Diana 1961-1997: The effect that Diana has had on our national psyche i s only just beginning to be gauged
Monday 01 September 1997
Icons do not die. Diana's afterlife is only just starting. Forever frozen at the height of her beauty, Diana, like Marilyn, that other troubled goddess, will not age. She will continue to glow, forever young, forever vital, in the hearts of those she touched. For the pop princess, the people's princess, the media princess understood the power of touch, the language of intimacy, of a hug, a gesture that was always more eloquent than mere words. The most looked-at woman in the world grasped early on the impact of visual communication. She was a child of her time. The manner of her death brings with it a dark and terrible symbolism. She died because of the world's appetite to carry on looking at her, to see her in her most intimate moments whether she wanted it or not.
This tragedy, like something out of a J G Ballard novel, is a thoroughly modern one, for Diana was a thoroughly modern woman and her life and death embody so many themes of the late 20th century. She resided at the apex of so many of our obsessions: our preoccupation with image, the nature of fame, the search for personal growth, the changing nature of family life, the quest for depth in a world of superficiality, the oscillation between victimhood and empowerment, the continuing muddle between what is properly private and what is public, the struggle between duty and desire.
Diana represented these contradictions. She lived them and at times spoke openly of them. She made no secret of the dysfunctional family that she was born into and even less of the one that she married into. She sought, as so many of us do, to remedy this through her relationships with her own children. To hear that these poor boys were yesterday ferried to church in royal cars to observe royal protocol - no matter how they felt - is truly sad. She surely would have wanted her boys to weep openly, not to have to maintain the ghastly facade that had already nearly destroyed her.
As Jacques Chirac said, she "was a young woman of our age". Had she been born 20 years earlier she would have been expected to put up with her husband's infidelity, to grin and bear it. In refusing to do so, she laid open the cynical workings of monarchy, patriarchy and hereditary privilege that had used her as little more than a brood mare. When the fairy tale fractured we saw another story altogether, one that many, particularly women, could relate to. She had her 20th century problems - bulimia, the 20th century's disease of low esteem as well as the much pilloried 20th- century desire to "find herself", to give her life meaning.
This search for depth was mocked because it appeared to sit so uneasily with her lifestyle - a whirl of lunches and work-outs and designer dresses. Those very same men who dismissed her as "barmy" are now seen in TV studios up and down the land regaling us with tales of her specialness. Yet in her work for people with Aids she broke through. She sought out the untouchables of our society and she touched them. Her campaigns took place in a world beyond politics as unerringly she found issues in which the moral high ground could and should be seized. Her work on land mines was truly brave and worthwhile. If the politicians did not understand and muttered about constitutional improprieties, ordinary people had little doubt about the value of her efforts.The rock 'n' roll princess had the common touch and no one should underestimate the skill with which she used it. In offering up her own emptiness, she became a void for us to project our fantasies into. She was a saint, supermodel, an international superstar and a sex symbol all in one deliciously toned body. We knew that she, having known what it was not to be loved, could give love freely. For all her manipulation of the media, her compassion was genuine, a gut reaction rather than a thought-out strategy.
Her immense significance was that she brought into public life an intensely personal language of pain and distress and love and affection. She not only spoke it but insisted that it had a place in the buttoned-up discourse of civic life. Such language, coded as feminine, is too often dismissed as inappropriate, as somehow inferior, as far too emotional to be worth taken seriously. She was not a traditional political figure but in realising that her life had been shaped by circumstances beyond her control, that a role had been written for her that she could no longer play, she ruptured the divine order, triggering the desire for a new kind of monarchy.
Endeavouring to live both inside and outside the institution that made her who she was, she short-circuited the relationship between the monarchy and its subjects through another powerful institution - the media - which was as interested in her weaknesses as it was in her strengths. Her instinctive populism meant that she was always the biggest show in town. However we are to define star quality, she had it. It was George Michael who once said that what makes a star is not having that little bit extra but having something missing. Diana's appetite for attention appeared insatiable. Her quest for privacy was seen as impossible, as if she had signed a Faustian pact. In making the private public, she sacrificed her personal life. The real Faustian pact however is surely between sections of the press and its readers who in their millions wanted to see every tear this woman shed.
Camille Paglia wrote of the atavistic religious emotion that the cult of Diana stimulated. Now she is dead, the canonisation of the martyr will assume epic proportions. Yet we should remember that Diana died after dinner at the Ritz with her new lover. She was living her extraordinary life to the full. She wanted to be taken seriously and now the whole world is finally taking her very seriously indeed.
In that fateful interview when she and Charles announced their engagement and were asked if they were in love, Charles made the awful mistake of questioning what love meant. Diana we always felt knew what love meant. Now she is lost, never to be replaced, our public grief shows that she was loved more than she ever knew.
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