Netflix has produced a new series, called The Crown, about the reign of Elizabeth II. It is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. The initial series of ten episodes explores the first few years of her tenure and the broad and subtle canvas provides yet more evidence that long-form television is one of the most innovative art forms of the last two decades, generated by the greater competition for viewers from ever more stations and networks.
But what is most impressive about the series is its sustained mediation on an important social idea—that the monarch must recognize that she has two personas—the natural and the political. In the first she can be an individual, but in the second she must follow conventions that lend dignity and stability to the state.
The idea is not itself new. Ernst Kantorowicz’s Two Bodies, one of the greatest books ever about medieval political theory, shows that kingship in the Middle Ages consciously reflected this idea. Monarchy included all sorts of rituals suggesting that political body of the King or Queen was directly connected to the divine and thus provided a source of stability beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary politics. The writers of the Crown seem familiar with this book, because they underscored the transcendent rituals in the coronation of Elizabeth, such as the anointing ceremony.
But while the ideal that body of the sovereign rises above the natural person is not new, The Crown raises the profound political question of whether it can survive in age devoted to individual authenticity and democratic equality. Moreover, the transparency of modern media lets in too much daylight on the magic, making is hard to keep the personal and political separate. In the series Elizabeth does her best to comply with traditional conventions that make her seem stuffy, boring and indeed a bit empty, because emptiness allows the people to read into her what they want to see. In contrast, her sister Princess Margaret, standing in for Elizabeth during the latter’s Commonwealth tour, insists on her individuality and makes amusing but irreverent and politically incautious comments that the media trumpets to the world. And in the background of the narrative lurks the Duke of Windsor who gave up his role for the woman he wanted. Nothing can better symbolize the triumph of the personal over the political body than the abdication.
It might be thought that underlying theme of the series is anachronistic, because the monarchy is shadow of what it once was, and irrelevant to us Americans because we have no monarchy. But that would be wrong, because the President also traditionally has had different persona. He is head of state, party leader, and, of course, a natural person.
And we too have rituals too that emphasize that the President’s separate specialness as head of state transcends his partisan and natural persona. These rituals include the famous and unique title, Mr. President, the constitutional oath that only the President takes, and our solemn counterpart to the coronation–the inauguration. And this separation has functioned for the good of the republic in much the same way as it does for the good of a kingdom At least at a time of crisis, the dignity of the President’s persona as head of state is a source of stability and union beyond partisan divisions and personal frailties.
But some of the very same forces that The Crown describes makes it harder than ever to preserve this separate personas. Even if George Washington returned, he would find it difficult to project the same dignity of office in an age that demands individual authenticity and democratic transparency.
Perhaps we no longer need this ancient bulwark for the state. It might be argued that our stability comes from the great wealth of our society and the high level of mass education. But I am hoping that Friday’s inauguration works a little of usual own magic, causing opponents of the incoming President to recognize his legitimacy and encouraging that President to act with the dignity that is essential to his unique persona.