Higher Innocence

Higher Innocence

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by a improvement of sensual enjoyment.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and
medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

I read this for the first time when I was fourteen years old. I tracked it down once I found out that this passage, and not Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception was the root for the name of The Doors. Through the lens of age (and more in-depth study of Blake) it seems well worth revisiting right now. Several nuances need to be explored, beyond the sentimental rebellious perception of either myself, as a boy, or Jim Morrison’s limited understanding of Blake— The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not a sales pitch for psychedelic drugs. Blake was not a Satanist. Going back to the third plate, here is the definition Blake offers of Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Performing the easy substitutions (and noting the ironic nature of “Hell”) it is clear from this that Blake’s “infernal method” is caustic, melting away the “apparent surfaces” of things, to reveal the “infinite” that is hid. I would submit to my compatriots Duemer and Delacour that the infinite is not hid by sentiment, but rather through an underdeveloped notion of what “sentiment” really is— reverting to a Chaucerian definition— sentiment is deeper than sensation alone, and beyond the chinks of the cavern. The apocalypse of vision which Blake proposes shall come about by “the improvement of sensual enjoyment,” through the reintegration of body and mind. Revelation happens when the notion that “mind” and “body” are distinct and separate is destroyed. All discourse involves feelings; commonplace feelings, or sentiments, are really the first step on the ladder toward deeper ways of feeling— what Blake scholars call “higher innocence.”

My adulation of transparency, of dispassionate inquiry into representation using people like Walker Evans as idols has become deeply tempered by acceptance that all expression evokes— and includes— feelings which though easily exploited, are inseparable from art. Discarding the commonplace sentiments is an exercise which was for me essential to the pursuit— not of dispassionate knowledge— but of higher feelings. I know this is what Duemer and Delacour are really on about. I’m just playing with the vocabulary, obviously. The mode of inquiry which purges sentiment can be a trap as well, worse than anything that might be lost by too deep an exploration of sentimentality. Too much corrosion destroys the plate— it’s a delicate balance. Growth happens through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment” not the purging of it. That is what The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about (at least in part).

The oppression of sentiment does not really get you closer to truth— it merely promotes oppression, control, reason. Sentiment naturally fades with experience— it need not be purged. In Literature in its Place, James Britton cites some really beautiful evidence from the empirical study of reactions to poetry. Almost universally, adults reject poetry which contains powerful emotions— unless they are cloaked in complexity. Why this happens is hard to say— I suspect that it’s because of the social construction of identities that are trained to distance themselves from their bodies, their feelings— the rejection of sentiment is very pronounced as we reach adulthood. Using a group of poems, some “real” poems and some horribly sentimental fabrications, Britton charted the reactions of children from 13-18 years old. The fabrications were enjoyed by adolescents, but older children gradually began to prefer less overt expressions of emotion. Britton has an interesting theory about the cause:

We suggested at the time that under the strain of the emerging adult world, the adolescent may need to withdraw into some imagined world: when the strain is too great, it may be into the most docile and accessible world that he or she withdraws— a world represented by sentimental values. In matters of emotion, the familiar and safe kind of love— love of animals, pity— may be acceptable where passionate love is too threatening. (46)

The summation of that study, quoted in the book, echoes the sentiments of Warren Zevon and Charles Lamb that I quoted last night:

Such imagined experience— the stock response, the unoriginal, undisturbing type— gives time to recover balance, but does not itself allow for grown, reintegration, advancement into living. For this we must try to graft genuine poetic experience onto the counterfeit, regarding a taste for the counterfeit in adolescence as the first rung on the ladder rather than the first step to damnation. (47)

Feeling, or sentiment, is an important first step. It’s important that the progression from it to deeper and more complex feelings be natural and not forced. I like Britton’s usage of graft to describe the process of growing to appreciate deeper things. Many artists flirt with the sentimental and some (like Kertéz), have the depth to portray truly poetic experiences within the most commonplace of frames. This flirtation with the child-like, sentimental world— an improvement of “sensual enjoyment” is in many ways what I think Blake was on about regarding higher innocence.

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