Sunday, December 11, 2011
Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" Might Save Your Life
Horrible media people have been producing TV versions of "A Christmas Carol" for as long as anyone can remember. Fonzie, Patton, and even Mr. Magoo have gotten into the act. Sitcoms have parodied it beyond recognition. And now you store it in your brain next to the felonious Grinch and terrifying claymation Rudolph. And this is sad, because Christmas is filled with trite and saccharine stories. But "A Christmas Carol" is not one of them.
The tale is not just about being nice around the holidays. It's about the nature of good and evil. About how we distinguish one from the other. The key is to realize that there is really only one proper ghost in this story - the disembodied spirit of Jacob Marley. What are the others - Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come? They're not ghosts as we normally think of them. They're allegorical representations, like Ignorance and Want, the two sickly children who appear clinging to the robes of Christmas Present just as the plot takes that dark turn. But more than that, they each represent a specific imaginative leap. And the genius of them is that they represent a leap we all take every day.
In a moment you can call up your own Fezziwig, the boisterous and kindly boss. You can imagine the party you aren't attending, going on right now -- and what they might say about you there. You can think about your own death, and the possibility that someone somewhere might actually be relieved about it.
The spirits reveal no great secrets to Ebeneezer Scrooge. They only reveal that other people exist, that they live their own lives beyond our reach. With the smallest effort we could imagine what they might -- what they must -- be doing. How we've helped them or hurt them. How they're getting on. And that little bit of imagination is everything. It is the first thing the Golden Rule commands. Before you know how to do unto others... you must start by thinking of them, by putting yourself in their place. All else follows. Even Dickens's vision of hell seems to indicate this: being forced to wander a world of people you are noticing for the first time, now powerless to help them in any way.
Dickens rescues the humanity of the season, which is usually lost in the shopping and party-going and even the religious ceremony with its incense and self-righteousness, and its porcelain Baby Jesuses. He reminds us that we don't live alone, that we are all "fellow-travellers to the grave." The ghosts haunt us, because they should. And they are everywhere.