Friday, December 23, 2011

For the Benefit of Mr. Scrooge: On Want and Ignorance

I’ve been enjoying reading Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first time. Of course I’ve watched it annually on TV for decades. I like all the classic versions fronted by the great actors of our time, Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Mickey Mouse. But, believe it or not, the book is better than the movie. Most of the magic of the story isn’t in the dialog, it’s in the descriptions of people and places and in the narrative asides by the author. As usual with Dickens, beyond the story itself, it’s fun just watching his sentences unravel across the page.

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the miracle of the expiration of intellectual property rights, you can get this book for free and instantaneously via iBooks. That’s what I did. The Dickens estate may be the poorer for it, but somewhere old Ebenezer Scrooge is gravely nodding his approval of my thrift.

The well-known lessons of A Christmas Carol are timeless. But I was surprised to find an historical observation that resonates in our modern age as well. In chapter two, Scrooge awoke from a fitful slumber following the visit from the ghost of Marley. It was pitch black and the clock tower outside his window was chiming 12. This was confusing since Scrooge thought he went to bed at 2AM. So Scrooge reasoned he either he slept for 22 hours or it was actually 12 noon and for some reason the sun didn’t rise. On the implications of the latter scenario:

The idea being an alarming one, he scrambled out of bed, and groped his way to the window. He was obliged to rub the frost off with the sleeve of his dressing-gown before he could see anything; and could see very little then. All he could make out was, that it was still very foggy and extremely cold, and that there was no noise of people running to and fro, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if night had beaten off bright day, and taken possession of the world. This was a great relief, because "Three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge on his order," and so forth, would have become a mere United States security if there were no days to count by.

I do believe he’s saying that the full faith and credit of a United States security wasn’t exactly sound as a pound in the mid 19th century. How's that for a ghost of Christmas Past? If you take seriously that $15 trillion we are now in arrears, maybe the ghost of Christmas Future too. Cue the grim reaper!

A Google search brings us this learned discussion of exactly what Dickens was referring to as “a mere United States Security”. I’m partial to the arguments of Freddy the Pig, who speculates that it refers to a bank note from a private US based institution, rather than a government security. Either way, this summary from jiHymas sums up the situation:

In the context of the times, 'American security' had the same connotation as "oil well", "Florida real-estate", "gold mine" or "dot-com stock" has had in others.

Speaking of vast government expenditures and imperiling debt, I was lucky enough to see the 2011 production of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater on Tuesday. As you may recall, in 2003, while the state was attempting to solve a $4.2 billion dollar budget deficit, the Guthrie had its lobbyists asking for a hand out to build a new facility. And under the guidance of that well-known fiscal conservative Gov. Tim Pawlenty, our government saw fit to grant the Guthrie $25 million. That is in addition to the millions of public dollars (in the aggregate) the Guthrie has received, and continues to receive annually, via the MN State Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts. Throw in the tax-deductible nature of many of the donations they get from private institutions and citizens and it’s clear that Mr. and Mrs. Tax Payer have been enlisted as the silent partners in this theatrical enterprise. In fact, behind the Minnesota Twins, the Guthrie is perhaps the second biggest welfare queen in the state.

Good news, your money didn’t all disappear down a rat hole with the Guthrie subsidy. At least some of it is on display in A Christmas Carol. The production was a knockout, with huge, elaborate, moving sets and bright, beautiful costumes, and a cast of dozens of highly trained talented actors, singing and dancing and flying and emoting their hearts out. With a few obvious departures from the text, it was faithful to the book and it captures the lessons of charity and good will poignantly. I’d recommend the play to anyone looking to enhance their holiday spirits this season.

I should mention you do get one more thing for your tax dollars (and your $45 tickets and $8 parking fee), and that is a political sucker punch. There was a scene with pre-conversion Scrooge and one of his wealthy associates discussing the wretched nature of the poor. The wealthy friend told Scrooge he banned the use of the word “rich” from his office because of its pejorative connotation. Scrooge asked him what people are now required to say instead of “rich”. And the other guy says, with his nose in the air and in his best Thurston Howelll accent: “job creators.”

That reference, a line straight out of the Republican party’s talking points, only received mild laughter from a handful in the audience. With the number of teen-agers and kids in the audience, many didn’t understand it. Many adults I’m sure we’re more confused by it. It was such an out of context reference, one that yanked you right out of the theatrical spell of Victorian London they worked so hard, and spent so much of your money, to create.

It was a minor issue, but a disappointing one. A completely unnecessary line inserted only for the purpose of denigrating Republicans in the audience. Guthrie management had to approve of this as well, given that the director of this production is Executive Director Joe Dowling, they guy who was lobbying for millions in public subsidies just a few years ago. Message received, he’ll take our money, but he doesn’t have to pretend to like us.

More likely, its ignorance rather than malice at work here. Urban liberals don’t encounter much diversity of opinion in their lives. The artistic community is in an even more tightly-fitting cocoon. No one they know voted for Richard Nixon. So what’s a sucker punch thrown at Republicans between friends?

The program for A Christmas Carol lends support to this clueless theory. It excerpted some critical reviews of Dickens work to highlight the meaning of the play. Among these was a piece from Norrie Epstein, on the “irony” (cue Alanis Morrissette) of the original book:

One of life’s little ironies: Dickens’ parable of a reformed miser was written for the money.

Martin Chuzzlewhit, his current serial, was falling in sales, and in an effort to boost his flagging income, Dickens dashed off a tale for the Christmas of 1843 in about six weeks. The manuscript for his “Ghostly little book” is a scant sixty-six pages, as compared to the usual eight hundred for the typical Dickens blockbuster, yet it is the biggest seller he ever wrote.

This … Christmas story is a reminder that Dickens is one of the few, if not the only, examples in literature of someone who did well by doing good. Like the old Scrooge, Dickens was a man of business, and like the reformed one, he never forgot that mankind was his business.

Now that’s comedy. The breezy assumption that there’s something wrong with working for (GASP!) money. And that earning a living is somehow antithetical to the message of A Christmas Carol. As if Scrooge’s problem was not that he was a mean, selfish SOB, it’s that he was rich. Also, I like the assumed dichotomy between being in business and also caring about humanity. It’s like a black fly in your chardonnay, it’s not natural!

In case Norrie Epstein didn’t finish reading A Christmas Carol before writing her deconstructionist analysis of it, let me remind her that Scrooge didn’t lose his wealth at the end of the book. He retained it, along with his change of heart. And good thing he did too, because he used his money to pay for medical treatment to save the life of Tiny Tim. If Scrooge had lost his money, it wouldn’t matter if he was still a mean bastard or Mr. Sunshine, Tiny Tim would have been dead. Dead as a door-nail, in Dickensian lingo.

Wealth, well-directed, is required for the good operation of society. That’s as true for a crippled moppet in the Victorian age as it is for say, a tax subsidized theater in the modern age. Both depend on the rich for their survival. It’s a pity only one has the good sense to be grateful.

The Nihilist bahs: I was disappointed to see the musical from 1970 starring Albert Finney wasn't included on Brian's list. Here's a clip of my favorite segment, at the 6:30 mark, featuring the best song (and Atomizer imitation) from the film, "I Hate People."