What do Britain’s tears for Queen Elizabeth mean?

The BBC reports that “some of the first mourners to see Queen Elizabeth II lying in state in Westminster Hall have walked away in tears, describing the sight of the cloaked coffin as overwhelming”. What’s really going on here?

Large numbers of people do not just mourn on command. Britain is not North Korea, where the drama of hysterical lament is turned on and off by an official edict. But the eruption of national mourning following the Queen’s death has not been entirely improvised either. Grieving crowds had to engage in a story that has meaning to them, and that story had to be produced, disseminated, and refined over time to make it affectively resonating.

The royal story has been long in the making and, as many commentators have noted that Queen Elizabeth II’s story shaped our time, we can also note that our era of sophisticated public relations and political vote management shaped it. As the cultural historian Thomas Dixon showed in his wonderful study of British crying, when people cry together in moments of collective national feeling “a complex, shared, unconscious, intellectual story flows down your cheeks”.

So what have people cried about in the wake of the Queen’s death? Or, if you don’t really cry, experience silent feelings of loss and sadness?

In her tribute to the late monarch in the House of Commons, the new Prime Minister declared that the Queen was “the rock upon which modern Britain was built…The United Kingdom is the great country it is today because of her.”

Such massive historical claims deny and defy the complexities of social development. It might be fair to say that the late Queen reinvented her role in accordance with the forces of modernity that were going on around her, but not even the most ardent monarchist would suggest that she was personally responsible for bringing it about. . Such exaggeration only serves to make the next of kin appear misled.

And there are plenty of commentators who would like to portray those who visibly grieve in moments like these as emotional weaklings. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the expression of public grief at the time of Princess Diana’s death as “hysteria” and “contagious grief”.

Aside from its profound condescension to those involved, such attempts to pathologize public emotions fail to recognize the extent to which membership in a society is not only a matter of utilitarian fulfillment of interests, but of attachment, shared sentiment, and active desire. It concerns notions of a stable world; the nurturing and vulnerability of valued relationships; the delicate interplay between private experience and public existence; the interplay between media representation and personal projection.

The public ‘vote’

We might call the wave of amorphous, elusive, unspeakable public feelings mood. I have written elsewhere that “moods compel us to encounter the sensory forms through which historical forces become available to experience”. They are not like rational opinions that establish causes, effects and actions, but refer to our sense of who we are and why we care about things. Moods are suggestive. They open us to possibilities of feeling.

Crowds gather at Buckingham Palace to watch the Queen's casket pass.
Where private experience and public existence merge.
EPA/Tolga Akmen

People who queued to see the queen’s body have told reporters how this moment of reflection opened up emotional space for them to release buried feelings of loss in their own lives. Rather than view the current display of public passions as “hysteria” or “contamination,” perhaps we should see it as a time when people ask the crucial questions: “What opportunities are there for me to act on my own terms? there are things involved in acting on these feelings that I am barely registering at the moment?”

People’s feelings will undoubtedly be tested in the coming days as the gap between income and the cost of living widens, the uncertainties of the European war disrupt their lives and the health services on which they have always depended create unprecedented tensions to wear.

In the midst of so much turmoil, risk and transience, the search for reliable constants is completely understandable. The monarchical narrative (which for people like me contradicts our democratic impulses and favorite stories about the world) will appeal to some and repel others.

More important than any story of social cohesion and morality we buy is the importance of recognizing the value of emotionally resonating shared stories. For only by creating and preserving them can we hope to have some control over what the world means to us and we to the world.

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