A Dickens of a Christmas

We Bob Cratchetts totter on our stools as we read of recent Wall Street shenanigans that have carried grand larceny to new heights. Not that the follies of financial wizards provide us with simply a spectator sport, given the ravages wrought on our retirement accounts. Worse, we are willing accomplices in a greedy culture where money is the ultimate end. Well, Bob worked for Scrooge.

Money is a funny thing. To say that one does not understand it is no idle boast. The politicians who are scattering billions – or is it trillions? – about seem equally in the dark about what it is that they are fixing. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is not exactly a principle of natural law, but surely you cannot fix something you do not understand.

Buying shares in companies producing something worthwhile, thus providing the money necessary for its prospering is surely the bottom floor of what it is called capitalism. Recent events have brought down the storied house of cards that is built upon that simple base.

The manipulation of money at second or third remove makes money itself the product and aim of the activity. The only thing the wheelers and dealers we are reading about make is money. Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day gives us a glimpse of the Chicago commodities market where city slickers buy and sell futures in crops to be grown by rustics they will never meet. I am not sure just what it was that Scrooge did, but Dickens makes it clear that the goal was money.

Balzac’s The Human Comedy – in which so few people laugh – is full of misers. Think of Grandet running his gold through his fingers in the stereotypical way. On his death bed, presented with a silver crucifix to kiss, Goriot lunges at the precious metal, precipitating his death. A final attack indeed.

When St. Thomas Aquinas considers the various candidates for the ultimate purpose of human life — pleasure, fame, wealth – rejecting them one by one as unworthy of being our overall good, he concludes with a remark that has always struck me, a kind of existential argument: It is by having such things that one learns that they cannot assuage the restless human heart.

Bob Crachett knows this by what might be called the via negativa. Scrooge learns that this is so and if the alternative to greed degenerates into sentimentality, Dickens could rely on the residual Christianity of his readers to supply what is left implicit. In the case of Dombey, Dickens made the alternative to endless acquisition of wealth explicit to the point of preaching.

William Dempsey’s Project Sycamore monitors activities at his alma mater, Notre Dame. Several members of the university’s governing board are heads of companies whose activities are, to put it gently, at odds with Notre Dame’s stated mission. The CEO of Hearst, whose Cosmopolitan led the shift of the ladies magazines into the realm of soft pornography, is on the Notre Dame board. She has been personally involved with the infamous Vagina Monologues from the beginning. Marriot is also represented on the board, the hotel chain that provides pornography for a price in its guest rooms. Dempsey’s queries about these anomalies have been ignored by the university.

I am old enough to remember that, when Hugh Hefner’s daughter spoke to the business school at Notre Dame, surprise was expressed. The explanation was that, whatever one thought of Playboy, the structure of the company provided a profitable model for future businessmen to ponder.

Once too there were student/faculty demonstrations outside the Main Building protesting university investment in South African companies. How quaint that has come to seem. The return on an investment blinds us to what we are investing in.

To suggest that there is a silver lining to this cloud may seem to adopt a precious metals view of things, but you will know what I mean.

It is salutary to realize that we are caught up in a social and economic complex over which we have little or no control. One reaction, not recommended, is to feel morose delectation at the way Bernie made off with all those millions from the gullible plutocrats who invested in his ponzi scheme. Ego atque in Arcadia. Who of us is without sin, untouched by greed?

Pope Benedict XVI, during these dark days, has called attention to certain home truths about money. He sounds like the psalmist chiding those who mindlessly amass wealth they cannot take with them when they go. It is where we are going and how we can get there that is brought home to us when the evanescence of money is once more demonstrated.

Advent may have been reduced to the ticking off of the shopping days left until Christmas. but the liturgy protects us from that trivialization of the season.

So let’s hear it for the converted Scrooge. God bless us everyone.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.