The End of Innocence

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By Wayne Allensworth

That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more  

— William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Sometime in the 1990s I admitted to myself that a return to our golden age, however one might imagine it, could never happen. Not a golden age, not even a silver one. A baser metal would have to serve.  In researching my book, The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, I became keenly aware that the Russian particularists longed for a world that could not be found or recreated in a technocratic age. They sensed that globalism was dangerous and even a nightmare. At home, I realized that we were enmeshed in a taut web of ideology and technology (for they are nested the one in the other) and social/economic structures that made our return to an idyllic past an impossibility. What was missing? The word I was looking for was “authenticity,” as in a life that was one of depth, one rooted in experience, one that rejected the atomized hyper individualism that did not make us more fully realized — authentic — human beings, but shallow and reflexively self-centered. And therefore, I reasoned, self-annihilating, beings. Authentic personhood and meaningful life could not be fully realized in a postmodern milieu so detached, so alienated from a sense of the transcendent. And I went from there…

There’s a difference between longing and wanting. The one is unselfconscious, indicative of being drawn toward something, while the other is self-centered, not in a reflective way, but in the manner of reflexive desire. The former is a dream of being merged with something we know not what, an existential longing, an appetite for something transcendent. It’s fueled by broad vistas and craggy mountains and great waves and tall trees and the shimmering that sunlight makes on a hot summer day. It’s not something that can be explained explicitly. Art, song and poetry, painting and storytelling can convey its sweet sadness much better. Its naturally recurring spiritual twin is nostalgia. Not necessarily for a specific time or era, but for experiences that sparked a sense of awe and wonder in us, an innocent, unselfconscious attraction to that which is difficult to express in plain, explicit language, which seems to drain it of its energy.

Memory is nostalgia’s food. As I wrote previously on the subject:

“The sense of childish wonder can never quite be repeated as you grow older. When every day is a discovery, and every experience is new. When every game is exhilarating, and all the small sorrows of childhood seem eternal, the sensation of being alive, of living in life is electric. I think that’s why so many of us have a longing for those days and those sensations. For discovery, the uncovering of experience that is growing up, that is inherent in the first time. Falling in love, making friends, tasting food that seems like manna from heaven. Seeing the waves wash in on a beach, a deer bounding across a meadow. That first time. That depth of experience can’t be replicated when life starts accelerating. Time takes wing to fly, as they say, not slowly passing us by like a meandering stream that you can capture, and that captures you. Work and routine, the everyday chore that is day-to-day living, overtake us as a matter of course, and those keen childhood senses are dulled. It takes some effort to revive them. Some effort and some luck.”

And lots of imagination. We must have eyes again to see, senses not dulled by the postmodern bureaucratic machine, a mechanism for grinding up experience and spitting out data, reducing the beauty of a summer storm to a weather report, a home to housing, a family to a demographic category. But as dulled as we are by the postmodern grind, as stripped of unselfconsciousness, as shallow as postmodern life can be, the longing persists.

Nostalgia was a great theme of the Romantic poets. Their work seems to have been a reaction to the clean, even sterile, linear rationality of the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution and urbanization that flowed from that. The longing haunted them and inspired them in a search for what came to be called “authenticity,” that innocent wistfulness for experience untarnished by wanting, the will to power’s projected self that grasps, that desires possession and control. And in grasping what’s wanted, the thing itself vanishes, along with all feeling. A shallow world made dead, inanimate by a materialist mindset. Nostalgia itself is a longing for spontaneity in sensing the mystery and beauty of life and the world in depth, something we often lose in adulthood and have collectively lost in the technocratic panopticon prison we have built for ourselves. A prison in which romance becomes “relationships,” and intimacy is “intercourse,” reeking of detachment, not connection, of the clinical and the impersonal, of the wanting that can never be unselfconscious, unselfish, and authentic. A deadening of the spirit and even of the flesh in dulled sensation.

William Wordsworth’s poetic vision captured that sense of nostalgia, of memory and longing in his Tintern Abbey remembrance of his return to Wye River Valley and the rekindling of his spirit:

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee

O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods

How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Wordsworth ironically but necessarily sought to revive the unselfconscious authenticity of experience consciously at first, then turned that over to the imagination, awaiting inspiration. It meant letting go of explicit effort for his mind to unconsciously revive the feelings and sensations he had once known. Yet mere images, notes, and words must be used in attempting to recapture that which can never be fully expressed, but only touched on, in art, music, and poetry. The “beauteous forms” in memory had not been to him “a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” His memory was not a mere picture, but a living form.

From his The Prelude:

Oh! Mystery of Man, from what a depth

Proceed thy honours! I am lost, but see

In simple childhood something of the base

On which they greatness stands, but this I feel,

That from thyself it is that thou must give

Else never canst receive

The past is ever with him, what Wordsworth called “the hiding places of my power”:

The days gone by come upon me from the dawn almost…

I would enshrine the spirit of the past

For future restoration…

Memory is a psychic foundation of the self, of identity, and the poet seeks its visionary power. Nature would be a vehicle of restoration, of revitalizing memory, memories that had not been lost, as Wordsworth wrote in Tintern Abbey, “in lonely rooms and ‘mid the din of towns and cities.” Only then could “we see into the life of things.”

We seem to know that the masses spend too much time indoors, crowded into cubicles or scrolling down a screen, but that, too is so often reduced to a 20-minute walk to control blood pressure readings, another clinical and sterile approach to experience as we jostle along, earbuds firmly in place. So, we must begin at the beginning by using conscious actions to back us into unselfconscious experience. To revive what has become commonplace and make it once more uncommon and see with new eyes that are open — engagement over detachment, the subjective, empathy and intuition over objectification, detachment, and rationalism. In The Roots of Romanticism, Isiah Berlin wrote that “I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means to do it. I have to convey something that is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means.” Berlin knew he could not fully convey authentic experience in words, but he could “get nearer and nearer” to it by imbuing his experience in those words, thereby lending them depth and meaning.

The end of our innocence took place during an extended twilight, some hundreds of years, when industrialism, urbanization, rationalism, materialism, bureaucratization, and the tyranny of technocracy and its lifeless language strangled it to death. As Iain McGilchrist wrote in The Master and his Emissary, the creative process is one way out of our deadened world. We have lost our ability to see what is as it actually is, but seeing what was there all along is precisely what we must aim for. To reject wanting in favor of longing, to return to the familiar as if seeing it for the first time. And, as McGilchrist put it, to redeem the inauthenticity of the familiar. Healing our loss and the overwhelming alienation of postmodern life with memory, imagination, and nostalgia. Allow your longing to flourish. “Wanting,” wrote McGilchirst, “is a drive,” an “impulsion,” while longing is a sublime “attraction.” And we have a natural attraction to what we most need.

No election is going to resolve the fundamental dilemma that we face. Each of us must begin by breaking out of the alienating technological cocoon — really, our societal tomb — and view reality with new eyes. Then we can swim out of the shallows, seeking old depths of experience. “There is,” as Wordsworth put it in Tintern Abbey, “life and food for future years.”

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood. For thirty-two years, he worked as an analyst and Russia area expert in the US intelligence community.

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About the author

Wayne Allensworth

2 comments

  • Well done Mr Allensworth.
    The sense of childish wonder was abundant in youth due to a vast world of never before encountered experiences that lay on our path. We “checked” those off as we traveled the path and did so with little effort since “firsts” were not just easy to find, … they seemed to find us. Decades down that path there are still many “firsts” to experience … and now it is the individuals task to do the finding. Committing to being a lifelong learner is a choice and it is work, but continuing wonders are the reward.

    Our educational experience has evolved into a one & done task early in life. The end of process diploma is considered an endpoint. ‘Tis a tragedy it is not given as a license for continued learning: “Here, you’ve been trained, go learn things!”

    You mention that an election will not bring resolution and I agree. Like it or not the US, and in fact much of the world, is sprinting back toward the illusion of former good old days. Eventually the pendulum will reverse and the new longing will be for today’s world as that becomes the “good old days”. And the now reversed pendulum will go too far once again and the cycle repeats.

    The old quote is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately due to their minority, those who do remember the past are condemned to watch the rerun!

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