What is it that is most appealing about children? Is it simply their physical beauty? Is it their openness to loving and being loved? Their playfulness, their innate humor? Beyond these things, in my view, children are beautiful because they possess something that we have all lost—the quality of innocence.
Innocence is not merely lovely; it is heartbreaking because it represents Housman’s “blue remember’d hills” … the “happy highways where I went/and cannot come again.”
The gap between innocence and experience is endlessly explored, like a gap in a tooth, by artists and writers. I have felt in exile ever since childhood—not as a result of some traumatic experience, but the simple, slow dimmer switch (调光器；亮度调节开关) of time passing and imagination coarsening (变粗糙).
But what is innocence? Like St Augustine on the subject of Time, “If you do not ask me what time is, I know it; if you ask me, I do not know.”
When I watch my youngest daughter, Louise, playing for an hour with Sylvanian Families (“森林家族”系列动物玩偶), singing to herself, I know I see it. When I watch my 10-year-old, Eva, dancing as if no one is watching, I know I am also seeing it. But it is ineffable (言语难以表达的).
It is, at one level, a rarefied (脱离普通人和现实生活的) quality of ignorance. To not grasp imaginatively that death will come. To believe in the irrational—Santa Claus, fairies, monsters under the bed. And, of course, the myth of the infinite power and goodness of parents.
This is perhaps the hardest part of all innocence to let go of. My eldest, Jean, nowadays seems perpetually disappointed in me and I can only ascribe this to the fact that I have let her down by proving unable to either be perfect or protect her against the world. After all, she was forced to face the separation of her parents when she was only six years old. But I feel, self-defensively perhaps, that her disappointment is more about her particular loss of what we all must lose.
Innocence goes deeper than ignorance. It is some mysterious operation of the imagination, the part that can enter into mental universes from which one is soon to be forever excluded. I have my own particular recollection of this.
Every year from when I was of reading age, I was given a Rupert the Bear annual for Christmas and every Christmas day I fell upon it with a passion, losing myself in the mysterious tales of wizards and sea-gods and wood sprites. Then one year I picked up the annual and could not “get into it.” It was just a book with pictures and a story. I could no longer enter its portal and inhabit its world.
Even now I remember the sting of disappointment. My wife thought I was mad when last year I bought a large painting of Rupert from the artist Mark Manning (who has done a series depicting scenes from Nutwood (纳特伍德村，小熊鲁珀特的居住地)). But I suppose therein lies the explanation.
Innocence is also the growth of self-consciousness, perhaps the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” referred to in the story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps you are thrown out into a world bled (使褪色) of color and meaning and spend your life trying to regain it.
But can you regain it? Not in its original form, certainly. But sometimes, now I am growing older, I feel shadows of my ancient innocence in the night sky, in the song of birds, in the earth’s breathing out of white and pink blossoms.
I am unlearning all the things I have been taught in life, and perhaps this, as well as the more tragic meaning, is what Shakespeare talked of when he wrote that the final age of man is:
“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion (遗忘).”