Friday, December 18, 2015

Lord, Keep My Memory Green

It is logically certain that since Charles Dickens befriended all mankind, he also became my friend, myself being a part of mankind and providing the minor premise in the syllogism. Dickens’s visits to our home are always momentous occasions. Joyous anticipation surrounds all the preparations and mounts until the moment the Great Man knocks on the door. He enters dramatically, of course, swinging off his cape and starting a story before anyone has a chance to utter greetings. Friends of the friend of all mankind become accustomed to the whirlwind of his presence. His personality has far too much intensity for intimate conversation, just as the sun shines too brightly to allow a direct glimpse. It is enough to know that Scrooge’s master is at my elbow in spirit throughout the rest of the year.

I hope I’m not alone in wishing that the bounteous grace furnished by A Christmas Carol could be multiplied by finding it in other Dickens Christmas books. I know that hundreds of thousands of readers from the 1840s shared my hopeful longing. But any who read the rest of the Christmas novellas must admit in the end that none of the other four even come close. The Chimes is to A Christmas Carol as a turkey sandwich is to Christmas dinner: one follows naturally from the other but, tasty as it is, comes with none of the magical glow of the original feast.

Still, I vaguely remember thinking, after reading all five sometime in the 1980s, that The Haunted Man claimed second place and could delight, teach, and move any reader who could sequester the thought that it didn’t hold up next to its predecessor. And now thirty years later, I’ve confirmed that assessment. I don’t know how much I could have appreciated The Haunted Man’s virtues in my twenties, but today I can sympathize with the melancholy Mr. Redlaw, whose own brooding self haunts him, hovering darkly over his shoulder and urging him to rehearse his sorrowful memories. If only Redlaw could be released from his obsession with the past!

The utterance of the wish launches the main story. The ghostly doppelgänger, playing Clarence to Redlaw’s George Bailey, grants his wish: Redlaw’s memories will no longer plague him. But the spirit goes one step further than Capra’s good-hearted angel: Redlaw will pass on this apparent blessing to anyone he touches. But the still-haunted man watches in horror as good people around him turn on each other and as fallen people lose all regret for their sinful ways. Those who lose their memories of sadness lose also their appreciation for the good, lose sympathy for fellow beings in distress, and experience no awe, mystery, or consolation when looking at graves or stars or while listening to music. Remembrance of sorrow, Redlaw learns, makes forgiveness possible and links us to Christ on the Cross. And so I repeat the words that close Dickens’s second-best Christmas book: Lord, Keep My Memory Green.

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