Monday, December 22, 2008

Sibling Assignment #86: I Am Light as a Feather

Silver Valley Girl gave us our newest sibling assignment:

Choose a book or story with a Christmas theme, and share about why it is special to you, and how it helped or helps make your Christmas more meaningful.
InlandEmpireGirl wrote about teaching the lessons of Scrooge to her students, here, and Silver Valley Girl writes about Christmas in her family in contrast to what the Grinch experiences, here.

I read this prompt and was stuck. I don't think I've read very many books or stories with a Christmas theme and, aside from the biblical accounts of the Christmas story, couldn't think of one that has or does help me out at Christmas.

So, I decided to do something about it. I've seen in the neighborhood of 20,000 versions of "A Christmas Carol" on television, ranging from Mr. Magoo to George C. Scott's renditions.

But, I'd never read Dickens' tale.

This was on my mind last week. One of the public radio programs on XM Satellite Radio featured an author who has just written about "A Christmas Carol" and I uncommitedly thought to myself that this Christmas season would be a good time to read it.

Yesterday, I made the commitment. I purchased a copy. I finished reading it this morning.

Dickens astounds me. What I enjoy the most is that he creates a concrete and particularized world to set his stories in and the world of "A Christmas Carol" is as important as its characters and is crucial to the way Dickens explores Ebenezer Scrooge's spirit, and the larger human spirit as well.

I need to back up a step or two. In my teaching and reading life, the works that have the most profound impact on me are comedies. Traditionally, as a literary genre, comedy encompasses the spirit of springtime. Comedies explore stories that begin in some kind of brokenness or separation, or even death, and explore revival, renewal, and/or resurrection. They often are stories about separation from home and the return to home again. Comedies tend to confirm the strength of the collective rather than the individual human experience.

I ground my particular way of understanding and enjoying comedy in the idea of vitality. Characters in comedies are most often dispirited as the story opens, often lost, and, the as the comedy unfolds, the character(s), with the help of others, are awakened to the sources of vitality in human life and, as these powers of vitality take hold, the renewal, revival, resurrection, or homecoming occurs. Comedies often climax in marriage, which makes perfect sense, because, traditionally, procreation follows marriage. Comedy, therefore, explores the continuation of human life, what sustains us, what keeps human life eternal. It explores the circles and cycles of life. Tragedy, on the other hand, focuses on death and magnifies the finite aspects of human life.

Personally, my study of comedy has helped me, more than anything else, develop my moral sense. I think the central moral question is whether the things we do bring vitality to our lives. The vitality test works much better for me than a law- or rule-bound measure of morality. My favorite comedies are ones where characters commit what, if looked at legalistically, are moral violations, but turn out to be life giving actions, turn out to invigorate the characters, and turn to be sources of new life. In the world of comedy, narrow, legalistic, rule-bound characters fare terribly. Comedy is about flexibility and those characters who are bound to narrow and predetermined moral codes either have to be transformed or else they don't survive the comedy's resolution. The hard of heart are anti-comic, but those whose hearts are or become soft, receptive, accepting, and pliant thrive in world of comedy.

You are probably familiar with the story of Scrooge and can see where I'm going.

Dickens creates in "A Christmas Carol" a world in desperate need of redemption. It opens with death: "Marley was dead, to begin with." The fog is thick. It's dark. It's cold. Scrooge will barely heat his office or his home and the impoverished Cratchit family suffers the cold at the hands of Scrooge's miserliness. Nearly every physical detail of the first four fifths of Dickens' story portrays the misery that is spawned by Scrooge's flinty self-centered speck of a soul.

Scrooge's "Bah! Humbug!" epitomizes his inward winter and we come to see that the dark, thick fogged, cold world Dickens so meticulously creates is an exteral picture of Scrooge's inward condition.

No doubt you really see where I'm going now. No doubt you've already said to yourself something like, "Well, if what Raymond is writing about comedy is true, compassion must be among the chief virtues of comedy."

You are so right.

Compassion requires sharing the suffering of another. Marley's ghost and his three servant ghosts take a gamble. They gamble that at his core, Scrooge is a good man. (Comedy tends to see humans as less like worms and more like angels.) They gamble that if they put Scrooge in the presence of suffering, and of joy, but mostly of suffering, his cold heart will begin to thaw, his hard soul will soften.

They are right. Ebenezer Scrooge slowly begins to witness and feel the the deprivation he has caused and the deprivation that dominates his very being. Even though deprivation is a form of emptiness, we humans experience it as weight. The weight of deprivation has shrunken, stooped, and deeply wrinkled Scrooge. His soul, created to be flexible, has hardened, grown heavy, unfeeling, largely because his life has been devoted, with singleness of mind, to Gain.

Giving, sharing, opening oneself and one's possessions and money to others vitalizes us. Scrooge has hoarded, pinched, and closed himself off and the vitality of his youth has withered away.

By the time the Ghost of Yet to Come unveils to Scrooge that his death will be marked by jokes, indifference, and happiness, Scrooge comes to fully realize that his devotion to gain has cut him off from fellowship and mirth, the twin engines of vitality.

He reforms.

My favorite passage of his reformation comes when morning, the time of renewal, dawns and Scrooge is a chaos of relief, joy, and lightness. He is bewildered by his transformation: "'I don't know what to do!'"cried Scrooge. . ."I am light as a feather, I am happy as an angel, I am merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man." Dionysus, the Greek god of revelry and intoxication is the God of comedy and Scrooge revels in the Dionysian moment of mirthful madness and vitality.

Scrooge runs to the window and discovers, "No fog. No mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; heavenly sky: sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!" It's wondrous. To leave the deprivation of isolation and join in the fellowship of others, to be liberated from the draining ambitioins of gain is wondrous. It fills Scrooge with vitality.

How, then, does the story of Ebenezer Scrooge help make Christmas more meaningful?

I love Christmas as a secular and pagan time of celebration as well as a Christian one. For me, as a Christian, the two overlap marvelously, but I'll separate them for a moment.

Secular Christmas celebrations, ideally, are all about vitality. Families gather. We generously give gifts to one another. Wondrous displays of lighted Christmas trees and houses ablaze with lights push back against the darkness of the winter season. Bells ring, wine and champagne and beer and booze flow freely. Friends embrace one another. We dance. We sing. We feast. We put aside the concerns of gain and those things that shrink us and we let it rip. Christmas is a time to open our homes, visit others, have some cheer, and freely indulge the vitality of mirth and merrymaking. It can transform us.

For me, as a Christian, the Christ child is born into a dark world and becomes its light and his birth promises a way of living that invigorates the soul and the heart. What gives us more vitality than forgiveness, doing unto others as we would have do unto us, love, service, peace, and all the other virtues Jesus Christ comes to embody?

The light of Christ is the opposite of dark, but it also promises the opposite of weight and burden. Living the promise of the Christ child, we can give, be compassionate, serve, forgive, be joyful, and, in chorus with Scrooge, proclaim, "I am light as a feather."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i am puking tears
smiling into the mirror
'i think i'm dumb' but
now remember be merry

thank you so much, raymond. you have no idea how bad i needed.