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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Have Yourself a Very Liberal Christmas

(Yes, I'm still here. What can I say? It's been a hectic month.)

I go back to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol every holiday; I consider it the greatest noncanonical Gospel of them all. Where does that position me in the Christmas wars--as fundamentally liberal, more interested in tending to the needs of the individual than to religious truth? I wonder. Dickens himself isn't nearly so easy to pigeon-hole as some tend to think: he did once, in a letter to his youngest son, describe "religion observances" as "mere formalities," but he also insisted that his son "never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning--I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it." So, he was a praying man--but what was he praying for? Certainly not for a sectarian Christian establishment, but neither was he wishing for, much less actively fermenting, revolution: while many of Dickens's contemporaries characterized his work as expressions of a "sullen socialism," as George Orwell observed in his wonderful essay on Dickens, he was in no sense a "revolutionary writer"--on the contrary, his whole message, with all its vicious and righteous attacks on the injustice and inequality present in practically every English institution imaginable, in the end appears to be "an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent." So is that what it comes down to--all the spirits walking the earth in A Christmas Carol, and all its earthly invective as well, just want us to show a little liberal decency? Well, yes. But as Orwell also reminds, Dickens's platitude is far more profound than one might at first think.

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" So says the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebenezer Scrooge, throwing his own words back at him. It is perhaps the most powerful line in a story filled with powerful lines. Yes, Dickens's vision of Christmas is a liberal one, in the deepest sense of the word: characterized by expansiveness and sympathy and "liberality," of discovering for oneself who the "surplus population" is, and putting oneself in their place. Modern philosophical tropes position liberty as a concern of the threatened individual and his or her body or property; there is nothing wrong with that, but to capture Dickens we have to think about the term more broadly. Christmas is a holiday premised upon what Christians consider to be that one supremely undeserved Gift which humbles and gladdens and changes us, all at once. Such a gift makes us remember, and it makes us hope too. Think again about Scrooge: the spirits use all that he had ever been given, and all he would ever be given, to reveal just how selfishly, how thoughtlessly, he had and would have discarded it all, counting all of it--family, friends, fellow-feeling, love itself--for naught. In the end, his own words convict him, and the horror he feels at how he had denied his own indebtedness to others drives him to his knees in prayer--and then out into the streets, in great generosity and joy. Scrooge the materialist, the miser, the master of his counting house, suddenly a child again, seeing treasures uncounted, gifts both large and small, flowing from him to others and back again, in all the ordinary world around him. That is the real liberty at the heart of the holiday.

But is such liberty naive? Is it a reduction of the glorious Christian message to a plea for what Orwell called "good rich men" (of which there are candidates aplenty) to come and save the poor, and by extension us all? Yes and no. Certainly to focus on ordinary gift-giving is sentimental...but I consider that a virtue, not a vice. A Christmas that does not combine the familiar and sacred in its estimation of the gifts we can and do both give and receive is, I think, no Christmas at all. Of course this particular version of the message of Christmastime is a little mawkish; in Dickens's hands, it provides no program for world transformation, no blueprint for a better society, almost no constructive criticism whatsoever--only an insistence on how we ought to have, how we need to have (again in Orwell's words) a "moralized version of existing things." A change of heart, of the "inner vessel," and not just a change of outward institutions, is what is most necessary. That is not to say that outward institutions do not need to be changed as well--Marx's diagnosis of private property, Orwell tartly observed, has as much a role to play in bettering society as Dickens's moralism. It is just that, should there be a revolution (or a sectarian restoration, if that's your preference), whatever replaces the workhouses and prisons--and schools and factories and slums and assembly lines and hospitals and asylums and everything else that Dickens attacked in his day for failing to serve the common welfare--will still be no better than what came before...if those who wield power through them remain indecent, unwilling to give of themselves. Dickens could see that. His liberalism--his wide-ranging, far-reaching, "generously angry" liberality--can be attacked by both secularists and the pious for lacking many things, but it most certainly was not reductive to the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the present day.

Nowadays, liberality is often is reduced to a polemical, ideological category, and thus is (unintentionally?) transformed into something easily attacked as unrealistic, and easily dismissed as cliched. For evidence, consider the work of Garrison Keillor, a pious liberal whose politics and beliefs are probably much the same as Dickens's were. Keillor spoken art is rightly considered a national treasure--as a humorist, storyteller and raconteur he is perhaps one of Dickens's greatest heirs--but I doubt any one would dispute that when he turns his expansiveness of spirit to political critique, he is sometimes, well, a little lacking in generosity. There is a place for ideological argument, of course, but to wrap it up in the language of a religious witness only makes it that much easier for those who are trying to point out the place and meaning of that Gift at the center of the holiday to be ignored. Fortunately, Keillor sometimes still reaches Dickens's level, and one can find an untainted spirit of liberality in his works nonetheless. As fans of A Prairie Home Companion know, Keillor likes to spend Christmases in New York City when he can: looking at the lights, reflecting on the past, serving and spreading cheer as best a man like him might. A few years ago, on his radio show, he put down some new words to a familiar tune; the result is deceptively simplistic. Like the holiday itself, it calls for neither a religious revival nor a political referendum, but something deeper--and hence is truer to that liberality we are called to this time of year than all the rest of the liberal vs. conservative talk which pollutes the airwaves.

In the bleak midwinter / all around the park
Tall apartment buildings / blazing in the dark
Standing here on Broadway / and West 64th
Watching for a taxi: / who is heading north?

In the cafe window / little candles glow
Where we met for dinner / long, long ago
In the bleak midwinter / happy times recall
Loved ones smiling, laughing / blessed memories all

Over by the church door / twenty feet away
A figure wrapped in blankets / lying in the hay
Who is this stranger / sleeping in cardboard?
So says the gospel / it is Christ the Lord

Where can we find it / Christmas love and cheer?
Where are the shepherds / standing, waiting near?
Who is the choir? / Shall we sing our part?
Hear the Christmas music / in you heart.

Merry Christmas everybody.


Anonymous said...

Two problems with A Christmas Carol always arise in my mind every year as I watch or read it:

1) That the order of the spririts is backwards.
2) That the "message" leads most to naive conclusions.

My problem with the order of the spirits is that I think that fear should soften a man's heart, but not give him reason to love life, God, or his fellow man. But instead, Dickens uses sentimentality to soften Dickens and then fear of his own punishment to effect the actual change. So ultimately, the message has to be that of selfishness: if you don't want to suffer in the afterlife, then be good here. But it's those first ghosts that have the more important message to me: that we are connected more fully than Scrooge believes and that his happiness is connected to others happiness and that life is about more than "saving" -- a) that you can't take it with you, and b) a reworking, perhaps, of the parable of the talents.

I do think the message tends to be interpreted as that selflessness is the upmost virtue. I don't think the story goes that far. I think the message is more that selfishness and greed for greed's sake is an anti-virtue. And there's a difference. It's one thing to be wealthy, to earn wealth, etc, and have a purpose with it and another just to love money. Even hardcore advocates of selfishness as a virtue like Ayn Rand didn't believe that love of money was a virtue. She thought that you did what you did because you loved it and you were good at it and that money was only a symbol of people's appreciation of it. But her heroes never gave up their dreams in search of money. Though it's not explicit, and it might be nice if it were, I think that Dicken's story has to be taken as a moderating influence on the rich, that we are called to see that money can be a good if we see it as a tool and love our neighbor rather than the money. 

Posted by ExtraMSG

Lee said...

Incidentally, my wife and I watched the Alistar Sim version of A Christmas Carol just before Christmas and I have to agree with you that the George C. Scott version is superior. And why does Marley's ghost in the 1950s version look and act like a drag queen?? 

Posted by Lee

Russell Arben Fox said...

Nick, this is a month too late, but I wanted to thank you for that comment. It's a good, critical take on A Christmas Carol, and you make some good points--the order of the spirits, while making for a very good, dramatic tale, doesn't expression the actual process of conversion as well as fans of the story like myself imagine it does. I do think, however, that Dickens's tale moves us in the direction of selflessness, and not just anti-selfishness. In the end of the story--in a passage that rarely makes it into adaptations--Scrooge is shown smiling while others mock him for his suddent transformation; they think he's gone bonkers. But Scrooge is no longer thinking about himself; he doesn't care for the opinion of others. But admittedly, that's just a short passage, and your own reading is still a legitimate one.

Lee, I agree with all you say. I realized the Sim version is a sentimental favorite with many, but I just think so much of it tries too hard.