Monday, September 3, 2007

Lady Di as Magic Monarch

The columnist Bagehot, reflecting on the continuing allure of Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, ten years after her death, writes in The Economist:

“In 1712, aged two, Samuel Johnson was brought to London by his mother. Almost blind and ill with scrofula, he was taken to St James's Palace to be “touched” by Queen Anne. Rationalist though he was, Johnson always wore the “touch piece” bestowed on him by the queen, whom he later hazily recalled as “a lady in diamonds and a long black hood”.
"The practice of “touching” the sick, with its potent associations of magic and semi-divinity, flourished among the medieval and renaissance kings, but seemed to have died out by the beginning of the 19th century. Yet it lived again, until almost the end of the 20th, in the shape of Princess Diana, albeit with the long black hood exchanged for a little black dress.
“During her short, sad life, Diana was seen as a scandalously modern princess; after her sadder death, and as its tenth anniversary approaches next week, she has been enlisted as a posthumous poster girl for various progressive causes. “She wasn't seen as posh. She was one of the people,” argues Time magazine, hailing her as “the princess [who] transformed a nation”. She wasn't—and she didn't. Beyond her roles as fairy-tale princess and floundering, suffering divorcee, Diana's appeal rested in part on an ancient archetype: the monarch who walks among the people, working miracles, in her case among the lepers, AIDS patients and maimed children she unsqueamishly embraced. And just as her draw was in part atavistic, the legacy of her death has proved a surprisingly reactionary one.”

I’ve long shared a bit of the common fascination for Lady Di and the British royals generally. I’ve also been a bit baffled by it – why should I or any non-Brit, or even British residents nowadays, feel any fascination for what is for most purposes an anachronism – though to be honest hadn’t given the phenomenon a whole lot of thought. I’d like to thank Bagehot, writing in The Economist of all publications, for triggering me to think anthropologically about the continuing fascination of Lady Di and the other British royals.

What makes them fascinating is “simply” the possession of something akin to Polynesian mana without which most of them wouldn’t be interesting in the least. (How the British royals came to have mana and why they haven’t lost it is a matter for cultural historical analysis beyond the scope of a single blog post. I will say they’re not the only royals to still have “it” – the Russian Romanovs do, too, even if they’re dead, e.g. continued interest in occasional speculations about whether any of Nicholas II’s immediate family survived the Bolsheviks.) Not all the royals are fascinating to the same degree, but in each case it is mana that makes them interesting at all. Lady Di is especially interesting as someone who lived an interesting life on its own terms, as someone who embodied an archetype of not just a royal but a miracle working monarch, as an attractive woman, etc., but if she had simply been a wealthy woman who traveled the world doing good, very few people would have “known” her, much less remain fascinated ten years after her death. On the other hand, many royals are not interesting years after their deaths (which is to say that the special attention to Lady Di results partly from her particular personal qualities and actions), but the fact that they attract our attention and fascination at all results from their royal mana. Really, a man like Prince Charles would intrigue almost no one without being Prince Charles. This is not to knock him, but as a person, he’s simply not interesting, but as a royal, he continually draws attention despite the fact that people tend to find him uninteresting.

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