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Mourning sickness

Blair's Britain AD - After Diana
Beware the rampant id
The lonely crowd
A tyrannical new religion
The new protocol
Tragic lives

Beware the rampant id

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

'Where is the evidence that these public displays of grief and emotion are therapeutic?'

The public mourning for Princess Diana has been widely celebrated as confirming the ascendancy of the spirit of 'let it all hang out' California over 'buttoned-up' Britain. From Tony Blair's emotional statement of grief for the 'people's princess' to Charles Spencer's electrifying funeral oration, the virtues of open displays of feeling triumphed over the traditions of the stiff upper lip.

The contrast between 'reaching out' and 'holding in' is symbolised in the rift between Diana and the royal family. In the words of one typically sycophantic New Labour commentator, Diana's 'language was that of the personal, from emotion to pain, from the hug to the smile. In baring her soul, in admitting her weaknesses, in exposing her suffering, she spoke to and touched millions of people' (New Statesman, 5 September). In stark contrast, the House of Windsor rejected Diana, forced her sons to church within hours of her death, and remained silent at Balmoral until forced by popular demand to return to London, display grief in public and relax protocol for the funeral.

The new consensus is that the shift in the border between the public and the private is a step forward for the nation and is therapeutic for individuals coping with bereavement or loss. I wonder.

Underlying the outpouring of psychobabble around Diana's death is the presumption that traditional mechanisms for coping with bereavement are outmoded. One of the privileges of working as a doctor is that you encounter many people undergoing traumatic experiences and discover a wide variety of ways of coming to terms with loss. Most people find comfort in some combination of private grieving and public ritual, according to tradition and preference. One common feature of different forms of mourning is the general indulgence towards the bereaved that allows them to grieve in their own way, whether they want to weep, talk or be alone.

The distinctive feature of the new, politically correct, form of mourning is its rigidly prescriptive and intolerant character. Following Diana's death the royal family was subjected to a grossly intrusive and authoritarian agenda: thou shalt break down and cry in public, hug estranged family members, submit to bereavement counselling. I have little sympathy for the House of Windsor, but I deeply object to the way that every family is increasingly subjected to similar pressures. If the new code can be imposed on the Queen, it can be imposed on anybody.

Where is the evidence that public displays of grief are therapeutic? I have often been impressed at people's remarkable capacity for coping with bereavements and other tragedies, through mourning and weeping, certainly, and also through getting on with life. By contrast, the culture of victimhood, of which Diana is now confirmed as the patron saint, seeks to confirm people's status as irrevocably damaged by their loss and requiring professional help in perpetuity.

The abandonment of cultural inhibitions on expressions of feeling - which is now universally approved, if not yet mandatory - may unleash negative as well as positive emotions. It is a familiar experience, reinforced by the response to the death of Diana, that bereavement provokes sentiments of anger as well as love, of cruelty and harshness as well as care and concern. Several commentators noted the 'ugly side' to the sanctification of Diana: the quest for scapegoats in the media, the demonisation of Prince Charles, the vilification of the royal family. This wave of vindictiveness reached its peak in Charles Spencer's bitter and vengeful panegyric.

In his 'dissection of personality' Sigmund Freud identified the id, the source of our most basic instinctual urges, as a dark, inaccessible and chaotic province of the mind. In the id there is no logic, no values, no morality, only a relentless striving for the satisfaction of instinctual needs. In Freud's theory, the emergence of the mature individual depends on the containment of the id, whose features are most strikingly manifested in the behaviour of the infant, within the developing human personality. This requires the cultivation of mechanisms of self-control through the assimilation of the values of society.

'Civilisation', wrote Freud, 'is built up upon a renunciation of instinct' (Civilisation, Society and Religion, Vol 12, Penguin Freud Library, p286). 'The sublimation of instinct is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilised life.' Taking up these themes in a perceptive commentary on the mourning for Diana, Anne Applebaum noted that 'the separation of the public and private spheres is what makes civilisation itself possible: if the demands of your emotional life are supreme, then they supersede the need for laws, the need for order, the need for work' (Sunday Telegraph, 7 September).

The current elevation of emotion over intellect is a decadent symptom of a society that, having lost confidence in itself, not only turns its back on the achievements of its own civilisation, but encourages a regression of the individual to a child-like state of surrender to instinctual urges. From this perspective, Charles Spencer's speech is best understood, not as a calculated onslaught on the monarchy, but as a tantrum. (You do not have to be a Windsor loyalist to agree with those who have observed that launching a dispute over the emotional custody of his nephews before an audience of millions revealed little concern for their welfare.)

The wave of applause for Spencer's speech that swept from the streets into Westminster Abbey reflects the morbid mood of our society. It revealed the tendency - among the public and the establishment alike - to surrender to the forces of irrationalism and infantilisation that have erupted with a particular intensity in response to the death of Diana. The rampant id is Di's most dangerous legacy.


Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997
 
 

 

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