Charles Dickens and his ‘A Christmas carol’ are routinely represented as a conscience-pricking call for charity at this time of the year. But, argues Harley Filben, there is more to the novel than that
The modern Christmas is not as old as it would like you to think – a Bacchanalian feast, in which the aim is to start eating in mid-afternoon and finish drinking in the small hours. The persistent influence of Puritan and Calvinist Protestantism in the early period of bourgeois ascendancy in this country had rather different ideas on how to commemorate the birth of Our Lord – asceticism, sobriety, moral reflection …
The most enduring cultural document of the birth of ‘the festive season’ remains A Christmas carol by Charles Dickens, which appeared in 1843, at the tail end of a renewed interest in pre-Puritan religious celebration. Indeed, that part of the novel on which moral instruction weighs least heavily – the third ‘stave’, the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present – takes the form of a jaunt through the streets of London, alive with communal celebration – snowball fights on the rooftops; the masses congregating in churches and chapels, “flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and their gayest faces”; the family feasts, in poor households and rich, miraculously free from social tension and unbearable in-laws.
Dickens – and his protagonist, Scrooge – has to confront a contradiction here, between Christian religiosity as a bulwark of the existing social relations of industrial exploitation and impersonal finance, and Christianity as an embodiment of shared, communal life. Like other contemporary Christmas revivalists, he endeavours to take the festival back, in some sense, ‘to its roots’, however mythical these roots may be. Dickens in fact goes further back than anyone else – he somewhat daringly attempts to save Christmas by way of a return to a distinctively Pagan spirituality.
This is most visible in the homology between A Christmas carol and what is now known as ‘urban fantasy’. The latter (for example, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels, or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere) rewrites the contemporary urban landscape as split between the everyday existence of its human residents and a clandestine demi-monde of demons, spectres and undead. Instead of presenting a fully-realised fantasy world, the fantastic functions as an oblique slant on a space we all (think we) recognise. (The allegorical resonances are generally hard to miss – after all, cities really are divided spaces, ethnically and economically.)
A Christmas carol is a peculiarly clear prototype for this more recent phenomenon. Into the utterly drab daily life of Ebenezer Scrooge there erupts a whole other London – populated by ghosts in permanent limbo, as the cost of their failings in life: “the air filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went”. These unfortunates are apparently cut off from the living – their punishment is for it to be impossible for them to intervene in society; to be permanently cut off from a world they failed to improve in life. This agglomeration of spectres is the collective ghost of the rapacious front-end of capitalism.
Of these spirits, apparently only Jacob Marley is able to overcome his isolation. He is as confused about this as Scrooge – “how it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat beside you invisible many and many a day”. As the protagonist of this tale, Scrooge is partly responsible – it falls to him to be the narrative link between the two cities. It is also implicitly a function of Christmas – like any good Pagan feast day, the way is open for fleeting communion with the dead.
Apart from the dead in the strict sense, there are the spirits of Christmas, Past, Present and Yet To Come – perhaps part of an incomprehensibly enormous pantheon of animistic figures (indeed, Present claims to be one of many thousands of brothers). They are not cut off from the living – instead, their role is to intervene, strategically and (mostly) invisibly, in our lives. Present carries a torch, whose ashes, liberally sprinkled, bring jollity wherever they land; blissfully unaware, human subjects receive these gifts and imagine their happiness to be their own.
Present is the only one to intervene in this way – he is fatally tied to the social moment (“my life upon this globe is brief … it ends to-night”). Past obviously faces a different limitation, tied irrevocably to the weight of history which cannot be changed, only compulsively repeated. Both can speak, and frame what they display to Scrooge.
The most traumatic encounter is with the shrouded, mute Yet-To-Come – Scrooge is shown his deathbed, his grave and, worst of all, the death of Tiny Tim, in complete ignorance as to the ontological status of these images – are they, with the mechanical inevitability of billiard-ball causality, already accomplished? Can they be changed? Only a twitch in the ghost’s hand indicates any which way – as well, perhaps, as the classic Kantian ethical principle: “you can because you must!”
Lee Edelman, an aggressively polemical queer theorist (queer theory being an offshoot of continental thought concerned with opposing to gay identity politics various arguments for the social construction of gender and sexuality), is somewhat instructive here. His No future: queer theory and the death drive – impressively provocative, though fundamentally bonkers – argues that, in effect, queers are oppressed by the future. The future is won through reproduction, in the strict sense – those outside of heterosexual reproduction will always be vulnerable to the charge of, in effect, being in league with death. This ideology – the identification of sexual reproduction with ‘immortality’, of transcending death – he calls “reproductive futurism”.
The ultimate image of the reproductive future is the Child – in culture, the Child emotionally blackmails us into enslaving ourselves to a future from which (if we are queer, or otherwise alienated from the patriarchal family) we are otherwise excluded. Unsurprisingly, Edelman is not overly fond of Tiny Tim – the ultimate doe-eyed, helpless child, already crippled and doomed to an early grave if Scrooge does not change his ways; the child, after a fashion, who stares out at us from the front of innumerable charity flyers. In any case, Scrooge learns his lesson: “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future”. Beforehand, he has lived in none of them – he has all but forgotten his past, he is alienated from his present, and he has no future.
It is easy for a Marxist to caricature the ideological punch of Dickens’s novel – as a simple-hearted argument for bourgeois philanthropy, stemming from a moral horror at the degraded conditions of the poor in 19th century London. In fact, it is not quite so simple. The Spirit of Christmas here is not the alienated charity of the Oxfam standing order form – rather, philanthropy is linked with the recognition of the fact of social and communal life, that one’s fate is tied up with innumerable others.
Capitalism, presumably, goes on – but Scrooge’s conversion is about more than salving his conscience. It is about whether there will be a future at all – whether society can continue. In this gap, between the transformation of one individual and the reproduction of social relations, there is the utopian possibility of everything changing, which exists only because the celebration of Christmas is a communal link between all.
Dickens is not simply concerned – in the manner of charity fundraisers – that people suffer, but that they suffer alone. In their mutual isolation, they are cut off from the magic around them – the wailing ghosts of their ancestors, the animistic spirits working in the present, and the mute, unknowable future which is nevertheless theirs to alter. Like the innumerable hordes of spectres, with the streets of London serving either as hell or purgatory, bound by ‘the chains they forged in life’, A Christmas carol persists as an index of our collective failure to enter into meaningful solidarity. We return to it annually, in its written form or in one of its many film adaptations – perhaps one day we will understand it better than as an unpaid advertisement for Oxfam, or (as Edelman does) a moral imperative to reproduce the same hell in perpetuity.