27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 4

Virtue, Death and Christmas

FOR most people today, Christmas is not at all festive. Refugees in Algeria or Hong Kong, sufferers under totalitarian governments in Portugal or South Africa, people in prisons, people 'imprisoned by their care of aged parents —these are just some sections of the world popu- lation who look rather wistfully at the evidence of preparation for enjoyment provided by the rest of us. Let us assume that the majority of Spectator readers do not fall into the former category: let us assume they can afford a goose, a bottle of wine, presents for relations, some visi- tors. What is Christmas like for them?

Well, first of all there must be some acknow- ledgement of the other half of the world—whether this takes the form of sending donations to War on Want rather than presents to aunts; or visit- ing the sick or the old; or even just reading about the less fortunate, having their existence some- where in the mind. Our reactions to the fact that we are the haves and they are have-nots are varied, but the essential thing is to face it and not argue about it or start saying it's far more difficult to be a have, or if only birth control .. .

But next, in what situation do we find our- selves this merry yuletide? As a world, we have lost the best Pope and the best President (as well as the most needed) of modern times. Macmillan and Adenauer have both retired. Gaitskell's death has yet further diminished our stock of potential world-class statesmen. Most of us have been stirred by the spectacle of, a beautiful twenty- one-year-old girl, having satisfied the desires of an assortment of important and opinion-influenc- ing citizens, popped into gaol over the Christmas period for having been found out in one attempt to dodge what was coming to her. The year in which TI4'3 both flourished and ceased to flourish is a year worth looking at. • - Are we in a counter-revolution, in which new censorship, new respectability, new conformity to ordained standards of taste are not merely imposed but enthusiastically assumed? One cer- tainly hopes not. But there is something to be learned from this traumatic year; and it is about three things, of which only the first is familiar: sex, virtue and death.

The sexual cold war, waged on the one hand by liberal theologians and the glossier magazines, and on the other by the Daily Express and the Church Times, is sufficiently well studied not to require a further exposition here. The danger is that both sides become so obsessed with the subject that all other matters pale into insignificance beside it. What really would achieve something would be, instead of going on about sex, to present virtue as glamorous, desir- able, something for with-it kids and not just for squares. But what is virtue? Virtue is not just sexual continence or social conformism—in fact, it isn't these things at all—it is a life lived vividly and to the full, without the limitations imposed by social conformity and by the pressures of a materialistic economy bent on selling things at any cost.

If virtue-as-splendid is a forgotten and to some extent a forbidden topic, so is death. Death is the Great Undiscussed Subject in Western society today. Sometimes we are confronted with it abruptly—as with President Kennedy—and people are amazed at their psychosomatic reac- tions, now being tabulated and analysed by socio-' logical study centres in America. To some of the lighting forces of the last war death was abrupt, ugly and completely pointless; and how can the spectacle of a bulldozer pushing tons of

corpses into a hole in the ground square with what the creeds call the Resurrection of the Body —or any other definition of life after death? Where death is portrayed in modern literature or art, it is normally death of this particularly sudden and scarifying sort—in which a living thing becomes a decomposing lump of litter with- in the space of a gunshot. Far away are the splen- did deathbed scenes of earlier literature—Greek, Shakespearian, Victorian. But are we so sure that we have the measure of the matter, and our forebears were merely sentimentalising it? Or were they wiser than us in seeing in dying the climax to living and not the pointless termina- tion of it?

Christmas symbolises, if it cannot be said to commemorate, the birth of the Son of God. But across the whole nativity scene, whether fact, fiction, symbol or archetypal image, lies the shadow of yet another archetypal image: namely, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension. Each leads into the other, each presupposes the other. Each is as important as the other. You don't have to be a Christian to know that. It is true that Western Christendom has stressed the Incarnation, while Eastern Christendom has stressed the Resurrection. But to both, the Cruci- fixion is inescapable. In this sequence, death, so far from being an irrelevant intrusion into the all-absorbing matter of living, is integral to life, and needs studying, preparation and awareness so as to achieve it fully. Our current neglect of death and dying may be more due to a sub- conscious and hysterical fear of its immense unknownness than to our mastery over so many hitherto vast and frightening aspects of physical life. The two no doubt go together—both the abattoir-type carnages of the gas chambers and the absorbed materialism of the post-war West. Is not this the time and the season to grapple with these fears and this pathological materialism which is their projection? Let us start thinking about death not as silly, irrelevant humbug, but (as many of our forebears did) as something ex- citing, yielding to intelligent study, worth pre- paring for, almost—one might say—worth living for? One can only start thinking and see what happens. The hope is that the results may spec- tacularly and miraculously change our current attitudes to materialism, world politics, sex, vir-

tue, personal prestige, social pressures, and the true significance of religion, which might be taken at last from the stultifying grasp of the organised churches and put where it belongs, at the fore- front of people's minds and lives.