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.