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Away in a Manger

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Well, okay, not quite.

To answer Jem, sort of–we have evidence of the use of nativity scenes, in churches if not in private homes, going back considerably before St. Francis of Assissi, at least in England and Wales.  I’d never heard the story you mentioned, but it’s the kind of story that gets told about St. Francis, part of the lore of the saint everybody loves, or is supposed to.  I have no idea if the man actually preached the Gospel to the birds, but it’s a nice image, and it directs our attention away from the obvious–anybody capable of launching and sustaining a radical religious movement against the institutional wrath of Rome and ending up a saint in the bargain had drive like a locomotive and an ego the size of Montana. 

But then, I’ve never been enamoured of the whitewashing of sainthood.  And I think it’s one of the strongest aspects of the Harry Potter books that Rowling does not make any of the heroes of that story, including Harry himself, morally and psychologically squeaky clean.  I think one of the things we’ve lost, in an age of celebrity everything, is the understanding that good, even great, things often come in unattractive packages.

So let me go around to a weird thing that came up the other day. 

In a way, it fits with the high and low culture thing, so I’m going to have to go back to the whole thing about acquired tastes.

First, I don’t think it’s necessary for us to be taught to dislike something in order for us to lose our taste for it.  This happens to almost all of us with food–as we grow up, we tend to glide away from high-sugar/high-fat to things we once considerable absolutely awful, like vegetables.  We do that even if nobody around is is telling us that high-sugar/high-fat is bad and vegetables are good.  In fact, I think we do that faster if we aren’t subjected to such lectures.  The only time I ever eat McDonald’s hamburgers any more is when I’ve been forced to sit through a report from that Concerned Scientists committee that’s always declaring that everything is bad for us.

(Reason, my absolutely favorite magazine, did a review recently of David Koestler’s (sp?) new book, about how the big food companies are conspiring to kill us by making their products delicious.  That sent me straight for one more try at cinnamon buns, but, alas, I still don’t like them.)

But even in the realm of high sugar/high fat, my tastes in food have changed–I like dark chocolate that’s just a little bitter these days, and you couldn’t have gotten me near spaghetti carbonara when I was fifteen.

Sometimes, our tastes change because we educate ourselves without even realizing we’re doing it.  I didn’t set out to get the equivalent of high art tastes in Scotch, but I had some of the good stuff, and, um, well–suddenly, the other stuff didn’t taste right, exactly, although I didn’t like the good stuff all the much, but I kept thinking about it, so I tried it again.  And now it’s a good thing I only drink about twice a year, because the only Scotch I like goes for $50 a shot at any bar that has it, which most don’t.

I’ve been trying to think if that kind of thing happens with books, or painting, or music, and I’ve come to a tentative…sort of.

I thoroughly enjoy an awful lot of bad literature.  I don’t know what I’d do with Miss Marple, for instance, and this is the woman who read Atlas Shrugged twenty times.  Of those two, Atlas Shrugged is really and truly awful as a work of fiction, and Miss Marple is what I think of as “good enough,” but the fact remains that no matter how much of the truly good stuff I’ve read, I still love both of those.

I will say that I don’t think I could repeat the feat with a book as bad as Atlas Shrugged today.  I’ve gone past the place where I have the patience for really bad prose that it requires to read something like that, although I can reread it without a problem.

And I will also say that even before I had read very widely, I could sometimes pick out differences between novels without necessarily knowing what those differences consisted of or what they meant.

I read The Scarlet Pimpernel, for instance,and thoroughly enjoyed it, but around the same time I also read David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Sense and Sensibility and The Brother’s Karamazov and I knew–from off–that there was a difference there.  I even knew that, next to the others, The Scarlet Pimpernel was not a very good book.  I just couldn’t, then, put my finger on why.

Of coruse, as I’ve said before, there are also a lot of very good books that I don’t like at all, starting with Paradise Lost and continuing through War and Peace.  In the old days, all English majors and English graduate students were required to do at least a semester’s worth of work in Milton, and to read that damned thing all the way through.  I got stuck with it three times over the course of three degrees.  I can give you chapter and verse about why it is a great work, but the damned thing bores my eyeballs out of my head.

With War and Peace–well, okay, it’s mostly just Tolstoy.  I find the man’s tenor of mind distasteful at the best of times, and War and Peace has way too much war in it for me.  I never took a course in Russian literature, so there was nobody to force me through the book, so I never finished it.  We got onto the first of the battlefields with the Russians facing the armies of Napoleon, and my eyes just glazed over.

Still, if I were to say that there was a single unifying aspect to the high art tradition in literature, I would say that it was this:  that high art, unlike popular art, aims to see life plain and not to indulge in, or foster, illusions, no matter how comforting.

Cheryl said, at one point, that lots of people don’t want reality when they read, and I agree with her.  I think I can also say that almost all of us have times when we don’t want reality when we read, even if at other times we do. 

Robert complains about an “eat your spinach” approach to reading, but the fact is that after a decade or so of being required to eat my spinach, I now really love spinach, and it is in fact better for me than that beloved diet of my adolescence, Coca-Cola and potato chips.

Of course, there are things that are good for me that I’ve never learned to like, just as I’ve never learned to like Milton’s poetry.  But I have reached the point where I understand why those things are good for me, if not the point where I’m willing to eat them.

I think I’ve carried this metaphor about as far as it will go.

 Let me look, for a moment, at my favorite literary subject for this time of year, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

I love Dickens in general, really, but the interesting thing about Dickens–the thing he stands as a primary representative of–is just that he was not an acquired taste for the readers of his time.  He was his generation’s Stephen King, and like King his books operated on many different levels. 

And I think that that’s the trick to high art that manages to acquire a huge popular following–there’s a level on which it can be read by people who don’t want too much reality in their fiction.

(I wonder about the situation in painting–Vermeer works on both levels, reality and ideality, while El Greco’s Crucifixion is…let’s just say nobody could live with it at home, to quote Baez’s line about Dylan.)

All these things notwithstanding, however, there are a very small number of works out there that are functioning on another level yet.  Romeo and Juliet is one, and so is A Christmas Carol.

There seem to be works out there whose general template is so hooked into the things we know and feel and live that they fit almost seamlessly into any age.  There have been innumerable modernized adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, in West Side Story, of course, but also in a movie about a Palestinian girl and an Israeli boy, about black and white teenagers in the South, you name it. 

A Christmas Carol seems to have spawned endless versions and endless updatings.  And the more I look at it, the more difficult it is to work out on some levels.

First there is the simple fact that Dickens was not a realist about human nature. 

Or rather, he could be very much a realist on an individual level, but he almost never extrapolated from that to the general condition of human beings.  Dickens could, and did, write some of the most memorable villains in literature, and hehad a dead-keen eye for what I think of as the little evils–the woman so consumed by her love for “humanity” that her own children go ragged and hungry; the schoolteacher who uses his pedantry as an excuse for tyranny and abuse.

But Dickens’ overall understanding of the way human society worked was flawed in ways that are hard to understand.  He lived in an era of reform, when many of his fellow writers worked tirelessly to improve the condition of workers in the newly hatched industrial revolution.  The dark satanic mills were not entirely an illusion of the left wing, and writers like Hardy and Eliot lobbied for laws that would limit hours at work and abolish child labor altogether.

Dickens was never able to accept the idea of government in the role of safety net, or of regulator of private enterprise, and yet he was unable to ignore the reality of the abuses in the society in which he lived.  For one thing, he himself had lived some of those abuses.  His family had been bankrupt and seen the inside of worhouses and poorhouses, and he hated them both.

Even so, Dickens could see no way out of the situation he was in except the individual change of heart.  The world would be a better place if men and women learned to behave better towards each other. 

And he constantly presented portraits of Good People conducting their affairs in the right way:  in Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, Nicholas’s cruel and avaricious Uncle Ralph Nickleby is contrasted with the good businessmen Charles and Ned Cheeryble, who treat their employees well, use their wealth to do go, and actively seek out people in need to help.

It’s not that people like the Cheerybles are impossible.  I’ve known several people in my life who were approsimately similar.  The problem is that a world where the Cheerybles are the majority and not the minority is impossible, and in such a world laws against using children for chimneysweeps will in fact be necessary.

(Although, I do have this particular truth about human nature in a little holding pattern at the moment.  It turns out that envy may not be as completely ineradicable as it seems.  One of the consistent findings over the last few years–okay, maybe thirty; I’m getting old–is that people who have enough themselves and who live among people who have pretty much what they do do not seem to mind that far away on another coast, Bill Gates and Michael Jordan have more.  This is why the “class warfare” approach to American politics has been working so badly.  And, you know, it gives me hope for the future in more ways than one.)

All that aside, though, the fact is that individual conversion is likely to get us justso far.  People are people.  They tend to be shortsighted and self-obsessed. 

But A Christmas Carol is probably the ultimate expression of social redemption in individual conversion–Scrooge, by becoming a better man, makes life better for everybody around him. 

And on a metaphorical level, it hits all the bases, too–with Scrooge reformed, the workers will have better working conditions (think Cratchitt) and the widows will not lose their houses to foreclosure, and the poor will have lots to eat and drink from the charity of their fellow human beings.

It’s a very Christian message, really, from a man who belonged to a generation that was gradually (in England, at least) shedding its belief in Christianity and converting it to an acceptance of the “philosophy” of Christ. 

And obviously there is something about the story of individual conversion that strikes nearly all of us as important and–I’m doing this really badly.

It’s as if we all want to believe in serious, fundamental individual change. 

We know that this is not the case almost ever in real life.  After a certain point–say, early adulthood–most people are who they will always be.  Some people seem set in their personalities and habits much earlier than that. 

But the Christian message is that all can become new in Christ, and the message of the Enlightenment is that all men can become new with education and reason.  As Robert pointed out some time ago, all Utopian visions seem to follow the same lines, even More’s original.

A Christmas Carol is Utopia looked at from the other side–instead of a description of the changes in society that will make men perfect, it concerns the changes in individual men and women that will make society perfect. 

Maybe that’s why Utopias come and go and always seem more than a little stale, while A Christmas Carol renews itself year after year after year.

Or maybe it’s just that we all keep hoping that individual conversion is possible–for ourselves.

There, that’s pretentious enough to end on.

Written by janeh

December 1st, 2009 at 11:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Away in a Manger'

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  1. Thank you for info on nativity scenes. My favorites are living nativity scenes and the lawn displays that have the manger, Mary and Joseph, Jesus and so on on one side and Santa, reindeer and sleigh on the other.

    About a Christmas Carol, I have to see the 1938 version with Reginald Owen at Xmas. To me, it outshines all the others–older and more recent. Did anyone read Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard? I loved the book and have used it twice as a selection for book discussions. It resurrects Tiny Tim and sets him down in early adulthood in very different circumstances to the earlier tale. Bayard uses a variation on Dickens’ style and even themes to some extent.

    My taste in food hasn’t really altered too much from when I was a child. I was brought up in a household where you ate what was on the table, like it or not. With literature, before middle age came round, I read a lot more of literary fiction and more non-fiction. Now, if it doesn’t have a dead body in it somewhere I usually have little use for it. There are some exceptions. I read an excellent article in the November 23 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Breaking the Wall: when mystery becomes literary fiction and vice versa. http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6708102.html


    1 Dec 09 at 12:32 pm

  2. I’ve gone off Santa in recent years – I tend to think of his as symbolic of all the pressure to SPEND SPEND SPEND so that everyone in your family has gifts that are at least as luxurious at the Jones’s, if not more so, so I don’t tend to decorate with Santas and certainly not to include him in a manger scene. I don’t think I’ve seen that done, actually. I tend to like the smaller home nativities indoors the best. I don’t think I’ve seen a living nativity, at least, not outside a children’s Christmas pageant, and I usually avoid those. That does make me a bit of a Scrooge, I suppose!

    The only version of the Christmas Carol that I like is the Alistair Sim one. I own a copy of that and watch it annually, and usually don’t bother with any other version, although I don’t think I’ve seen the Owen one.

    As for food, I like a lot of what I liked as a child, but I like more things, and am far more willing to try new things.

    The individual conversion thing is Christian, but expecting it to produce social redemption isn’t. At least, not social redemption in this world, and nothing humans can do will produce the next world.

    Anyway, with billions of Christians over thousands of years, there are all kinds of variations of beliefs, and it’s easy to slide from thinking that loving and caring for your neighbour will improve their experiences in this world to thinking that you can actually create a perfect world through your interactions with your neighbour.

    Conversion experiences, religious and non-religious, aren’t easy and aren’t as common as some popular fiction might have us believe (As he gazed on the innocent face of his sleeping son (or true love) he instantly resolved to be worthy of his (or her) respect and admiration….), but they do happen. The possibility is important, as is the idea that they’re personal choice. It’s when you get people trying to mold others into the ‘after’ picture by force you get problems with the idea of conversion as a force to improve society. That, and the fact that it happens rarely.

    I wonder if Dickens wasn’t sometimes looking not at individuals who have had conversion experiences, but at people who lived in a way that Dickens admired? That is, a conversion experience is all well and good, but it’s also possible to ‘fake it til you make it’, or live honestly even though inside you still want to lie or steal. Perhaps if you do it long enough you will set up new habits and lose your desire for ill-gotten wealth, but for a good society, it really doesn’t matter if you treat your employee honestly because you saw the light, or because you are determined to change your behaviour even though the effort is difficult and unnatural for you.

    Scrooge underwent a conversion experience for sure, but we don’t really know much about the internal experiences of many of Dickens’ more upright characters. Maybe Dickens was interested in providing examples of good behaviour as much as he was in promoting individual conversion as a cause of an improved society.


    1 Dec 09 at 2:29 pm

  3. I may be weird, but I like A Christmas Carol without buying into the message that people can change – I agree that they rarely do. I’ve come to the realization in the last few years that most of my love for, say, A Christmas Carol, or actual Christmas carols, even – stems not from any intrinsic love for the season – more and more it just feels like someone else’s holiday – but because it reminds me of growing up, when Mom was still alive, and we’d read A Christmas Carol each year, and sing carols.

    As for people’s tastes changing as they age – sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. I still like quite a lot of things that I ate as a child, but I’ve learned to love spinach and broccoli and (for example) things that I’d never heard of in childhood, like hummus and spanakopita and tabbouli. Unfortunately for the size of my backside, I still love cinnamon buns and would gladly consume Jane’s for her.


    1 Dec 09 at 2:55 pm

  4. I’m not sure that tastes change – expand possibly – but not inherently change. I will eat all my childhood foods and then some. MaryF – I’ll fight you for Jane’s cinnamon buns.

    As for Dickens – I loved Tale of Two Cities and liked Great Expectations – but, sorry, A Christmas Carol irritated me as a child and still does today. My taste, it seems, hasn’t really changed.


    1 Dec 09 at 5:12 pm

  5. On sainthood, I cannot recommend too highly Lois McMaster Bujold’s CURSE OF CHALION, which would also be a good read if you cared nothing about saints. It works, as do some others mentioned, on several levels.

    People seldom change, but “seldom” is not “never,” and I have no use for the “slice of life” school of fiction in any event. For realism, I can look out my window or set up a camera on a street corner. The art of fiction is in selection. A shopping list is real. It just isn’t very interesting. (Mostly: there is an Addams cartoon…)
    You need realism to keep from losing your audience, and, credibility to make an impression on it. Perhaps one believes a good book while one reads it, and a great book afterward as well. But I believe there is a place even in great books for characters who show us how we should behave, instead of just chronicling how we mostly do.

    As for High Art as spinach, well, you can make a good case for those vitamins and micro-nutrients, and I’d be well advised to eat my vegetables even if I do think the chocolate-covered peanut is nature’s perfect food. And I need to take exercise even though I’d often rather be on the recliner. But the High Culturalists often sound to me much like the Concerned Scientists, whose formal name I can’t remember either. And–worse–at least the Concerned Scientists, though hysterical, are right.
    For the High Culturalists to be right, high art needs to be necessary for our mental or spiritual well-being. But if I’m trying to stay mentally alert, a good mystery might serve better. For moral uplift–well, Silas Wheatley just isn’t a good source. For information, even poorly written history or biography might be more useful. And I think most of the High Culturalists would be deeply offended to have their work judged by those standards. But the influence of the work and the quality of the prose, while of concern to historians and of interest to writers, are surely not the equivalents of Vitamin B and a healthy heart to the rest of us.
    And if Dickens isn’t as critical as diet and exercise, I’ll head back to my SCARLET PIMPERNEL, thank you. Once through GREAT EXPECTATIONS should be enough for any man. Meantime, the Concerned Scientists should have a cookie now and then–and the High Culturalists spend a nice evening with CHESMEN OF MARS.


    1 Dec 09 at 5:45 pm

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