There have been many different responses to the death of our longest-lived monarch. Sigmund Freud’s theory of the subconscious can help us understand why.
Why are so many people queueing for hours to take less than five minutes to walk past the coffin of a complete stranger?
David Beckham reflected:
“We all want to be here together, we all want to experience something where we celebrate the amazing life of our Queen and I think something like this today is meant to be shared together.”
Behavioural psychologist Stephen Reicher suggests that motivations run much deeper than this; that human psychology is far more complex:
“Any attempt to reduce crowd participation to a single, universal motivation is a distortion. People come along for many different and mixed reasons, not all of which involve allegiance to the monarchy.”
Royalty as a ‘canvas’
Reicher suggests that some people might wish to be part of a great historical event and others may want to demonstrate their membership of a national community “not just an expression of nationhood but an exercise in the making of nationhood” which may have negative as well as positive results, given the nature of creating any ‘club’ means that some people will inevitably be excluded.
He suggests that “the royal family constitutes a canvas on to which people project the issues of their own lives” and in this way, they grieve or celebrate through these enduring national figures, not for them or with them.
Some may take exception to this suggestion and insist that this is not what they understand that they are doing. But an earlier psychologist would have smiled knowingly at this assertion and commented that the fact that they are not aware is really not the point.
The role of the unconscious
Freud proposed that conscious human thought floats on the top of a sea of deep unconscious motivations. These motivations can manifest via imagery created in the subconscious which filters into the conscious mind not only through dreams and fantasies, but also through defence mechanisms which may channel the directions of our thoughts.
Freud proposed that human beings have many powerful emotions that they learn to suppress in order to live within an orderly society. We cannot even allow these to full consciousness even in our dream imagery, he proposed. Consequently, the reason that dreams are often so surreal is that our subconscious is creating safe symbols that allow us to deal with worries and fears outside the realities of everyday life. He called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious”.
The internet is full of information about Freud’s theories on dream analysis. The problem is, these frequently contain over-simplifications in which we are told that Freud said that a particular dream symbol stood for some kind of fixed and specific meaning. This is, in fact, not true.
Freud suggested some common meanings that people might attach – a house standing for the body, for example, so dreaming of things breaking down in a house might translate to fear of serious illness. This may very well be the case, but it may not. You may simply be worried about the cost of your house repairs, for example.
Freud proposed that individual psychoanalysis – a series of discussions of fears, worries, dreams and fantasies with a therapist over an extended period of time – is the only way for an individual to explore their personal symbology more deeply, in order to make greater sense of their hidden emotional functioning.
Death and defence mechanisms
But what does this have to do with our responses to famous people? Well, Freud proposed that where we are unable to deal with complexities and dichotomies in our emotional lives, there are a series of subconscious ‘defence mechanisms’ that we draw upon.
And by exploring some of these, the psychology of mourning for a stranger becomes far more understandable.
Displacement is the redirection of an impulse onto a harmless target that can serve as a substitute. In this way, if for some reason we found it difficult or impossible to mourn a person we felt close to in the way that we wanted (possibly due to fear of the reactions of others), we can displace that onto another person who is not so personally close to us and release the emotions through mourning them instead.
And, if we additionally feel that the person we lost from our own circle wasn’t uncomplicatedly ‘good’, or they were someone with whom we frequently disagreed, it is easier to mourn the less complex image we carry in our mind of the famous person than it is to deal with the dichotomous feelings attached to that friend or relative.
This process involves sublimation – suppressing emotions our subconscious identifies as destructive and/or unacceptable in order to move them over to an alternative target. Rationalisation then kicks in: ‘of course I am upset, the person who died was a great leader, s/he was important to everyone in the country, s/he was good.’
Finally, human beings may never fully ‘get over’ the death of a much-loved friend or relative. Mourning a famous stranger can give us a chance to re-kindle those emotions, to engage in a current situation in which we feel safe to release them: the Freudian mechanism of regression.
What did Freud, and Queen Elizabeth do for us?
There is no evidence in the physical brain to support Freud’s theories. But psychoanalysis is still a popular therapy today, and Freud’s theories continue to appeal to many people who sense a richness in their thinking patterns that suggest there is more to human psychology than thoughts of which we are consciously aware.
Currently accessing social media will bring up copious threads of people proposing that queuing for hours to view the coffin of a person that one has never met is ‘mad’ and others responding that those who do not want to join in must be unfeeling or unpatriotic or even potentially seditious.
Freud would have probably been sanguine about the whole situation. Human psychology is, in the end, a highly individual phenomenon. With respect to the complex set-up of our emotions by both nature and nurture, we are all, to some extent, islands.
The deaths of other people give us an opportunity to contemplate the fundamental truth that ‘all things must pass’, whilst dichotomous human nature, the collective will which sits alongside the individual spirit is reproduced in each subsequent generation.
If queueing to view the coffin of a stranger is something we feel highly motivated to do, then there is no harm in doing it, and there may also be some emotional benefit in doing so. If, on the other hand, we feel no desire to do so, there is nothing wrong with that, either.
Perhaps, taking a more detached viewpoint, the best way to honour our ancestors is to learn to live more peacefully together. And this is a particularly compelling consideration when remembering the ‘greatest’ generation currently passing into memory, who won our freedom from fascism.
Queen Elizabeth was one of the last survivors of this generation. Perhaps, then Paddington’s simple but poignant message to her should be extended to all her generational peers? We are stepping into very big shoes. I hope, for the sake of our children, we will prove ourselves worthy.