In April 2011 a million people gathered in London. News reporters showed that many were apparently weeping with joy. Broadcast in over 180 countries to perhaps 160 million viewers, the wedding was one of the most watched events in TV history. With an additional 70 million live internet streams, the Guinness Book gave it the record of “Most Live Streams for a Single Event”, beating out 2009’s memorial service for Michael Jackson (see below).
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?
We are dealing with a confluence of, on the one hand, an eternal archetype, and on the other, a modern expression of our demythologized world. 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 of us identify with the happy newlyweds, who evoke joyful memories or wishes for a better 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. In parts of West Africa, the 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.
Greek myth provides many different 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 (most definitely not mother and son) enthroned together.
In Plato’s myth 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 Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence 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 and expanded awareness, followed inevitably by 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 may 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, or for an earlier generation, between John Wayne and his characters. As I write in Chapter Nine:
Wayne, however, remains our greatest example of the confusion between actor and mythic image. Where did his stereotyped roles end and his public persona as right-wing spokesman begin? Those images were overwhelmingly present in the psyches of three generations of American men. Even now his films are required viewing for recruits at military academies, where his name is so common as to be a verb. Robert Bly jokes that the only images of masculinity available to young men in the 1960s were Wayne and his reverse-image, the “wimpy” Woody Allen.
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 believe that we have neither royalty nor social class. We have spent much time and energy over the past 250 years convincing the world – and ourselves – that nothing prevents anyone in this country from making it to the top if he only tries hard enough.
But in reality our class system is nearly as impenetrable as the British system it is modeled on. We simply refuse to recognize the fact, because to do so would be to question our myths of democracy, freedom, meritocracy and opportunity and our heroic idealization of the rugged, self-made man. Ask George W. Bush if his high school C – average was sufficient to get him accepted into Yale, or ask Donald Trump why he threatened to sue all schools he had attended if they made his grades public.
So part of the shadow of this aspect of the myth of innocence is that we are absolutely obsessed with those who display its opposite, and in particular, the British Royals. Do you doubt me? Have you ever looked at long-term Sunday evening programming on PBS?
We can recognize another shadow aspect of our cult in our fascination with celebrity scandals, most of which tend to involve power, sex or money, or more fundamentally, desire itself. In a typical case, we are told that the celebrity seems to want more of something (it really doesn’t matter what) than our puritan heritage entitles him to; he cannot control his desires. Then, if enough of his followers conclude that this is true, he is on his way out of favor, because he has taken on the characteristic of “the Other.” Trump has shown that he can be the exception to this rule, as I wrote here.
The public (in countless “news” stories), “reacted with jaw-dropping disbelief” to the new revelation. 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.
Moving from scandal to the ultimate catastrophe (etymologically, to move downward), the cult of celebrity meets the characteristic American denial of death. We rarely grieve for the losers in our culture, but we mourn, sometimes quite excessively, 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 in our imagination, many grieve as if we personally knew them – or if a vital part of ourselves had died, which, in a sense, is true. As with Elvis, John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson, 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 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 a time when so many have so little.
Indeed, in 2018, the next royal wedding – fraught with controversy over a prince marrying a divorced, mixed-race commoner – would cost £32 million. Did I say tacky? Wikipedia reports that
The 2,640 members of the public invited to Windsor Castle for the wedding were gifted gift bags to commemorate the event. The bag had the initials of the couple, date and venue location printed on the exterior. Inside was an order of service booklet for the wedding, a gold chocolate coin, a bottle of water, a fridge magnet, a 20% off voucher for the Windsor Castle gift shop (my italics) and a tube of handbag shortbread.
Let’s admit it. Americans, of all people, love these displays, not only for archetypal reasons but because they reinforce our beliefs in infinite growth and potential for success. We could be up there! Enough of us even love these displays – solid gold toilets! – in people like Trump, and especially in our religious leaders. We do this because so many fundamentalists subscribe to the prosperity gospel,
which proclaims that perfect faith will deliver perfect affluence, even in excess. How else can we hear of people like Kenneth Copeland or Jesse Duplantis demanding larger private jets from their followers without tarring and feathering them?
How do we get out of this mess? Of course, it is inseparable from all of our other messes, because it arises from our desperate intention to remain innocent. In doing so, we project our darkness on the Others of the world, but we also project our better selves onto celebrities. We are so thrilled when they marry each other because we get to participate vicariously in that mythic union of King and Queen, or at least until they prove to be too human. The solution, like that to all our messes, is to begin the long and necessary and very painful process of retracting those projections and becoming ourselves, the people we came into this world to be.
In the Age of Obama and beyond, as our disillusionment with the latest savior figures set in, we continued 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 party like a rock 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 “Fernando Lamas” said, it’s better to look good – or at least admire those who do – than to feel good.