Honey Ponders Karl Marx And Charles Dickens

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February 20, 2010 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

[This essay introduces Boryanabooks contributing writer Honey van Blossom. Honey is a former Marxist Belgian striptease artiste who writes from a tower on one of the Silver Lake hills, which she shares with her husband the Baron von Munchausen.]

Over the winter break, I took my eleven-year old grandson Ethan Allen to the movies and we saw Jim Carrey’s voice and eyes assemble an animated Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

I hadn’t read the novella since I was Ethan’s age, when I thought the story was a fable about a hard-hearted stingy man transformed by hallucinations into a kindly gentleman who becomes a second father to Tiny Tim.

In this winter’s film of A Christmas Carol, images of the city’s impoverished people, social injustice, coldness, death and the miserable ghost Marley chained to his boxes of money contrast with memories of an innocent English countryside from a kinder past, when Scrooge was a young man, and with the beaming and fat wealthy man who is an incarnation of charity and philanthropy and with the accepting humility of the underpaid Bob Cratchit and his family.

Richard Lehan, in The City in Literature (University of California Press, 1998), points out that Dickens indicted the commercial city with its emphasis on money. What Professor Lehan does not remark, however, is that Dickens does not call for the end of those brutal Capitalistic relationships.

Scrooge’s life spans the Big Bang of the Industrial Revolution to the unknown date of his death. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, in the same year that Karl Marx wrote On the Jewish Question, which probably reflects Marx’s early struggle with his concept of materialism rather than anti-Semitism — that the means of production and economic relationships ultimately determine our consciousness, including our religious ideas.

Marx wrote that scientific socialism would lead to the end of history. In this view, history is ultimately (but not only) determined by changes in economic relationships. Consciousness itself is determined by history. Dickens was a man of his time. He did not, as Marx did, see that his own perceptions were shaped by his time. Dickens does not call for a change in economic relationships but accepts them. He accepts Bob Cratchit’s humility. He doesn’t pose the possibility that Bob Cratchit will join a union or man barricades in a socialist revolution.

The closest parallel in more recent times to what Dickens did in Carol are the New Deal era faux socialistic Preston Sturgess movies like Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and the Gregory La Cava screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (1936).

In Sullivan’s Travels, a film writer famous for comedy (acted by Joel McCrea), famous for his work, “Ants in his Pants,” decides to write a serious novel and goes out dressed as a hobo and sees what the real world is like for poor people in America. He ends up imprisoned for his own murder. In jail, he sees a comedy, and all of the terribly unhappy and unjustly imprisoned men laugh. After his photograph appears in the newspaper, the writer’s agent finds him, and Sullivan decides that the solution to the Great Depression’s suffering is to write more comedy.

In My Man Godfrey, in the depths of the Depression, a party game brings dizzy socialite Irene Bullock (played by Carole Lombard) to a Hooverville hobo encampment where she meets Godfrey, a derelict, and she hires him as family butler and falls in love with him. At first, the movie appears to challenge the Bullock family’s extreme privilege and to exalt the common man’s ““ Godfrey’s ““ stoicism and intelligence. Godfrey, however, is secretly also a member of the Upper Class and wealthy, so he is not an underdog, and the film ends up suggesting just about the opposite of what it seemed to mean at its beginning; that is, the film means that the class system produces some fine people.

Scrooge’s redemption is a parable about individualistic and paternalistic moral conscience and individual action, which Dickens calls on as a remedy to Capitalism’s cruel consequences. In our Great Depression, popular films (with the possible exception of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) also supported the status quo.

Both A Christmas Carol and the faux socialistic films underscore Marx’s understanding that our consciousness is ultimately determined by our economic relationships. Popular writers and filmmakers don’t look to change those relationships because they are part of them.


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