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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations
Autumn 1997

I first learned of the death of Princess Diana on Sunday morning at the prison. The flag was at half-mast, and I asked a prison officer why.

"Haven't you heard?" he replied. "Diana's dead—killed in a car crash in Paris while being chased by paparazzi."

I felt a moment of sorrow for a young life so needlessly and pointlessly ended, but duty called. A hunger-striking prisoner was close to death: he was protesting what he considered the injustice of the security precautions taken in his case, though the last time they were relaxed he had tried to escape by blowing up the Black Maria carrying him to court. Another prisoner had tried to hang himself. A new recruit to prison culture, as anthropologists would call it, he made the mistake of reporting the theft of his radio to the officers, who had recovered it for him. But he was thenceforth known as a grass, an informer, the only form of prison life lower than a nonce, or sex offender; and he thought he had better hang himself at once, before the other prisoners did it for him. And then there was a prisoner to attend to who had slashed his forearm some days before and had refused the operation necessary to stitch him up. He was now busily stuffing tissue paper and broken bits of plastic spoon deep into the wound.

In short, everything was proceeding much as normal in the prison, despite the death of Diana. It was only much later that I realized that a mass hysteria had been unleashed that makes the death of Little Nell look like a detached clinical report.

While Diana was being killed in the Paris tunnel, the presses of the Observer newspaper, the Sunday journal of Britain's liberal intelligentsia, were printing the following item in a satirical column entitled MRS. BLAIR’S DIARY: "It always amazes me that the press picks up on [what Diana says] as if it were compelling genius insight of Aristotelian wisdom and Shavian wit, as opposed to the twitterings of a woman who, if her IQ were five points lower, would have to be watered daily." So proud was the newspaper of this delicious shaft of satire that it headlined the entire column: IF HER IQ WERE ANY LOWER, SHE’D NEED DAILY WATERING. Elsewhere in the newspaper, a picture of Diana bore the caption: "Woodentop."

This crudely satirical tone could not survive the tragic events of the day, of course. But if civilized convention demands that one should not speak ill of the (recently) dead, it surely does not demand either that one eulogize them to excess. Nevertheless, the Guardian—owned, edited, written, and read by the same people as the Observer—soon began to write of the late Princess in the most nauseatingly fulsome fashion. Among other miracles, the paper credited her with a beneficial revolution in our manners: on the Tuesday following her death, for example, two commentators in the Guardian, one of them a professor of politics at Oxford University, asserted that she both created and reflected a more compassionate Britain after the heartless years of Thatcherite selfishness. She also changed us from a nation of people who keep our feelings bottled up inside into one of frank and openhearted self-revelation—a change all for the better, of course.

"She preached a doctrine of hugs, warmth and confession," wrote one of the commentators approvingly, "a revolutionary doctrine whose enemy was the frigidity of our habitual reserve." That the loss of reserve might entail other losses—depth, for example—was a thought not to be entertained at such a moment.

What accounted for this sudden shift from cruel personal abuse to absurdly exaggerated respect? Princess Diana was useful both alive and dead to British liberals, who habitually measure their own moral standing and worth by their degree of theoretical hatred for and opposition to whatever exists. Diana was useful because she was both an insider and an outsider, who could be represented either as a symbol of the establishment or as an enemy of it. Spurned as she was by the royal family, she remained an aristocrat who led an extremely privileged life.

Alive, she was handy proof that people of no particular merit or intelligence had undue social prominence in this country, which necessitated radical reforms as demanded by the liberal intelligentsia; dead, she was equally useful to demonstrate that the rottenness of our institutions (such as the monarchy) had destroyed a splendid woman for whom the establishment could find no place. Solution: more radical reform, as demanded by the liberal intelligentsia.

What is more certain than that the sun will rise tomorrow is that once Diana, having undergone temporary secular canonization, has served her turn to inflict whatever damage can be inflicted upon our institutions, the Observer and the Guardian will debunk her, in order to establish their credentials as journals of fierce independent-mindedness. They will reveal her as a hysterical, self-serving, scheming, and manipulative minx. The wheel will have made its revolution.

As for the gutter press—the one field of production in which Britain undoubtedly still leads the world, and a faithful reflection of the cultural and educational level of the population as a whole—it momentarily lost its swagger at the suggestion that the photographers it routinely showered with money to snap the prin-cess from every conceivable angle had been responsible for her untimely demise. It even shrank from publishing the photographs of Diana in the crash.

But when it was established that the driver of Diana's car was drunk, and that he had been going absurdly fast through the tunnel, the gutter press regained its confidence and immediately mounted a campaign to force the queen to express her grief in public and to fly the national flag at half-mast over the royal palace, though this was against the custom and usage of centuries. The combined circulation of these newspapers is 12 million, and perhaps half the population of the country reads one or the other of them; so the queen bowed to what must have seemed like popular pressure, though it was in fact the simulated rage of a handful of editors who were conducting a struggle to maintain circulation at a difficult time. No one stopped to think that the tradition of not flying the flag at half-mast over the palace was a symbolic representation of the idea that, while individuals come and go, the institution survives them and is more important than they; or that, by demanding that the queen express grief in public, the newspapers were demanding either that she express an emotion she did not feel, or that she should not be allowed to grieve in private. Either way was to trivialize and cheapen the emotion.

But the queen outwitted the editors. In her television address to the nation, which they had demanded, she managed to avoid what would have been patently dishonest avowals of affection for her ex-daughter-in-law, while avowing admiration for such qualities as her energy—a distinctly double-edged quality in someone of whose activities one does not entirely approve.

The new prime minister, Anthony Blair, exactly caught (indeed, in part, created) the mood of the nation when he called Diana "the people's princess." The appellation instantly became universal, and made it doubly difficult to express reservations about the adulation being offered her memory or to cast doubt on the historical importance ascribed to her life and her unfortunate death. Because she was the people's princess, such reservations branded one an antidemocratic elitist, opposed to the people. A name once conferred and accepted can stand in the way of proper thought.

But did the people's princess have anything more in common with the people than the People's Democratic Republic of Korea has in common with either democracy or the Korean people? Yes and no: she was undoubtedly a popular figure, though her life was as remote from that of the people as that of an anchorite who lives in a desert cave.

Her popularity rested upon both her extreme difference from common people and her similarity to them. She was aristocratic, rich, and glamorous. Born to the purple, she married a prince: her life had a fairy-tale quality to it, acknowledged throughout the world. How well I remember watching her wedding on Peruvian television, which billed it as La Boda del Siglo, the Wedding of the Century. I little thought—no one then imagined—that it would end as Los Funerales del Siglo, the first truly global funeral.

In her, the mystique of royalty to which Bagehot referred in The English Constitution was replaced by the mystique of celebrity: and while the former mystique depended upon concealment, the latter depends upon revelation, usually of the most vulgar, prurient, trite, and debased variety. The cult of royalty, while the mystique lasted, suggested to those who followed it that there was a plane of existence that transcended the everyday world, and that there existed something greater and more important than themselves; whereas the cult of celebrity is but a disguised worship of our own, generally uncultivated, tastes and desires. Quiet reverence for the unseen has become noisy tittle-tattle about the ubiquitous, which has resulted in a vicious spiral of ever-coarsening public appetites, because tittle-tattle must be ever more salacious to satisfy us.

If Diana's life was inaccessible to the commonalty, and therefore the stuff of dreams, it was highly accessible also. Her prince turned out to be not so charming, at least to her. His heart was set on another, even as he walked down the aisle. She had been selected for marriage in much the same way as a horse breeder selects a horse, and for much the same reasons: the blood line must go on. Her teeth were good, and she was fertile. Moreover, the family into which she married, interesting only by virtue of its position, was not at all normal. Difficulties ensued.

Diana therefore had a constituency of all those who have been unhappy in their marriages, whose husbands or wives have deserted or betrayed them, who have had contre-temps with their mothers-in-law, who have suffered humiliation at the hands of others: that is to say, a very high percentage of the human race. Her problems were those that might afflict any ordinary person, especially any ordinary woman, and therefore ordinary people were able to identify with her easily. She was the goddess of domestic tribulations.

When she revealed that she suffered from bulimia, she sealed her universal popularity. In an age when strength of character consists of being able to flaunt one's weaknesses to the prurient gaze of millions of idle onlookers, nothing could establish her bona fides better than her confession that she induced herself to vomit after eating too much: just like a thousand or a million salesclerks anxious about their weight. She is one of us: an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sexual pervert, a kleptomaniac, an agoraphobic, an anorexic, or one of the thousand natural diagnoses of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (Fourth Edition) that flesh is heir to.

So universally accepted has the pathologico-therapeutic approach to life become, that the apostolic heir to St. Augus-tine—that is to say, the present Archbishop of Canterbury—offered up thanks to God at the funeral service for Princess Diana's vulnerability, as if an appointment with a psychiatrist were man's highest possible moral and cultural aspiration. Of course, prelates of the Church of England today have backbones of marshmallow; but still it seems to me absurd to offer up thanks to the Author of the Universe for a princess's shortcomings.

The other quality that made Diana the people's princess was, of course, the extreme banality of her tastes and pleasures. As she herself was the first to admit, she was not clever, at least in the intellectual sense, though she clearly had intuition. Apart from dress sense, she had the cheapest taste: in other words, she was not at all threatening to the man and woman in the street, who knew that she liked what they liked and that much of her life was lived as they would live, were they to win the lottery. Even her sympathy with the poor and wretched of the earth was such as the average man or woman feels from time to time. In this respect, her similarity to Eva Perón, who embraced the conspicuously afflicted before the flashbulbs of photographers, is very striking, as is the similarity of the aura of sanctity that the public, quite incongruously, conferred upon "Evita" after her equally untimely death.

That her tastes were, despite her privileged upbringing, utterly banal and plebeian appeared very clearly at the funeral, where Elton John sang his bathetic dirge immediately after the prime minister read Saint Paul's magnificent words in Corinthians. It was highly appropriate (and symbolic) that this lugubrious booby, with his implanted wig, should sing a recycled version of a song initially dedicated to the memory of Marilyn Monroe—a celebrity who at least had had to make her own way in the world, and who also made a few films worthy of commemoration. "Good-bye, England's rose," he intoned in a mid-Atlantic accent that spoke volumes for the loss of Britain's cultural confidence, "from a country lost without your soul."

You can say that again. In the orgy of sentimentality into which much of the country sank after Diana's death, and which reminds me of the hot bath into which I gratefully sink after a hard day at the hospital, one thing has become evident: that the British, under the influence of the media of mass communication, which demand that everyone wear his emotion or pseudo-emotion on his sleeve, have lost their only admirable qualities—stoicism, self-deprecation, and a sense of irony—and have gained only those worthy of contempt. They have exchanged depth for shallowness, and have thought they got the better of the bargain. They are like people who imagine that the answer to constipation is diarrhea.

TO SPEAK OF EMOTION CONVEYS SINCERITY, the headline in the Guardian graphically put it; and that is why the vast crowds outside Westminster Abbey widely applauded the Earl Spencer's address at the funeral, despite its obvious and grotesque dishonesty. That a speech can be heartfelt and mendacious at the same time is a thought too subtle for people reared on mass media culture. Not only had the great defender of Diana's children provided a less than stable home environment for his own four children and implied (more or less) that the Princes William and Harry were born by parthenogenesis, without any contribution by Prince Charles, but in castigating the odious tabloid newspapers he omitted to mention that they were pandering to the degraded tastes of the general public, 2 million of whom were gathered outside the abbey, mourning the fact that there would be no more photographs of Diana in bikinis, kissing the latest of her celebrity lovers. Indeed, the Earl Spencer (all too predictably dubbed "the people's earl") omitted to mention that Diana's fame was largely the creation of that odious press that he had excluded from the funeral, that the millions of mourners were in effect mourning the loss of a character from a soap opera, and that her own symbiotic relations with the reptile press were very far from straightforwardly adversarial. The good earl was like the anti-Semite of old, who blamed the Jews for the existence of usury.

He was hardly the only person who missed the connection between the demand for intrusions on privacy and the supply thereof in an age of celebrity. A patient of mine attempted suicide with tablets on the day of the funeral, feeling it incumbent upon him to express his loyalty to Princess Diana. He was a lonely man in his fifties, living on his own, who had made something of a cult of the princess. He told me he cut out and collected pictures of her. I asked him where he found the pictures that he collected.

"The Sun," he replied.

The Sun, needless to say, is one of those tabloids that have been most ruthless in procuring pictures of Diana, one of those tabloids that the earl held responsible for the death of his sister. But the irony was as entirely lost on my poor patient as it was on the earl.

Diana has already wrought the first of her miracles. A multimillionaire alcoholic patient has for many years insisted upon driving while drunk, but the accident in the Paris tunnel has caused him to forswear his drunken driving, where doctors, courts, friends, and relatives had previously produced no effect at all. Only two more miracles to go!

Conspiracy theories abound, of course, and they are already affecting patients. A French television channel, for example, has put it about that the royal family had Diana killed to save the embarrassment of having her marry a Muslim, a theory that will no doubt gain credence, especially as many suspect that her selection as a lover of the son of a man with whom the British government has been in acrimonious dispute for many years was not entirely coincidental. Many already believe she was assassinated, even without the publication of spurious "investigative" books, and when a patient of mine told me that her husband had better return to the paths of marital fidelity "or else," and I asked what the "or else" signified, she said darkly, "A road tunnel in Paris."

So not quite everyone has grown sentimental about the death of Diana, and even the funeral itself afforded one or two light moments. The commentator on one of the television channels, for example, made the Freudian slip of all time when, as Princess Diana's cortege was passing the Banqueting House, he noted that the magnificent building was the last surviving part of Westminster Palace, "on the steps of which," he added, "Prince Charles was executed." The declining remnant of the population that knows that England once had a King Charles who was beheaded fell about laughing at this conclusive proof that, after all, Freud knew what he was talking about.

But there were genuinely moving moments too, as when the 97-year-old Queen Mother climbed the steps of the abbey and walked down the aisle unaided, thanks to a hip-replacement operation performed when she was 95. I couldn't help recalling, however, that one of the surgeons who performed this astonishing technical feat had taken a month's leave from his hospital and returned as a woman, having previously been a man. What else can one expect in an age when it has been suggested (by the serious newspapers) that the royal family's insistence on the children of Charles and Diana behaving with dignity in public is a form of child abuse perpetrated by pre-Freudian dinosaurs?

I was reminded that restraint and reserve were once not confined to the upper reaches of the British aristocracy by another patient of mine, who consulted me a few days after Diana's death. She was a 75-year-old working-class woman of dignified mien, who had lived through more than one tragedy in her life. Her brother died in a submarine sunk during the war, and her sister-in-law was killed in an air raid, leaving her the task of bringing up their orphaned child. Her own husband had died comparatively young, and her first son had died of a heart attack at the age of 42. ("He had just finished a game of football, doctor, and was in the changing rooms. He fell on the floor, and his mates thought he had slipped, and they told him to stop messing about. He just looked up at them—smiled—and he was gone.")

The bitterest blow of all was the death of another son, recently killed in an accident in which a heavy truck, carelessly driven, crushed his car. He was 50. She brought me his photo, her hand trembling slightly as she gave it to me. He was a successful businessman who had devoted his spare time to raising money for the Children's Hospital and to producing programs for its own radio station.

"It doesn't seem right, somehow," she said, "that he should have gone before me."

Did she still cry?

"Yes, doctor, but only when I'm on my own. It's not right, is it, to let anyone see you. After all, life has to go on."

Could anyone have doubted either the depth of her feeling or of her character? Could any decent person fail to have been moved by the self-mastery she had achieved, the foundation of her dignity and her strength? Yet her fortitude is precisely the virtue that the acolytes of the hug-and-confess culture wish to extirpate from the British national character as obsolete, in favor of a banal, self-pitying, witless, and shallow emotional incontinence, of which the hysteria at the princess's death was so florid an example.

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