Writing Right with Dmitri: Christmas Resistance

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Christmas Resistance

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First off, there's this thing called 'resistant reading'. It's where you're reading, say, Jane Eyre, but instead of thinking about the romance, you're picking out signs of class markers in the way the characters interact. Often, it's our way of getting something new out of something old.

I thought of this last Sunday during the excellent sermon. The pastor rather shocked the congregation by taking as his text the lyrics to Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. He made a good point, though: for many, the whole season is a jumble between a story that took place a long time ago in a land far, far away and that Mithras clone in the red suit and Phrygian cap. Besides inspiring this week's Post Quiz, the pastor's words led me to talk to you about resistance in your reading of seasonal cues.

The boys of the NYPD choir

Were singing 'Galway Bay'

And the bells are ringing

Out for Christmas day.

The Pogues, Fairytale in New York

This is a very popular song, and I like it, too. What makes it memorable? The Pogues, bless 'em, resisted the temptation – if there ever was one – to go all gooey and smarmy during the holiday season. They brought their brand of gritty musical critique to bear on the contrast between hope and reality. The message strikes a chord with all of us: what's wrong with this picture?

…for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo

Rilke wrote a poem about a broken piece of statuary in a museum. He noted that we could no longer see the head or limbs, but the torso alone was so perfect that it still spoke to us after all these years. The poet noted something else: although we think of ourselves as the observers here, in this case, the work of art is gazing at us, and not the other way around. And it's telling us that we need to change our lives. Powerful stuff.

Why do we experience cognitive dissonance when we listen to cheap Christmas music? Because a life-changing message has got watered down to the seasonal chant of, 'I want to be cozy, warm, and full of hot liquor. I want to be 'festive'. And above all, I want stuff.'

Er, what was the original message?

Rejoice, rejoice,

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

In other words, things need to change for the better. Which is rather a far cry from, 'I really wanted that X-Box.'

So how do you express this? It's up to you. You can be satirical, or scornful, or write a song about Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. You can, like O Henry, tell the story about the poor young couple who gave up their most prized possessions to please one another. You can try setting a science fiction story at Christmas – or create an analogue to show what you mean. There are many approaches. Do what works for you.

Don't be afraid that someone will take it amiss when you don't follow the seasonal, or party line. Somebody will get it, and be grateful.

A university instructor I knew lived in an apartment house near the campus in Pittsburgh. At the English department's holiday party, a colleague – Jewish, like my friend – said, 'Oh Lois, you live in Squirrel Hill [an affluent neighbourhood], you can drive me home.'

To which Lois quipped, 'No, I don't. I don't have to live in the ghetto.'

Now, that's resistant reading.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

14.12.15 Front Page

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