Innocence (1/8/16)

The impulse or compulsive desire to defile and shatter innocence—such as we glimpse in Angelo’s behavior towards Isabella in Measure for Measure or Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia: where on earth does this come from? There are all kinds of innocence: sexual, moral, cultural, technological, political, psychological, spiritual, philosophical—to name some of the more conspicuous varieties. To what extent is innocence synonymous with ignorance? With unripeness or immaturity? With deludedness and unconsciousness?

If innocence does indeed share a lot of DNA with these acknowledged defects, lacks, weaknesses, and shortcomings, then why do so many of us warm up to it when we encounter it—say, in children, in a lover, in pleasant simpletons, and in pets? Aside from the ‘cuteness’ factor in innocence, isn’t there something inherently disarming about it for most of us? May it be claimed that innocence suggests a form of harmlessness—of vulnerability, even—qualities that, in most decent human beings, elicit warm feelings of affection, compassion, and even protectiveness?

I suspect that this disarming and heartwarming quality of innocence is present only when the innocent one happens also to be modest and incapable of posing any real threat to us. But when we reflect upon the close connection between innocence and ignorance we remember that not all innocent persons—including, of course, young persons—are modest and incapable of doing harm, either to themselves or others.

It is precisely this strong (if not always apparent) link with ignorance and inexperience, is it not, that makes innocence such an ambiguous or problematic attribute? We can see that ignorance and immaturity are not normally associated with modesty, let alone circumspection. ‘Spirited’ or turbo-charged innocence—say, of the idealistic political zealot or the spuming religious fanatic—is rarely ‘cute,’ ‘disarming,’ or pleasantly endearing. But perhaps it will be objected that I have strained and stretched the concept of innocence to such an extent that I have deformed it into some entirely debased or bastardized version of itself. Or have I?

Could it be true that innocence, like the beauty of a nubile maid, has an all too brief ‘shelf life’—and after its expiration date has passed, it swiftly declines into less and ever less pleasing forms? Why is it so often the case that ‘cute’ or endearing displays of innocence—after they’ve been repeatedly, or rather, cloyingly served up to us—become as annoying and tiresome as, before, they were appealing and captivating when we have had our fill of them? Perhaps it’s the case—for mature souls—that innocence is optimally appreciated in economical, and by no means prodigious, doses. And when the mature soul gets a more walloping dose than he or she can politely stomach, what usually happens? Doesn’t the slightly caustic quip—Grow the fuck up, you pesky little whippersnapper!—creep temptingly to the tongue? Possibly, but the mature soul remembers its own (perhaps abrupt or hurried) passage through and beyond such cutesy innocence, and so remains patiently silent.

What, then, excites the cruelty of Hamlet towards the innocent-obedient Ophelia—or the sadistic advances of Angelo towards the ‘pure’ and righteous Isabella? Could it be an eruption of hatred and disgust with ignorant innocence itself—an eruption occasioned by their own battered and shattered innocence? No doubt, Hamlet’s superior intelligence, nobility, honesty, and imagination provide us with much more to work with, here, than Angelo does, who is a mental-moral pygmy when set beside Hamlet (even if both of them show disquieting signs of misogyny). With Hamlet, the ‘occasions’ or detonators for the traumatic dis-illusionment he suffers are plainly evident. The murder of his father by his treacherous, lecherous ‘adulterate beast’ of an uncle, who has seduced Gertrude, his mother, is the most conspicuous blow he receives, but his crushing disappointment with Ophelia—precisely because of her innocence and lack of spiritual-psychological independence—deserves every bit as much critical attention here. There are other—lesser—disappointments, as with his false-hearted ‘friends,’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who deceive and betray him at the behest of cunning Claudius. In the psychological avalanche triggered by these domestic and conjugal-romantic upsets, Hamlet is, in effect, catapulted into a full-blown spiritual-existential crisis of monumental (one might even say archetypal) proportions, insofar as it is proleptic and emblematic—anticipating similar existential crises to come. And in order for this extraordinary work of dramatic-psychological genius to have been produced, Shakespeare, the poet-dramatist, must have suffered an analogous crisis—which is perhaps peerlessly depicted in this groundbreaking text.

I bring Hamlet into this essay on the problematic character of innocence because this play—perhaps as profoundly as any rivaling work of literature—is implicitly and explicitly preoccupied with the problem of lost innocence.[1] When this unmasking of the truth about ourselves and about our actual existential predicament is unveiled in this initiatory crisis of awakening, the ‘victim’ simultaneously perceives the thick web of lies and deceits in which virtually everyone he knows—or is likely to know—is snugly and (usually) unconsciously ensnared. Something of this order of magnitude ‘happens’ to Hamlet—and after he digests it, by Act V, he is a changed man. Instead of hysterically and antically ‘acting out’ his disordered, chaotic passions (as he does while in the throes of his ordeal before going to England), he displays a surprising degree of poise and mature understanding of his own (and perhaps our) existential situation.[2]

Clearly, I am no stranger to these ambivalent feelings about innocence—nor to those ‘traumatic,’ destiny-forging disappointments and dis-coveries that expose the dark underbelly of childlike, unconscious innocence. Does this make me hate innocence so intensely that I wish to attack and destroy it wherever I see it? No. Or rather, not anymore. When those ‘betrayals’ and ‘exposés,’ those terrible revelations and stark unmaskings, occurred—starting in my early teens—before I had learned what I would need to learn before, like an anaconda, I could both swallow and digest these massive, squirming and kicking ‘life lessons’ that were bigger than I was—I often felt as ‘mad’ as Hamlet—as bitterly outraged and impatient with puffed-up simpletons, craven cowards, and shallow hypocrites as the ‘melancholy Dane’ was. Perhaps I am now entering my own ‘fifth act’—learning to let the natural course of life go where it will, without rebuke or interference from me. Does this mean that I am ‘going slack’ inside? Au contraire.

[1] In a similarly profound, but more mythical, manner, Oedipus the King was also concerned with this loss of innocence/ignorance—which is essentially the process of coming to honest and ‘dis-illusioned’ consciousness of oneself.

[2] Something analogous happens to—or inside—Lear after his ‘storm’ scene on the heath.


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