Friday, December 14, 2012
I Wear the Chains I Forged in Life
I watched a movie version of A Christmas Carol last night, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. It's kind of hard to imagine Captain Jean-Luc Picard being as mean as Scrooge was, but after a while I believed he was a very bald Scrooge. This movie version was an adaptation of Dickens's short novel, and it changed some of the dialogue quite a bit, but it kept some of the best lines, like "Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?" and my favorite, Jacob Marley's "I wear the chains I forged in life!"
I've been reading Marx recently, and The Monthly Review, a Marxist journal, so I saw in Dickens's novel more of his indictment of capitalism than I had noticed before. Some of his other novels, like Hard Times, take on capitalism more explicitly, but Scrooge's words in A Christmas Carol are uncannily close to what a lot of Republicans say now: that we shouldn't give money to support lazy poor people, that we already do enough for them (in Dickens's time by sending them to debtor's prisons and work houses), and that there are too many of them anyway. Scrooge is a classic one percenter, without the lavish lifestyle. He keeps his employee's wages as low as he can, and is obsessed with cutting his overhead, even to the extent of keep the office freezing cold. (Unlike modern one percenters, though, his own office and home are cold and bleak as well.) The ghosts are like Occupy protesters, who attempt to show Scrooge real poverty and the effects of his hard-heartedness on poor children in particular.
However, Dickens is no Marxist, and his "solution" to the ravages of 19th century capitalism seems to be just individual charity on the part of people like Scrooge, who should make donations to provide for the poor. Apparently he could not imagine or propose a more systematic economic leveling of society. Marx was busy doing that in 1843, in another part of Europe, but Capital was not published until 1867, twenty years after A Christmas Carol.
Dickens was no Marxist, but he was an acute observer of human psychology, uncannily so. The ghost of Christmas past takes the narcissistic, self-absorbed, angry, humorless adult Scrooge back to his own bleak childhood, to a time when he was left alone at a boarding school for the Christmas holidays because his mother had died and his father did not want him. Dickens rightly places the source of adult narcissism in childhood neglect and abuse, even when it's sporadic: eventually the father reclaims the child Ebenezer, so that Ebenezer both fears and idolizes his father, a combination of feelings that leads to great confusion that can only be resolved by an inner world where the impaired self idealizes an attacking, omnipotent, but loved object. The stage is set for Ebenezer's problems with love in adult life: he eventually becomes obsessed with idealizing wealth--his new omnipotent object-- and he can't be close to his fiancee, who regretfully must leave him. The old man Scrooge shouts at his younger self, "Why don't you speak to her? Why don't you run after her?" But the young man Ebenezer is evidently too shut up in his own defenses against intimacy to do so.
Of course, Scrooge undergoes a total transformation of his personality in one night. This has always seemed unbelievable to me, but now I see it as a kind of metaphor for the way in which the real self can emerge from narcissism: it can't happen in one night, but it can happen through the kind of life review that the ghosts force upon Scrooge, who shrinks from the pain of this life review. By the end of the night, though, Scrooge has summoned more courage to face the depression that results when he must confront his "ghosts" and inner demons. This too is an accurate image of the increasing realism of the recovering narcissist.
Scrooge's narcissism is contrasted everywhere in the novella with the joy and spontaneity of the healthy people around him: his nephew Fred, and his old employer Fezziwig, and even the poor Cratchit family. And this brings me to the third thing I love about this story: the way Victorian English people celebrated Christmas. They celebrate by singing, dancing, and feasting. There is not a present to be seen in the whole story. Instead there are a lot of party games, singing around the piano, a little drinking, and fancy desserts. It was a one day winter holiday more like Thanksgiving than like the month-long shopping orgy that Americans "celebrate."
Scrooge is a reformed man at the end of the novella: a Christmas-celebrating benefactor of the poor who laughs and dances, no longer the grim narcissistic one percenter of the first few scenes. But don't let this make you think that you have to go out and buy a lot of plastic stuff at Walmart in order to keep from being Scrooge. Or that you have to become a Bible-believing church-goer. (After all, the Puritans who banned Christmas were such.) To really "keep Christmas," we can do what Tiny Tim and Fred and Fezziwig did: bang our forks on the table in unison to celebrate the roast beast, play blind man's bluff, sing bawdy songs around the piano, and roll up the carpets for contra dancing in living rooms and offices. You have nothing to lose but your chains!