Jan 22, 2010

The Problem of the "Innocent Child" (Thanks James Kincaid)

image from movieactors
The notion of the “innocent child” is a powerful narrative in the West, so much so, we forget it is even a narrative to begin with. The Romantic child (boy or girl) historically has been around since the Greeks, immortalized by Sappho and also the Greek epigramists.This image of the child, unmediated and innocent is typical of the poetry of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and William Wordsworth’s child of spontaneous, overflowing emotion in the “Prelude” but also, the image, at least partly, of Thomas Mann’s Tadzio in Death in Venice and Nietzsche’s Romantic depiction of the child as the pure child and bringer of a new philosophy in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. But, it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who made the claim that the child exists a priori in a state of innocence “in nature” which in time, through puberty, is corrupted a posteriori by the mediating forces of “society.” Rousseau famously advised nannies to allow children to wear loose fitting clothes (or no clothes at all) so they would not be constricted by anything other than their unmediated innocence. Rousseau wrote controversially that children are not inflicted with Original Sin but are born innately innocent and pure. He made the then radical claim that Original Sin is an erroneous doctrine. Taint is not inherent on the soul of a newborn, but, the soul becomes corrupted by a misguided society. For Rousseau, the innate innocence of the child must be preserved through careful education. Education is what maintains innocence along with the child’s developing consciousness. For Rousseau, then, there is a general suspicion of nurture. In Rousseau’s Romantic (and I use this word purposefully, and critically) political vision, the good state is inscribed within a social contract that works to protect and preserve the inherent goodness of children.  It is an unguided introduction to society that corrupts the child and separates it from nature, thus distancing the child from an original innocence, its true and unfettered state.

One of my favorite cultural critics who explored further the idea of innate innocence is James Kincaid. He wrote a book called  Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. In this book he argues once "adults" name the child innocent, such naming empties the child of a meaningful signifier. "Innocence," then, becomes a metaphor for an empty container, a blank face, devoid of substance which can be filled in by the adult’s desires. The innocent child is the “present” child — the ubiquitous Shirley Temple — who by being shed of experience, of sexuality, is in fact made to be molested. It seems in the West we are at odds with the binary of erotic/innocence. We cannot seem to reconcile ourselves with this strange pairing. Kincaid argues that the very construct of "innocence" is paradoxically warped to mean "protection" against experience but also, simultaneously, a disavowal of the child as inherently erotic. He uses some great examples from popular culture: the Home Alone kid: both cute, cunning, but utterly innocent. Shirley Temple, of course. Jean Bennet Ramsey. Poor thing. She was made both to be erotic and innocent. You can't have your cake and eat it too, kids.
I guess we could blame it on our Judeo-Christian heritage but, it does not take long to look into "recent" history: just look at the Genesis account of Adam and Eve (or at least how it has been interpreted). We were once innocent, until some dame messed things up for us. We were happy naked and in union with God. We got knowledge and now we're screwed. Seen from the view of the Fall, we've been trying to get back to the garden ever since (thanks Joni Mitchell). What a perfect scapegoat is the child (and the woman). They look kinda cute: a perfect face to throw all of our hopes and insipid wishes for innocence on them - poor, innocent creatures! So what has been created as a sort of compromise?! Well, adolescence of course. At first we were happy with merely the child/adult dyad, with the emphasis on the adult. It could be argued that the only truly human being in the West for thousands of years was the blue-eyed, blond hair man. The child? Not even considered as subject. The supposed invention of the child, as distinct from the adult, apparently is an eighteenth century invention that did not exist even as recent as the Middle Ages, according to the cultural historian Philip Ariès in his book, Centuries of Childhood. So, we go ahead and create the child three hundred years ago and then, to add insult to injury, create the adolescent. An even further blurring of the lines. It is no wonder that we are wee bit confused. But, that is fodder for another discussion.

The Good Son: the duality is brought out ad absurdam in the film, The Good Son (1993) also starring the kid from Home Alone, in a complete role reversal. From cutesy kid to serial killer. Mark, a boy of about nine or ten, played by Elijah Wood is sent to stay with his Uncle and Aunt in Maine after the death of his mother.  He quickly learns that his cousin Henry (Culkin) is in fact evil. He shoots dogs, wears a spooky paper-maché mask, drowns his brother, almost kills his sister, and attempts to push his mother over a dangerous precipice.  The movie, with cute child actors to boot, is almost certainly playing on the innocence/experience duality, the virtuous, innocent boy versus the abject opposite, an evil child, with no apparent explanation to why he does the cruelty he does — and why, no one, except Mark, Elijah Wood’s character, realizes his evilness. It is as if the child has to be either completely one or the other: any venture into the gray is taboo.
    Mark, the good child, is all-knowing and incredibly intuitive.  When his mother dies in the first scene, he is literally believes that she will not leave him, and, almost immediately, transfers the mother image to his aunt, as if he knows this must be the case.  We do not agree with his logic, perhaps, but we cheer his innocent intuition and allow it to endear him to ourselves, thus creating a convenient matrix to explain the Mother/Aunt Son/Nephew bonding.
    The evil child is also all knowing and incredibly intuitive, but he uses his “gifts” to curse, convince people to fly, smoke cigarettes (the epitome of evil?) — and we are made to revel in this only as a ploy to convince us that he really ought to die!  Both boys, consequently, are inverses of each other: Culkin is blonde, blue eyed and light, the other, Wood, is brown haired, blue eyed and darker complexion. In the movie’s final scene, as James Kincaid brilliantly observed (and I am ashamed to say I have capitalized on his argument), the mother dangles both boys from a Maine precipice in the hopes of saving both children, ostensibly her sons.  Her strength is not enough to hoist both children up, so she has to let one of them go to save the other, or risk losing both.  What would you do?  Do you destroy the good child or the evil child?  As James Kincaid notes, audiences cheered when she destroyed the evil child (159-60) and we thought nothing of it, deeply satisfied she did the deed. It is as if the film is stating not quite subtly, we can now wash our hands of the problem once and for all.  We have saved the good child from obliteration and we somehow seem sated by this fact.

Is there an alternative narrative? I wonder, is there a narrative out there that does not fall into this duality Rousseau set up for us so long ago? Is there a way out? In the present narrative, the child is discarded (like the Wild Child of Averyon) or is the child beatified (the child of innocence)? Kincaid suggests at the end of his book that to free ourselves from the current narrative we must free ourselves from suspicion, from repression, from nonsensical legalities and the like that threaten to blind us from the child qua child. Stay tuned. Peace.

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