Thursday, December 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (Lisa Toland, on How Scrooge’s World Remains With Us)

“While poor children in developed nations are mostly those living in former industrial centers, worldwide poverty and exploitation have even more faces. These are the modern-day Tiny Tims. Our London is any metropolitan area in the world. Our Bob Cratchits are in the United States and Europe, but also in Nigeria, Thailand, and North Korea. For a great percentage of the world—and especially for children—the current recession is not a new experience of great need; many have lived in poverty for generations, even centuries. Theirs is an unending recession.”—Lisa Toland, “The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol,Christianity Today, December 2009

So long as somebody, somewhere, justifies indifference to their fellow man by asking if the government doesn’t do enough for them; so long as these individuals, taking it a step further, ever declare, by deeds if not words, that “greed is good”; and so long as the belief that a spark exists in each of us enabling an 11th-hour reprieve of our lives—A Christmas Carol will not go out of date.

And I mean A Christmas Carol in all its variations. It’s a Wonderful Life is, of course, an American version of the tale, with Mr. Potter an unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. (I was just told today, at lunch, about a Saturday Night Live skit of years past in which the crew comes back to tidy up the major loose end of the latter film. A sample line from this “fabled lost ending”—George Bailey returning to announce, “I want a piece of you, Potter!”—gives an idea of the general tone of this sketch, with Dana Carvey as a terrific George and Jon Lovitz as an unexpectedly fraudulent Potter.)

I’m partial to the 1951 Alistair Sims big-screen version and George C. Scott’s 1984 TV version of Charles Dickens’ tale, but there are fans of the 1970 Albert Finney movie musical, Scrooge (I met one such individual while standing on line at Barnes & Noble this past week). There are even, believe it or not, fans of perhaps the lamest comedy of Bill Murray’s career, Scrooged (1988). (As far as I’m concerned, the misuse of the wondrous Karen Allen in the latter is almost as bad as anything the Victorian miser perpetrated on his employees.)

Lisa Toland’s piece, quoted above, is Janus-faced, but in a good way. Much of her discussion concerns why A Christmas Carol struck such a deep chord immediately upon release in 1843. (Churches, we learn, copped with the challenges posed by the increasingly mobile urban poor in varying ways: individual parishes, the old sources of charity, were overwhelmed; elements of the established church were so elitist that they felt removed from the plight of the downtrodden; while newer sects, such as the Methodists, helped to fill the breach.)

At the same time, in Toland's telling, contemporary events make Dickens’ depiction of want and greed all too relevant. I don’t think many of us this season will be able to forget the juxtaposition of two developments: the big banks’ hurried repayment of government bailout money, the better to escape restrictions on executive pay and bonuses, at the same time that thousands of Americans remain unemployed because of the madness bred by the banks’ greed.

The image accompanying this post is a woodcut by John Leech from the 1843 edition, showing Scrooge extinguishing the Ghost of Christmas Past. That brings to mind a larger leitmotif of Dickens’ fiction, explained below in “The Reanimator,” Adam Thirlwell’s New Republic review of Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens:

“In his novels of reanimation, Dickens went for ghosts, for guilt, for bottled fetuses and effigies: for murder. His necromantic imagination needed corpses. Dead bodies are his constant prop. What else could he do? His subject was how strange the transition was between the live and the dead.”

There isn’t a word in Thirlwell’s excellent analysis of Dickens’ fiction about A Christmas Carol, but it’s impossible to read this paragraph without thinking of the great Victorian novelist’s greatest Christmas tale—and particularly the visits to Scrooge by Marley’s ghost, followed by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. It brings to mind an irreducible fact about the holiday: while it springs from the birth of Christ, it takes place in nature’s season of death, when human beings are haunted by old regrets and people from the life to which we can never return.

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