Dickens & Wagner: Christmas Carol connections

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Dickens & Wagner: Christmas Carol connections

Post by alberich00 » Wed Dec 21, 2016 10:12 am

Dear friends and neighbors at the wagnerheim.com discussion forum:

A happy holiday, Christmas, Hannukah, season to all! It's become something of a tradition for me to highlight a couple of philosophic links between two of my heroes, Richard Wagner and Charles Dickens, annually, at this festive time of the year. The link between the following paragraph from Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" and Wagner should be self-evident:

From Stave Three, at the home of Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew by blood, Fred, and niece by marriage, on Christmas Day:

"After tea, they had some music. For they were a musical family, and knew what they were about, when they sang a Glee or Catch, I can assure you: especially Topper, who could growl away in the bass like a good one, and never swell the large veins in his forehead, or get red in the face over it. Scrooge's niece played well upon the harp; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things the Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley."

We find music here taking on a moral meaning.

I'm ashamed to admit that I knew "A Christmas Carol" indirectly through its most exalted film adaptation, "Scrooge," from 1951, starring Alastair Sim in the title role (through this screen incarnation Sim will live forever), long before I actually read the original tale. But among the many virtues of that film, the author of the adapted film script, Noel Langley, and whoever else was responsible for the creative adaptation for film of the original story, developed quite a number of hints Dickens placed in his text, to present more of Scrooge's possible back-story (but always in keeping with the spirit of the original) than we find in the original work by Dickens. Included in this was the insertion of the most beautiful version of the old British ballad "Barbara Allen" in the place of this anonymous air to which Dickens alludes in the passage above. And, as Dickens suggested, in the film we hear "Barbara Allen" both when Scrooge's younger sister comes to fetch him from the boarding school, in Scrooge's past, and during the present, when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present observe, unheeded, nephew Fred's Christmas Day party.

For anyone who is spell-bound by Wagner's employment of musical motifs to link the past, present, and future, as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and this anonymous tune, link past, present and future in "A Christmas Carol," Dickens's paragraph should resonate deeply. Wagner described this capacity of his motifs of remembrance and foreboding to make present and immediate things distant in both time and space, as the "Wonder," an aesthetic miracle which, for him, was the secular substitute for religious faith in the miraculous, the supernatural. I first grew to love "Barbara Allen" when from my earliest age we followed the tradition of watching "Scrooge" every Christmas Eve after dinner and after exchanging our personal gifts (not the Santa Claus gifts, which would only miraculously appear under our tree on Christmas Day). This was an early inspiration for my lifelong love of folk music and eventually various ethnic musics from around the world.

It goes without saying that the most obvious link between Dickens and Wagner was their critique of capitalism's and industrialization's exploitation and degradation of the working class (and of course its dependence on the slave-system in the New World). This is too self-evident to require commentary. But something that isn't so self-evident is the underlying relationship between Dickens's and Wagner's distinct versions of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Here are the key passages from Stave One of "A Christmas Carol," which link it to Wagner's different variations on this legend in "The Flying Dutchman," the "Ring" character Wotan, and Kundry from "Parsifal," among others:

"The same face, the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.


'Man of the worldly mind!' replied the Ghost, 'do you believe in me or not?

'I do,' said Scrooge. I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

'It is required of every man,' the Ghost returned, 'that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world - oh, woe is me! - and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!'

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain, and wrung its shadowy hands.

'You are fettered,' said Scrooge, trembling. 'Tell me why?'

'I wear the chain I forged in life,' replied the ghost. 'I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?'

Scrooge trembled more and more.

'Or would you know,' pursued the Ghost, 'the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain.'


'I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!'


'The whole time,' said the Ghost. 'No rest, no peace, incessant torture of remorse.'


'Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!'


The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open. It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley's Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped.

Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever."

As I think of this story I think of Wagner's Flying Hollander, who endlessly, without rest and with little or no hope, sails the seas in quest of a redemption which has always in the past proved to be a futile hope, a voyage which instead accrues an ever-enlarging hoard of treasures, of worldly goods, to which the Flying Hollander and his ghostly crew have fallen heir by virtue of violent interactions with pirate vessels. In Wagner's version, later expanded into his conception of Alberich's incessant acquisition of a hoard of treasure, and Wotan's (Light-Alberich's) endless wandering of the world in quest of knowledge of how to obtain redemption, a quest which instead gathers experience which tells Wotan his hopes are futile, we find a universalization of what had been a more parochial problem. What I mean is that Wagner didn't merely see that particular portion of humanity who craves worldly goods and possessions as damned irrevocably, but he explored the idea that this is the very image of mankind in general, that this is the mythological image of human nature itself, to which we are all condemned. Wagner, as is well known, tried in his personal life to project this fear that mankind, even in his quest for redemption from his egoistic nature, is inherently unable to transcend or escape his egoism, by projecting this fear on to the Jews, but in his operas and music-dramas the truth will out: this fear he applied to all mankind, universally. Wotan is an image of ourselves as a species, not merely of those who chose what we would call the wrong course in life. Dickens's vision, to this extent, offered more hope. Wagner offered in "Parsifal" his closest approximation to hope, in the notion that we can only redeem ourselves from our eternal wandering as seeming strangers in the real world (the very world which gave us birth, but to which, as Feuerbach said, we have not been sufficiently grateful in inventing metaphysical alternatives to reality that are more consoling) by entirely renouncing the concept of redemption, and embracing our true nature and Mother Nature. It is for this reason that Nature regains her day of innocence in the Good Friday Spell in "Parsifal," and that Amfortas's formerly unhealing wound finally heals.

Along the same lines, I can't help linking Wotan's despairing complaint to Bruennhilde that by virtue of the very Spear which granted Wotan divine authority, he is now trapped and the most miserable and unfreest of men, with Jacob Marley's despairing complaint to Scrooge that by virtue of the very lust for money and power which guided Marley throughout his life, he is now irrevocably fettered as a source of unbearable remorse after death.
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