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03 September 1998

Diana Disillusion: the Cult of Diana and its Mirror Image

Recent criticisms of the cult of Diana are as mystical as the cult itself, says writer and broadcaster Andrew Calcutt

Welcome to the Diana hangover. This time last year, everyone was intoxicated with her death. A year on, many people are asking how they could have been so stupid. Trouble is that the explanations currently on offer tend to be as distorted as the original experience - just as the resolutions we make while dehydrated are as untruthful as the things we said when drunk.

First there were conspiracy theories: Diana was assassinated by the Secret Service etc. Now there is an alternative conspiracy theory: that the media conspired to create the melancholia which afflicted us. But the mourning sickness which spread throughout Britain and beyond was more than just a phantom illness with no existence outside the contagion of the media. The holy ghost of Diana was a spectral projection of the real fears and authentic yearnings of our age; and the suggestion that the simple minded masses swallowed the private fantasies of a few manipulative media people is as derogatory as the notion that we copy what we see in the movies without thinking.

Another equally unsatisfactory version of Diana disillusion is to say: she was a rich kid, not a real victim; give us Mother Teresa, or a kid whose leg was blown off by a landmine - they really suffered. But the attempt to establish a hierarchy of victimhood is the confirmation of victim culture, not a rebuttal. Discussing who are the REAL victims is in this instance a false debate which raises the icon of the victim still higher.

Far from demystifying the cult of Diana, the overall effect of the Diana hangover is entirely in keeping with modern mysticism: you can believe as much or as little as you like. The only thing you cannot do is attempt to express the belief that human beings do not have to be battered by the world as Diana was (and beatified accordingly), but that they can batter it into a better shape. The choice between cynicism and superstition is no choice at all.

Andrew Calcutt recently co-hosted a Talk Radio show on the aftermath of Diana. He is the author of 'Beat: the iconography of victimhood from the Beat Generation to Princess Diana' (Sheffield Hallam University Press)

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