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A Desperate Search for Uniqueness

Summary:
O Hamlet, what a falling off was there! The contrast between Prince Harry and his grandmother is not only that between one generation and another, but between one conception of life, one culture, and another. I know which I prefer, but others may think, indeed do think, different. On the one side is an iron sense of duty at whatever personal cost, self-restraint, and a kind of existential modesty despite exalted position, and on the other is personal whim, self-expression as an imperative, and ego as the object of almost religious devotion. There isn’t much doubt as to which of these attitudes to life is in the ascendant, both sociologically and philosophically. As William Blake put it, ahead of his time, “Sooner strangle an

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O Hamlet, what a falling off was there!

The contrast between Prince Harry and his grandmother is not only that between one generation and another, but between one conception of life, one culture, and another. I know which I prefer, but others may think, indeed do think, different.

On the one side is an iron sense of duty at whatever personal cost, self-restraint, and a kind of existential modesty despite exalted position, and on the other is personal whim, self-expression as an imperative, and ego as the object of almost religious devotion. There isn’t much doubt as to which of these attitudes to life is in the ascendant, both sociologically and philosophically. As William Blake put it, ahead of his time, “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

To swallow down our emotions is now regarded as a kind of treason to the self, where it is not merely comical or a subject for derision; for not to express oneself is to risk later psychological disaster. And while the Queen is fully aware that she owes her importance to an accident of birth, Prince Harry believes, or gives the impression of believing, that he owes an accident of birth to his importance. The first results in a sense of duty, the second to a sense of entitlement.

This difference is not, of course, confined to the generations of the British royal family. On the contrary, it proves that such is the power, though not necessarily the virtue, of modern culture that a cosseted and highly unusual family is not immune from its influence.

The naming of Harry’s baby was emblematic of a cultural shift, good or bad depending on your point of view, but by no means limited to the royal family. There has long been a tendency for people of rather weak sense of self to give their children unusual or even wholly unprecedented and made-up names, as if by doing so they are becoming more individual themselves.

Perhaps the phenomenon is best studied in France, where until comparatively recently parents were obliged by the state to give their children a name selected from an approved list—a long enough list, names derived from the names of saints or biblical and classical figures, but a list nonetheless. No doubt the prohibition of outlandish names was felt to improve the integration of society as a whole.

Even before the law was repealed in 1993, people began to give their children names that were not on the approved list. (I do not speak here, of course, of the fact that Muslim names were not on the original list.) After the repeal of the law, the number of parents giving their children unusual names rose exponentially, and now 15 percent of children born in a year receive names that three or fewer children are given in France that year, many of those names being completely original in the sense that bad modern architects are original.

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