Few events in recent memory have so emotionally caught the world, as has the death of Princess Diana. I was in Asia at the time and, even there, despite vast separation by language, culture, and distance, the entire media seemed taken up with her, as was the common person. When I stepped off the plane, the first person who met me, an Asian priest who has never been within three thousand miles of England, immediately asked me: “Have you heard about Princess Diana?”
The world’s reaction to her death, unimaginable in its magnitude, can only be described metaphorically as a kind of global warming. At no other time in recent history, has the whole world been so focused on one person and one sorrow and expressed such a singular affection. There were some similarities thirty four years ago when President Kennedy was shot, but the media then was not like the media now and the world as a whole as not as involved.
What’s to be said about this and what’s to be said about the person, Princess Diana, who inspired it?
One stream of reaction is negative: Without criticizing Diana herself, it sees in our mesmerization with her death a symptom for all that is wrong with the world. This is the “death of God” the theologians of the sixties talked about, except this God was not in heaven, but down here, young, beautiful, glamorous, carrying our hopes, and modeling an earthly salvation. When we no longer believe in a real God and no longer have real religious icons, a pop God and a pop icon will have to do. Diana did this well, better it seems than anyone else, and thus her death shattered something pretty deep inside of millions of people. Her death tore the temple veil from top to bottom, as most anyone could see, watching her funeral and seeing the hundreds of thousands of desolate mourners. Our reaction to her death, these critics point out, says little about Diana, since we in fact know little about her, but speaks volumes about ourselves – not all of it good.
Some critics get more personal. In Diana, they do not see the stuff of saints. They point out that she was born rich, never had to work, married a prince, spent millions of dollars on clothing and jewelry, had affairs, and spent as much time on luxury vacations as she did working for the charitable causes she supported. They point too to a certain naive complicity with the very media frenzy that eventually helped kill her.
But the vast majority, including millions of the poor, is on her side. They point instead to her generous work for the poor, to her warmth towards everybody, to her religiosity (mixed as it was), to a more than token friendship with Mother Theresa, and to a certain radiance that so disarmed her critics and made her funeral the funeral of all funerals. She was, indeed, the peoples’ princess.
Who is right? Those who criticize her or those who canonize her? To my mind, both Diana herself and the phenomenon she helped create are complex enough to incorporate the truth of both views. She was not exactly Mother Theresa, as an editorial in USA Today puts it: “Two well known women died last week, Diana and Mother Theresa. One was a pop saint and one was a real one.” Diana’s cult was very different than Mother Theresa’s. It took its root in glamour, in advertising, in physical beauty, and in media hysteria. She may have visited the slums occasionally, but she didn’t exactly make her home there. She was loved because she was beautiful, graceful, glamorous, had sad haunting eyes, a shy disarming smile, wore the most beautiful clothes in the world, and was everyone’s mythical princess.
But that, true though it is, is not the full picture either. A lot of people are beautiful, glamorous, rich, famous, and have even more bewitching smiles than did Diana. There are Hollywood starlets out there whose beauty, grace, and smile can take your breath way and whose presence should massage those deep archetypal reservoirs where lives the mythical princess; except they don’t, at least not the way Diana did.
So why was Diana different? What accounts for such an incredible popularity? Is it simply our own need to have an icon? Does popular reaction to her death and the outpouring of grief of such a magnitude simply say something about us and not about her?
Yes and no. Mostly, I believe, no. Beneath it all – the hype, the glamour, the fame, the image of the fairy tale princess and all that triggers in us, beyond our need to idolize and make icons, there was, I believe, something truly special about Diana herself and it wasn’t, in the end, a thing of her physical beauty or of her choosing the right causes. What ultimately so endeared her to us was her poverty, her vulnerability, her weakness, her anxious desire to please, her insecurity, which helped gestate in her a genuine warmth. The poor see pretty straight and in her they saw a woman, a princess, who, despite being fabulous gifted, never got too big for her britches. They recognized one of their own and they loved her for it. They came to pay their respects, by the millions. Nobody should be surprised. She was their princess.