Nothing gets us in the holiday spirit more, perhaps, than reformation: enlightenment, the sudden game changing glow that turns misers into open, generous souls. What magical formula is at work, and how can we slip some in the coffee of, say, Mitch McConnell or the Koch brothers? Whatever it is, whatever the ghost of Bob Cratchit slipped into Scrooge's watered-down soup, it worked, producing three spirits of Xmas: one symbolic death / ego dissolution, one spiritual awakening and an electric partridge in a banisteriopsis caapi. So why don't we deal with the unspoken and unvarnished cosmic truth? Lo, Scrooge is reborn!
I was in tears on Sunday watching Alastair Sim leap around his bed chambers on Christmas morning. I cried because I know what that's like -- you just came back from the rim of the hideous void and you're so grateful to be alive you can barely contain yourself... but the maid, or dorm RA, just thinks you went looney. Only Tiny Tim, his antennae already half-connected to the world beyond, knows where the goose is coming from. It's coming up from the graveyard. Its spirit flies free, even as we eat of its flesh and drink its creators' son's alcohol blood.
|Masque of the Red Death (1965) - Initiation scene|
It's only natural to be wary. Without the all-consuming threat of death --without genuinely believing you are going to die or are dying or have died, and not just for a little roller-coaster moments but for what seems like hours, days, of being dead or terrorized by death (while not being such a baby about it you decide to call 911, or demand someone drive you to the ER)-- you will never get there. Without that third ghost, the conversion doesn't stick; there's no significant change, no maturation, without the trauma of facing one's own extinction. Even then, you can literally feel the humility and grace wearing off after even a few days, ego and pride and entitlement snaking back up through your wiring like parasitical worms.
In FLUTE, Tamino and Pamina have to brave the writhing flames of the initiation mystery cave to the tune of Mozart; in MASQUE Hazel Court (above) endures an around-the-world of ghost shamans cutting out her heart upon a Satanic altar in blue-green tint and slow motion to the tune of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." And Ebeneezer Scrooge endures the cold marble of his own tombstone as all his dear possessions get tossed to beggars and fences. He even winds up at the bottom of a deep grave, struggling to get out while the dirt falls around him. He screams and moans and vows to be good and twists up in his bedsheets. He has to get that low, not a penny less, for his rebirth, his temporary cessation of toxic ego vexation, to click in on some permanent level, even if all that remains of his high by New Years is that he's just less of a miserly dick.
Why don't most Xmas movies realize that without this big looming death presence, Xmas has no deep, lasting catharsis? The holidays in the end are all about this -- sometimes even just having to talk to your grandmother for a few minutes can be enough to remind you where your frail aging flesh is headed.
Jimmy Stewart doesn't experience death so much in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE but he gets a cold from trying to commit suicide by jumping into an icy river on Xmas eve (or rescuing Clarence, I forget which) and that's kind of the same, because suicide is often attempted as a means towards spiritual awakening as the sufferer wants to trigger their egoic death and rebirth and doesn't understand that there are easier (albeit even more terrifying) ways (i.e. iboga). In Capra's film, Clarence the Angel serves as a melange of Xmas ghosts, rescuing Jimmy and showing him the miserable Dickensian werkhaus of a place his little town would be without him, which manages a kind of latent Scrooge-ness on his part. Here he's been selfless his whole life but on instinct, and the vision skips and undoes the three ghosts in a kind of negative impression. Without Jimmy the world world is as dead as Scrooge's heart.
Again, I stress that just like CHRISTMAS CAROL, WONDERFUL LIFE would have no resonance without these scenes of grim despair, mortal loss, defeat and desperation. There would be no cathartic tears of joy if we were not allowed to gaze into the snowy void of terror at our own mortality and the grim world that awaits us once we let go of hope and selfless love. Cut out the despair, you cut out the exaltation, the tear-streaked gratitude.
The last time I was in Chicago visiting my relatives I had that same sensation, part of which was caused by the unceasingly grim weather, another part by the severely aged condition of my granny, the cancer of my father and my own mix of cigarette withdrawal, lovelorn heartbreak (couldn't get my long distance crush on the phone) and constant winter sickness. It felt like we were all chained together in order of age on the walking plank of a ship, and our great grandparents were already overboard and the chain was just forever being sucked down below the waves as it sailed on and we were all slowly getting pulled under by the weight of our sunken family tree and the chain...kuchunk, one link of the chain at a time, unstoppably, like grim clockwork.
Death... it's what's for dinner. Let's face it -- there's no true art without death. Without death, it's all just comedy, or pornography. So it stands to reason that mortality is no enemy to be feared!
Rather it is only when we avoid her, forget what we're running from, that she has to come looking for us. Observe the lower right hand of Kali, indicating 'no fear' or 'welcome' or 'how ya like me now?" or "Ta Da!" or "Look Ma, there is no permanence in life or death." Below the severed head, a nice pie.
Instead of letting this existential dread wash away our current ego like a snake shedding its skin, it's like that snakeskin (ego/fear) convinces us it would be a much better idea to block all that mortal terror out, veil it in curtains and movie posters, sex gossip, political debate, petty seductions and longing for objects. Trying to stop the progression of decay in order that this old, dysfunctional skin might stay in place around you, sooner or later there are so many curtains and covers and objects and seductions over the face of our own mortality that we can't see it at all, and so we feel cut off.... now we can't remember where it is, so we're afraid to remove even one curtain, lest that be the door with the tiger behind it; then we forget what we were even covering up in the first place and our now rotting snakeskin cover has gone rogue on us, using our own serpent venom against us the moment we so much as rub up against a tree. Trapped, we obey the old skin ego's edict to pay no attention to it, and instead blame people around us for letting us down, spouses for holding us back, parents for holding us up when we're trying to get, you know, moving!
But it's impossible to slither anymore, that skin is so fragile by now any forward slither and it starts to disintegrate. So you slowly die of starvation, the snakeskin like a cancer that kills you rather than surrenders control.
It's like when you're looking for your keys and a part of you thinks it might be in a big clump of crap way down under your desk, tangled like Jack Torrance searching for an exit in the Shining maze of computer wires. You don't want to bend mighty low, get your hands dirty, confront the extent of the mess you've stashed below knee level, so you search any place--at eye level--getting madder and madder at not finding them and then finally you bend on down and reach into the dirt.
And there the keys are.
Always, deep in the dirtiest of your hidden corners, buried under rocks of crap, and now you have FOUND THEM.
Ganesha! Saint Anthony! George Bailey! Hazel Court! Scrooge! Finding that sense of oceanic bliss means reaching down in the dust under the desk: you gotta get low. You can't buy your way in, can't just look where it's convenient, and you can't possibly be too poor. No Tim is too tiny for the open heart. Make yourself poor and wretched and your old snakeskin has no power to stop you from the big shed. Preferring not to be associated with such a loser, your ego, your old skin, slides off like a shallow supermodel from your table when she realizes you're all out of coke. And you're free. The new skin is glorious, it's barely attached to a 'you' at all.
|Mystery Cave initiation in The Magic Flute (Bergman's)|
Thankfully, Dickens lets us know this was not the case, noting that through the end of his days Scrooge 'kept Christmas well.' May we all be so lucky, and shed last year's egoic skin before it poisons so much as a hair on our dog bodies.