The little Match-girl.

It was New Year’s Eve and dreadfully cold. Down the darkening road, all covered with icy slush, came a young girl, bare headed and bare footed. She had her mother’s slippers when she set off but now they were lost. She staggered along, blue lips beyond shivering, a useless shawl clasped about her thin shoulders with one hand and the matches she’d been trying to sell at the market all day in the other.

Eventually she collapsed into a snow drift beside a fine house, unable to go on. Perhaps if she lit a match she might be warmed a little? So she hesitantly drew one out and struck it against the wall. Whoosh, it suddenly seemed as if she were beside the most wonderful iron stove with brass feet and a bronze ornament on top. She was just about to stretch out her feet when… fizzz, the match expired.

So she struck another. The wall became translucent and upon it she saw the vision of a grand table, groaning with piles of all the most wonderful food. A plump goose, cooked to perfection danced towards her but just as she reached for it,… fizzz, the match went out.

Another, and a great Christmas tree rose up covered with a thousand twinkling lights until they seemed like the stars of heaven, one of which fell….

‘Someone has just died’, thought the girl, for so her late grandmother had taught her.

A final match and there stood Grandmother, more beautiful than she had ever been. ‘Grandmother, take me with you,’ she cried and rubbed all the matches against the wall in a great blaze to help keep Grandmother near….

In the cold dawn, sat the poor child, rosy cheeks and upturned smile, frozen in death.

So what is the story about? Some much needed counterpoint to, ‘they all lived happily ever after.’? Little girl wants to join her grandmother in the afterlife and gets her wish? Cautionary tale for ungrateful brats?

Or is it, dreamlike, offering us a scenario to compensate one sided consciousness? C G Jung had a dream once, of craning his neck to look up at a patient. He apologised to her the next time they met, told her the dream and confessed it made him realise that he looked down on her.

Dreams and fairytales balance conscious perspective. They have a self regulating function and correct matters if it gets lopsided or seduced by how mighty fine it is.

What could such a story be compensating?

It was first published in 1845, a time when the powers of Europe were carving up the third world just like the plump and succulent goose in our story, when child slavery was at its most chilling height, when Western belief in its hegemony justified the rape, pillage and genocide of entire nations and got fat from the profit, a state of affairs which had been unfolding as part and parcel of a patriarchal legacy for centuries during which the divine feminine had been cast out into the cold…

The pursuit of happiness as a right, our mouthy insistence on endless choice, way more than we ever need, speaks of the need to try and fill an icy abyss of emptiness. We even have more nuclear bombs than Earth to blow it up with. The frozen plight of the match-girl depicts the inner world of the West’s endemic, malignant narcissism which is not only tolerated but openly encouraged and aspired to.

A dog eat dog mentality is regarded as normal, even strong and successful, as though your worth in the world could only be measured by how many people you had to tread on to get there. But beneath it all is the chill of the snow drift, the inner feeling of being without resources, the constant dragging exhaustion of having to wear someone else’s shoes, of following a destiny not your own, of wanting to be what you are not, of feeling woefully inadequate to life’s challenges.

But then we are saved! The magical matches! Whatever your aspirations are, imbued with..

the Prospect of Atonement.

such that it becomes… Holy Stuff.

The car that will get the girl, that will create the lifestyle, that will land the contract, that will secure the portfolio, that will improve the leverage, that will be the magical, idyllic house that Jack built.

And there is more…

We cling to what we are not allowed, like a threadbare shift that sustains us not one jot from the cold. Despite the compensatory tsunami of gadgets, toys and entire aisles of chocolates in Sainsbury’s, the thin shawl of living for today, something we mostly have such a prejudice about that we equate it with vagrancy and yet..

‘consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.. be not anxious for the morrow for the morrow will be anxious for itself.’ Mat 6;29.

In fact it’s virtually taboo to live according to such values. People don’t like it. Why? Because it is politically effective. Here and Now is where stuff gets done and we can’t have that. Rather, shake your fist at me and threaten me with tommorrow’s ballot. Satisfy yourself that you’ll do something big, when you next get the chance. Make a flourish… at some point in the future. When you’re not busy. Clutch with pride your freedom to be a political animal… at the next convenient opportunity. Coming soon to an armchair near you…

They say that the Devil’s greatest trick is to pretend he doesn’t exist. We mostly feel that organised religion is on the wane and doesn’t really affect us anymore as a driving force and yet the castrating insistence that future redemption is where it is at, has infiltrated and pervaded the secular world to the extent that it has become a naturalised citizen. The billowing admonishments of priestly classes promising salvation…at some point, becomes the seduction of billboards and advertising jingles, luring the pregnant moment with promises of pain-free gratification once you’ve mortgaged yourself to the hilt and spent the rest on insurance policies to make sure the future does what it says on the tin and coughs your soul back up just in time for death bed wisdoms.

The luminous promise of future spiritual rewards in Heaven, apparently repleat in virgins, has been supplanted by the even more alluring appeal of shiny things which you too might have one day if you press your nose to the grindstone hard enough in the meanwhile and pay into that pension plan….

which you may or may not get to enjoy.

So what remains once we have lifted our eyes to the distant, misty shore of tommorow’s hopes and dreams, is degraded to the kind of misery personified by the match girl. Inner life is left impoverished, starving, unsustainable. We lose not only the beauty of life but the capacity to help ourselves, to confer with one another, to bus in assistance when you need it.

Everything becomes about the momentary glow, the brief sizzle of endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline that you get every time you sit fantasizing about how life could be different, what it should be like, what you’d do with the lottery or the pick of your mates’ wives.

If that seems indecent you might prefer mortgage endowment portfolios tied into an incremental retirement plan. How wonderful life will be then! But then it fizzles and you’re left in your toenail clippings and dog hair, the nasty spot on your belt line and the stench of muck spreading on the neighbour’s field. Powerless to be Now.

Redemption by future stuff  is an ugly mistress. All the uncertainty that attends the reality of brief and uncertain tomorrows has to go somewhere, and so you wind up feeling paranoid and robbed,… like the real American, to bastardise Bill Maher, whose day is spoilt because he can’t flip around the radio without having to hear Mariachi music.

The way we cling to stuff we’re not allowed has a way of bending it out of shape to the point where it may cease to be useful.

The revolutionary simplicity of just refusing to buy into any system that advocates redemption on the never-never becomes a clinging to life-as-we know- it, as though the only way to be in the moment is to stop the world from turning…

and so, strangely, the quest to live for tomorrow becomes, confusingly,  wanting tomorrow to be another version of today.

About getting back with his ex..

‘things are different this time. Before she was demanding and possesive but now she wants me to do stuff and stay with her all the time’ Fry from Futurama.

Before the toll of twelve o’clock Otherness is threatening, hell really is other people. Everything new disrupts and undermines the single point of veiw, that faith in barricading yourself against anyone with whom you aren’t joined at the hip… all of which may well fizzzle out in a moment, but can still be replaced by another and better stopgap, untill you freeze to death in your designer snow drift.

The matchgirl stumbles at the threshold of the New Year, she can’t quite make it into a new arrangement with the world. She dies because she cannot name her true situation or what is actually happening and so she is powerless to help herself.

Letting in how duped she has been, how miserably treated, how seduced with false hopes and petty dreams as well as all the inevitable contradictions of realizing one’s own complexity, also makes possible the idea that the value of life is not simply surviving it as long as you can or cramming it with goodies you’ll never get to suck at but that I and me can confer about some hare brained scheme and discuss whether its actually a good idea whilst I and thou part company the richer from our parley..

Sometimes space does more than contain. Sometimes it squidges out honey.


Bluebeard, the Secret Hell.

The reason that we arrange to be led by folk we know don’t care about us is that there is an X in the equation which swings things away from what you might think was a more desirable outcome.

We acceed to authoritarian management because there is a covert pay-off. No-one has to do the difficult work of self-realisation.

‘It seems good to Us not to burden you with too many requirements.’ Acts 15;28

It’s okay, you don’t have to find your own way or fulfil any driving ambition. Its alright to be curtailed and told what to do…

because the part of us that minds it has a cunning plan…

to take refuge in the strong arm of he who’d beat you and so, in a very real sense, not be at home when he comes calling. The great thing about abdication is that you get to hold the torch when the castle is burned to the ground.

Alice Miller calls it ‘Identification with the Aggressor’, a process by which a child or subjugated person defends against the precarity of their situation by disocciating from it and forming a psychological alliance with the source of their suffering.

It was named ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ after bank raiders in Sweden took hostages that then became their fervent supporters, even writing to the Prime Minister asking to go with their captors. Hieress Patty Hearst became a gang member of the group that kidnapped her. Natascha Kampuch wept at the death of her jailer and rapist Wolfgang Priklopil, moved into his house and ran his car…

Levy-Bruhl called it participation-mystique, a process of  merging with another, initially observed..

‘in so-called primitive cultures where certain objects treated as holy artifacts were seen as filled with the spirit of their owners or worshipers.’ Gifford

 Without such meaningful totemic relationships that allow a person to be in the presence of their own mystery without being contaminated by it, we in the West do the same with pop stars and celebrity, reality TV and the cult of personality, which despite the high of being one with your hero..
‘can influence a person or group of persons into acting against their own best interest’. (ibid)
Identification with the Great Leader makes all kinds of heroic feats possible though you may not survive them. It wipes out all your troubles back home and replaces them with a fizzing riteousness so potent it can transcend the fear of death and calmly walk wave upon wave of unfaltering youth to the grave.
Sometimes the battlefield’s turf is the quietly carpeted drawing rooms
of gentility rather than the crack and thump of conquest at any price, but still….
‘a person caught up in this spell would rather die or injure him or herself than consider new information that might upend their thinking.’ ibid

Most people know the story of Bluebeard. He murdered his wives one after another and kept them in a secret locked room. He forbids his most recent bride from entering the room on pain of … well, a lot of pain, but she is unbearably curious and sneaks in while he is away…

just a peek…

Too late!

The room is a charnel house of former wives. She drops the key to the floor in horror where it becomes stained with blood that will not wash off no matter how she tries…

Bluebeard finds her out, and sets out to do just what he said he would do…  though she is saved in the last moment by her brothers who show up in the nick of time…

an’ cut ‘Ol Bluey down…

The traditional meaning is that of a cautionary tale,

‘Oh curiosity thou mortal bane, spite of my charms thou causest oft pain and sore regret..’ Charles Perrault

followed swiftly by reassurances that men are not so bad..

‘This a story is of time long pass’d; No husbands now such panic terrors cast; Nor weakly, with a vain despotic hand, Imperious, what’s impossible, command:’ (ibid)

More recently its been given socio-political attention with BB in the role of Patriarch enforcing gender roles with violence, or more psychologically with BB in the role of pathological narcissist. Clarrisa Pinkola Estes calls him,

‘the predator of the Psyche, wanting to sever intuition, a malignant force at odds with the instincts of the natural self.”

Von Franz amplifies this theme, BB is the destructive, murderous animus which must be encountered in order to grow..

”If a woman hasn’t gone through the experience of being trapped by a demon animus she only has unconscious thoughts.”

All well and good but there is a curious detail in the story that snags my attention.. Most of the interpretations are based on later versions of the tale in which the youngest of three sisters falls for his charms because she is naive, or she marries him against his will. But in the original by Perrault there’s neither foolishness nor abduction…

Bluebeard goes to one of his neighbours…

‘a lady of quality, whose two daughters were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her the choice which of the two she would bestow upon him….

‘I want one of your children, it doesn’t matter which…’

None of this phases anyone. There is no outrage, no injunctions never to darken her door again. Mother colludes and passes of her kid like a mail-order bride who gradually identifies with BB rather than face how she has been betrayed.

There was nothing then to be seen but parties of pleasure, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth and feasting. Every thing succeeded so well, that the youngest daughter began to think the master of the house not to have a beard so very blue, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman…

A six year old child, having been persuaded onto her parent’s lap rather than explore the nearby swings and play area, is trying to extricate herself in an ungainly way whilst mother chides her softly like Nursy from Blackadder..

‘Oh you.. banana-brain…’

child’s inaudible muttering…

What are you?… a banana-brain.

more muttering..

‘banana-brain, that’s what you are.’

And you could say its just harmless fun and the mother is ‘joking’ in an extroverted and jovial way. ‘Its just people being what they are,’ you say, but actually its the worst kind of cruelty.. making a child feel stupid for wanting a go on the swings, feeling like a banana-brain in adult life for wanting to explore, embittered and muttering in old age for the life that’s been denied her.

Such throw away lines are how lives are poisoned. Often repeated they become the kernel around which identity is built because our survival compells us to adapt to expectation. So even when she’s free she stumbles, can’t get co-ordinated, making a hash of her liberty, just like… a banana-brain.

Her inner life is destroyed, not by showdowns, punishments or overt rejection but by one thing parodying  another, by the wicked cleverness that can say you are stupid and I hate you with a smile. What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?

Life is what you make it but more importantly its what you believe it to be. Life will faithfully offer us up our expectations of it, rising to manifest and mirror back to us all our prejudices, secret fears and covert assumptions.

‘We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Torah

That which we cannot face on the inside comes at us from the outside. Having had her inner life attacked by her social-climbing mother, our heroine learns to attack herself, killing off her sponteneity, deadening her sexuality, stringing up her feelings and hobbling the discriminating function that feelings are there to serve.

When she intrudes upon BB’s inner chamber she is bound to find there some expression of this violation. She is going to find her worst nightmares in the little room because she has entered into this arrangement in terrible bad faith, having sold out her integrity and the possibility of true love for the sake of a life of easy luxury.

BB is certainly a villain, but never pretending to be more or less than he is. There is no deception. ‘I want one of your daughters, I don’t care which.” The poor bride masks over the awful injury this constitutes by following suit, pretending that people and privacy don’t matter, but has to kill off her aliveness and subjugate herself to the tyranny of life’s baubles which will extract their pound of flesh from her one way or another. Her inner world will be attacked on a regular basis.

Life presents us with the face we show it and mirrors back to us inner states normally occluded from veiw.

I once comforted a woman whose husband had just had a heart attack and was at death’s door in hospital… but I withdrew my hand from her shoulder as if bitten by a snake when she wailed, ‘who will help me now?” Her thoughts were not of him, nor her tears about him, but about the burden of her middle-class chores.

Through her tears she then told me a dream that wild dogs had gotten into her lovely white Mercedes convertible and torn all the upholstery to pieces. Her inner life had been ripped out by her paltry material concerns and the utter failure to transcend her own petty troubles.

”We thought it was the outer event that had happened to us, but now see that it is we who have happened to ourselves.’ F. Wickes.

Its curious how much sympathy the heroine evokes, how villainous BB seems to be, polarised utterly with the Soldiers of Light, the brothers who finally do him in. Yahweh fairs much better in the popularity stakes when he puts Eve to the same test. Her curiosity gets her eternal damnation wheras Mrs BB just inherits everything and comes up smelling of roses.

There is no transformation. The dead wives are as much a part of her world as BB himself and killing him off still leaves her with the problem of life denied and the damage done to her personal destiny by the spell which compells her to identify with toxic values rather than her own gut feeling…

which says that people come before stuff.