Innocent experience

Innocence is a word for the advent of an experience before meaning arrived to subdue and relegate it to the background.

Annie Dillard (1974) writes of the ‘newly sighted,’ people given a visual world by removal of cataracts after years or lifetimes of blindness: some refused the gift of sight and space because it was too disturbing. Likewise, mind-blind autistics may reject whatever interferes with their familiar routines, preferring to remain in oblivion unless dragged out of it by the concerted efforts of others (Baron-Cohen 1995, Park 2001).

Our whole experience of the external world arrives by way of perturbations, often accompanied by a sense of loss. As Dillard says, ‘Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning’ (1974, 35). ‘The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window – silver and green and shape-shifting blue – is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn’ (36). They are mute because they turned out to be what the fluttering patch had to say, and once this has been heard, the magic is gone. We are driven out of the mythical Garden when we feel this sense of loss. Yet the emergence of meaning is hardly less amazing, when we step back from that. And those condemned to live in a world of pure ‘magic’ undiluted by memory – like Zasetsky in Luria (1972), or amnesics like Clive Wearing (Restak 1998, 29-31) – feel an even greater sense of loss, feel as if they have been dead or asleep up to now.

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