In 2012 a million people gathered in London, many weeping with joy. It was the most watched event in TV history: two billion viewers. Hundreds of journalists described every conceivable angle, from comparisons with the earlier wedding of Charles and Diana, to belated reviews of The Queen, to biographies of the horses (really) that pulled the royal carriage.
One might well ask, “What the hell is going on here?” or “Why don’t these people get a life?” And why all this fascination with royalty in America, the land of democracy?
The Royal Marriage is the meeting of the archetype of marriage with the cult of celebrity.
The Archetype of Marriage
Why do we cry at weddings? Some may identify with the happy newlyweds, who evoke joyful memories or wishes for the future. At a more fundamental level, however, weddings (like births) proclaim a new start, a second chance, a new world, permission to turn our backs on past mistakes. In many tribal cultures, elders recited the society’s creation myths – cosmos emerging out of chaos – at such ceremonies, in the attempt to restore wholeness and promote fertility, in both the newlyweds and their farmlands.
It was the re-creation of the world that was taking place. We cry for the hieros gamos – the sacred marriage. We watch the enactment of life’s hidden unity: Sun and Moon, Heaven and Earth, King and Queen – indeed, Good and Evil – within each person. And in this case, Royalty and Commoner.
On the social level we celebrate the blending of two families who might otherwise conflict with each other. West African families, rather than the bride and groom, recite collective vows, and only after elaborate rituals in which they humorously test each other’s worthiness. In an American culture so permeated by fear of the Other, we also unconsciously celebrate the union of Stranger and Guest, of America’s innocent lightness and its racial shadow, the two faces of Dionysus.
And some of our tears are of grief, reminders – as in all ritual – that something must be sacrificed for new life to be born. We mourn the death of the bride’s (and our own) identity as adolescent, regardless of her actual age. Mythologically speaking, she is moving from the first phase of the Triple Goddess, the Maiden, into the second, the Mother. Eventually she will die as mother to become the Crone.
This initiation is reflected in traditional Greek weddings, where the symbolisms of wedding and funeral remain very close. When the groom’s friends “kidnap” the bride, they are re-enacting Hades’ abduction of Persephone, who must die as innocent maiden before she can become Queen of the Underworld.
Myth provides many images of sacred marriage: Zeus and Hera (union of equals); Ares and Aphrodite (war and love); Hephaestus and Aphrodite (beauty and artist); Orpheus and Eurydice (artist and muse); and Ariadne and Dionysus (originally, Goddess and consort). Twelfth-century Christian art re-created that union in the “coronation of the virgin:” young adults Jesus and Mary (clearly not mother and son) enthroned together.
Plato wrote of humanity’s original wholeness. There were three races: males, females and hermaphrodites. Each being had two faces, four arms and four legs, until Zeus for some reason ordered that they be cut in half. This left each half with a desperate yearning for the other. Feeling sorry for them, Zeus moved their genitals around to the front, so that they might have some satisfaction.
Ever since, all humans have wandered, searching for re-integration. Those who descended from the all-male ancestors search for the other half-male that will complete them, the women do the same with other half-women, and the descendants of the hermaphrodites search for the opposite-sexed beings who will return them to their original wholeness. “And now,” writes Plato, “when we are…following after that primeval wholeness, we say we are in love.”
The Cult of Celebrity
My book describes the immensely long historical process in which the indigenous, creative, mythic imagination devolved into our current demythologized world. The losses of meaningful stories, effective ritual and divine images have resulted in our cult of celebrity. Instead of developing relationships with Aphrodite or Zeus, we adore each in a succession of actresses, athletes or politicians, who inevitably betray us by proving to be all too human.
If we only knew: The soul grows through an endlessly repeating cycle of innocence, projection, disillusionment, grief, expanded awareness and new innocence or denial. In that process, those who cannot acknowledge or manifest their own creativity or nobility are likely to perceive those features in public personalities. We personify a grand, transcendent cause – the cosmos itself – as the King.
But without meaningful ritual, initiated elders and the container of real community, worship of celebrities (who in reality reflect our own best selves) becomes the toxic mimic of mythological thinking. And when we symbolically “kill the King” whom we had previously honored, we are really killing our own nobility. Noble comes from the same root as gnosis, or “knowledge.” A noble, someone who knows his or her own innate value, has no need to worship celebrities.
The cult of celebrity cheapens the hero archetype. For five generations, we have associated fictional characters (effortlessly achieving the impossible) with the actors who portray them. Now, few of us can distinguish between genuine heroes and fictional ones. We perceive little difference between Sylvester Stallone and Rambo or Rocky Balboa, or between Arnold Schwartzenegger and the vigilantes he portrayed.
We love them for being who they are, not for what they have done. In Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, a celebrity is “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” The Hero was distinguished by what he had achieved; he had created himself. Celebrities are known for their personalities and distinguished by their images, which are created by the media.
Ronald Reagan in particular was an expert at portraying derived values rather than anything heroic that he himself had achieved. He was so persuasive precisely because he could barely distinguish his life from his role. As President, writes Joel Kovel, he “played Ronald Reagan.”
In America we claim to have neither royalty nor social class. But our class system is nearly as impenetrable as the British. We simply refuse to recognize the fact, because to do so would be to question our myths of democracy, freedom and opportunity and our heroic image of the self-made man. Ask George W. Bush if his high school C – average was sufficient to get him accepted into Yale.
The shadow side of our cult is revealed in our fascination with celebrity scandals, most of which tend to involve sex or money. In most cases, it appears that someone wants more of something than his puritan heritage entitles him to; like “the Other” in most of his incarnations, he (we are told) cannot control his desires. The public, however (in countless “news” stories), “reacted with jaw-dropping disbelief.” Each new scandal elicits astonishment, which is in fact the reaction of those who have innocently suppressed their own desires to do precisely what the celebrity has been accused of.
The American denial of death meets the cult of celebrity. We do mourn for dead movie stars (in 2007, CNN covered Anna Nicole Smith’s funeral for ninety minutes uninterrupted by any commercials). Public attendance at their funerals – and shrines – allows thousands to vent their feelings.
Having projected so much upon entertainers, who have certainly replaced the pagan gods, many grieve as if they personally knew them – or if part of themselves had died. As with Elvis, John Kennedy, Princess Diana and the Catholic saints, we honor their memory on their death dates, not their birth dates. Dying young, they remain frozen in time, immortal, never having to grow old like those who innocently deify them.
The Celebration of wealth
How many (tax-deductible) pounds sterling did the House of Windsor (one of the richest families in the world) and the British government spend on this ceremony? The mythological longing for the union of King and Queen meets the celebration of capitalism and consumerism that are at the base of the cult of celebrity. Outside of this context, almost anyone would describe this event as a gross (even tacky) and unforgivable display of wealth and ostentation.
In the Age of Obama, as our disillusionment with yet another savior figure sets in, we continue in our spiral of diminishing political and social engagement. But Americans still hold to our democratic stories of infinite possibility – those narratives that tell us that anyone can rise on his/her own merits to become a pop star. We remain obsessed with the bread and circuses, even as – especially as – cracks in the walls of our innocence widen. As Billy Crystal’s character said, it’s better to look good – or at least admire those who do – than to feel good.