To Preserve Innocence


"Young Girl Holding Two Puppies", Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 - 1806), French

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.”

― "The Catcher in the Rye", J. D. Salinger


Salinger's classic is simultaneously one of the most loved and the most hated literary pieces. The reason for their dislike is usually the book's main character, the young boy from whose perspective the book was written. He is for many annoying, scattered and spoiled - and while Holden's tone would often get on my nerves as well, there was something beyond the language that I connected to and it was Holden's clinging to his own innocence and his urge to save it, preserve it in others. It is best reflected in the excerpt I selected for the opening of this essay. He wants to be the one to save the innocence in the world - to catch the children before they fall down the cliff, to catch the innocence, the purity and simple joy of the childhood. Holden sees this world of purity as opposed to the world of adults - the world full of lies, grudges and pretensions. I have always had a soft spot for the "coming of age" films, books, music, art, simply anything that depicts the sunset of childhood, innocence, the initiatory moment in which world and life reveals its ugliness, its danger, its apathy. Ugly things do not happen to monsters only, they happen to the pure and virtuous, sometimes more often to them. Our modern, urban societies do not have traditional initiation ceremonies anymore but the coming of age stories speak of, although not ceremonial, a certain psychological, spiritual initiation - it may be the summer our hearts get broken, a day when we find out that the parents were not loyal to each other and that their peaceful moments were but a pretense before you and your brothers or sisters, the day a good friend leaves, cheats, betrays. I love those stories because they are so simple and yet so universal to human experience.

Naivety and Second Innocence

"Summer Yellows", David Hettinger (1946), American

"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us." - "The Brother Karamazov", Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Many of us, once we reach the dawn of adulthood, run away from the enchantment and innocence as we often consider it to be naive and silly. It appears stupid to be so in a world which is so often cruel and brutal. An innocent person in such a world appears to us like the symbols of innocence the deer, the lambs who are everyone's prey and are easily slaughtered. Innocent and pure but clueless about the sharp knives or claws ready to reach for their necks. But those symbolic representatives of innocence are the representatives of what can be called "the first innocence", the one that is present when we still have not tasted the world's bitterness. It is innocence that is paired with naivety and while the urge to protect, to save that kind of innocence may be strong in many of us, that innocence must be lost, given up - life circumstances will simply make it so. However, to rediscover, to preserve innocence even after life has shown ugliness is to pair it with wisdom, with rootedness, with awareness of the world but without bitterness towards it. It is not a defeatist's acceptance or an attitude that resists movement, but rather an eye that can see the magic even after the mind has accumulated lessons. To look with those eyes at the world actually requires a degree of wisdom, of transcendence, of being able to see beyond forms and immediate presence of things. For a person stuck in the world of adults that so many in the coming of age stories try to avoid, person living in the routine and very often in the grayness of adulthood, it takes an extraordinary effort, even skill, to see anything but the grayness. But with rediscovery of innocence, the second innocence, comes a slightly different, yet old awareness, that indeed, sunsets and sunrises are a wonder, the blossom of flowers are a wonder, the entire ecosystem of a meadow, of an ocean, a wonder. When the world opens to ourselves as such, it is difficult to be a nihilist. It is actually more difficult, at least personally, not to be in the constant state of wonder. The memory of childhood of which Dostoyevsky speaks serves that purpose - for we are reminded how we once saw the world and yet with the experience, it is difficult not to see the other side, the cruel side of it as well. But to find wonder, to find meaning in the world once again, even after the world has been ugly towards us, is the salvation Dostoyevsky told of. It saves us from the dark pit of nihilism and purposelessness. We dream, and we believe and dreams and convictions become our purpose - the one beyond consuming and paying bills.

Disenchantment and Wisdom

Artist Unknown

"A lot of people think that a little peasant boy of the day knows more than Pythagoras did, simply because he can repeat parrot-wise that the earth moves around the sun. In actual fact, he no longer looks up the heavens. This sun about which they talk to him in class, hasn't, for him, the slightest connexion with the one he can see. He is severed from the universe surrounding him, just as little Polynesians are severed from their past by being forced to repeat: "Our ancestors, the Gauls, had fair hair." - "The Need for Roots", Simone Weil Many people, when they think of someone they imagine as wise or intellectual, imagine that person as cold and serious, often critical and analytical. Disenchantment, as Sartre would suggest, has been mistaken for truth and wisdom. But the disenchanted, the cynical is not the wise by the rule, so often he or she is a person so lost in their books that they no longer know how to look at the world around them. Often we can see an advice, given by many authors and philosophers that reading too much without experiencing is a trap, for the conclusions, ideas from the books start appearing to us as our own even though they are not. Being such, we lack the experience to put those ideas in a context, rather we see them as an isolated bunch, doing nothing but agreeing and disagreeing into eternity. Perhaps the root of that can be in the way we approach education and knowledge, which Simone Weil in the excerpt above beautifully explains. The disenchanted person is the grown peasant boy of which Weil speaks - his innocence and wonder did not even have time to flourish, for we put children in cold classrooms at an ever younger age and school hours seem to proportionally extend. To be enchanted, to rediscover innocence, to find the second innocence is to find roots and connection with the surroundings, the world, the cosmos, it is to grow roots again. Wisdom is, I have once read on one of my feeds but I cannot remember or find the author, but the rediscovery of innocence. Perhaps we can all try, that before we do our deductions, inductions and other logical methods we take a look at Sun, a flower, a person and wonder, at least for a moment, before our minds begin their story line.

Links "The Catcher in the Rye", J.D. Salinger "The Brothers Karamazov", Fyodor Dostoyevsky "The Need for Roots", Simone Weil

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