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Saturday, December 24, 2022

Blame Christmas

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Towards the end W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written 80 years ago, Auden gives an imaginative narrative voice to a marvelously contemporary and thoroughly professional Herod the Great, the man responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, at least according to Matthew 2:16-18. The Herod of Auden’s prose-poem is a hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible man, someone wise enough not to imagine that he knows everything, but grounded enough to be confident in the consequences of even that which he does not know. The story of Jesus, he realizes, whether or not it is true, must be stopped immediately, because the masses of people in the world are delicate, desperate, and often deplorable, and in need of the disciplining, dependable myths which are central to the religious and civic order. Allow them to start thinking about God’s relationship to humanity as a personal Gift, as an expression of divine Love, as fundamentally a Mystery, and madness will reign. In imagining Herod in this way, Auden was perhaps updating, and making more relatable, the equally hard-working, highly intelligent, and rigorously sensible Grand Inquisitor of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but honestly, this man is a figure well-known to many of us, and sometimes--especially for people like me who take traditions seriously enough to think they are worth arguing about--maybe is us as well.

Auden’s Herod wasn’t fundamentally wrong: Christmas actually is a Surprise (and a Liberal one too, in its most topsy-turvy and transformative, not its most cramped and Clintonite, sense: the line from the Lords of Misrule to Scrooge dancing and laughing after his--literally--Spiritual experiences to Drag Queen Christmases is pretty obvious, I think). The surprising (and sometimes even harsh) mysteries of forgiveness and liberality and equality and grace completely defined Jesus’s mortal life, at least so far as the Gospels tell us, from beginning to end. So Herod got that right; he just was wrong in thinking that such Surprises, if they are not Explained and Made Accountable and Properly Directed, are a bad thing. They are, on the contrary, as challenging as they can be to those of us with even a little small-c conservative sensibility, the best things possible. So in the spirit of that grace, and of those best things, let's pass the mic for a moment respectfully to those hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible, and sadly wrong folk who blame Christmas (even without realizing it) for the madness of our world, and will keep on doing so, right up until the moment when God saves their souls, and ours, at the very end.


The Massacre of the Innocents

I. Herod

...Judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”

One needn't be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions--feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces.

Idealism will be replaced by Materialism....Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible ldol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumors, or four o'clock in the afternoon.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I'm such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? O dear, why couldn't this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid. Why can't they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn't, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it can only mean this: that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in, He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I've worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

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