Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Diana Cult

by Alexander Cockburn

Today, when concentrations of wealth and power make the 15th century look like a playpen, men have understood very well that a saint-like mien is most useful cover for corruption
It looks as though the bookends to our modern age are to be the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914 and the death of Princess Diana three years shy of the millennium. The short century of the common man begins and ends with a royal passing.

The Diana cult -- for what else can we call it? -- offers her as the people's princess, but this is merely the sleight of hand of the old fairy tales, where the prince most admirably displayed his royal essence by moving among his subjects as a commoner.

Diana now hovers near sainthood, a status to which she was not insensitive during her lifetime, as she glided through the AIDS wards as a Madonna of the damned. To the English kings was attributed the gift of healing scrofula by a simple touch, which is why this disease, tuberculosis of the bones and lymphatic glands, was know as the king's evil. Samuel Johnson was touched thus by Queen Anne in 1712. With Diana, this asset was recreated, often at the level of kitsch, as in Andre Durand's painting "Votive Offering," depicting the princess placing her hands on a gaunt AIDS victim amid a troupe of saints.

On the one hand, the AIDS patients, on the other, Gianni Versace, at whose memorial the princess was so conspicuously present earlier this summer, comforting Elton John. Diana's involvement with the fashion industry, affirmed by the auction last June that brought in $3.25 million for 77 of her castoffs, was often cited as an example of her modernity and of her blending of royalty with show business, in an equation Versace was perfectly equipped to exploit, to their mutual advantage.

Yet we can say with equal justice that the conflations of suffering -- leprosy then, AIDS now -- with fashion are late-medieval. Jan Huizinga wrote in "The Waning of the Middle Ages" that "In the domain of costume, art and fashion were still inextricably blended, style in dress stood nearer to artistic style than later, and the function of costume in social life, that of accentuating the strict order of society itself, almost partook of the liturgic."

The men of the 15th century, Huizinga observed, "could not understand that the real moving powers of political and social evolution might be looked for anywhere else than in the doings of a warlike or courtly nobility. They persisted in regarding the nobility as the foremost of forces and attributed a very exaggerated importance to it."

Today, when concentrations of wealth and power make the 15th century look like a playpen, men have understood very well that a saint-like mien, a Jackie O. (whose own relics were auctioned off not so long ago) or a Princess Di is most useful cover for corruption, whether of Aristotle Onassis or of the unlovely Fayed family. The U.K. Department of Trade and Industry issued a damning report about that family's practices in 1988, written by an eminent queen's counsel (now a judge) and a leading accountant.

It stated apropos the Fayeds' takeover of Harrod's that, "We uncovered more and more cases where the Fayeds were plainly telling us lies ...The Fayeds produced birth certificates which were false and which they knew to be false. They repeatedly lied to us about their family background, their early business life and their wealth ...The evidence that they were telling us lies was quite overwhelming ... After watching and hearing them give evidence for two days, we considered that Mohammed and Ali Fayed were witnesses on whose word it would be unsafe to rely on any issue of any importance." This is why Dodi's father has never been able to win British citizenship and no doubt why he and Dodi, whose own financial dealings were insalubrious, were ecstatic to have the princess aboard.

Her saint status gave them dignity, and her style gave them allure. In the Middle Ages, these conjunctions were expressed in the language of mysticism and of courtly love. Not so different, in 1790, was the invocation by Edmund Burke to that adornment to the feudal corruption of the French Bourbons, Marie-Antoinette: "Surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in -- glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy."

These were the lines, in Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," that stirred Tom Paine to such piercing sarcasms in "The Rights of Man." Burke, wrote Paine, had never expressed a moment's joy that the Bastille had been pulled down: "he pities the plumage but forgets the dying bird ... His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim, expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the shadow of a dungeon."

This brings us to the point: What weight should Diana carry in the economy of mourning? The best answer was offered by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his "Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte," written in 1817 after Shelley had heard the news of the death of this daughter of George IV. Shelley juxtaposed her end to the almost simultaneous execution of three laborers, framed by the government of the day:

"We cannot truly grieve for every one who dies beyond the circle of those especially dear to us; yet in the extinction of the objects of public love and admiration and gratitude, there is something, if we enjoy a liberal mind, which has departed from within that circle. ...

"But this appeal to the feelings of men should not be made lightly, or in any manner that tends to waste on inadequate objects those fertilizing streams of sympathy which a public mourning should be the occasion of pouring forth. This solemnity should be used only to express a wide and intelligible calamity and one which is felt to be such by those who feel for their country and for mankind; its character ought to be universal, not particular."

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor September 8, 1997 (

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