by Dr. Alvin Burstein
The approach of Christmas stirs up memories—and a wish. Some of the memories reflect my confusions about the holidays as a child.
Both my parents were Russian immigrants. Mother was an observant Jew. Although my father had spiritual interests reflected in his Masonic studies, he did not follow Jewish religious practices. He sold Christmas trees in the Mom and Pop grocery he ran with my mother. More-over, he donated trees to our public school classroom, and erected one in our home–no doubt provoking Russian language conversations with his wife indecipherable by us children.
And I recall a second grade experience of being excused from participating in singing a Christmas carol with the rest of my classmates. I wanted to sing, too, but I understood the exclusion to be an expression of our teacher’s sensitivity to religious difference. That motivated me to hide both my disappointment my curiosity about the meaning of the mysterious term “ronyon virgin.”
Those memories, and the imbedded feelings, may have contributed to the wish to re-read Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, and my viewing a couple of film versions of that tale.
The 1830 story is a classic, demonstrated by its having spawned at least eight film versions and by the tale and its reincarnations continuing to shape our views and feelings about the holiday. Of the many film adaptations, I looked at two: the first a re-mastered 1935 version staring Alistair Sim, the second a 2009 3-D Walt Disney/ImageMovers’ effort.
The power of the tale lies in its being a story of a redemption, one that depends on the recapturing of Scrooge’s forgotten past, the curative effect of which is at the heart of psychodynamic therapies. The pathogenic node of Scrooge’s forgotten past is the terror of parental rejection, a potential theme that accounts for the popularity of the classic tales of abandonment and adoption from Bambi and Orphan Annie to Harry Potter.
The Dickens story starkly contrasts happy families, the Fezziwigs, that of Scrooge’s nephew and the Cratchits, with the lonely Scrooge, abandoned as a school child. That theme is deepened by the climactic adoption of a resurrected Tiny Tim by the healed Scrooge.
Though his story antedates Freudian theories of psychosexual orality, the link between being loved and being fed is manifested in Dickens’ emphasis on opulent feasts for the fortunate and deprivation and hunger for the wretched, and his depiction of Scrooge as having two selves, a mean, calculating, unloving self, and a disowned emotional one. That in his redemption the second replaces the first rather than being integrated with it may be a flaw, psycho-dynamically speaking. That might account for a manic element in Scrooge’s “recovery:” his ebullience, his hyper-activity and his showering of money on others. Here is an illustrative excerpt from Dickens:
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath and making a perfect Laocöon of himself with his stocking. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as and angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas everybody. A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoops! Hallo!”
It may be over-pathologizing to raise a question about the durability of such an excess. On the other hand, it may be Dickens’ contribution to our contemporary demand for unmitigated happiness during this holiday, a demand that opens the door to disappointment and holiday depression.
A final comment specific to the DVDs: Both are very close to the Dickens text in the sense of using much of the dialogue from the original. The Walt Disney version is stunning in its visual effects, actually overindulging by stressing the terror of falling and eeriness, thus distracting from the more psychological issue of deprivation. It begins with a prequel in which Scrooge takes the coins from the eyes of Marley’s corpse, sniggering “Tuppence,” a scene that highlights his avarice in way that many children would find upsetting. Scrooge’s animated cartoon presentation, scrawny and desiccated, underlines his emotional starvation but lends him and the other Disney characters a one dimensional quality.
Paradoxically, Sims’ 1935 black and white Scrooge, though more dated, is more real, making it easier to empathize with his pain. In fact, this version elaborates Scrooge’s abandonment by attributing it to his mother’s having died in childbirth. Because Sims’ Scrooge is more real, this version is the one I prefer.
[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]