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To Di For

Not all of us cried for Lady Di. Call me heartless, but I've never understood why a pretty, jet-setting, once-royal millionaire with a filthy-rich playboy fiance was supposed to make me care. Even if she had been a bulimic with low self-esteem and a crappy marriage.

Okay, I'm a mother, I admit I mourned for her kids; and I felt the pang anyone would at hearing of death coming brutally and early. But for me and my kind, we cranks, curmudgeons, celebriphobes and (dare I use the word?) unrepentant lefties who do not believe that the death of someone rich and famous is necessarily a greater tragedy than that of someone anonymous and poor, the crash at Pont de l'Alma nearly a year ago was a blip on the inner radar screen, an event we expected to pass soon from memory. The vast postmortem hysteria that exploded around us, however - worldwide, 2.5 billion people watched Diana's funeral on TV - has forced us into more prolonged contemplation: not about the lady's death per se, but why so many felt she mattered so much. (Yes, yes, she did "good works," supporting AIDS charities, campaigning for the abolition of land mines, but there are many others who also do good, and the public does not strew the road with flowers when they die or empty its savings accounts to buy their cast-off ball gowns.) In this collection, Verso gathers an eclectic bunch of journalists, academics and social critics to ponder the question.

It's a curious, occasionally tedious, sometimes funny and often fascinating book. Because one major theme explored is what public response to Diana's death implies for the future of the British monarchy, on this side of the Atlantic it will probably find its widest audience among expat Brits. But anyone concerned with American culture will find plenty to chew on, particularly the book's withering critique of the way embracing Diana as some sort of "role model" exemplifies the widespread abandonment of serious political thought in favor of the cult of "feelings."

In "Diana and the Backlash," writer Linda Holt goes after British feminist Suzanne Moore, who celebrated the princess for "bringing into public life an intensely personal language of pain and distress and love and affection." The old slogan "The personal is political," Holt reminds us, meant that personal experiences had to be seen in social context, not "that women's - or anybody else's - feelings were equivalent to, or sufficient for, a political program." (I wish everyone would repeat this 100 times.)

In what for me was the most resonant piece in the collection, contributor Francoise Gaillard portrays Diana as a postmodern madonna - someone "associated with no memorable deed nor exploit" whose tragedy had no intrinsic narrative or meaning. In the end, Gaillard writes, those who wept when she died were really crying for themselves. "We live in a time when suffering is no longer politically regulated . . . Knowledge of horror and barbarity no longer tells us anything except that evil is obvious. As a result, a reservoir of pain accumulates inside us, an excess of unemployed grief . . . Diana's death served as an overflow conduit for all the unshed tears."

The problem with this catharsis, though, is that while it feels good, it gets us nowhere. "The lesson to be drawn from [Diana's] story - a worrying one for our democracies," says Gaillard, "is that since it is easier to weep together than to live together, emotion of this sort may come increasingly to stand in for the social bond."

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