The New York transit strike is over, the buses buzz and cough again outside our windows, and we seem likely to get in two full days of shopping after three of mere sporadic consumption, a thing my wife disapproves of. Last night we took the children to see The Nutcracker
as we do every year, and I enjoyed it greatly as I always do ? no matter how many times one sees it, the music is beautiful. But I am still struck uneasily, as I have been for the last few years of performance, by how much tragic foreboding there is implicit in it. The two civilizations that came together to produce it, after all ? the German romantic civilization that E. T. A. Hoffman
came from, and the Russian one that Tchaikovsky
celebrated ? would both in the next century know catastrophes that would be unique in human history, if the other one wasn't arguably worse.
And one sees, in the first act of The Nutcracker, offered as play, the original source of the disasters: the small boys in late 19th century Russian house all march as make believe soldiers in mock-drill, and everyone is delighted to watch them. It puts one inescapably in mind of John Keegan's point that it was the mass militarization of civilian culture in the late nineteenth century ? that cultural change that had monarchs out of their court robes and into military uniforms, complete with medals ? that was the entirely new thing of the time, and led directly to the catastrophe of the First World War. The boys in the Nutcracker house are in training for a war whose extent and destructive force that they don't yet conceive. Watching the children play at war beneath the Christmas Tree, I can't help but recall how easily liberal civilizations have been driven to suicide in the recent past ? and turn of the century Russia was, as Nabokov never tired of explaining to Edmund Wilson, if not yet a liberal civilization at least one with many hopeful signs of becoming one ? by an infatuation with war and a fear of national humiliation. What awaits our own Nutcracker house is unknown, but the suicidal impulses are there every morning on the front page.
My brother Blake, to retain the family note of hyper-texting, who is the art critic at the Washington Post, last year wrote a cheering commentary in favor of using "Merry Christmas" in place of "Happy Holidays," even if one was not a Christian, on the sound grounds that Christmas is an ancient pagan holiday in origin, nicely hyper-linked to the lovely nativity story in Luke, which even orthodox Christians agree was a late add-on to the gospels, and so belongs already to the realm of pleasing fiction. (There could never have been a census that required everyone to go back to their native towns, because the chaos it would have created in the Roman Empire would have been even worse than a New York city transit strike.) Two days ago, after weighing the ups and downs of C. S. Lewis in a very good radio discussion with, among many shining others, E. J. Dionne, I said to our hostess at the end, "Merry Christmas" ? meaning it both as an act of conciliation to the ghost of Lewis, an act of greeting to my brother, who lives there in D.C., and as a mildly rebellious act of annexation, a hyper-linked greeting to the many faces of the season.
But what we mean by "Merry Christmas" is complex enough and, in its way, rich enough to take one last moment of long-winded bloggy reflection. It would be fatuous to pretend that the holiday is somehow free of Christian content just because we want it to be ? symbolism may be complex but it is never without content ? and equally fatuous to look past both the sincere, well, passion of the Christian believers who claim the day, and the long history of persecution of the non-believers, who annex it. One can make up a holiday, but one can't just make up a holiday. (One recalls Phillip Roth's narrator's exquisitely rendered unease in Letting Go about Christmas, and his compensatory love of Thanksgiving, which carried over into Portnoy's Complaint.)
Certainly, one couldn't celebrate Christmas in France without being aware of it as first of all a religious and even tragic holiday ? listen to William Christie's rendering of Charpentier's Christmas music ? with Easter just off in the wings. Certainly, I began the story of The King In The Window on Epiphany in Paris, recognizing the sacred nature of the date, and yet in another way secularizing it, making the ascension of a young boy to the role of one of the three Kings into the motif of an adventure, though one with a serious purpose: Oliver really does become a King, by accident, and has to learn how to be one after he already is one.
I used, or re-used, knowingly and I hope lightly, Christian myth throughout ? a key scene takes place in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris ? rather I would say as Lewis reused pagan myth for his own Christian purposes. (Narnia after all, is guarded by a banished faun.) The moral of the book is an Enlightenment moral ? thinking is better than trusting to your unconscious ? but the imagery of the book is, often and unashamedly, Medieval and even mystic.
I wonder if this blending of myth ? in which Christians have always participated as much as pagans ever did ? is not some violation of our idea of the sacred, but just what we mean by the sacred: our own set of necessary images worked out as a story whose meaning we may scarcely know. There seems something rococo, needless and rather arrogant about inventing another holiday to celebrate, or being too hesitant about this holiday's religious weight. The core symbolism of Christmas, after all, is almost a treasury of all the symbols and beliefs that are inextinguishable from any human heart, that are in fact, inextinguishable because they take as a subject the idea of the inextinguishable: light in darkness, birth and hope in hardship, the certainty of spring in a bleak midwinter. These feelings are tied so deeply to the rhythm of the season, and to the rhythms of human existence, that to render them up as mere ornament seems as inadequate to their measure, as taking them on entirely as dogma seems insulting to their universality. The force of the holiday is that oppression can produce new births, that a light can go on in the middle of darkness. God, or Darwin, or whomever you please, knows that we need that faith at this moment as much as we, or any other audience, ever has.
Having disposed of that, my eleven year old enters and says, "Dad, why is Communism bad in practice if it works in theory?" I take a deep breath and, self-intoxicated, begin another sapient editorial: "Well, you see, Luke..."
"I don't really need to know, Dad, like, the deep reasons," he says quickly, sensing what's coming. "It's just strategy for the Civilization game I'm playing on my computer. You have to choose between democracy, communism, or Christianity when you're setting it up."
"Oh; well, in that case, take democracy," I say. "And have everyone in your democracy say 'Merry Christmas' to everyone else, just in case," I add, and head for the buses and the shops.
And Merry Christmas to you all, too.