Sunday, 10 December 2023

Original book illustration by John Leech

As Christmas looms large once again (and how often have we come across that trope, or something like it?), our thoughts turn, or return, or are perhaps manipulated towards similar tropes, clichés, and themes of a 'seasonal' type. One of these is Charles Dickens's short story about a miserly recluse who stubbornly refuses to partake of those very things: but after a ghostly visitation and three introspective revelations ends up - despite himself - not only participating in the 'Christmas spirit', but actually becoming its most active and devoted exponent. Even if you have not read the book, you will perhaps have seen one of its many cinematic adaptations.

  But the theme here is really more than just a seasonal one. Through the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens may well be describing that particle of our personae that has failed at some point or points in life not so much in what we have done, but in what we have not. Where we could have shown generosity of spirit, but were constrained by doubt, by cynicism, by our lack of faith. Where we could have responded to true friendship, for example, but chose to remain essentially alone.

  Now, one might argue that Dickens himself was not a model of self-giving, so what right does he have to preach to the rest of us? But here he is the writer, the artist, and by revealing a phenomenon that is common to all human beings, he is fulfilling his role as such. Evidently the character of Scrooge was part of his own personality, just as he lives within all of us too. His recognition of that inner miserly persona doesn't mean to say that Dickens was himself the acme of ethical behaviour: in fact, it shows that he was personally aware of the problem, and the eternally recurring struggle between withdrawal into selfish isolation, and liberation into oneness.

  Of course, the theme can have rather bizarre expressions: such as the American millionaire who refused to interrupt his annual celebratory reading of A Christmas Carol with his wealthy associates in order to hear from a delegation of his own poorly paid employees, who had turned up in the freezing cold at the door of his splendidly lit and comfortably warm mansion on Christmas Eve.

  And, in our own time, although the theme and its lesson seem to have been publicly imbibed - and we are exhorted to "reach-out” and to embrace each other warmly - one wonders how much of this is superficial, and one might speculate that it may well drive a sincere, thoughtful person to retreat within in bewilderment at the easy moral capacity of his peers, which he feels he cannot match, and so become by degrees a little like Scrooge himself.

  Perhaps the real truth is that what the story illustrates - for all its public accessibility - is a very private struggle, the outcome of which can only really be known to the individual person: as Mr. Scrooge, in his rediscovered wisdom, no doubt realised. Like all midwinter traditions across many ages and cultures, it speaks of re-creation, of rebirth. In one of these narratives a child is born to humble parents in poor circumstances in a remote corner of the Roman Empire: a child who would teach the re-awakening of the human soul, the true self, the one who has always been within us, the silent friend of all.

  A naissance that announces a transformation: a renaissance, not in the tumult of the world at large, but in the peaceful inner world of each individual.


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