Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Ceremony of Innocence

It seems I have Yeats on my mind, these days.   This is well and good, as he was a great poet in the Modernist manner, and it is the Modernists I find most interesting.  Yeats ranks up there with Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, for me; among the greatest of them.  I was never fond of Carl Sandburg and others who it seems tried to construct a peculiarly American poetry, and never thought much of anything of e.e. cummings, whistling far and wee. 

Most everyone knows of The Second Coming, or knows at least a word or two of that poem, either by virtue of being compelled to read it in school, or running across snatches of it in print or on the screen, or perhaps even by reading it out of interest and while at leisure to do so.  In the last case, it may be even that the poem is understood, or if not understood then known to be powerful and evocative (perhaps that's being understood in the case of a poem).

"The ceremony of innocence is drowned."  That's one of many striking phrases in the poem, but it's the one that keeps coming back to me right now.  Why "ceremony"?  No doubt many learned professors have expounded on this, but I haven't read them and in all honesty don't care to read them, though I'm sure to be enlightened if I did.  Or perhaps not.  It's hard to accept expertise of any kind these days.  Experts are always in front of us, on display by the media and used as kinds of fillers between commercials.  Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, and so a dismissive contempt seems to pervade among us, regardless of the qualifications of those who are strapped on horseback like El Cid to ride the satellite waves for our enlightenment.

Left then to my own devices I wonder why "ceremony" was used by the poet.  It would appear to refer to something formal, something religious or in the nature of a ritual.    Is that what innocence was to the poet; did he think that's what innocence had become?  Innocence is generally a lack of sophistication, earnest, unfiltered observation of the world and reaction to what the innocent encounter.  And why "drowned"?  By the blood-dimmed tide, presumably.

The poem was written in 1919, so there was certainly quite a bit of blood being shed shortly before.  Probably enough to make a tide.  It's been claimed often enough and by many that the Great War, which we Yankees call World War One, was an end to innocence, and there would seem to be support for that claim.  Certainly it brought to an end any "innocent" view of war as glorious and fulfilling, though one is compelled to wonder how any innocence would have survived the American Civil War or the Boer War if not others.  Even the juvenile and romantic view of war held by such as Teddy Roosevelt was dimmed by the blood-dimmed tide.  And of course much that was new and unusual, and less than "innocent" as commonly defined, seemed to follow the war inexorably in politics and in the arts.  It's hard to believe that ascribing such things to the war is merely a case of  the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

But a ceremony is something that's existed for a good amount of time.  A ceremony is seldom created anew, and when it is it's not considered a ceremony for some years.  So it would seem that the ceremony of innocence for Yeats would have been something that was existent and known long before the Great War--known in fact as a ceremony.  Innocence as a ceremony is not spontaneous or uncontrived.

Had we, even then, made of innocence a ceremony?  If so it is even more of a ceremony now, if indeed it still exists.  Who can we consider innocent in this age?  Young children, perhaps, but they're encountering an end to innocence more quickly now than in the past.  Communication is relentless and innocence can only be maintained by the cultivation of ignorance.  Innocent isn't necessarily good, but at least for now it remains something we prize.  Perhaps that's why it's become a ceremony for us.

Perhaps too much of a ceremony--too much that is of something not merely significant but to be extended if not perpetuated.  Parents now are said to be notably protective of their children (when they're not abusing or ignoring them, that is; parents like everyone these days are extremists of one kind or another) and described as "helicopter" parents, shielding them and controlling them and maintaining their innocence, or trying to do so, which in itself is dangerous.

The danger of innocence is that it may generate gullibility.  The innocent are subject to being fooled because they're unaware of what those who are no longer innocent desire and the lengths they'll go to satisfy their desires, or if they are aware believe this to be a concern of others.  In a very odd way, I think we remain innocent even now, and that we want to be innocent, unthinking, perhaps more than ever.  Unfortunately, though, there are those who take advantage of the innocent and the simple, and today they are omnipresent. 

As they were in Yeats time, as I think of it.  Did he think it unfortunate that the ceremony of innocence was drowned, or did he welcome it?  How could he welcome it when the best lacked all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity?  Did he think that was due to the drowning of the ceremony?

There are too many full of passionate intensity here in the Kingdom of Fear, and proud of it.  No ceremony will save us from them.  They seem eager for ceremony; they thrive on it.  Perhaps it's time to grow up at last.

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