Chiara Scully

Afterthought on “Innocence”


This article responds to Hypocrite Reader Issue 14, Innocence.
Seventeenth-century painting of a lamb with bound legs and a thin halo over its head against a dark background.Francisco de Zurbarán, Agnus Dei, ca. 1635-50

Innocence—from Latin innocentem, meaning: “not guilty, harmless, blameless.” The prefix in- indicates “not,” while nocentem is derived from the participial form of nocere—“to harm.”

Innocence is defined by what it is not. A palpable absence. We experience it only through its loss.

* * *

In Milton’s Eden, there are no personalities, no interiorities. God’s presence infuses each particular life and binds all together in concordant rhythms that constitute Life itself on earth. Because there are no self-interested drives, nothing disrupts the harmonious pattern of the common dance of nature. The earth yields to us her bounty willingly.

Meaning is an intrinsically interior quality, itself intangible. Yet in Eden it resides in the enactment of these divinely orchestrated forms. Which is to say, interiority and exteriority are very near.

* * *

The failure to differentiate fully between self and world is as narcissistic as it is selfless.

* * *

Night 1, 2:00 am
The sun has been gone for a long time.
Now the strip of lights goes out along the central aisle
All but a dim glow that seals the darkness outside
Into black. Stillness settles over us like falling snow—
Rummaging and rustling voices lapse;
Each body bends its head with awkward gentleness onto its own shoulder,
Folding into half-sleep for the long ride through night.

For the first time I realize where I have been.
Under the blackness, the landscape is still
Repeating. Under the silence
The motor grinds like a combine; hours and miles
Fall under its teeth, harvesting nothing.

We are still and still moving.
We wait until the place we left becomes the place we hope to go.
But under the blackness, the landscape keeps repeating
And somewhere in the back of the bus an infant cries
The merciless cry of a creature with almost no memory.
Each hunger is the first hunger.
The pattern repeats:
A sweet sensation
A feeding
A screaming to be fed

* * *

Innocence is not lost through disobedience.

Sin is first born when Satan conceives his mutinous conspiracy—she erupts from his head in full armor like Athena. Sin is hatched of Satan’s pride and ambition—she is a product of the mind (as the implied pun on “conception” suggests), and he is seduced by Sin precisely because she embodies his own mind so perfectly. It is a realization of, and subsequent obsession with, his own inward power—an incestuous act of pure narcissism.

This act of self-love, where Sin is not only imagined but embraced in the world, engenders Death—an image of chaos, the antithesis of God’s order, the consequence of disobedience. Unsurprisingly, Death also refuses the natural birth: Sin relates how he performed the world’s first C-section by clawing through her belly before raping her and engendering screaming monsters,

                     …hourly conceived
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me; for, when they list, into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw
My bowels, their repast; then, bursting forth
Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.
         (Paradise Lost, Book II, 796–802)

The ceaseless cyclical pattern and demarcation of time (“hourly”) perversely mimics natural rhythms, just as these births mock the creation of new life. It is an extreme enactment of the narcissism that consumes itself as it perpetuates and exacerbates its isolation. The generations of offspring that re-enter the mother depict a prison of self-referentiality. Though Satan and Sin were once both externally lovely and proud in Heaven, they have both become miserable and hideous perversions of their former selves: love has devolved into loathing and obsession. Once love of God has been abandoned in favor of love of self, the hideousness of this in-grown love is ultimately manifested by the inescapable suffering it engenders.

Similarly, the more Satan becomes a God to himself, the more completely he creates a world—a Hell—that is confined within himself. Hell is defined by its distance from the joys of nature, light, life. This distance is the barrier of self and world—the mental confine that the Romantic hero will lament and also celebrate for the creative freedom it affords him.

         And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
         (I, 251–255)

Satan insists on the fixity of his internal self and its autonomy from context (“place and time”); this assertion is enacted poetically—contained within a single perfectly iambic line (“The mind is its own place, and in itself”) that seems to justify the claims Satan proceeds to make for its creative power. Yet the powers of Satan’s mind can neither fully seal nor determine his internal landscape. By affirming his claim through the lineation in which he makes it, Satan more betrays its tenuous desperation than its validity, and the neat chiasmic inversion of “Heaven” and “Hell” seems to be a largely rhetorical feat—“Hell” cannot be made into a “Heaven” as easily as the reverse, or as dexterously as the symmetrical construction suggests; it is an act of linguistic gymnastics that does not reconfigure his experiential reality of Hell as being, in fact, hellish.

Standing before Eden and the sun (a token of Heavenly light), Satan is confronted with the extent of his loss:

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell,
And in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
         (IV, 73–78)

The consequence of his actions, the ever-increasing depth of his fall, threatens to “devour” him just as the Sin’s spawn gnaw on her bowels. But again, being “devoured” does not entail an erasure of self; Satan has already been “devoured” in that he has been incorporated into Hell, become Hell himself. Hell is both an internal mental landscape and an exterior context in dynamic interaction, mutually informing and creating each other.

These lines are riddled with balanced oppositions and repetitive diction that enacts the self-perpetuating psychic state that constitutes Satan’s inescapable damnation: “infinite wrath and infinite despair,” “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell,” “lowest deep” and “lower deep” . . . The lines embody Satan’s entrapment in a cycle that is worse than static—it is a vortex created by the mutually infernal possibilities of “infinite wrath and infinite despair” (each, incidentally, a self-enclosed psychic state). Within these ABAB constructions, the caesura is the tornado’s eye, and down it Satan is spun and sucked ever further into the Hell of his mind.

Interiority deepens and reinforces itself by refusing to admit grief—that the self is dependent on context, on what is shared, on what is not contingent on one’s power at all. Just as Satan could not endure the burden of gratitude in Heaven, he cannot admit despair in Hell. Paradoxically, the mind obsessed with its own power and completeness must rely on such emotional self-deception that Satan re-affirms rhetorically in order to maintain this fiction.

Vanity is gilded fear: how quickly Satan defends against despair by armoring himself with delusions of grandiosity—and the lie consumes him.

* * *

The collapse of interior and exterior is common between both the innocence of Eden and the fallen narcissism of Hell. In Eden, the individual is incorporated into God’s collective natural order (a species of “social” identity that extends beyond man’s relation to his fellow men). In Satan’s Hell, the environment is an outwardly projecting extension of the individual mindscape.

These two states of being are differentiated by where one locates creative power. Pondering the mystery of existence on Earth to which he has awakened, innocent Adam is somehow yet sure that he came “Not of myself: by some great Maker, then, / In goodness and in pow’r preeminent” (VIII, 277–279). The faith that generative power lies outside the self entails a rote acceptance of the given order—a lack of imagining beyond it. It is consistent, then, that the birth of Satan’s imagination is inextricably linked to his own consciousness of it and thereby his fall: Satan identifies self as mind, and credits his mind with God-like creative power. He blames his fall on the irresistible temptation posed by his own eminence in Heaven: because he was so near to the pinnacle of power, he could imagine supplanting it. Become aware that he was God-like, he could not deny the ambition of becoming God.

* * *

When my mother shakes me awake I see her face is waxy and her voice is strange—deep and empty, and it falls over itself. I am four. She never does this.

She says Poppy, her father, is dead and do I want to see him. She wants me to see him, I know, because she has woken me up and something is already pulling her back into that room upstairs in her head and she is holding my hand. So I turn my legs over the side of the bed and go with her.

The rooms of this house are wide but the corners are pinched and spidery with shadows, even in the day. I follow her up the stairs to the room where he sleeps and there he is. She kneels down beside him and I know that she had been sitting all night before she got me. She looks up at me and tears are all over her face but she isn’t crying. She asks me if I want to hold his hand. I don’t know why I am afraid.

When I take his hand it is huge and heavy and it is his hand but it is not his hand and my mother tells me that it is still warm because she has been holding it all night. I didn’t know it was supposed to be cold.

* * *

“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7).

Transitive action: subject is distinct from but capable of acting upon object.

Guilt: what one does—an irretrievable act. Once it enters the world, it is no longer your own.

Shame: what one is—Psychologists posit that we first experience shame as infants when our primary caregiver does not return our gaze. This isolation forces us to enact imaginatively the reciprocating look that would bridge our interpersonal divide—to see ourselves as if from exterior eyes. At the same time that we become aware of the “self” as distinct from others, we realize our profound need for positive personal and social engagement—that the aloneness of our new-born self is unendurable.

Conditions necessary for the birth of compassion.

* * *

Innocent Adam deprioritizes his independent subjectivity, while post-lapsarian Satan refuses to admit the necessity of God as an external reference point (refusing also to acknowledge the obvious fact that by insisting on a contained definition of self, he ultimately defines himself and his alternative infernal system precisely by its opposition to and distance from God—contingent upon God for the construction of identity and meaning). Both Adam and Satan in these stages therefore exist within essentially self-referential and so tautological systems. The notion of the “fortunate fall” is predicated on the assumption that tautology cannot generate real meaning—meaning of complexity and depth of breadth and scope (how can worship be meaningful if it is not chosen?). Innocence is ignorance—an imperfectly grasped reality that cannot hold dual identifications in suspension, both independent and interdependent. It is an unstable and potentially destructive state, incapable of generating meaning that incorporates the multiple perspectives that constitute one’s lived experience. Meaning depends not only on relation to one’s self, but to others: just as the meaning of a word does not depend solely on its denotative definition or even on the connotations with which it is imbued, but on the grammar that structures its relation to other words and the entirety of the larger context in which it appears. Once fallen, Adam and Eve therefore escape Satan’s imprisonment and re-approach God not through renewed innocence, but through piety and struggle, as the Angel Michael instructs them. Nor will they re-enter the Paradise they have known, but may achieve a “paradise within,” “happier far” than the first (XII, 587). This internal paradise will differ from Satan’s internal Hell because it does not hermetically seal itself, but rather remains open through love and humility (piety and struggle’s harvest, and perhaps their seeds as well). One might call what Michael is describing maturity—which can be understood as the earnest apprehension of one’s reality, balancing insight with sight.

The yearning towards tautology might be viewed as a yearning towards unity, towards clear and single meaning, or towards the divine (in which total, transcendent unity is achieved). The burden, of course, is that God is defined as precisely that which we are not, and to which we can at best be proximate. The innocent (animals, infants, etc.) are near to God because they have not developed identities that are distinct from His incorporate order. To be proximate, however, is not to be at one with, and subjectivity is realized once the distance between self and God is comprehended in real measure.

Worship of God’s glorious unity is troubled by the kinship between worship and desire—the desire to penetrate or sweep away all barriers between one’s self and that which one adores. Satan was tempted to fall (as Eve will later be) by presuming that he could breach this distance by assuming at least a portion of Godhood personally. The consequence, of course, is a distance both painfully vast and enforced.

The fall—attended as it is by the introduction of knowledge of “Good” and “Evil,” the withdrawal of subjectivity from context, the separation of man from God, expulsion from home into the wilderness—seems to introduce binary division into the world. But this distance and these dichotomies precede their explicit acknowledgement (perhaps most obviously and fundamentally in the distinction between God and everything else). Moreover, knowledge that “Good” and “Evil” exist does not mean that these properties inhere intractably and incompatibly (that is, mimetically) to discrete objects, actions, and beings.

Rather, the fall introduced a way out of the problem of binary opposition, of dualism—meaning, forced to reckon with dual points of reference, is now capable of moving fluidly between them. This enables both empathic imagination and human utterance to act as vehicles that train and encourage fallen man to achieve the maturity necessary for a return to the proximate sphere of God’s grace. Necessary to bring him outside of himself. Precisely where mimesis breaks down, tautology is broken and the possibility of meaning is born.

These imaginative and communicative vehicles are mobilized in prayer (“then began men to call upon the name of the Lord,” Genesis 4: 25-26), and also, as Milton illustrates, in art. In its very form, Paradise Lost educates us about how we can bet navigate self and world in the path back towards grace. Blank verse balances adherence to the rules of meter (which may be viewed as the corollary to submission to social and divine law) with the absence of a rhyme scheme (comparable to individual freedom of choice, thought, and expression). As we enter the poem imaginatively, submission to form teaches us the humility (matured out of shame) that is the antidote to the pride that imprisons Satan in subjectivity. It habituates us to freedom within the context of restraint.

And while Milton’s poetic form instructs us how to relate to the exterior world, his symbolic language and deeply human narrative at once grant us access to interiority not our own and exercise the all-important muscle of our empathic imagination. With individuation comes the division of interior and exterior meaning, personal and social identity, connotative and denotative meaning, the symbolic and the literal. The loosening of this bond also enables a fluidity of influence and access. What Milton shows us is that if the self-conscious mind divides us from the world, it also allows us to enter into the subjectivity of others—a breach of real distance enabled by the medium of symbol, harnessed here into the form of art.

That which causes us to fall is the only thing that can save us from the damnation of its consequences.

* * *

Distance enables love: we can only desire what we lack. But without compassion, this can only be self-love, and worship can only be self-worship. Only through empathic imagination can we extend beyond the real barriers of the self.

* * *

There are many mechanisms by which we may realize the limits of the self, but all result in a process of individuation that entails both a knowledge of our rich interiority and our isolation.

These are the words that close Paradise Lost, the words that herald man’s departure from Eden—the land of innocence—and emergence into the unknown:

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
From Eden took their solitary way.
         (XII, 648-649)

The broken meter with which the second-to-last line sets out (“They hand in hand” —stress-stress-unstress-stress) beautifully reflects Adam and Eve’s weighty and faltering footsteps forward, while their conjoined hands not only mirror but become one way in which they bridge their division to form a single entity that moves as one. And yet they are not one—the “way” is singular (belonging to both), but the solitude that modifies it is more immediately complex: it is at once their shared solitude from God, the personal solitude that each must bear alone, and the empathic connection (echoed in the clasped hands), forged from the knowledge that they bear commensurate burdens. Moreover, now that Adam and Eve have lost the simplicity and explicitness of innocence in Paradise, the “way” is no longer clearly delineated. It is something they must “take,” must labor to construct: individual creative power must now be put to use to bridge the gap between self and world, and between the world of man and God, that it yet affirms.

Meaning is multiple; we are each alone and we are not alone; Paradise is “lost,” and we must “wander.” There is no single and certain state of arrival.

* * *

Tozan, Zen master:

The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.

Not two, not one.

Breathe in, there you are.
Breathe out, there you are not.

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