Why should a hard-headed cultural theorist, a savvy media critic, or anyone suspicious of the way popular culture constantly asks us to sympathise with the rich, nonetheless feel genuine pity at the death of Peaches Geldof? The daughter of a well-known musician, sometimes a model, sometimes a fashion columnist, and always an object of tabloid attention, Peaches Geldof’s public presence belonged to the fag ends of a culture for which fame in itself – disembodied from any founding act, achievement or great “work” – is a legitimate object of fascination. Peaches Geldof died cruelly young and, like her own mother, leaves very young children behind her. But these tropes of tragedy do not account for the nature of the feeling her death provokes; and especially for the way our intellectual resistance to mourning the loss of “just an ordinary person” who “we didn’t even know” seem to be overcome in the face of it.
How does our response to the deaths of the “famous for being famous” compare with those of people who are celebrated on more conventionally legitimate grounds? Hester Thrale Piozzi, the friend and frequent hostess to the eighteenth-century moralist Samuel Johnson, said that what made Johnson so simultaneously impressive and difficult to tolerate was that, whereas most of us encounter great cultural achievement in the mercifully mediated form of books, she had to put up with it in her house. Living with Johnson made her believe that books were invented not to bring greatness closer to us, but to shield us from it: and in the same place she remarks that having known Johnson’s extroversion in life, she was grateful to have been spared witnessing his death. In a similar way, the “works” of the great gently de-personalise their deaths for us. In our book, Why Are Animals Funny?, Everyday Analysis has commented on the way We are shielded from the deaths of poets and directors by the opportunity they give to reappraise and applaud their work. Among those who did not know them personally, such deaths are marked by philosophical shrugs as we return to their records and films, or as we get older, a sense of our own encroaching mortality as we remember what certain lines, songs and scenes were to us in our youth.
There can, by contrast, be no such “mediation-by-the-work” to shield us from the personal specificity of the death of Peaches Geldof. This is not because – to anticipate the ungenerous charge – she did not work, or produced no “works”. On the contrary, it is because the “works” she produced were precisely the works of her personality. We knew her mainly through her documentaries about her own life, her aspirational columns about her lifestyle, the carefully planted scandals about her wild nightlife, and – in recent years – her meticulous documenting of her domestic existence across a range of social media platforms. When someone’s personality is her public “work”, it is impossible to take her death other than personally. This is why the deaths of the “famous for being famous” justifiably affect us far more than those whose works we admire independently of the creator behind them.
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