Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Ghost Of A Tale

Apart from the Nativity story itself, no narrative captures the English-speaking world's romantic associations with Christmas quite as much as Charles Dickens' small work, A Christmas Carol. Having visited an orphanage in the late summer of 1843, Dickens originally planned to write a tract, hoping to enlighten the rising bourgeoisie to the plight of the poor. After a couple failed attempts and some urging from a wealthy benefactor, he tried his hand at a short novel. It was written and published quickly, in time for Christmas that same year.

It would be difficult to imagine the holidays without this marvelous story. It has been dramatized so many times, in so many ways, not least because, despite occasional literary transgressions, such as the comparative deathly similitude of door nails and coffin nails, it is nothing more or less than story. Scrooge is, perhaps, the greatest villain in English literature because there is little to complicate his villainy. Epitomizing the actor's truism that the devil has the best lines, Scrooge's part of dialogue evinces not only his demeanor, but, as one critic has noted, a kind of dark humor aimed squarely at the idiocy of a world that, for a few days in late December, seems to lose track of reality.

As a child, I wondered if there wasn't, possibly, something less spiritual and more psychological about the events of that long-ago Christmas Eve. Did Scrooge in fact encounter his dead partner, glimpse a world of suffering spirits, then follow three iconic Spirits through the wayward paths of his life, and the lives of those close to him? Or, perhaps, was Dickens - as with all great writers - using this as a metaphor for a simmering conscience, perhaps pricked by an earlier encounter hat reminded him of his seven-years-dead partner, which opened a flood-gate of memories in his mind, which he had to filter using spiritual imagery? At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter, for the result is the same. Transformed by his experience, Scrooge emerges that Christmas morning a new man.

The most moving, most powerful, lines in the entire work belong, in turn, to Marley's Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Present. When told that he was always a good man of business, Marley responds with a speech that bears repeating:
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
There is something so fundamental about these words, simple, clear, lucid, and dare I say obvious it is amazing they even need to be said.

Yet, spoken often, and not only at Christmas, they do. In an age when we are told by some that concern for the common welfare is an alien idea at war with our best traditions, it bears repeating that, in fact, our concern for others is the heart of our common life. Selfishness is not a virtue to be inculcated for any reason.

From the Ghost of Christmas Present:
"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before,"tell me if Tiny Tim will live."

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die."

"No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh, no, kind Spirit. Say he will be spared."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race," returned the Ghost, "will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

"Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust."
What more needs to be said?

The beauty of the story lies beyond the emotional appeal of a lost soul finding its way back to life with its fellows, or the seasonal romance of the story as a whole. I think this is a rare instance in which true beauty, as the ancients understood it, has been placed before an entire people. Not only in its parts, but in its whole, there is beauty here. The humor, the terror, the sorrow, the playfulness, the joy are all there and add up among themselves to something so marvelous, it continues to speak to us nearly one hundred seventy years after it was first published.

While not wishing anyone to forget that Dickens wrote this marvelous tale to remind his fellow Britons that there existed within their midst a dirty, starving, trampled mass, and that the word "DOOM" was scrawled across the forehead of Ignorance in particular, I would commend it just for the sheer joy of the story. While nearly impossible to separate the story from the many times it has been dramatized (my own personal favorite is the 1980's version with George C. Scott, looking more like William Gladstone than Ebeneezer Scrooge), the story is vivid enough to create a whole world, indeed a Universe filled with spirits and ghosts who can whisk us off across the wide world with a mere brush against our hearts, if we wish. It is also short enough to be read in just a sitting or two. If you haven't in a while, find your dusty copy on the shelves, or just click the link above; since it is in the public realm, it is available to read on-line without an e-reader. It will brighten your holiday, and perhaps open your eyes to our on-going battle with those who continue to worship at the idol "profit" that has displaced the far more human love for one another that Scrooge himself, in an earnest passion to provide for himself, experienced.

This Christmas, I hope to awaken much as Scrooge himself did, prancing and dancing around my bedroom, proclaiming my joy and giddiness as I attempt to dress myself and fail marvelously. And, of course, God bless us. Every. Single. One.

Virtual Tin Cup

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