Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ghost Stories

The furore that has erupted this week, likely fueled by the source magazine itself as much as anyone, over the article and photograph in Newsweek of Princess Diana at 50 has brought out the issue of people having - and fighting to protect - their own image of famous people. The anger her fans, and even the casually interested have felt shows how important our icons become to us and how much we invest in them. Also how much of their narratives are in fact our creations.

Diana has become one of the great heroines of contemporary storytelling. Whatever we know of the real woman (likely nowhere near as much as we think) has long been overpowered by her legend. It wasn't at all inappropriate that Elton John resurrected his song about Marilyn Monroe to act as musical eulogy to Diana. The two women's individual identities have been lost. It's hard to compete with a legend.

Sometimes we create legend because the ideal of it addresses our yearning for perfection, for the romantic breaking free of the bounds of mundane reality. Sometimes we do it because it's preferable to the truth. Marilyn Monroe's legend cloaks the cold reality of a woman who was used, abused and spat out by men all her life, and her subsequent attainment of perfection and grace in legend has largely absolved those men (and all those who ogled) of their collective culpability. 

And sometimes we just need to create heroes to fill gaps. The fictional Princess Diana was theatre from the start, with the narrative of being an ordinary young woman swept away to marry a prince. She wasn't in fact, an ordinary young woman, not in the world most of us live in. Even her funeral was a masterpiece of theatre. The extent to which her story was fictionalised in the public mind though does not diminish the reality of the grief people felt at her passing. The grief was and is real.

The long running battle by Mohammad El Fayed to find a conspiracy that ended her life (and his son Dodi's) included fantastical elements not out of place in a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Diana, like Marilyn, is an ongoing testament to the power of storytelling, and the place it has in our lives. Also the danger of it, for those turned into largely fictional characters, and for our own collective honesty. Shame they couldn't just have been themselves, but I guess that's not how legend works.

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