Here's something from an old blog I wrote about Hamlet:
Consider the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, surely the most famous bit of Shakespeare in the entire canon. Shall I kill myself, Hamlet asks, or not? Suicide would put an end to a whole series of miseries and torments, yes; but death might be worse:Turn to A Christmas Carol (1843), Dickens's wonderful yuletide fable. Hold this story in your heart for its manifest excellencies, for truly it is a moving, thrilling, uplifting little tale. Of course there's more to it than there seems. I've always been rather persuaded by Edmund Wilson's reading of the novel. Scrooge's psychopathology, a long period of gloomy introspetion and withdrawal followed by a short burst of manic energy, running around, generosity—well, it has a name: we call it manic depression and it doesn't bode well for Scrooge's ‘reformation.’ We know how people like this go, and he'll be depressed again (withdrawn, heartless) once the Christmas decorations are taken down.
Who would these Fardles beareBut doesn't it seem strange to you that this Hamlet, opening his heart to the audience via soliloquy in Act 3, should describe death as an undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns, when just a little earlier, in Act 1, this same Hamlet had met the actual ghost of his actual dead father, inarguably a traveller returning from the land of the dead? Maybe Shakespeare temporarily forgot, as he composed this peerless monologue, the larger context of the play in which it occurred (it's even conceivable he wrote this monologue for a completely different project and dropped it in here, figuring that it sort-of fitted, which is why it includes references to generic obnoxiousnesses like ‘the law's delay’ and ‘the insolence of office’ neither of which have any relevance to the situation in which princely Hamlet finds himself). But now we're slipping into the business of making excuses for Shakespeare, and that is surely beneath us.
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of. [Hamlet, 3.1.78-84]
Take it another way. The appearance of the ghost, right at the start of the play, situates Hamlet in a medieval world of supernatural terrors, where this Act 3 speech situates it in the modern world of interiorised anxieties and fears. And the truth of Shakespeare's great drama is that it stands Janus-like facing both the archaic past and the bang up to date. We could put it this way: the appearance of the ghost embodies an aspect of death and grief to which any bereaved person will attest: the way the dead won't lie still, the way they return to us and trouble us, that we can't stop thinking about them, that they make us worry about what we have left undone; where the reference to the country from whose borne no traveller returns articulates a different facet of our experience of death: that it marks an absolute breach with life. The grievous truth that those we love who die are gone forever. The existential abyss we face when we contemplate our own inevitable mortality. Hamlet is a play capacious enough to encompass both of these.
Of course it's true that the last two paragraphs of Carol tell us that Scrooge was true to his word, that he reformed so completely that his name became a byword for generosity, and that Tiny Tim did not die. But I'd argue we can read that as part of Scrooge's projected wish-fulfilment rather than as a coherent element in any meaningful account of his character (his psyche, his subjectivity). Not least since it's contemplating his own mortality that finally tips him over into charity and generosity, and brooding on death is surely more likely to take its place in a depressive than a cheerful mindset. Also if we assume (as we are entitled to do) that Tiny Tim has, as it might be, polio, or perhaps some kind of catastrophic renal collapse, no amount of kindness from a rich moneylender will save his life.
Dickens's story has a number of obvious Hamletian connections. What I'm particularly interested in here is the way A Christmas Carol shares Hamlet's structural ambiguity with respect to death. Think of Stave IV, and the visit of the third ghost. The Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come resembles the grim reaper for the obvious reason that Scrooge's future is: dying, unmourned. This Spirit shows Scrooge various people gleeful at the news that a famously miserly money-lender and stock exchange bigwig has died. They are, obviously, talking about Scrooge; yet Scrooge is absolutely mystified, has no clue who it is these folk are discussing. Though he is a byword for shrewdness and calculation, and though he specifically resolves to get to the bottom of what is happening, he simply cannot plumb this mystery.
Scrooge was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, he set himself to consider what it was likely to be. They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of Jacob, his old partner, for that was Past, and this Ghost’s province was the Future. Nor could he think of any one immediately connected with himself, to whom he could apply them. But nothing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for his own improvement, he resolved to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw; and especially to observe the shadow of himself when it appeared. For he had an expectation that the conduct of his future self would give him the clue he missed, and would render the solution of these riddles easy. [Christmas Carol 4]The Spirit then shows Scrooge his own corpse. Scrooge does not recognise the man: ‘he thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!’ Finally the Spirit shows Scrooge his own grave and gravestone. Only now does Scrooge start, haltingly, towards an understanding of what every reader guessed as soon as the chapter opened, the Bleeding Obvious: in the churchyard, ‘here, then; the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place.’ Not until it is written out, in graven letters, does the identity that Scrooge's consciousness has been avoiding come home to him.
There is, arguably, a simple explanation for all of this. Scrooge doesn’t want to confront his own mortality. Sure. People are like that. We like to pretend we won't die. We put our minds elsewhere. The thing is, Scrooge's blindness in this matter rather contradicts the way the Carol starts. Stave 1, after all, is given over to Marley’s Ghost telling Scrooge straight that he is going to die, and soon, and explaining what it will be like afterwards and that therefore mhe ust change his ways. But it only looks inconsistent, this: there is of course a vital difference between thinking about other people dying and thinking about yourself dying. Heidegger’s being-towards-death, this notion that we know we are mortal, has always struck me as, well ... wrong actually. We don’t know we’re mortal, not really. Or: we can erect an intellectual scaffold that resembles knowledge that we are going to die without it actually touching the core of us, the subconscious part that makes up most of us, because that core can’t bear this thought. Shakespeare knew that. Dickens too (tho he was conventionally Anglican and religious in his life). And, to be fair to the old Nazi, so did Heidegger, whose writing is much concerned with the various ways we hide from the authenticity of Being-towards-death in distractions, in ‘movements of temptation, tranquilization, and alienation’. Most of us conclude that Dancing With Fezziwig is preferable to recognising whose dead body that is, whose gravestone. If we truly were to open a window into our heart what we'd be liable to see there is existentially terrifying. ‘Why show me this, if I am past all hope?’ wails Scrooge to the unspeaking Sprit. In saying so he's emphasising hope—he means, in other words, to assure the Spirit that he will reform, become a better person. But this is a question that goes deeper than Scrooge putative nastiness or niceness. It's the question that is the inevitable correlative to our Being-Towards-Death as such. Why show us this, if we are past all hope? And we are, all of us, past all hope where this question of mortality is concerned.
Now you might object that A Christmas Carol offers Scrooge, and therefore us, a way out. The Spirit mutates into a bedpost ‘and the bedpost was his own’:
The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!Hurrah! Still: strive within him looks like a strange way of putting it, we might think. Not trying to bring past, present and future into a harmonious balance? Keeping them, rather, in some mode of conflict? Really? Of course, we are into the manic phase of Scrooge's cycle now, when his apperception turns the very Christmas bells into something strenuously, almost diabolically, discordant (‘the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!’)
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”
And maybe the point is not, actually, Scrooge's reformation. Maybe it's not about him reclaiming his future as a temporality in which he can remake himself, but, on the contrary, him turning his back on future and past both to live in a heightened, raucous present. Perhaps what was so incomprehensible to him about what the Yet-to-Come Spirit was showing him was not that he, Scrooge, would die but rather than he, Scrooge, could be a spectactor to that scene. Death, after all, is not lived-through; we won't be hovering around, spectrally curious, as our bodies are washed and put in our coffin [Wittgenstein: ‘Death is not an event in life. One does not experience death’ (Tractatus §6.4311)]. The uncanniness of those scenes is not that we die, but that in our death we might not die.
I go back to Hamlet's ‘to be or not to be’ speech, a much odder piece of writing than is often realised I think. Hamlet gives himself two options (being, not-being). Which does he go for, in the end? Well clearly he decides to be: not to end his life with the bare bodkin, to eschew suicide and carry on (much as Scrooge resolves to reform his ways and keep Christmas in his heart). But Hamlet arrives at his decision by a curious route. In plain terms he considers life (‘being’) and notes its many agonies (‘the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes’). But then he considers the alternative, death (‘not-being’) and finds that just as bad, or possibly worse. Another way of putting this would be to say, he looks to ‘not-being’ and finds that it is actually just another sort of being, a whole other country. In other words his decision ‘to be’ is arrived at, paradoxically, through a process of rejecting ‘to be’ not once but twice; finding fault with two modes of being and still concluding that he must be. This profound ontological negativity, or perhaps confusion, has important resonance for the play as a whole; a text whose opening is dominated by an entity, the ghost, who is precisely strung ambiguously between being and not-being. Life or death is revealed not only as not a choice, but as not even an opposition. The interminability of living is what sicklies o'er the pale cast of thought. Marley's chains are not so much externalisations of his lifetime's uncharitable acts, as representations of the unavoidability of being as such. Scrooge's mania, during the flashbulb moment of Christmas Carol's final brief chapter, is an attempt to seize nowness at the expense of past and future, prompted by the unchangeability of the former and the inexorable, inescapable nature of the latter. Hammer, clang, clash! Strife at Christmas.
I suppose I'm taking it as axiomatic (you might not, of course, agree with me) that Scrooge starts the story—that Scrooge's Christmas Present is defined by—a state of mind we can usefully call depressed. Anachronistic terminology for the 1840s, but we all know what I'm talking about. Maybe you think he's not depressed, that he's just wicked, selfish and so on. Fair enough. I disagree. The thing about depression, its withdrawal from the world, its thwarted and reverted anger, its curdled fury and hopelessness, is the way it manifests a pathological repudiation of the future as such. The depressed person sees no future, cannot conceive that the despair what s/he feels could ever change, conceptualises his/her relationship to time in terms of ‘what's the point?’ and ‘it's all already over.’ It is certainly possible to be depressed and still function socially, still go to work, interact with friends and family and so on (though, of course, not in any sense to function optimally) not despite but because the profoundly depressed person is in-a-sense dead, dead in the world, living the pared-down barely-alive experiential subsistence. That Scrooge is a miser, and a moneylender, feels right to us in this regard. We understand that life is a process of spending, that it is a distribution, rather than a hoarding or a grasping. We grasp the longstanding metaphysical connection between death and debt, and that this dyad positions the holder of the debt as mortality itself.
And what does Scrooge's future actually hold, in the terms laid out by Dickens text? Two things: incomprehension, and fear. The timor mortis of Scrooge on his knees, weeping in terror at his own graveside, is a pitiable thing indeed. But the moral economy of Carol is that this fear, this suffering, is nothing more than what Scrooge deserves. He has lived a Wrong life, and this is his punishment: mocked and shunned by his fellow men and women, a lonely and miserable death;—despair, having defined his debt-determined, debt-holding life, is here reified into endless non-nonBeing, the enchained self-haunting of Marley.
‘Whence comes,’ Derrida asked in his late-career seminar series, posthumously published as The Death Penalty, ‘this bizarre, bizarre idea, this ancient, archaic idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ His answer involves the argument that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’ [Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty, Volume I (eds Geoffrey Bennington, Marc Crépon, and Thomas Dutoit; transl. Peggy Kamuf (University of Chicago Press, 2014), 152]. Here's Judith Butler ‘On Cruelty’ (is Christmas Carol a cruel book, do you think? Isn't there a spark of jollity-sadism in Dickens's comedy? Even in its happy ending—think of Scrooge's sadistic joke at Cratchett's expense right at the end, making the poor fellow believe that he was about to be sacked and his family rendered destitute: ‘“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again ...’ Hammer, clang, clash! remember):
Debt, in On the Genealogy of Morals, gives Nietzsche a way of understanding how ‘the “consciousness of guilt”, “bad conscience”’ came into the world. Earlier he laments ‘that whole sombre thing called reflection’, in which the self becomes its own object of relentless scrutiny and self-punishment. If one wants to keep a promise, one must burn memory into the will, submit to – or submit oneself to – a reign of terror in the name of morality, administer pain to oneself in order to ensure one’s continuity and calculability through time. If I am to be moral and keep my promises, I will remember what I promised and remain the same ‘I’ who first uttered that promise, resisting any circumstances that might alter its continuity through time, never dozing when wakefulness is needed. The promise takes on another meaning in Nietzsche when what I have promised is precisely to repay a debt, a promise by which I enter into, and become bound by, a certain kind of contract. What I have apparently burned into the will, or had burned there, is a promise to remember and repay that debt, to realise the promise within a calculable period of time, and so to become a calculable creature. I can be counted on to count the time and count up the money to make the repayment: that accountability is the promise. I can count on myself, and others can count on me.Scrooge doesn't give-up being a moneylender, after all. On the contrary, after having been tormented (for our entertainment!) he ends up embodying the painful reification of guilt and terror into debt in a more profound way: he keeps his word (indeed, were told, ‘Scrooge was better than his word’). And by appropriating Tiny Tim's God Bless Us, Every One, Dickens's novella is actually tying together debt and death, suffering and guilt, money and faith into one compact parcel. ‘This would mean, in sum,’ Derrida argues, ‘that what makes us believe, credulous as we are, what makes us believe in an equivalence between crime and punishment, at bottom, is belief itself; it is the fidiuciary phenomenon of credit or faith.’ And with that I bid you all: a very merry Christmas, burned painfully into the will of all and each!