Innocence and Experience

At the start of my twenties, I was still filled with sweet virtue (or romantic folly, you choose) and determined to, quaint phrase, “wait until marriage.” Which took so long that my own mother finally said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, just sleep with somebody and get it over with.” And so I did, and I had so much more fun. There is something priggish about always saying no, and it had not suited my temperament. But quite a few years later, I fell properly in love, head over heels, and suddenly, absurdly, wished that I had waited. I was thirty-two years old; even the number sounded jaded. All the Victorian novels I had ever read came back with a sharp slap: I was a ruined woman.

Except that I did not feel ruined. We held hands and giggled as we picked out dish patterns and wedding music, and it felt young and sweet and innocent.

Innocence is misconstrued. It is not an age or a physical technicality or the absence of experience. It is wholeheartedness, an eager willingness to love without selfishness, calculation, or manipulation. After a string of men I had enjoyed without trusting, Andrew was like a big oak tree I could lean against, close my eyes, and know it would hold my weight, take whatever storms rose up, be there. The papery layers of cynicism I had acquired while having fun blew right off of me, a chrysalis I no longer needed.

It is as possible to discard cynicism as to gain it. We often forget this in the political sphere, because it is so rare to place full trust in anyone. But cynicism, at its core, is only disappointed idealism. Once it sets in, we draw a heavy line between innocence and experience, refusing to admit they can mingle. Yet even in William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” which sharply divides childhood innocence from the corrupt and fallen world, a few poems proved hard to categorize, sometimes landing on one side, sometimes on the other.

What exactly is innocence, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines it first as freedom from legal guilt, then as “freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil: blamelessness,” then as lack of knowledge, then as “freedom from guile or cunning: simplicity,” then as “lack of worldly experience or sophistication,” then as chastity.

I had somehow decided, in my Catholic girlhood, that chastity and a lack of worldly experience would make me blameless. I would be a princess in her tower, passive, courted, with no need of cunning. Now I realize there was more cunning in this than I knew, because the role gave me the upper hand. It allowed me to preserve sanity and independence, avoid pregnancy and disastrous entanglements, and weed out anybody who was interested in “only one thing.” Then it outlived its usefulness, and innocence, by my private, girlish definition, grew tiresome.

Here is a switch, though: The etymology of the word threads back through Middle English and Old French to the Latin innocentia, a negation of nocere, which means to injure. So innocence originally meant not harming.

Which gives me pause.

Knowing the ways of the world might allow us to be gentler with one another, more realistic in our expectations. Ignorance can be willful, and purity can be an excuse not to participate. Remaining aloof can make us harsh, blunt, smug, judgmental. That may be why a certain kind of innocence, so charming in a child, can look either rigid or dotty in someone’s later years. Life is supposed to peel it away.

I return to that dictionary entry, its subdivisions so different from one another. Innocence is the absence of crime, guilt, sin, blame, knowledge, guile, cunning, worldly experience, sophistication, and sex. Do we at some level equate all those things? They read like keywords from Genesis, muddling the Tree of Knowledge, Eve’s sin and guilt, the guile and cunning of the serpent, the sudden nakedness, shame, and eviction into the world. What if the real sin in that garden was presuming to know who God was, and it is religious dogma that is sinful, and nakedness is just a healthy admission of vulnerability, and experience is the point of being alive?

All I know is, we are culturally confused. Search for images of “innocence” and half of the thumbnails are blacked out because they are Adult Only. The remaining images tend to be little girls, hardly ever a boy. Girls were supposed to remain innocent so the man who wed them could be their first—a stew of male ego, religion, and primogeniture that wrote fairy tales to drive girls batty.

From Genesis, though, one conclusion is irrefutable: Cunning is the opposite of innocence. This explains why old people’s romances touch us so. When two people fall in love late in life, when they ought to know better, news anchors smile fondly and use the footage to end their broadcast. It is a sentimental cliché we fall for every time, those wrinkled hands reaching for each other, because we know that unless a juicy inheritance is at stake, there is no angle here. No agenda, no lust, no babies to make with the right genes, no trophy to parade for status. Love is innocent all over again, because these two people—as sagging and creaky as old sofas that have long borne the weight of other bodies—would simply rather be together than apart.

Maybe, as we move away from old notions of marriage as strictly heterosexual and procreative, more innocence will be possible all round.

The other day, a friend in her eighties was reminiscing about her childhood’s innocence: how close-knit her neighborhood was and how safe and protected she felt, surrounded by adults who kept discipline. She talked about how the newspapers “told facts and were unbiased and displayed all sides of the stories,” and police officers could be trusted, and everyone worked together for the war effort. It sounded wonderful, and I felt an overwhelming longing for that innocent time I never experienced. Those Americans would have gladly donned masks to protect one another.

Then I pulled back. Were those newspapers really unbiased? Were the police always fair and kind? I doubt it. What was different was the discipline, the unquestioned authority of the adults and institutions. That allowed a framework for coherence. People lived in more apparent harmony, and more of them could remain innocent, trusting, clueless. They could also work for a common good, something we, with our competing agendas, have forgotten how to do. But an atmosphere of innocence did not guarantee an absence of injury. Often it just meant that viciousness remained hidden, with corruption and abuses of power swept briskly beneath the rug.

Is it a more innocent time we miss when we feel nostalgic for the past or for our “unspoiled” youth? Or do we just miss the days when we knew less about the world and did not realize we were in danger of being hurt? Experience does not spoil us, but it definitely makes us wary, reminds us we are vulnerable, cracks our hearts wide open.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.