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 . . .


Friday, April 17, 2009

On Science and Mystery

These quotations are taken from the science author and physicist, Brian Greene. Greene's most well-known works include, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

For the most part, we teach science as if it were a technical trade: Learn these facts about cells. Memorize these equations describing motion. Balance these reactions that underlie oxidation. And then demonstrate competence by passing an exam.

With this lopsided focus on the end points of research, the scientific explorations themselves receive the most minimal attention.

But science is a journey. Science is about immersing ourselves in piercing uncertainly while struggling with the deepest of mysteries.

Einstein captured it best when he wrote, "the years of anxious searching in the dark for a truth that one feels but cannot express." That's what science is about.

To be a scientist is to commit to a life of confusion punctuated by rare moments of clarity.

Established truths are comforting, but it is the mysteries that make the soul ache and render a life of exploration worth living.

For me, the past decades of anxious searching have illuminated spectacular new landmarks: extra dimensions of space curled into tiny labyrinthine geometries, a cornucopia of universes bubbling up beyond the most distant cosmic horizon, the fabric of space and time being stitched from the threads of vibrating strings.

Regardless of the outcome, the journey has been exhilarating, and through it I feel an emotional connection to the cosmos that I don't think I could have acquired any other way.

My intuition tells me that this particular odyssey will arrive at a promised land, perhaps confirming today's theoretical insights, perhaps in a future form that will have evolved signficantly.

But if not, in the unlikely event that the work on which our generation has labored doesn't make it into textbooks, I can live with that.

It's what happens along the way that enriches us. The wrestling with mystery, not the ascension to resolution, defines who we are.

My Thoughts:

This short article, taken from Wired Magazine's May 2009 edition, gives me a lot surprised joy and it captures, strangely, how I feel about life itself. Greene's elegant sentences shape for me what life is really about. A language of science can describe the moon and the stars and the galaxies, but essentially it is a language that spiritually reflects our condition as human beings. The moon and the stars and the galaxies are the outward signs and symbols of our own inner mysteries.

I love Greene's approach and attitude to science. He almost has a disdain for textbooks and the "end points of research." I agree. It is a backward method we teach in school and this point of view has profound implications for education.

Greene comes close to capturing how I feel in a moment of heightened reality, when I attempt to capture the surrounding complexity of my emotions in a poem. My experience in these moments is palpable and through a poem, I seem to grasp, if not the meaning of the moment, then I grasp the mystery of my being. And so, Greene writes science books and conducts physics experiments, and me, well, I'm a poet, life is my exploration and my ongoing experiment. But I think the two of us meet somewhere--whether it is in language, in our attempts to express the thing itself--or perhaps we meet in the universal human condition, the experience of not-knowing.