Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Loving Angels, Instead



I leave the window open every time I go to sleep, just so she can come in. Just so she can be with me. Jack Tweed, OK! Magazine, April 7 2009

The popular response to the death of Jade Goody from cervical cancer some weeks ago took its cues from the interminable vamp in the tabloid press in the weeks and months leading up to her death. Her very public mourning has made us feel most uncomfortable: those badly-spelt tributes on The Sun’s message boards, those cheap wreaths stacked outside St John the Baptist Church, those pinch-faced women toting half-deflated helium balloons outside her home in Upshire. Yuck, the rank whiff of British working class sentimentalism. We’re a commemorative plate away from Lady Di territory here. Thank God for The Guardian, then! Their commentary straddles – hand-wringing and superior – over the tabloid dross pile, asking just what does the death of this 27 year-old woman teach us about ourselves? Matching sub-Baudrillardian analysis (postmodern!) with touching anecdotes (poignant!), they conclude: not much, but it’s terribly sad!

However, I’m not here to take potshots at The Guardian, not today anyway. Instead I want to talk about the sudden appearance of supernatural beings in our most rational of Kingdoms. I'm talking, of course, about the angels in our midst.

Here's some rather bilious cut-and-pasting from the BBC comments board to illustrate:

God bless the brand new angel and u will never forgotten u were a great woman. Jade Goody passed away to heaven as an angel. God needed another angel. R.I.P Jade. Its been a week since god blessed the sky with a new angel... the stars are shining bright for your boys Jade.

A very peculiar lexicon has emerged out of our response to these very public deaths over the last twelve years since the big one, the one that started it all, the one that we're all rather embarassed about. It's a language that is shared not only between those with the poor spelling and the Interflora wreaths, but also – curiously – those with the university degrees and respected careers in journalism who are currently employees of Richard Desmond. One arranged around some kind of quasi-religious myth, which bowdlerises its basic structure from Catholicism, its rhetoric from OK! Magazine and its iconography from Anne Geddes.


In postwar Britain, our shaky sense of the real brought a raft of moral, occultist and mystical dogma, all compensating for the decline in religious faith – those old, sacred, survival fictions. The brittle social satires of Muriel Spark, early Christine Brooke-Rose and Angus Wilson depict a nation busily crafting their own ersatz meaning-making machines. Their characters are epistemological bricoleurs, rehashing old moral systems or creating new technological and scientific cults with which to make sense of a world after rationalism, after Freud, after Einstein, de Broglie, Planck and Heisenberg. In our own, rather drab, Franklin Mint mass hysteria, in our new moral maudlinism, we too – to borrow Muriel Spark's phrase from The Comforters – are displaying our own 'turbulent mythical dimensions' under extreme duress.

3 comments:

Fnarf said...

This is wonderful.

You know, I'm not that repelled by the outpouring of lower-class grief over Jade Goody -- the pornography of it, the simulacrum of an apparently real emotion being applied to a celebrity shade, a person who to be honest wasn't particularly interesting or admirable, celebrity culture, yadda yadda. Yes, it's tacky, but like a lot of tacky things it's not really harming me in any way, and if it gives small comfort to people sorely lacking in such comforts, I can't get too worked up over that. Like plastic crucifixes dangling from rear-view mirrors.

Your Lady Di, on the other hand, generated a spectacle that to this day makes me physically ill, because it wasn't small comforts, etc., it was, or seemed to be, EVERYBODY, and her death seemed to be a state occasion for the very comfortable indeed.

I'm an American, so probably deaf to some of the more complex harmonies at work here, but it seems to me to be a question of people who should know better versus people who obviously don't. And there's the princess angle, too; I don't like princesses.

Oh, and I'm a heartless old grump, too. Maybe that's the problem.

Nice blog.

Lettie Virtue said...

We've spoken about this before and at length (probably) and I know we both find these outpourings of grief at the deaths people of dubious (or not) importance to those outside their families somewhat nauseating.

But why aren't you taking pot shots at the Guardian? This is what I read you for.

Jennifer Hodgson said...

Fnarf: Thanks for the props! My worry here is that the patronising, doublespeaking representations and histronic encouragement of working class sentimentalism in Britain during events like these speaks of something gross and insidious. In the last ten years, whilst the British middle classes have enjoyed the spoils of their ascent into a gratifyingly-spongy sort of liberalism, accompanied by a sort of decadence in strict moderation and taste, the Great Divide has got bigger and bigger. In Britain, it seems it's perfectly okay to jeer, en masse, at the coarse and uncouth habits of those that are poorer than you. Fair enough, any kind of Anglophile knows that the class divide has long been prime theme of British funnies. My concern is with the ever-widening chasm that these jokes issue from...