn’t very bad, and at the worst simply changes the way we do things. If we don’t survive, yes it could be shocking, but being dead it should be easier to assimilate than similar things that happen to others.
For in my experience, the dead are always calm. And this is so, even when they have been seriously disfigured.
What is really significant in a life, or in our environment, is not events or purposes. Inevitably, we will have some of these. It is the moral and aesthetic qualities, which we impose, that make our lives and works real.
As for death, Christ must come into it. It is a principle of Christian doctrine that Christ took away death; that He revealed the extraordinary insignificance of it. I would not dispute that a formidable mystery lies under this reversal of plot. It turns what was previously the most significant thing in human awareness, into an insignificant thing.
Best of all, it takes away the leading cause of anxiety, and replaces it with a Catholic “fear not.” It re-orients us.
*Image: Flowers and other tributes left at Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana