106: Getting and Spending (One)

‘Tis the season, folks! (But then, if you think about it, ’tis always the season!)

Prologue

It was Christmastime. Indeed, it was the eve of the great holiday. Scrooge was in his meagerly-furnished flat, sitting before his meagerly-furnished fire, having just finished his meagerly-filled bowl of gruel. He was musing over his clerk, the irksome Bob Cratchit, who, just an hour or two earlier, had asked, in his usual fawning way, if “Mr. Scrooge might be so kind as to give me the following day, Christmas, off, so that I might  spend it with my family”” After berating the fellow for attempting to pick his pocket every 25th of December, reluctantly, Scrooge had acquiesced, telling his clerk in no uncertain terms that, if he knew what was good for him, he would be at work the day following the humbug Christmas supremely early. To the offer and order, of course, Cratchit had agreed with alacrity, thanking his employer profusely, after which, fearing that his superlatively generous employer might change his mind, he speedily donned his hat, coat, and scarf, and made his bowing way out the front door of “Scrooge and Marley, Money Lenders” into the darkening, besmogged London street.

The ridiculousness of Cratchit’s obsequious exit prompted Scrooge’s thoughts to migrate from the bothersome clerk to his former partner, Marley. Marley was dead. There was no doubt about that. Some years now. Seven, Scrooge thought. Sometimes he missed him. Usually, he didn’t. At this thought, his face fell, as he recalled that, as he entered his building just a half hour prior, in a most disquieting way, Marley’s face, dead and rather grotesquely arranged he thought, had appeared on his doorknob just as he had reached for it. Astonished and unneverved, Scrooge had been relieved when, a few moments later, the face vanished. Somewhat relieved by the vanishing, he had proceeded to climb the stairs to his chambers, attempting, as he mounted, to put–not completely successfully–the strange image out of his mind.

Now, just as these unwelcome thoughts seemed to be beginning to make their way toward the exit of his mind, he heard a terrible noise. Reaching the top of the stairs a half hour before, he had triple-locked his flat door, just in case “Marley” had been something other than a bit of badly digested cheese lingering from his meager lunch. The awful noise (it was really more like a wail!) went on. Then something much more frightening was added to it, a sound like that made by heavy boots, boots that were inexorably making their way toward his door! Within the minute, the boot sounds ceased, as though someone on the other side of the door was deciding what to do next. Scrooge was very glad of his triple-locking.

Seconds later Marley came through the door, his spectral image chained head to foot, and weighed down by what were clearly a series of strong boxes. He was covered in a chaos of bandages. Glancing about, the phantom quickly located his still-breathing partner quivering in a chair by the little fire, and started toward him, his wail and the horrifying noises from the chains and boots resuming as he did so. Wide-eyed and clearly beyond what we wish to convey when we use the word “terror,” Scrooge watched, affixed in his chair as if fastened there by the strongest glue.

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“Man of worldly mind!” said the Ghost as he reached the hearth, his voice rasping and harsh. “Do do you believe in me?”

“I do!” replied Scrooge, his own voice shattering. “For here you are in front of me. You are the frightening spectre of my old partner, Jacob Marley. Oh! Oh! But tell me, phantom, why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

The creature replied: “It is required of every man, after he had drawn his last breath, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen and travel far and wide. If that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — to witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth and turned to happiness!” (Here the spirit raised his pleading arms toward the ceiling in despair, and wailed again.)

“But you are fettered, Jacob” said Scrooge, shaking. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it, link by link, and yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” Scrooge trembled the more.

“Or would you rather know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was fully as heavy and as long as mine seven Christmas Eves ago when I expired. You have labored on it ever since. It is a ponderous chain!”

“But, Jacob,” Scrooge offered, trying to find some way to mitigate the accusation. “You were always a good man of business!”

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands and wailing again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business! Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843; excerpt from Stave One; the passage in brown is quoted, more rather than less verbatim from the original text (for Ruskin’s enduring admiration for Dickens and his work, see Post 58).

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Afterwords

After learning of the Fairbanks’ sudden departure from Michael, the Union Inn’s desk clear, a departure occasioned by the collapse of a second after-dinner conversation with the couple from Bradford within a week (Posts 103 and 104), Ruskin, still standing in the reception area, began to think through what the disastrous discussions had taught him. Moments later, as they had arranged last night before going to their rooms, his American friend, W. J. Stillman appeared, and the pair went into the dining room for breakfast. At which, the negative residues of the previous night’s arguments still much in their minds, both averred that the whole affair had gone terribly awry. Ruskin said that, in truth, the debacle was entirely his fault. The last thing on his mind last evening, given the unpleasant end of his chance meeting with the Fairbanks at the Hotel du Mont Blanc in St. Martin’s some days before, had been to say anything which might rankle them, particularly Mr. Fairbank. Mrs. Fairbank had been looking forward so much to her days in Chamouni under his guidance! But now there was no help for it. The couple was gone, and, by this point, were far down the valley on their way back to Geneva. What had happened, happened. Although he was sincerely sorry, he regretted nothing he had said to Fairbank.

Robert arrived with the second cup of coffee. Stillman refused it, telling the waiter and his friend that, the day already looking lovely, he had in mind a glorious view of the Aiguille Dru which he very much wanted to paint, adding that–as Ruskin knew full well!–if he was to get the day’s best light, he must begin the climb to Montanvers immediately. He would be off. Then, he was.

For another quarter-hour, Ruskin sat musing. Then, rising, asked Robert if it would be possible to have a pot of coffee brought to his room. Of course! It would done immediately. Five minutes later he was in the room. Five minutes after that, the coffee, its attending cup, saucer, mike, sugar, and spoon were on his writing desk, the desk which sat directly beneath the window that opened on a beautiful and commanding view of the Glacier des Bossons as it made its incremental way down from Mont Blanc and its surrounding summits thousands of feet above.

He sat at the desk, opened a drawer on the right hand side, and removed a number of the blue-lined sheets of foolscap he used for composing. Then, thinking intently on the points he had made the previous night and on the points he had made previously in St. Martin’s those few nights before, and of the Bradford brickmaker’s angry reaction to them all, he wrote what follows next. What it was essential to communicate to his approaching readers, he knew, was to convince them that what they, like Fairbank, took to be true and axiomatic was neither. Money making and spending were not, as they thought, merely matters of exchange where one either gained or lost cash. They were, eternally, moral matters, transactions which either created or annulled the possibilities of life–for good or ill. As he wrote, he knew that the paragraphs would become an essential part of one of his essays on political economy which, before the week was out, he would begin posting to William Makepeace Thackeray, the editor of The Cornhill Magazine in London. The essays, Thackeray had told him, would begin printing by the first of August.

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The Veins of Wealth

What is really desired under the name of riches is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labor of servant, tradesman, and artist; in its wider sense, the authority to direct large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person).

This power of wealth is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised and in inverse proportion to the number of persons who are as rich as ourselves, and who are ready to give the same price for an article of which the supply is limited. If the musician is poor, he will sing for small pay as long as there is only one person who can pay him. But if there be two or three, he will sing for the one who offers him most. And thus the power of the riches of the patron, depends, first, on the poverty of the artist, and then on the limitation of the number of equally wealthy persons who also want seats at the concert. So that the art of becoming rich in the common sense is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating  money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less. In accurate terms, it is the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favor.

Now, the establishment of such inequality cannot be shown in the abstract to be either advantageous or disadvantageous to the body of the nation. The rash and absurd assumption that such inequalities are necessarily advantageous lies at the root of most of the popular fallacies on the subject of political economy. For the eternal and inevitable law in this matter is that the beneficialness of the inequality depends, first, on the methods by which it was accomplished, and, secondly, on the purposes to which it is applied. Inequalities of wealth, unjustly established, have assuredly injured the nation in which they exist during their establishment, and, unjustly directed, injure it yet more during their existence. But inequalities of wealth, justly established, benefit the nation in the course of their establishment; and, nobly used, aid it yet more by their existence.

That is to say that, among every active and well-governed people, the various strengths of individuals, tested by full exertion and specially applied to various needs, issues in unequal, but harmonious results, receiving reward or authority according to its class and service, while, in the inactive or ill-governed nation, the gradations of decay and the victories of treason work out also their own rugged system of subjection and success, and substitute, for the melodious inequalities of concurrent power, the iniquitous dominances and depressions of guilt and misfortune.

Thus, the circulation of wealth in a nation resembles that of the blood in the natural body. There is one quickness of the current which comes of cheerful emotion or wholesome exercise, and another which comes of shame or of fever. There is a flush of the body which is full of warmth and life, and another which will pass into putrefaction. The analogy will hold down even to minute particulars. For, as diseased local determination of the blood involves depression of the general health of the system, all morbid local action of riches will be found ultimately to involve a weakening of the resources of the body politic…

to be continued…

Until which time: be well out there, as this year’s version of the holiday season continues to make, I trust, its unMarley-like, approach.

Jim

P.S.: The paragraph italicized has not been given this designation because it is the most important in the series but because I will return to a detailed discussion of it and its implications in the next post.

 

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