If Diana Spencer's spectacular, mechanized death
hadn't existed, it most surely would have had to be invented by J.G. Ballard.
In the tabloid/television orgy-cum-beatification that followed the demise of the princess, the extreme, if uncomfortable truths of Ballard and Cronenberg's Crash suddenly seemed far less obscure. The Daily Star's day-after Playboy-like centerfold of Di and Dodi's mangled Mercedes, with it's massive "Tunnel of Death" headline, could only make the ostensibly outre eroticism and cheekily self-conscious techno-fetishism of Crash (the movie) seem far less alien and infinitely more comprehensible. Ballard, whose ancient, perhaps not entirely serious remark characterizing Crash (the novel) as a "cautionary tale" -- a line unearthed and much repeated in press reports during the interminable brouhaha that surrounded the release of the film -- eerily comes off as less of a pervert and more of a prophet. We don't even need to see those hideous photos of dying Di in the metallic ruins (though sooner or later, offered up on a web site somewhere along with video clips of Pammy and Tommy Lee screwing like gophers, we probably will); the important thing is just knowing that those pictures are out there in the mediasphere.
1997 was quite the year for manufactured and wildly inflated media events in the United Kingdom; for spectacles and situations: "saint" Diana, "depraved" Crash, "innocent" Louise Woodward. (And where would we be, in these zany fin-de-millennial days, without all those "post-ironic" quotation marks?) Not to mention the rise and free fall of the Spice Girls and the thirtieth anniversary of Dead Elvis. It's almost (but not quite) a shame that goofy old Guy Debord blew his brains out a few years too soon, because he surely would have gotten a blast out of it all.
Diana's death was, of course, the holy of media holies; the biggest, bestest thing to happen to tabloid life since the hideousness of the Royal Wedding itself. On the one hand, there's no denying the significance and power of the story of the death crash in "objective" news terms -- deservedly or not, Diana was/is one of the most famous people in the world -- but on the newsprint blackened other hand, the very terms of what is "news" have been first fabricated and then set in stone as a pure consequence of the entrenchment of vapid tabloid values throughout what currently passes for journalism in Britain and, thanks in no small part to the pernicious likes of R. Murdoch and pals, throughout the world. Naturally, while eschewing "Tunnel of Death" headlines per se on Crash Day, the BBC chose to preempt all non-Diana programming from all its broadcast channels for virtually the entire day; it's so- called Category One death plan. (Very Michael Crichton.) Now the BBC is every bit as detestable a media organization as is News Corporation -- perhaps more detestable given its pretense of seriousness and authority, not to mention John Birt -- but what rationale could possibly exist for duplicating broadcasting on both terrestrial channels for hour after blather-filled hour?
J.G. Ballard might know.
Diana, Our Lady of Perpetual Paparazzi, was already
a near-perfect Ballardian figure. For all intents and purposes, she was
plucked -- tragically, as it happens -- from schoolgirl adolescence to
be re-woven from whole cloth for the media by the royals for their own
invariably self-serving ends. With each passing year and new trauma, Diana
seemed to exist and act to greater degrees strictly for the benefit of
the media: the virginal, perfect bride; the troubled, bulimic young woman;
the vindictive, spurned lover; the loving, perfect mother; the committed,
caring activist; the tragic, dead princess. Image after image after photo-shopped
image, tailored and moulded to suit the moods and modes of the day; designed
first for and then, rolling snowball that it became, by the tabloid
editors and proprietors for whom every new click on the icon meant another
happy visit to the bank.
To be fair to the various McKenzies and Morgans of Fleet Street-cum-Wapping, Diana's relationship with the nation's irredeemably loathsome, but ever-so-popular tabloids (and their increasingly indistinguishable broadsheet -- and corporate -- big brothers) was entirely symbiotic, like those African birds which peck the ticks off the backs of rhinos (though which of the two was the bird and which the animal's arse remains entirely a matter of perspective). Diana's endlessly empty exploits -- from the picturesque ski trips to the photo-op hospital visits, from the exquisite mise-en-scene of the Panorama interview to her warmed-over Jackie O. romance with the son of the equally Ballardian owner of Harrods -- were supposedly irresistible, but frankly inexplicable to the majority of people who lead normal, mundanely complicated lives. Diana's every action seemed perversely calculated to titillate and tease the tabloid editors, even as she and her minions declared her annoyance and dismay over the horror they ostensibly inflicted on her existence. But what existence did she have other than the one she made for the sake of the press and which the press tried, in equal measure, to make for her? If ever a Lady did protest too much... (Charles: "That was no Lady, that was my ex-wife.")
Of course, an insistent and genuinely perverse eroticization always lay at the heart of Diana's media portrayals. From the start, as a gangly kid, both establishment and tabloid culture insisted on the magnificence of her beauty, but this over-determined, nigh-universal exaggeration of Diana's manifestly modest, wouldn't-kick-her-out-of-bed-for-eating-crackers physical appeal has always been unfathomable, except as an extension of the continuing, unspeakably dull English self-delusion that Britain is somehow still top of the world. In the years since Diana's unveiling, there has been a fevered mania for photographs of the princess which could in any way be viewed as physically revealing or sexually provocative, but which might have been out of some sad, 50s soft-core porn rag: the crotch shot elevated to the status of royal portraiture. This pathetic game of photographic peeping-tom was made that much more perverse by the glaring immediacy of Diana's self-image problems and obvious eating disorder(s). The less sexy she actually became, the more desirous, it seemed, the tabloids had to make her appear for the slavering hordes of readers who could always flip to Page Three for the cheapest of all possible thrills.
As Diana grew older, and visibly more comfortable within and about herself (especially post-Charles), this eroticization of her took a different tack. The mania for cheesecake shots naturally continued apace, but Diana's increasingly dubious (at least from the establishment's perspective) romantic liaisons provided a new and more titillating focus of attention for the press. The story of the soldier who risked beheading (yeah, right) to bed the princess may have been a gift from the gods, but Dodi Al Fayed -- Dodi! Could you make it up? -- was every salacious editor's sweatiest wet dream come true. Diana and Dodi's "true love at last" angle was good for some play, sure -- though it played even better in the context of fleshing out the depth of her "tragedy" post-mortem -- but the vulgar Hollywood exoticism, the raw middle-eastern otherness of the once-upon-a-time virgin's new lover was the really juicy bit. The mother of the future king was doing it with a dirty Arab! (Come home Edward Said, all is forgiven.) What better to set to racing the tiny hearts of the legion of Little Englanders who write and read the tabloids? Even in death, it is hinted, Diana and Dodi were in each other's arms. Why else, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, weren't they wearing their seat belts? Death, in media terms, offers the rarest, if still relatively taboo, taste of the erotic, with sad Tory MP Stephen Milligan and his orange slice and bondage gear at one end of the spectrum, Princess Di in her crushed Mercedes at the other.
The death of the famous is the most potent distillation possible of that erotic forbidden fruit. J.G. Ballard exposed and explored this region of taboo in Crash, as well as in a series of short stories and quasi-surreal literary doodles, notably The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard's preoccupation has been, against all odds, immaculately realized in celluloid by David Cronenberg. Ballard and Cronenberg's triumph -- and their sin, at least in the eyes of the ever hypocritical tabloids -- was to feel no guilt, demonstrate no shame in overtly portraying, in a non-condemning manner, this supposedly forbidden avenue of the erotic. The price of this honesty was a wholly manufactured tabloid fury and (yet another) demand for grater censorship; the price of the tabloid's dishonesty may yet be censorship of a whole other kind in the form of privacy and libel laws and restrictive industry codes.
Ballard told an interviewer in 1970:
A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status -- all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really...That's why the death in a crash of a famous person is a unique event...it takes place within this most potent of all consumer durables. (cited in Re/Search, 1984, p.156)
If at the time Ballard was speaking the automobile
was indeed the most potent of consumer goods -- and certainly the environmental
movement has run a sharp key along the gloss of that finish -- the information
age has transmuted some of that sheen of desire from the strictly material
to the media-processed physical; from items to own, to icons to be. This
has been true to some degree throughout this century -- it is, of course,
the quicksand foundation that Hollywood is built on -- but never to the
omnipresent extent of the present day. What is Michael Jordan, for example,
but the Cadillac of the nineties? ("If I could be like Mike..." is the
song Nike wrote to sell their sneakers.) And Jordan doesn't pollute! Well...
Diana's death achieves the Ballardian sublime not just because she was a famous person killed in a crash, but because her death, following logically from the ridiculous, media-led spectacle of her life, represents the triumph of the personality as consumable. And her star-studded funeral and posthumous media existence represent nothing less than the apotheosis of this most rabid, nigh-cannibalistic form of consumption. As this is written, seven months after her death, Diana continues to sell newspapers and magazines and television time (not to mention tribute albums and lottery scratch cards and teddy bears and countless other tacky doo-dads and tchotchkes) and will no doubt go on doing so for a long time to come. Tabs of Ecstasy are even being stamped with Diana and Dodi's name on one side, and "RIP" on the other (Nicoll, 1998). Damn, if that ain't nineties apotheosis, what is?
In the same 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash in which Ballard referred to the novel a cautionary tale, he wrote:
...I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind -- mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising...the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality. (reprinted in Re/Search, 1984, p97-8)
Beyond his anticipation and rather more elegant and
parsimonious articulation of a subsequent decade's worth of postmodern
theoretical claptrap, Ballard is eerily prescient about the state of human
affairs at the end of the nineties. Although Ballard's fetish for mutilated
celebrities is not front-and-center in Cronenberg's movie, it is now impossible
to consider the film without recourse to Diana's demise, for the seemingly
outlandish fiction of
Crash stands revealed as nothing less than
one of the "enormous novels" of our time. In the name of "road safety"
-- but not entertainment; oh, my, no -- the airways are filled with the
likes of ITV's Police, Camera, Action, featuring nothing but
images of car crashes and drivers doing "crazy" things. But of course this
is reality-based programming. So that's okay then. Not at all depraved
and corrupting like, say, a Cronenberg film.
The most striking thing about Cronenberg's Crash, beyond the breathtaking, Canadian cold, precision of its direction and construction, is the sense that one is observing another species. The characters in Crash don't seem to live in a recognizable, workaday world with the kinds of petty, bill-paying, Tesco-shopping concerns that consume most of our lives. In that sense, it's almost like some anthropological documentary or -- harking back to Ballard's literary roots -- a science fiction film. The figures in Crash could well be an alien species, so dislocated are they from the common place of human emotion and interaction. And it is from an analogous distance and with an almost equivalent alien-ness with which many of us observed the behaviour of the grieving "masses" in the days surrounding Diana's death.
During the week of Diana's funeral, with every media source dominated by the (lack of) story, as the mountains of flowers watered by streams of strangers' tears grew ever higher, Britain briefly became another country. Not because, as media pundits trilled, the clichéd English reserve was shattered or transformed -- clearly, nothing has really changed -- but because people we know simply did not behave like people we know. The spectacle of the funeral and the week of wake was a kind of macabre carnival in which ordinary Brits suspended their normal critical faculties in order to indulge in a veritable orgy of self-pity. Just as the staged -- and "real" -- car crashes in the world of Ballard and Cronenberg provide for the characters a portal into some normally inaccessible realm of experience and sensation, so did Diana's death provide a path into a place where her mourners do not normally or willingly tread. It was as if, for a week or two, a kind of boon had been granted, wherein, as in real carnival, masks could be put on -- or taken off -- to reach expression and passion otherwise stifled. To this day, it is simply not credible that those tears and howls of anguish which echoed from the Paris underpass to Kensington Palace, were really shed for the stranger who was Diana; surely the pain had more to do with -- as in Ballard's "fertilizing" instant of the car crash -- a revelation about those things in all of us, and which may be different for each of us, that normally cannot be faced, which must be left unexposed.
In any case, Diana is still dead, at least physically. And that is undeniably a tragedy for her children and for those who genuinely knew and loved her. But in a sense -- at least, a Ballardian sense -- Diana died a long time ago, when that unlucky teenaged girl was plucked from obscurity and garlanded with a crown of tabloid thorns for her invented sins. The Diana that survived after that day, the media Diana, will undoubtedly exist for as long as the Wapping presses roll and the satellites look down. ("Her darkest hour is somebody's bright tomorrow," as Elvis Costello sings.) Just as the industries for Elvis -- Presley, that is -- and Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain and James Dean bustle happily along, bigger now than ever they were when the mere mortal beings walked the earth, so too is Diana destined for eternal media life. There'll no doubt be a report, one day soon, that she's been spotted in a burger bar or a Butlins camp, and of course she'll be commemorated on limited edition plates and coins offered up beside the fake jewel crosses and bust-enlargement devices in the back pages of the tabloids, certificates of authenticity and all.
Diana has left the building.
Nicoll, R. (1998) 'Diana, the movie, or a tale of taste and hypocrisy' The Guardian, January 15, 1998, p.4.
Re/Search (1984) J.G. Ballard San Francisco: Re/Search Publications.