THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
"Bah Humbug" vs. "God Bless Us, Every One"
Where is the Christmas spirit the rest of the year?
Not unexpected in mid-December, a dramatic reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" came on the car radio about a week before Christmas. Apart from the Bible and perhaps the plays of Shakespeare, "A Christmas Carol" may be the most well-known story in the world, at least in the English-speaking parts of it, and Ebenezer Scrooge is surely among the most recognized literary characters ever invented. When one reads or hears the actual text, as opposed to one of the many dramatizations with which we have become familiar, one is struck by how little of the actual story we know. When rendered into a screenplay — even an exceptional one like the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, who for many of a certain generation will always be the quintessential Scrooge — Dickens' singular wit and emotional depth are necessarily reduced to the tale's essential moral elements. Verbal gems such as this skeptical rebuff by Scrooge to Marley's ghost are mostly left out: "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" One of Dickens' great assets as a writer is his feel for the tangible aspects of everyday existence, and his remarkable powers of description are largely lost when translated to the screen.
That "A Christmas Carol" is a morality tale is undeniable. To some degree, all of Dickens' novels are, though none as blatantly as this particular product of his imagination. What nearly everyone knows of the story is that Scrooge is a bad man, but that he is shown the errors of his ways, has an epiphany and becomes a better person. Dickens' language is infused with barely concealed contempt for the meaner elements of the society that put his own father in debtor's prison, and which prompted him to create one character after another whose childhoods are blighted by selfishness and cruelty. To the second spirit, Scrooge says, "To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it." The choice of the word "profit" is jarring; the pre-enlightened Scrooge is unable to think of the world in any other way than the cold terms of business. Throughout, Dickens juxtaposes the harshness of Scrooge's words with the gentleness of the language spoken in the household of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and also of Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Scrooge is no less parsimonious with his words, which are "as hard and sharp as flint" as the man himself, than he is with his money and possessions.
In the end, of course, goodness triumphs over evil, generosity overwhelms selfishness, and the life of all the characters is improved beyond recognition. For all its simplistic moralizing, it is a deeply touching story, no less so for having been read and heard dozens of times. How else could it have become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness? Still, whenever I encounter "A Christmas Carol", the same thought occurs to me as when listening to a concert of surpassingly lovely Christmas music: It's a beautiful story — if only it were true.
Even non-believers have had the experience of heading home on Christmas eve and finding the world uncommonly peaceful. It's as if we had been granted a momentary reprieve from the pandemonium and plunder of ordinary living. But the salient point is not the peacefulness, but its transience. One thinks of the famous Christmas truce during the first year of World War I, when British and German soldiers stopped shooting at one another and actually came out of their trenches to share the holiday. And what happened on December 26? That we know the answer without even having to ask the question is a testament to our inability to sustain decency against the overwhelming imperative of self-interest.
How many people, do we suppose, have read, heard or seen a dramatization or adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" since it first came out a few days before Christmas in 1843? Tens or even hundreds of millions, most likely. It has been immensely popular from the day it was published. To how many people can you utter the name Ebenezer Scrooge without an immediate flash of recognition of Western culture's archetype of stinginess? How many people don't know what the story is about, or can't describe its lesson for humankind? And yet, how many hearts have actually been changed by it? We imagine the world would be a bit darker today had this story never been written, but how much more kind and thoughtful is the world really as a result? It is a painful thought for those who put great store in the healing power of art, and literature in particular, to consider that this power may be far weaker and more ephemeral than we would like to believe. Sadly, it is Scrooge the villain who has entered the vernacular, not Scrooge the redeemed.
Surely you will argue against this very Scrooge-like observation, pointing out that innumerable acts of human kindness are made during every Christmas season. While it may be difficult to quantify, Mr. Dickens' wonderful book has certainly done more than most other artistic creations to enhance the human spirit, and to increase and brighten the overall treasury of goodness. "A Christmas Carol" is even sometimes credited with a positive alteration in the way Christmas is celebrated in English-speaking cultures, transforming the holiday from a relatively somber Victorian observance to the more vibrant and colorful festival that is observed in our times.
Perhaps "A Christmas Carol" deserves these accolades. Moreover, perhaps Dickens' entire literary output deserves credit for raising society's awareness of the evils of unchecked commerce and the need for charity towards those who do not benefit directly from the wealth it generates. But in the hard light of day, it is difficult to see how. What all of the exquisite carols and uplifting stories singularly fail to do is to make us remember the lessons of the season the day after Christmas, and the day after that. We are not meant to be decent to one another on only one day of the year. The flaw, of course, is not in our art but in ourselves. "A Christmas Carol" is a parable, and its characters are not meant to be real. Few living creatures are as thoroughly mean-spirited as Scrooge before his transformation, and few are as open-hearted as Scrooge is afterwards. Nearly all of us are capable of both great cruelty and great kindness; much of what prevents us from achieving either is sheer happenstance. It is good to be reminded that sometimes, in extreme circumstances, people can change for the better and improve the world around them by their actions. But it is wiser to remember, after we dry our tears of joy, that such circumstances almost never really happen.
December 24, 2013
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