To Show God’s Love Aright: “A Christmas Carol” As Spiritual Physic

There is one line in literature that has haunted me the most. It’s no great surprise that it comes from Shakespeare—there are numerous words and phrases, lines and near stanzas, through which his voice (that voice of many voices) continues to echo in our culture. But unlike many of the most prominent Shakespeare-isms, mine lacks that anachronistic eloquence that so often enchants. It doesn’t seem to speak from some other world, a poetic past that never was beyond stage or print (or screen). It calls, rather, with the plain speech reserved for urgency and exclamation—a mode that we have kept with us—and from the all too common concerns of this world—the plights that continue to stay with us.

“O! I have ta’en too little care of this.”

It comes from King Lear himself, after he has finally agreed to seek shelter in a humble, anonymous hovel. It is a moment of sudden quiet, having been disowned and disinherited, and entirely dishonored, by his very own daughters, and following an agonizing period of racing toward and away from the edge of madness. In his silences, the status of his sanity sways in the air: his sense of selfhood far displaced, blown and tossed by the new howling center in the universe. He has striven desperately to identify himself with the storm, and thus maintain his prowess. But his will and the wind’s are not the same, and anything magisterial about him has been stripped by the extra-human wrath around him. There seems to be nothing left to do but die—to collapse, maybe curse, but finally give himself up to that ultimate dust.

Which is why what he says is so striking. Before he goes into that place of total resignation, Lear seems to recognize something. He seems to come to, and to come to a realization.

Throughout Lear’s progress from outrage to just plain raging, he has vacillated rapidly between different poles of his identity—from kinghood to fatherhood, from regality to agedness, and from fury to sorrow—and found no place in any one of them. He has sought, through his words and actions, to perform for himself as much as anyone else the man he once was, which was no less than the center of a microcosm. And it would seem that now, at the entrance to some meager shelter, he is once again trying on another doomed-to-fail crown—this time of royal mercy and beneficence. But his next mode of speaking is far from the earlier forced pronouncements of a defunct majesty. It is not the language of a king rhetorically clinging to his crown for dear life. Because what Lear suddenly chooses to do is pray:

In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty,—

Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

[Fool goes in.]

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O! I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the Heavens more just. (III.iv.26-36)

The way I see this scene, Lear sees in the Fool, and in himself seeing and speaking to the fool, the perennial problem of poverty and abject suffering. He and his fool have become representatives of a nature-wide crisis. This fresh selfless focus alone is surprising—the revelatory “care” that Lear now recognizes radically transvalues the “cares of state” and kingly “cares and business” of that lifelong self that first appears in the play (I.i.50, 39)—and it has the wonderful paradox of giving Lear’s inwardness even more individual capaciousness (for he thought what I, at least, would not have expected him to think with such pride in such a storm). But further than this, Lear’s prayer presents an astonishingly nuanced theodicy. It is a cosmic drama with a human resolution. It is up to the powerful and privileged, Lear proclaims, to represent more than themselves and to reverse the logic of nature and culture, taking on the wretched and sheer wretchedness of the world, thus performing, and therefore providing, for the poor the justice of the Heavens. Lear’s prayer, at least for a moment, seems to drive homeward with a sense of ultimate “care,” earnest and determined, unsatisfied with itself as sincere, contemplative speech. It invokes not divine intervention, but human action. It is an empathic, demonstrative form of that old act of charity: the hand that gives also shakes, and proves Heaven’s solidarity with Earth. It is charity as a radically holistic kind of “care.”

And all of this anthropocentric, anthropogenic soteriology issues from that one moment of recognition—provided, of course, by those long, unforgiving hours leading up—which is so succinctly summarized in that sudden confession, “O! I have ta’en / Too little care of this.”

This line has haunted me because of its utter sincerity—and because of its utter brevity. Because, truth be told, the world of King Lear, the cosmos at least of this Shakespearean stage, is a thoroughly pagan one. In some ways, it is even worse—more evil than a mere chaos—because of the vibrant wills and profound souls that buck and mourn against the fates it dispenses.[1] Constantly in question are the essential meaning of “nature” (a word so frequently repeated throughout the play) and the ultimate trustworthiness of the gods for human beings. Just as fraught, though, is the issue of human nature, whether it is worthy of redemption even of Being Itself, or merely “cheap as a beast’s” (II.iv.269). Through the misfortunes that befall the proud, tyrannical, foolhardy Lear, they appear to be distant arbiters of sin. Through the storms and the tragic events of the plot—those horrifically “perfect” twists of fate—and the characters’ near ecstatic lamentations in response to them, the plural divinity seems monomaniacally cruel to all human bonds and well-being.

Lear’s prayer strongly resembles what liberation theologians call God’s “preferential option for the poor.” And he likewise seems to advocate for a theatrical form of voluntary poverty. It is easy to see why critics have read this play or its parts as a Christian one. For a moment, the least of these of the human race take center stage in the cosmic storm. But only for a moment. Because the human-originated providence in Lear is fleeting, and in fact never goes beyond the realm of speech into the form of action. It never has its birth in actuality. The cosmos of King Lear seems a severely impersonal one. Creation Itself bears only “eyeless rage” (III.i.8) in its relationship to human beings and, whether through madness or maiming, makes them in this most savage image. (Perhaps this is why Lear addresses the poor and pleads with the powerful in his prayer—because there is no chance of a compassionate divinity.) If the dimension of this play has any analog in Christianity, it must be the most negative and dispiriting and therefore the least celebrated in the Scriptures. Lear lives in an unholy Saturday, where the aftermath of a bloody Friday promises nothing good, except that Sunday might never be:

Kent: Is this that promised end?

Edgar: Or image of that horror?

Still, because of this overwhelming darkness, those lines of recognition have had for me an even sharper contrast—an effect not unlike a brief candle, all too swiftly gone, yes, but leaving an image of itself to linger indefinitely. An image of the humanity that is, the human present, and what humanity might be, the human yet to come.

*          *          *

For some strange reason, King Lear has always struck me as a Christmassy kind of play—as morbid and absurd as it sounds. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that “the first recorded performance of King Lear occurred at court on December 26, 1606, during the holiday festivities.”[2] That is, the King of England, and all the rest of the hoity coterie, watched Lear made poor to pray and die unredeemed on the second day of Christmas. Perhaps it is because the inverse negative message of Christmas is human frailty that Shakespeare wrote his “scathing indictment of human institutions.”[3] For me personally, something in the play’s content, in its atmosphere and events, reminds me of the story and world of Christmas. Perhaps it’s that super-wintry weather. Perhaps it’s the pagan people seeking shelter and spying out hope in the inhospitable dark. Perhaps it’s because one prayer resembles another:

For he hath looked on the poor degree of his servant . . . Because he that is mighty hath done for me great things, and holy is his Name. And his mercy is from generation to generation. He that showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, exalted them of low degree.[4]

And I don’t seem to be the only one. Charles Dickens’ now ubiquitous A Christmas Carol—that fabular story which has proved almost as much of a source-text for how we celebrate Christmas as the first chapters of Luke—is a drama deeply concerned with, even fixated on, the problem of poverty. It is the high cosmic drama of one stubborn rich man’s relation to the lowly.

Of course, the Carol is also the fairy tale version of Lear’s human family tragedy. (This is not to say that Dickens had this play specifically in mind—though he did draw on Shakespeare frequently, and some have argued that he may be in conversation with another of the Bard’s tragedies in his very deployment of ghosts.[5]) Both wizened world-wielders come to see their less than child-size smallness in space and time. Both confront the death-by-starvation of the personal at the hands of their own past and present clinging to power. But there is a certain very real sense in which both Lear and Scrooge find themselves in the form of archetype—which is to say, in a “spiritual” state. More than this, they find themselves staring across the bond of a spiritual relationship at an all-too-close other. In both strangers and acquaintances, in the homeless and in relatives, these men discover themselves as indelibly attached to the poor. What these great men do affects the humble and in return affects themselves.

It is as if Dickens sought to better Lear’s fleeting instruction. Because just as the Spirits demonstrate potently and repeatedly the presence of the poor, the poor themselves speak from their struggling situations. Through the effective intervention of the divine, the poor are given their own stage, and act and speak their fuller parts. They no longer keep to the crowds and corners—they come through the front door, and straight to Scrooge’s bed.

The Carol presents to the reader a wide panorama of impoverishment, impressively spanning even distances in time. Really, like cosmic directors, the spirits deliberately display to Scrooge a diversity of scenes from different stages in the human drama. Dickens’ man of aging power becomes audience to the many humble dinners of the poor (pp. 91-2),[6] to the meager means of underprivileged families (the Cratchits), and to the essential sources and effectual curses of human iniquity (the figures of Want and Ignorance). Through these ghostly visitations, the wretches and pomp now have divine mediation.

But it is through the figure of Tiny Tim that the most physic is given; it is through Tiny Tim that the heavens seem to be made most just. Like other members of the lowly class, Tiny Tim benefits from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s “sympathy with all poor men” (p. 92)—like the rest of the laboring and disenfranchised, he and his family enjoy the sparkling of joy from the Spirit’s torch; but, though Tim is not as indigent as other figures featured in the panoply, he comes off as infinitely more vulnerable. In part, this is because he is a child, and carries with him Dickens’ romantic innocence and tenderness. But it is also because he is more personal in the story, especially through the brimming affections from Bob (his father) and the earned endearment from Scrooge (his “second father” (p. 134)). This profound fragility makes Tiny Tim’s very limited lines in the story seem paradoxically eternal. He is an example in a double sense: both of how to be and what to save. He is

[a]s good as gold . . . and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see. (p. 94)

It is this child that gives voice to this story’s central instruction—it is he who points, not to himself, but through and beyond himself: “remember.” It is this child in particular that concerns Scrooge in his nascent selflessness. After he is reborn to the world, it is to this child that Scrooge becomes a kind of kinsman redeemer, buying him back from death. It is hard not to see this resolution as the positive opposite, the answer to the problem, the dream to the nightmare, of Lear’s catastrophe of the family.

Now, in this comparison, there are issues between genres and authors that bear closer consideration. For instance, as a Dickensian grotesque in a holiday “Ghost Story,”[7] Scrooge’s character and life take on much softer edges and infinitely more comedic tones than the deeply flawed and diminished protagonist of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. Both agree that nature can be cruel to human terms, but even as the streets of London are covered with a “misanthropic ice” (p. 52), the Carol’s fog has a cheering luster and the delicious thickness of “a colossal cake.”[8] Most operative to my purposes is the pretty stark distinction between the “theology” of Lear’s stormy eschatological cosmos and the Carol’s warm and glowing heaven(s) on earth—indeed, through the Ghost of Christmas Present, there is an unseen immanence, a many-roomed House of the Lord. For unlike the ancient pagan land of Lear, the Victorian London of the Carol is a fictional universe in which “the gods” intercede. (Or, in the words of that cheery number in “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” it is a world in which “the saints can employ us.”[9]) There is no doubt that Scrooge always has a choice, while Lear decries persuasively that he is “[m]ore sinn’d against than sinning” (III.ii.58). Though both acquire a fearsome conviction to change, one accomplishes his restoration, and the other is broken to the point of literal heartbreak. Most crucially, the Carol’s is an earth in which the All of heaven has come down. Where Lear urges humanity to show the heavens more just–this implying a divinity on trial–the Carol proclaims a wonderful counselor who can direct others in how (in the words of another carol) “to show God’s love aright.” The Carol‘s is a world with a definite Savior, whose birth has opened up a holy family for all peoples. And yet—to contextualize further the theology—it is a Savior in a certain style, just as it is a heaven housed in a domesticated world, behind which looms a readership that can afford to indulge in normative hope.

These are all factors that show the limits of the Christmas Carol as an answer to Lear. They show both gaps and tensions in my pairing of the two “accounts.” Personally, they are issues that stem from concerns which, if harkened, will help keep me honest. They will keep me from having a soft-sentimental view of the world, which is really a complacent one, which is really subtle selfishness. Truth be told, most of the effectual drama inherent in the Carol has become so popularized, so normalized, as to bear none of its original intention as insistent challenge to my cozy goodness, too much like Scrooge’s “solitary” being (p. 46).[10]

Nevertheless, perhaps there is a creative tension between the play and the story. Perhaps Lear can play physic to the pomp of Christmas, just as the Carol can show “a chance and hope” to very seasoned despair (p. 63). For me at least there is that voice, still and small amidst the world’s storms, but thundering in my mind, that says within my “insistent challenge” there toils an imperiled call. Beyond the artifice and my interpretation of it pants reality. Sometimes, in the actual world, I will see someone in strife, and truly feel a fate worse than my own frailty, if only for a moment. Sometimes a person has been as big as the world.

And there is still that remarkable achievement—indeed underappreciated for its utter rarity—of the portrayal of a joy that wounds like loss, of a happiness as strong as heartache. Perhaps this kind of denouement is best portrayed through performance—hence the whole-body tremens I get every year from “It’s a Wonderful Life”; perhaps it takes real human faces and real human voices to pull the thing off, but for me even the written image of Bob Cratchit, trembling in preparation for real enmity, only to be met with ultimate fellow-feeling and the most extravagant reversal of his fortunes—for me, this wild marriage of the unbelievable and the real is really something to be seen. It is a scene like a vision, a sight that seems to move me toward action, and it has often had the power, if only for a moment, to shed warmer, seemingly clearer light on the world I’m about to reenter. For what are my petty problems, when I have just seen justice more than fulfilled?

This sense of beneficence like sheer presence, this feeling of a widely spreading “Christmas Time,” has followed me long after the reading or viewing, but never long enough. It has stayed with me most in the remembrance of that line that is a new life sentence, which has proven so memorable that it haunts me like the most beneficent assurance, that we can care better than beautiful speech: for “Scrooge was better than his word” (p. 133).

Notes

[1] In other words, compared to the relatively flat types of classical tragedy, the characters in Lear are all too human, which is to say all too Godlike for earth, and all too beastly for heaven.

[2] Claire McEachern, introduction to King Lear: A Longman Cultural Edition, xi.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:48-52, Geneva (Shakepeare’s) Bible.

[5] See Harry Stone, “Giving Nursery Tales a Higher Form” in Modern Critical Views: Charles Dickens, ed. Harold Bloom, pp. 154-5.

[6] All quotes from A Christmas Carol refer to the Penguin Books edition of The Christmas Books: Volume 1, ed. Michael Slater, 1982.

[7] For a discussion of Dickens’ deliberate drawing from “nursery tales” in the writing of the Carol, see Stone, 153-160.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens_(Chesterton)/VII

[9] From “One More Sleep ’Til Christmas” by Steve Whitmire.

[10] Though in his preface Dickens himself declared his intentions pretty softly—“My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land” (p. xxix—his depiction of the presence and subsequent absence of Tiny Tim ring out a kind of alarm.

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The Comedy of Acceptance

Sam Weller

When I was in college one of my friends told me a story about her younger brother. He was a typical high school boy in many ways: excitable, impetuous, demanding, hungry, pungent, psyched, and yet strangely indolent and dim at times of rest; depending on dinner—whether he’d had it yet; whether it was what he’d wanted—he could be enormously proud, kingly even, towering and solid in his person, or else morose, Jobian, hyper-sensitive, and easily cut to the quick. But one of the most unique particulars to my friend’s brother was his logical-linguistic faculty, his individual reason in his individual language. His own personal left side of the brain. How he expressed his opinion on something often had the subtlety of an errant anvil. “Hammer and tongs” is supposed to imply rigorous, constructive, usually dialogical debate or conversation. His was the surprise singular dropping of cold hard dumbness on nothing. That was my impression at the time of my hearing this story, anyway.

It happened one Saturday afternoon that my friend and her family were out running errands. At one of their stops, my friend’s brother came across a bag of assorted candies. The candies reminded him of candy. Candy reminded him of other times he had had candy. Those remembered times reminded him that he liked candy. The memory of liking reminded him that he liked liking. It was only a short neurological distance before the connection was made: thought became want, want became desire, desire became need. He bought the bag of candies—that is, he put the bag in his parents’ basket.

But somewhere along the way home the assorted candies remained unopened, even in the brightness of their colorful wrappers. Maybe they drove through some place on the way home. Maybe his digestion caught up with him sitting in the van.

Whatever the reason, desire had subsided somehow. Driving back, my friend’s brother asked their dad if he wanted to have the candy instead. Their dad, busy doing the actual driving, muttered an affirmative commonplace: Sure, I’ll eat anything, you know.

When they got home, after the usual bland shuffling and settling, my friend’s mother began preparing that ever-promised meal, covenanted daily since childhood, dinner. My friend’s brother, seeing these preparations, asked what it was supposed to be—a question freighted with sphinxlike gravity. I do not remember what it was, or what he was expecting, but the brother did not like the answer. He bemoaned his mother’s choice. He decried the item’s very existence. He cried violence against his hankerings. In his lamentations he opened the bag of candies and began unwrapping and eating them, one solitary piece at a time.

Just then my friend’s dad, coming through the sliding glass door from the backyard, gave out a more neutral, dadly bark at the brother.

“What?”

“Why didn’t you clean the backyard? You said you were going to. You didn’t do it.”

“What? I can do it later.”

“I told you to do it before we left. Actually I told you to do it last night.

“I wasn’t home last night.”

“You were before you left. You were home this morning. You didn’t do it either of those times.”

“I will in a minute, okay? God.”

“Don’t swear that at me. You said you were going to. It’s a mess out there.”

Okay-okay-okayyyyyyy.

“It’s not God’s fault it looks like a goddamned warzone out there . . .”

“Well it’s not my fault that dinner’s gonna suck.”

“. . . piles of poop everywhere out there. What did you say?”

“That’s why I’m being a jerk.”

Tempers grew higher, and voices grew louder. Feelings were hurt, faces were fuming. At some point my friend joined the cause of her parents, and then the whole family was gathered in the dispute. Or rather, father, mother, and sister united against brother. They got to a point where they had each chimed in some death-knell against his callow moral rectitude. At first, he took these rebukes harder and harder, and grew more blockheaded against them. But soon their steady words had the effect of erosion. Looking around him, his conviction softening, he issued one last defense at the head of his accusers. He looked with dread seriousness at his dad and said:

“Well at least I got you candy!

They all stared wide-eyed at him. They looked at each other, gasping for words, only to look back at him in utter dumbfoundedness.

They stood shocked as if a boulder had rolled through the living room.

Finally the dad’s stern, straight face cracked a slow grin, and he broke into a laugh. The sister and the mother soon followed, and even the brother began to smile uncertainly. It wasn’t long before the whole tense body of the family relaxed in laughter, the kind of just-pent-up, now-released laughter so much like hard-earned tears.

My friend shook with laughter as she recounted this story to me. Approaching the climactic words, she had to stop and catch her breath. She made many false starts, having to smooth the smile from her cheeks so that she could speak. But the smile stayed there because the surprise of her brother still stood in her mind.

I had seen her annoyed with him many times. I myself had been more than annoyed with him many times. I thought him the worst kind of fool: proud, with big shoulders. Certainly my friend had plenty of reason to complain about her baby brother. On the worst of days, his seat of reason was a highchair from which he tossed a mess of clanging slop around her, not even aware of her trying to pick it up. But at that moment, still reliving his utterly unique response, her face showed the exact opposite of annoyance. Even as she had cringed and frowned before when telling of his churlishness, my friend now smiled with lucid joy when clumsiness. But she wasn’t laughing at him, she was laughing because of him, and the smile lasted far longer than the laughter. It was the facial expression of that good old English word, so underused nowadays, mirth.

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