Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is All Innocence Tragic?

Some of you might be wondering about the title of this blog. What does it mean?

The title came to me last summer when I was reading the forward to John Barth's The Sot Weed Factor in a Barnes and Noble. Something about Barth's book suddenly caught my imagination--you know, the mystique behind a book which catapults a reader on a wild-goose chase to find it. But before I was going to shell out the money to buy the book I wanted to find out if the contents were as enticing as the idea (as well as the cultural fame of Barth's "greatest novel"). And so I found myself a big leather chair and began John Barth's Forward to the Anchor Books Edition. I read the following:

For one thing, I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I'd been too innocent myself to realize that fact. More particularly, I came better to appreciate what I have called the "tragic view" of innocence: that it is, or can become dangerous, even culpable, that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent or otherwise; that what is to be valued in nations as well as individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.

Other phrases he'd written in the Forward resonated with me, including "the bitter quest for independence." Yes, I could relate to being too innocent, dangerously innocent, and much of my adolescence revolved around this theme of tragic innocence.

Now that I'm an adult, what does it mean to be innocent? Can I still preserve some of that innocence without sliding into the despised state of arrested development? Nobody wants to be stuck in a place they were twenty years ago. And yet, sometimes my life strikes me as so foolish and pure. As if I were enjoying the thrill of it for the first time, even if the momentary delight meant forgetting my entire past and the very troubles which caused me to lose my innocence.

Which brings me to another Forward by an author speaking about his novel, Pornographia, in much the same way Barth does--that is, in trying to make sense of the novel for future readers. The novel is by the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz.

The theme is not innocence exactly, but the value of youth. Here he writes:

Let us try to express ourselves as simply as possible. Man, as we know, aims at the absolute. At fulfillment. At truth, at God, at total maturity . . . To seize everything, to realize himself entirely--this is his imperative.

Now, in Pornographia it seems to me that another of man's aims appear, a more secret one, undoubtedly, one which is in some way illegal: his need for the unfinished . . . for imperfection . . . for inferiority . . . for youth . . .

When the Older creates the Younger everything works very well from a social and cultural point of view. But if the Older is submitted to the Younger--what darkness! What perversity and shame! How many traps. And yet Youth, biologically superior, physically more beautiful, has no trouble in charming and conquering the adult, already poisoned by death.

In writing his epic historical novel, Barth comes to the realization that innocence poses a far greater danger to society and the individual than nihilism. It is "wise experience" which we should then aim for. But Gombrowicz takes a different angle. Fascinated by youth, he believes there is actually something valuable in incomplete experience and unfinished work. He believes that a sort of tragic innocence might save us. But it is not the same tragic innocence that Barth talks about. The tragic innocence of Gombrowicz is the body, sex, Eros.

Whatever innocence I have preserved in my life stems, I believe, from the sensual, artistic makeup of my being. I have an inherent curiosity in the moment--the moment when you are so engulfed by life you cannot possibly see it or examine it--your only option is to embrace it and live in it like a child in a giant body of water, lulled by the waves of emotion, sensitivity, and the sparks that humans create together, whether it is through an engaging conversation with a friend or a romantic encounter with a stranger. I become innocent to life in these moments.

Is this a case of arrested development? I hope not. But some of my behaviors lean toward what John Barth calls the "dangerously innocent". Take, for example, right now. It is 2:40 in the morning and I may stay up all night writing. Or my latest fall into dissolution which I talk about in the essay, "Aphorisms and Meditations". I may go to bed with the knowledge that sleep is good for me. Yes, an entirely adult thing to do. Or I may continue to break the boundaries I set up for myself in the adult world.

Am I embracing Gombrowicz's positive view of innocence or Barth's negative one? I see value and truth in both. Clearly, I cannot go back to being a drug addict. The life of an addict is the epitome of arrested development. It is a juvenile, idiotic and selfish person who thinks only of their own pleasure. Not innocence at all.

As an artist, I rarely display the behavior of a drug addict, but I get close to that of a child. I flirt with the boundaries in my mind, if not in reality. I attempt an attitude of innocence toward new experiences. I'm turned off by my cynical friends. They don't represent wisdom to me, or intelligence. They represent fear.

To be truly innocent is to be open to the world, unafraid to die, and looking forward to the "awfully big adventure" of life. That's what Peter Pan said when looked across the wide ocean. But where did he end up? Never Never Land, which can't be anything but a state of arrested development.

Or Don Quixote, another innocent saint. His innocence caused him a lot of bloody wounds and beatings. What do his strivings represent?

I'm drawn to the magical quality of innocence in life. I don't think I want to "preserve" my innocence. There should be no effort involved. Innocence should be a natural state. And if we've been hurt before and if it is impossible to be innocent, then we should try to forgive ourselves and others. Because love and innocence seem very closely related. To love someone, you must forget.


More Essays . . .


tashabud said...

Hi Chris,
What a thoughful analysis on the subject of Innocence. I like your views on it. You're a gifted Philosopher, if I may ssy so.

Made me think.


Lethe said...

Thank you, Tasha.

Tom Howe said...

Hi Chris, thank you for that lovely meditation on innocence. I recently saw a play you would have lurved. It was a high-school production of Korszaks Children, the story of an orphanage in Warsaw during the holocaust. What was so magnificent is that the play was filled with children playing children. Death loomed over the whole auditorium, and the young bad actors made it incredibly poignant.

Appreciate your understanding of the varieties of innocence.

Love & Peace,

Tom (

David Munn (Aussiescribbler) said...

I like your concept of innocence as a state of mind rather than a lack of experience. I think the important thing is to open our capacity to love unconditionally and to give of ourselves freely, but to use what we learn from our experiences to avoid the gullibility of the child. We can grow wise without losing our sense of wonder and joy.

Kathleen said...

Chris, I am bringing you another book, too, in addition to Living on the Earth. It is a back issue of Poetry East. There is a poem in it, and an essay by the poet, that relates to your innocence theme. So when you stop by Babbitts, take both.

Lethe said...


cool, that sounds great! btw, Id be interested in what you think of my latest poem . . .

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