The trouble with telling if those mourners at Kim Jong-Il’s funeral were faking it is that real grief can look so damn fake. It is too sudden, too forced, too messy. There are not enough tears, too many. They are too composed, not composed enough. To those who witness a person grieving, the emotional response is always discomforting and never in proportion to its cause. When they are on the telly we scoff, and when they are our friends we pull them to our chests to avoid seeing their faces, feeling a wet stain spread across our new jumper. Perhaps, as Martin Amis has said about sex, some things are so ‘irreducibly personal’ we cannot countenance them, let alone describe them sufficiently.
Critics in the media have picked up on recent scenes of unwarranted public grief as a troubling modern phenomenon. Mourning sickness. Grief porn. Whatever you call it, the unabashed reaction to the death of celebrities produces contagion and scorn in equal measure. Ever since the first flowers starting showing up outside Kensington Palace’s gates in 1997, these showy displays of grief have caused consternation. ‘Tasteless sentimentalism that is out of place’, said The Times’ Daniel Finkelstein of the mounting tributes after Princess Diana’s death. ‘Stimulus by proxy,’ wrote Carol Sarler, ‘voyeuristically piggy-backing upon that which might otherwise be deemed personal and private.’ Women clutched jars of Marmite along the route of Jade Goody’s funeral procession; men returned to the spot where they’d slept out for the latest iPhone to light candles for Steve Jobs; but it is an ersatz emotion, the critics argue, based on people’s own emotional needs and not any real rapport with the dead. At best, this neurosis replaces the fingering of rosary beads, the liturgies and mass of organised religion. At its worst, it is phoney and attention-seeking.
Fame may provide false relationships (we have all walked up to an actor from The Bill in the supermarket and said hello in the firm belief they are an acquaintance of ours), but it also plays an important part in how we see ourselves as individuals. It may be going too far, as recent research does, to say that reading the latest gossip about slebs helps us come to terms with our own mortality, but, whether the latest dispatches of despots or Big Brother runners up, they allow us to indulge and deny our fantasies in the safety of someone else’s life. Reading stories about the famous, or watching a cortège pass, lets us navigate our own longing and fear of being more than part of a crowd. When they die, we are shocked, upset, as if surprised by an unexpected ending, an unwelcome twist to a plot we were quite enjoying.
In 2009 my childhood hero died. I was grown up, grown out of it, and groped for reasons why I felt so upset. I had met him once – remembered the smell of his aftershave, the play of a smile under Botox – but we had nothing in common. He was an international superstar. I worked in a bookshop in Surrey. He grew up in poverty as a child in the American mid-West. I worked in a bookshop in Surrey. Hard work and a shining talent led to him scaling unprecedented heights of fame, success, and, eventually, notoriety. I, on the other hand, worked in a bookshop in Surrey.
People gave me their condolences, which was strange enough. Stranger still I thanked them, with only a half-glimpsed thought for his mother thousands of miles away. What act was I playing? What kind of phoney was I?
The trouble is, the appropriate and proportionate response suggested by phrases such as ‘private’, ‘personal’ and ‘out of place’ is not always manifest. I watched the TV coverage in silence. I wore my fan t-shirt on the bus to work. I hesitated at the sight of a pile of flowers creeping up the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus. I watched jealously as fans sobbed and hugged each other. They had no trouble expressing themselves, ‘in a fiction, in a dream of passion’, as Hamlet said of the actor so moved by his account of Hecuba that he wept, whereas inside I was a blank.
A year after the London bombings, a BBC journalist spoke to a woman at the site of one of the explosions. ‘We came here to bring flowers,’ she said. ‘It’s a silly thing really, but you don’t feel you can do anything else.’ These words say something about the helplessness of those moved by something that happened to other people. Such simple rituals are often misinterpreted; they are meant not only to confer significance on the dead, but perform a social function for those left behind. Ceremonies of public mourning have existed throughout history to acknowledge a collective injury in this way, to blur the distinction between individuals, and begin to know, on a conscious level, the loss endured. The flowers, or candles, even the Marmite jars, are a poor attempt to bridge the gap between what they feel and what those affected must feel.
The contours of a public life run smooth and distinct. They lack the troubling nuance of people close to you: that irritating habit, the time they said that thing. We trace our own lives over their dips and arcs, but this is not mere titillation. Our experiences tauten and emerge in high relief as they stretch to meet those pegged out by more celebrated lives. Martin Amis and anyone who has read entries to The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award knows that something ‘irreducibly personal’ risks pornography when it is described, but describe it we must. Taking something personal and rendering it universal is the work of fiction and art, and promotes the witness – the reader, the voyeur, the fan – from audience to actor. It is safe, risk-free; and eventually we learn how that process might work backwards, when it happens to someone close to us, to ourselves even.
Faced with the certainty of his own mortality, Shakespeare’s Richard II gives up and sits down, imploring his remaining followers to ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’. There may be many kings, but ‘death’ is singular. They all have it coming. And, in the tradition of tragic heroes, they have the most to lose. Our heroes must start special to be laid low, and so it follows that if they are laid low, they must have been special. This balancing and counterbalancing work is what we all engage in when confronted with death and loss. To convey what we have lost, we must weight its value.
Eventually a public memorial did it for me. His celebrity friends broke down mid-tribute, the camera cut to a shot of messages piling up outside the theatre he first played in New York, the gaudy gold coffin, a single white glove. This symbolic trash signified something incomprehensibly important, and spoke to me in a language I couldn’t quite understand. I felt it had something to say to me about my life, and though I had no idea what, its very presence demonstrated that it was shared, and I wept for a man I did not know.
Feelings of grief are not indexed by how well we know a person, any more than they are by how ‘important’ that person is perceived to be. Our response to death reflects most of all upon ourselves, our ability to discern specialness in others, to insist in the face of unseeing and indiscriminate destruction that ‘attention must be paid’, like Linda, the wife of that nobody Willy Loman. Death produces feelings that are not defined by our relationship with the deceased, but how their story speaks to us collectively as well as personally. It is the cultural implication, the universality, that reduces us to blubbering wrecks and confounds our sense of propriety.
Our consternation at public displays of grief reflects a gap between actual and perceived feelings that cannot be closed and must be acknowledged. ‘I don’t feel what they’re feeling,’ we think, ‘so they, or I, must be wrong.’ Public grief should allow us to register that gap: to be part of the crowd, and to stand apart.
I do not want to suggest the people of North Korea are experiencing a normal reaction to the loss of a leader, and that their public grief is anything but state-enforced mourning. There are many specific reasons someone might want to be ‘lost in a crowd’ in North Korea right now. We should, however, acknowledge that the desire to prostrate oneself, to stand in awe before someone else, to stop and sit and listen to stories, is simultaneously a desire to elevate oneself. It is something we share with the North Koreans.
Celebrity worship gives hope to the longing that we, like our idols, are unimpeachably significant – and at the same time, reveals its sadness and absurdity. What we all seek in our heroes and our art, our pornography too, is not likeness or proximity, but a way of constantly disassembling and reassembling a hierarchy, with our own blank selves at its centre.