Positively Dickensian

This year’s A Christmas Carol on the BBC makes a strong case for the revival of Dickensian as a campaigning idiom, although it characteristically baulks at the revolution it objectively indicates. As fuming Spectator columnists were quick to recognise, it’s pretty on the nose: Scrooge and Marley’s rapacious parsimony causes not only a pit tunnel collapse in a Welsh coal mine, but also an infernal gas-explosion disaster best described as “Victorian Grenfell”.

In this version, the role of the Spirits is to indicate - they point, forwards, backwards and all around, putting their fingers on salient features of the times. “Spirit” here is not cloudy mystification but sharp pointing, needles and pins. This, here, and this, here, and this, here. “The intimate inspection of your heart and your soul”, but also of the shaping circumstances of that blighted interiority, and the widening circle of consequences.

We have a Scrooge, an “object in the shape of a man”, morally obliterated in childhood (his school fees paid via a nefaripus arrangement between his father and a paedophile schoolmaster), and rehabilitated through his own fugitive tenderness towards vulnerable lives (unobserved, without expectation of reward, he places a blanket on a shivering horse, echoing perhaps the fabled moment of Nietzsche’s breakdown), those presumed non-combatant in the war of all against all. The task of the Spirits is to circumvent the closed loop of Scrooge’s self-hatred, to construct a counter-proof to his proof that self-interest dominates universally (and thus that he cannot as a child have had any claim to the care or protection of others).

This is the Dickensian moral figure: Scrooge must be moved to pity, not so that he recognises that it is virtuous to condescend to those less fortunate, but so that he can recognise his own formative harms as not inevitable, not dictated by the iron law of things. It is not only a question of piercing the hardened heart of a miser, but of dismantling a system of justification forged as a way of rationalising injury — “axioms to him who’d never heard / of any world where promises were kept / or one could weep because another wept”.

I may have something else to say about the place of “spirit” in all this presently. This was very much more a pagan than a Christian Carol (although the first Spirit may have worn a crown of thorns), the world of spirit centering on a blazing bonfire in the midst of a bleak midwinter, which reminded me a great deal of the 1980s BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights: there is a visual language which belongs to the genre we might call “spooky BBC Xmas programming”. Of course this is also Christian — a light shining in the darkness, which comprehendeth it not — but it is a decidedly un-demythologised Christianity, in which the connection between spirit and truth is that between subterranean hidden forces which must come to light, rather than a divine inspiration shining down from above.