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Saturday
Dec262009

A Christmas Carol

The study of human soul has been claimed by many a discipline, both scientific and pseudo-scientific, which means that while the conclusions boast the stamp of empirical evidence, the data culled is almost purely subjective.  The latest cabalists on the scene are neuropsychiatrists, and their particular methods border on the fascinating while, at the same time, straddling the ridiculous.  Do certain parts of our brain (forgive my simplifications) rev and rumble when certain things happen to us?  Well, I suppose they do, since we are nothing if programmed robots when it comes to chemical conflict.  Can we understand abnormal behavior through abnormalities in our cerebral structure or patterns?  I'm sure that those beleaguered by delusions will light up an odd selection of ornaments and constellations.  Should we at all be worried that our interpretation of brain activity is subject to the subjective filter that is our own mind's pulse?  How could frontal-subcortical circuitry not produce the desired personality, might be the retort echoing against our silent discomfort at the ease of such conclusions.  And the personality in question may well be the main character of this renowned story.

We begin with an affirmation of the material world: Jacob Marley, the long-time partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, is dead and has lain in such a state for seven long years.  Marley must be dead for the events of the story to occur as they do; but he must also be dead (and he is killed repeatedly on the story's first page) so that we may consider a belief in his reappearance.  We must also depict our protagonist as someone so unlikely to accept the contrivances of the spiritual world as to be immune to the faint whiffs of humanity that encircle the dowdyism of his wretched soul:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

As subsequent episodes reveal, Scrooge once had a soul and wishes for a happy life within society.  He forfeited these dreams once business became his only burden; over time his wizened countenance has come to reflect the lack of human humidity.  He is spouseless and unchildrened, year after year he rejects his deceased sister's only son's Christmas dinner invitation, and in dreariest winter his poor clerk is allotted one feeble coal to match his number of paid yearly holidays.  Is Scrooge a caricature?  Most evidently; his name, now a figure of common parlance, suggests the coiled grip of a lusty hand.  Even his domicile bears his blueprints:

They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.

Scrooge was free and full of the freshest dreams that a promising young life can hold; what closed him off to the world we shall never know for sure.  Could the smell of pocket change have replaced violets in his imagination?  Could the smooth sides of bullion imbued him with a more concrete sense of nature's perfection?   Perhaps Scrooge was always there for the tempting, awaiting his turn on the rickety stage known as financial prosperity, a mystery that is better left as Dickens intended: an inexplicable yet all too common deviation from the straight road of moral well-being.

We have still said nothing about those famous ghosts.  They are three, like the Magi; and like the Kings they are harbingers of something fantastic from which no mind can avert itself in indifference.  They vary in physical size, or at least the size of what they represent: the Ghost of Christmas Past is an old man shrunk to the dimensions of a child; Christmas Present is a jolly green giant, if an evanescent one; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come bears a remarkable resemblance to the Keeper of the Scythe (and like He, the future is dark and mute).  I stand corrected: four apparitions envelop Ebenezer Scrooge that lonesome Christmas Eve, and it is the first among them that will be the most affecting because it is the ghost of his old partner, Marley.  Marley appears in the chains that Scrooge tells himself are customary for spirits, but chains of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses" – the souvenirs of lifelong dealings with the greatest miser of London.  After some staring and banter (the ghost first announces his presence by mimicking Scrooge's knocker, but then is quick to materialize fully), Marley's spirit cuts to the chase and warns his erstwhile associate about what is to befall him during the longest night of his life.  Scrooge will eventually believe him, but his instinct hints at a more modern explanation for such phenomena:

'Why do you doubt your senses?'

'Because,' said Scrooge, 'a little thing affects them.  A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.  You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!'

Modern science informs us that digestive obstacles manipulate the retinogeniculocalcarine tract, which in turn redounds in the summoning of visual hallucinations; that would explain those particularly vicious images after a spicy meal.  Ah, but Scrooge likes his meals the way he likes his morals: unaccompanied, tasteless, and wholly pragmatic. 

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