I was at a dinner with some poets and scholars not long ago when the conversation turned to the question: “What is it that artists want?” To which a noted Milton scholar smugly replied: “innocence.” How like a Miltonist, I thought.
But to understand innocence is to understand that it is and can never be primary, but secondary always. Innocence is what comes after; it is known only through its loss, its absence; it is what comes into being after the fall from grace, if grace is to understood as a category of not-knowing, of not-being-able-to-know that one is in a state of grace; a kind of spiritual blindspot.
Innocence is the name we give to the condition of naïve experience that cannot know itself. It can therefore never be true innocence. True innocence can only be arrived at – as a state of achieved simplicity that comes through and after complexity. That comes only through a dialectical negation of experience, loss, and the sorrows born of contingency.
The only innocence which can finally matter is not that which we have lost, but that which are striving to obtain. As a return to the imaginary of grace. A state that never was, but which we need to posit as original, as both preceding us and yet always still ahead of us. A state derived from the logic of the supplement, that precludes all appeals to the foundational, that recognizes that grace must always, can only, come after. It is not given – it is undergone. In a word, it is suffered. (See under: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, et al).
It must be thought of as a kind of forgiveness, then. Just as Kristeva writes that forgiveness breaks the concatenation of cause and effect, its endless iron chain, so innocence is an intervention into and a surpassing of history. Its economy is libidinal, erotic, a-historical, that which opposes contingency.
But of course it cannot come on its own. It needs contingency to supply it with its moment for falling. Innocence is therefore inseparable from contingency. Without the pressures of history, innocence is an empty descriptor, a sentimental fetish marking some pre-conscious realm of purity.
What is it that artists want? The immature artist longs to recapture lost innocence. The mature artist strives to redeem language and experience from the predations of history. This, I would humbly submit, is the only and true meaning of hope.