Princess for a democratic age

September 03, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- One cause of Princess Diana's death was the modern form of fame, ''the frenzy of renown.'' The frenzied, meaning people who are intoxicated by synthetic significance, are complicit in her death.

Death came when she and her companion of recent weeks were in high-speed flight from photographers hell-bent on supplying the highly remunerative market for snapshots of her life. Hers was a life somehow always rich in opportunities for photographs of the sort she deplored. Greta Garbo she was not. She had a great fondness for cafe society, which is not the milieu of the reclusive.

She died in, and to some extent because of, the vortex of publicity that surrounds -- no, that is -- the modern British monarchy. The monarchy is a residue of the infancy of the British people. They still like it, and it is their right to retain it. But there is no evading the fact that an occupational hazard of royalty is infantilism, now that royalty is shorn of serious duties and exists primarily to do public relations for itself.

One manifestation of infantilism is a sense of entitlement to incompatible things. Princess Diana felt entitled to be forever the social fiction that she became by marriage: royalty. In negotiations about her divorce she fought for, and bitterly resented the forced surrender of, the title ''Her Royal Highness.''

However, she also wanted the sort of privacy often claimed by the privileged, meaning publicity on her terms. She wanted to be listened to concerning various social causes (the latest being a ban on anti-personnel land mines). But she had a claim -- make that a hold -- on public attention only because she was a celebrity, as Daniel Boorstin has defined that term. That is, she was known for her well-knownness.

Plastic and perishable

Thirty-six years ago, in his book ''The Image,'' Boorstin argued that the graphic revolution in journalism and other forms of communication had severed fame from greatness, which generally required a gestation period in which great deeds were performed. This severance hastened the decay of fame into mere notoriety, which is very plastic and very perishable.

This severance was apparent by 1905, when the narrator of Edith Wharton's ''House of Mirth'' spoke of living in ''a world where conspicuousness passed for distinction, and the society column had become the roll of fame.'' The noun ''flack'' pertaining to modern communications was prefigured by George Flack, the journalist in Henry James' ''The Reverberator'' (1888), who thought of himself as a servant of democratic values:

''You ain't going to be able any longer to monopolize any fact of general interest. . . . It ain't going to be possible to keep out anywhere the light of the Press. Now what I'm going to do is set up the biggest lamp yet made and make it shine all over the place. We'll see who's private then . . . and who'll frustrate the People, the people that wants to know. That's a sign of the American people that they do want to know.''

All democracies want that. They want royalty of their own making, and unmaking. Democracy's leveling impulse is served by democracy's powerful, if fickle, machinery of elevation through publicity.

Princess Diana died, in a sense, at the intersection of a premodern institution, royalty, and the modern sensibility, which holds that privacy is a denial of a democratic entitlement, the public's entitlement to any fact that entertains. There was an incurable precariousness to her position as she tried to live off derivative dignity from an anachronistic institution while cultivating the royalism of a democratic age -- celebrity.

In one of her last interviews she, who kept the company of the flamboyantly rich, struck a populist note: ''I am much closer to people at the bottom than those at the top and the latter won't forgive me for that.'' What proved to be fatally unforgiving was the insatiable craving of society, from top to bottom, for details of Diana's life as princess for a democratic age. It was a drama on which the curtain came down with a crash.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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