By Guest Writer: David Van Huff
In passing, I met a hypothetical man some years back who laid claim to a tale within a tale, which has forever changed the way I think about a classic story from the past. For those of you who have heard the story the A Christmas Carol (Dickens, 1843) once, I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times again with little or no concern. True, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) has crafted a near magical piece of literature within the cover of this epic book; however, we now live in a culture that commercially assaults its inhabitants, all the while, converting timeless words, into mere recycled words for hire. Timeless words! My friend in passing talked of these often, and his story to tell seemed much the same.
Gil, he claimed, the name they gave him, told a different story altogether of Mr. Scrooge. Gil talked of a man he met in Paris near the end of WWI who went by the name Emile Durkheim. The famous sociologist, I asked! Yes, Gil replied, but I certainly didn’t know him from Adam at the time. Turns out, Gil frequented the University Library while in Paris, and it was there, while quietly reading a borrowed copy of A Christmas Carol, where he made acquaintance with Mr. Durkheim. “Right away, Mr. Durkheim took notice of my choice of reading, and he didn’t hesitate to offer additional education on my chosen text”, Gil injected. The main character, “Mr. Scrooge”, Durkheim said, has inherited a dual consciousness, just like the rest of humanity; that’s the real story. He softly claimed.
Perhaps I should just let Gil tell the story from here on out: Without a doubt, Mr. Durkheim was the smartest man I ever met. What he said that day about A Christmas Carol, I’ll not soon forget. A tale within a tale is what he told, the same tale I tell you. Mr. Durkheim confirmed that all the characters were the same, Tiny Tim, Bob Crotchet, Marley, the other ghost’s, and of course, Mr. Scrooge. However, from that point, Mr. Durkheim started to say things I barely understood. He said I would have to know more about humanity before he could continue with the tale, and this is what he said: “First of all, there is the ontological explanation for which Plato gave the formula. Man is double because two worlds meet in him: that of non-intelligent and amoral matter, on the one hand, and that of ideas, the spirit, and the good on the other. Because these two worlds are naturally opposed, they struggle within us; and, because we are part of both, we are necessarily in conflict with ourselves” (Durkheim.pg. 157).
Somehow, what he said made sense. It’s not that I fully understood Mr. Durkheim’s philosophy lesson, but it was more the way he said it, with such certainty and conviction that convinced me. After my first lesson, he quickly got back to Mr. Scrooge. Mr. Durkheim said that Mr. Scrooge was a perfect example of someone who had lost contact with his moral self, leaving him a complete and total expression of his lessor, “non-intelligent, amoral” self. Outwardly, in A Christmas Carol, we know this lessor man as Ebenezer Scrooge, Durkheim confirmed. As the story begins, he was a man welded and embittered to the ideas of self, and self alone. I was amazed how quickly Mr. Durkheim’s tale within a tale had developed, and just then, at that very moment, I felt that Mr. Durkheim had somehow reached deep inside me with the same message he used to describe Mr. Scrooge. Was there somehow a little Mr. Scrooge in me as-well, I thought, and who really was this Mr. Durkheim anyway? For a moment, I started thinking Mr. Durkheim was my ghost of Christmas Past. Thankfully, Mr. Durkheim was willing to continue the story, because I was all ears at this point.
By now, Mr. Durkheim had somehow convinced me that a ghost from Christmas past was not a completely unrealistic concept. Mr. Durkheim, still very determined to tell this deeper version of the story, asked to see my book. He said that Scrooge’s character transitions throughout the book, further confirms his theory of a dual-human nature. Listen, Mr. Durkheim said, as Scrooge himself reveals his engagement with the ignorant side of humanity: “ If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge, indignantly, ‘ every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”(Dickens.pg 4) Notice, Mr. Durkheim said, there is not a speck of morality available within this comment, however, he continued, this does not mean that morality is absent from within the man: “To say that we are double because there are two contrary forces in us is to repeat the problem in different terms; it does not resolve it. It is still necessary to explain their opposition” (Durkheim.pg. 157). It would be years before I really started to understand Mr. Durkheim’s story in earnest, however, I continued to listen intently in the moment.
Of course, I had questions for Mr. Durkheim. One, in particular, was who told him this tale within a tale? Also, why didn’t Charles Dickens seize the opportunity to further enlighten humanity within the pages of his own book? I never asked Mr. Durkheim these or any of my other questions, but merely welled in anticipation for him to continue. Struggle, conflict and opposition, are not words I use lightly in describing this ever-present inner battle within all of us, Mr. Durkheim said; and I believe Mr. Scrooge would agree, as “ He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears” (Dickens.pg 79). I pondered my own inner battles, as Mr. Durkheim confirmed the dual-nature of humanity within just a few short moments.
At this point, I could actually anticipate where Mr. Durkheim might go next with the story, and I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts on Tiny Tim. However, I didn’t ask him, and he didn’t offer. He never did mention Tiny Tim, or Bob Cratchit, and for years I wondered why? Reason being, as I presumed much later, Mr. Durkheim was passionate about teaching, and the teachable moment resided in Scrooge; literally, within Scrooge, the man. “It was not without reason, therefore, that man feels himself to be double: he actually is double. There are two classes of states of consciousness that differ from the other in origin and nature, and in the end towards which they aim” (Durkheim.pg.161) Mr. Durkheim said with confidence. I started to connect further with Mr. Durkheim as the story progressed, and I realized that Mr. Scrooge’s dual-nature would complete a full direction shift within the confines of a 30 minute engagement with Mr. Durkheim. In other words, whichever inner-nature laid hold of Mr. Scrooge, (or any of us, for that matter) that would be the direction of his or her “aim” in life.
A fully transitional, dual-nature experience, from amoral to moral would reveal a striking contrast of character, Mr. Durkheim confirmed. Still grasping my book, he reads on: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angle, I am as merry as a school boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all in the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!” (Dickens.pg.79) No need for deliberation, the jury in my head had long ago settled the case. Mr. Durkheim was right on all counts. I actually found life easier after my talk with Mr. Durkheim on that dreary post war day in Paris. In many ways, there is a degree of peace available as one further understands the inner battles that lie within us all.
I never saw Mr. Durkheim again, and he simply handed me back my book, offered me “Good day” and blended off into the hurried University crowd. Had his story been an essay, he would have gotten high marks for execution, content, and his uncontended theses. Simply stated, that: “The main Character, Mr. Scrooge, had inherited a dual consciousness; just like the rest of humanity” (Assumed Durkheim) To this day, I have never met a man who could make a statement like that and back it up in such perfect order; proving throughout the discussion, the overwhelming evidence of a dual-natured humanity. The story Mr. Durkheim told me, the tale within a tale, is the same tale I tell you! Guard this story with your life, because there is much timeless wisdom and truth woven into “The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge”.
The Tale Within the Tale—David van Huff’s Durkheim Essay.
By Tony Waters
This is reference letter season—I’m cranking out letter after letter in the hopes that my students will make it into grad school somewhere and somehow. On many of the forms is the nonsensical question that goes something like this: “Given all the students that you have taught, where does this student rank in overall quality?” Such a question leads to data which is neither reliable nor valid, but for some reason big universities like to ask it, and I continue to check the best boxes I think I can get away with.
This brings up the essay above which is by David van Huff. This is the first student paper I’ve ever posted to Ethngoraphy.com. So does it mean it is the best ever? I don’t know, but maybe so. In any event, I learned something from his paper about the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, and the novelist Charles Dickens.
Having said that, David really did not follow the letter of the prompt I provided the students—but whatever. I think he also flunked one of my exams. And that is also a “whatever.” The bottom line is that I learned something from him about a subject I’ve been teaching for ten years!! And isn’t that the best measure of a promising student? UC Berkeley and Harvard do you hear me? David van Huff is your guy, even if he didn’t apply!