Brad Evans contemplates the death of Queen Elizabeth II, asking whether we should mourn the death of a Monarch.
The Nation has been thrown into a collective state of grieving. Or at least that’s the choreographed narrative being presented to us by every single news and media outlet; especially the BBC whose lamentation appears far more dutiful than anything expected from Royalty. But what exactly is being mourned? The death of a Queen? A person? Maybe we are grieving the death of an idea? Or maybe people are mourning the realisation that even things we believe to be the most eternal will eventually die away?
If the response to the passing of Elizabeth II has been predictable in the sense that the pageantry of death has forced us all to appreciate how truly insufferable Nicholas Witchell truly is, the rejoicing of the critics has also been as predictable as it has been equally about them. They too are looking for some kind of recognition, to Regally stand out from the madding crowds by stating well-rehearsed arguments about history.
Given all this performativity, one has to wonder whether the Monarch actually died or maybe she already had decades ago? One does get the sense that the films were already made, lengthy obituaries and columns about the reign already prewritten, the black ties on stand-by, the critical tweets already drafted, just waiting for the moment to arrive so that the routines could be finally enacted.
I am no Royalist. I don’t believe anybody should be born into positions of privilege as a God given right. Nor do I believe that anybody should be given anything in life simply because of class, race, gender, sexual orientation or whatever. What we have in life should be earned. Moreover, unlike some radical thinkers, I am mindful of the need to appreciate the ancestral past, especially in an age where everything is accelerating at such a speed the only winners are those actively invested in the big-Tech game.
We have heard much of “constancy” the last few days, and how the Queen was a steady influence in a stormy sea. But what exactly does that mean for us? There is certainly something to be said for slowing things down in this runaway technological world. But at a deeper level, could it be that what people found of value in the Monarch was precisely the realisation that humans need myths? We don’t want a world where everything can be explained by science and fact? We like the fairy tales, and often the more ridiculous and bizarre the better they resonate. Humans like to believe in something exceptional, something beyond our reach, something we cannot touch, something that is shrouded in mystery and captivates because despite all we know it remains wrapped in secrecy.
Plotting their provocative revenge, critics attuned to the fashions of the time have reminded that we shouldn’t be mourning but reflecting more on the symbolism of history. What the Monarch ultimately represented, it is argued, is the embodiment of the violence of Empire. Being Welsh, I don’t need any lessons on the history of colonisation (we were after-all the original colony in the English colonial experiment), even if many of the said critics today have a rather narrow conception of colonisation and their all too colour-coded ideas on the decolonial that erases the history of white-on-white racism. Nor am I unawares of the ways subjugated peoples have suffered at the hands of conquerors. I have spent most of my academic life researching the consequences. We shouldn’t however overlook the fact that one of the Queens last ceremonial duties was to welcome a new government, whose leading positions of State doesn’t feature a single white man. I don’t believe this should be so easily dismissed as irrelevant as some identity critics have insisted.
But even if we are still coming to terms with the age of Empire and its lasting implications, does that mean to say we should castigate all tradition? I recall the words of Cornell West who offered a strident defence of the Western canon of thought against attempts to cancel certain aspects of a university curriculum:
Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity? This classical approach is united to the Black experience. It recognizes that the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice. That means to find your voice, not an echo or an imitation of others. But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition, grounded in legacies, grounded in heritages.
In many ways the Queen was the ultimate symbol for our Society. People could project whatever they wished onto her, meaning that the less she actually spoke and stated her opinions, the more relevance she had to people’s lives. Such a vision of the Queen would be perfectly captured by Andy Warhol, whose portrait properly emphasised her iconography in a modern age, without the marks and imperfections of history that were far better captured in the brutally honest depiction by Lucien Freud.
But maybe that also reveals something of the complexity of symbols. They don’t have a universal meaning. They resonate differently. And so, while we should recognise that there is not a shared universal mourning taking place, it must also be recognised that not everybody who found value and meaning in her life is a racist xenophobe whose flag waving pomp and ceremony unequivocally shows intolerance. Some of the most intolerant people I have had the misfortune to meet self-identify as radical.
Beyond the idea of the Queen, there was Elizabeth the person. Who amongst us would have really wanted that life? Yes, there was the wealth, But what about the rest? Many have commented on the stoic nature of her character, which is arguably something we might all look to in a world dominated by catastrophism. And yet in the face of a real catastrophe, that’s where the majesty fell short. Whether she felt genuine remorse in the months after the Aberfan disaster only she will properly know.
Thinking about the way we all project things onto symbols of a human kind, I can’t help dwelling on the symbolism of death. How often do persons seem more alive to us when they are no longer part of this earth? Death remains the great unknown to us. No wonder we find such meaning in public acts of grief. But death is also surreal. Aside from social media commentary, which truly is a theatre of the absurd, should the Queen have been watching the BBC in her final hours, she must have felt the same as the early enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrongly pronounced dead after an accident, ended up reading his own obituaries (Elizabeth’s were at least kinder)!
So, should we mourn the death of a Monarch? That’s up to each of us to decide. I have never personally found myself connected to the Institution, but I know of many elderly persons who wanted nothing more than to live to 100 in order to receive that card through the door, which would have been the highlight of a life. Mourning is deeply personal, yet it is also a profoundly public act. But if Elizabeth meant something, anything, then who is anybody else to deny the right to dignify her life and existence? After-all, in the end, we may just be, as the Stoics insisted, celebrating the very fact that life is all we have, but for a fleeting moment. In the words of William Shakespeare:
To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Image credit: Biblio Archives via Flickr.
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