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The Second Innocence

November 24, 2009

The Second Innocence is an experimental project drawing on nearly five years of thought and work.  

It draws on literature, philosophy, social research, educational theory, music, film and a massive amount of very self indulgent imaginings.   It is effectively, a book which will grow in readable chunks on this blog as long as anyone is interested to read it.  It aims to be a narrative, moving from fictional allegory to philosophical enquiry and back again; until a final point is reached and the entirety of the story becomes apparent, though along the way it will pick up on a lot of topics of interest and creative experiments.  It will be published in a fairly draft form however; and I would be fascinated and and greatly appreciative of any feedback, questions or additions; though I should probably warn the unwary – I will make no apologies for not making it too obvious, or keeping some of meanings hidden for a time.

This blog will tell a story of a trail of thinking around the subject of childhood innocence… and hopefully it will, if not prove interesting to you, then at least open your mind to a way of thinking that never seems to reveal its depths to me.

I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

LATEST UPDATE: 20th December 2009

The final part of the second chapter is up, so that’s the first two down.  Hopefully it’s a bit clearer what this project is all about now – although chapter three will be another departure into unexpected waters.

At this point, I really would like to invite anybody reading this to share their opinions on the topic.  Even if the first chapter was a bit puzzling, have a look at chapter two and tell me: what do YOU think innocence means?  What images, feelings, emotions and connections come to mind when you think about it?  Is there are any specific element which you think has to be considered when we think about innocence might be?  Or have you got any feedback on anything I’ve posted so far?  What have I got wrong so far?  Let’s hear your thoughts…

Also, in an effort to get some debate moving on this I’ll try and plug the site a bit more – and I would be endlessly grateful and appreciative of everything you are if you point people in this direction.  We’ve had some great stuff on this site before so let’s see if we can’t get it moving again!  There must be a few mothery types out there in webland – I’d love to know what you think makes your child’s childhood so special…

In the meantime, Happy Christmas one and all and here’s hoping for a fun new decade (where maybe we fix a few things wrong with the world…) 

xxx

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2iii. A Broken Perspective – Conceptual Breakdown

December 20, 2009

One of my most important inspirations...

So where exactly does all this get us? Is there any possibility of any kind of definition that covers even that extremely cursory and messy overview in which the way the concept is used?

Could there be a common element to all the above conceptions? There are so many contradictions it seems unlikely. The term is also used in such different contexts that a child could be ‘corrupted’ in one area, but not in another; both innocent and not innocent in different contexts. A child who is too young to vote but old enough to be imprisoned. A child who is morally innocent while sexually knowing. This happens.

Incidentally, my dictionary defines innocence as: “Freedom from sin, guilt or moral wrong in general; moral purity.” No mention of the ‘good’ in innocence, or original sin, or sexuality. It’s not even obvious if the dictionary meant they are morally pure and exemplary, or amoral and incapable of being moral. No real help there then.

So it seems looking to literature and philosophy is unlikely to bring us to a consensus on what innocence actually is. Like God and like art, we get pictures. Beautiful that they are, seemingly what we never get is clarity.

However could we put this down to changing contexts? Certainly, the world in which Freud was writing in held childhood in a drastically different way than would’ve been the case when Genesis was written. Could we then sidestep this problem by finding how we think about the concept of innocence in the here and now?

Thankfully this is easy to find out. The internet opens us before us with every possible modern day usage of the term. To see if there is a dominant conception of the term in every day usage we can just see what people are saying.

To this end, I carried out two very quick, loose bits of research to see whether we might get an indicator. Firstly I’m going to look at how The Guardian newspaper has been using the word. Secondly, and for the most unbiased approach to internet ramblings I can think of, I’m going to type in ‘innocence’ into the search engine in Twitter and see what I get out of the first 120 tweets. This will give us enough of an idea to ask one simple questions – is the term used in any kind of consistent way?

After spending several seconds typing in the word into The Guardian site’s search engine, my extensive search bought up over 7,500 articles. I looked at the last six weeks of articles where the term ‘innocence’ was used explicitly (not the most in-depth research methodology ever conceived, but it should give us an idea).

By far the most common usage (54 uses) in the paper was innocence used as a legal term; innocence being ‘declared’ in most cases. This was followed by innocence as some sort of description of a person, varying slightly from naivety to playfulness or creativity – a description, that was never clear in even its own context (16 uses). This was followed by innocence used in relation to childhood (7 uses), or as a synonym for ignorance (5 uses). There were even a few cultural references – including a reference to William Golding, an article by Phillip Pullman and, rather brilliantly, the eighth hit I got was a reference to a film I’m going to make a big deal of later in this exploration…

Let’s look at the tweets before we prod at these results; again, a very quick and simple search to keep the randomness of the sample. Using Tweetdeck; I looked at the first 120 mentions of the word ‘innocence’ (was planning on 100, over counted)…

The first thing to hit me was how much more difficult it was to put the use of the term into some kind of category. True, nearly half (49) uses of the word were in its legal sense which tarries with the Guardian usage. But after that it all gets a little more difficult. Oblique cultural references were reasonably common (12 mentions and I‘d heard of none of them, but that may say more about me and the average Twitter user than anything else). There were 10 references to the character trait of playfulness or naivety as above, and 9 mentions of innocence as a synonym for purity or faultlessness.

However the second biggest grouping was written down as ‘??’ on my list – as the references were too vague, oblique or confusing to make any real sense of them. Just to assure you this isn’t just the fault of Twitter, let me show you a few choice picks of the 19 I couldn’t make head nor tail of:

 Why do we force ourselves to hang so desperately onto those last shreds of innocence left in our souls?

 There’s something beautiful about watching my niece interact with my cat. Innocence and love at it’s finest.

 there used to be more innocence. Oh no. Wait. It was ME that used to have more innocence ….

 I’ve given up on the innocence you left behind.

 it was all such innocence in comparison.

 The common grief of children protecting their parents from reality. It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into.

 Who are you gonna be? When you’re on your knees who do you believe? Fear is a lonely man. You’ve been given innocence.

 I think innocence is something that adults project upon children that’s not really there.

 Now I can see what a couple of them are driving at; particularly the last one – but what are they actually saying? It is seemingly something spiritual yet social, playful yet serious, something given and taken, something illusory yet real.

On the whole I think it’s safe to say that this is even more confusing than the Romantics.

So does this get us anywhere? We can perhaps draw a line under a couple of points.

Clearly, there is a stable usage of the term in a legal sense – and this is a sense which can be extended to include some kind of moral or social wrongdoing. This usage was used consistently across both samples and seems unproblematic. We therefore can make perfect sense of statements like “Emily was innocent of the crime of necromancy” or “Tommi was an innocent bystander”. So we have one meaning of the word innocence without problem – but of course, it wasn’t this usage we are really interested in.

The second way we can get innocence is to work is as a synonym for a less controversial term; its exact meaning varying by context. If a word such as ‘ignorant, ‘naïve’, ‘playfulness’, ‘joy’, or ’pure’ can replace the reference to innocence – then fine, we can put one category of usage to one side. This does however, make the word basically a frill of the English language – poetic but pointless.

Beyond that it starts getting very tricky. The way the word is often used links it to several key other concepts – including the legal / moral sense, and the ignorant / naïve / playful / joyful / pure sense – but also childhood, asexuality, powerlessness, vulnerability, beauty, wisdom and more subtleties besides. It seems that although innocence can be used as a synonym for any of these words – it is extensively used as a term which hints at these things in such a vague, oblique or paradoxical way that it is impossible to pin down its exact meaning. It is, at times, a phase of life, a type of experience or a description of a person. In short, the word breaks down – even in every day conversational usage – and becomes abstract.

This short study tells us little more than there is no obvious answer. There is no ‘correct’ way to use the term, or to think about the concept. Innocence is, it seems, poetic – and to try and ascertain its true meaning is, basically, flawed. There is no true meaning to be found. Yet it is this conception of innocence I will dedicate this work to.

A quite legitimate question raises its ugly head at this point. Why, if conceptual analysis is effectively pointless, try and pull any further meaning from such a term? Why is such an unhelpful word used so much in certain contexts? And – why do we think we know what it means when we read or write it, when we can’t define it?

The problem is – and this is why this work is being done – is that the concept is too important for us to ignore. The fact that it is used so often begs the question of just what it is we are talking about – and the fact that the notion, in some configuration, recurs so often in literature and art hints there is a significant truth hidden behind the confusion.

What we might be reaching towards, albeit blindly and inconsistently, is the main focus of this investigation – and after spending the last few pages systematically ripping the concept to shreds, and showing endless varying conceptions, I plan to offer yet another conception of innocence. This will draw on many different influences; this is not an original thought but rather a collage of perceptions from music, film, philosophy and literature – and drawing especially from one crazed genius called Friedrich Nietzsche. This version of the concept will attempt to be strong enough and useful enough for us to make sense of what innocence is in all its uses noted above – and also attempt to account for our confused, yet strangely, obsessive regard to the notion. What’s more, once this idea has been laid out, much more will be able to be seen as a consequence of it – and will show the concept to be of significant importance in terms of how we perceive childhood, morality and our lives as a whole.

There is in fact, a philosophy and ethics of innocence hidden in the confusion.

But I have not yet written one word in innocence’s defence, and there’s more to say on how we get innocence wrong; a fresh beginning is required, as it always is.

 

 

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2ii. A Broken Perspective – A Little of the Romantic

December 14, 2009

Rousseau proved to be a huge inspiration on the writers of the Romantic era, where this conception of a natural and positive innocence became a central theme in much Western literature into the 20th century. Also worth noting is that the influence of John Locke was significant at the time, who was the first to abandon a priori (intuitive) knowledge, and claimed that all of our knowledge comes directly from “in one word, experience.” Therefore childhood is the prime example of the tabula rasa (the mind as an ‘empty slate’ at birth), and Locke wrote his principles of education based on this notion. For some authors ‘innocence’ became a term used to challenge this materialist and rationalist view of the world, and so it became associated with a priori, natural knowledge. Put simply, innocence, arguably a special case of ignorance, was becoming associated with knowledge (sigh).

There are many examples of this view, though there is a lot that could be said about the variations between the various key writers in the Romantic era. To take one example; Blake, most notably in his Songs of Innocence and Experience, wrote of the positive aspects of a child’s perception and imagination. Unusually for the Romantics there is also an interesting anticipation of Freud, as in Infant Joy and The Blossom there is a definite sexual element to their innocence. An important distinction with Blake is that unlike many Romantic writers, he does not see innocence as something for regret; experience is necessary for continued development, and ultimately to be ‘born again’ – a Christian influence, coming from the words of Jesus who came out with lines like: “Except ye become as a little child; except ye born again.” I’m not getting to the sexuality of innocence yet though – a can of worms best left to lie for now.

Coleridge was similar in his views, seeing an internal spiritual development to children, and saw innocence as a capacity to feel and imagine. This innocence is undoubtedly positive but is seen to be inevitably lost by societal influence and experience. As a very-useful-writer-for-this-topic, Coveney puts it: “The corrupting serpent lies in the impediments of society, frustrating the enjoyment of his innocence.”

Wordsworth however, focused much more on the psychological and moral aspects of children. He took an unusually philosophical view, drawing influence from Locke, but saw this tabula rasa innocence as visionary and as the ‘seed time of the soul’. This view also shares similarities with Rousseau, as the whole focus of the education of Emile is for him to develop into a strong adult. Wordsworth’s view was that he did see childhood as important, but only as a stepping-stone towards adulthood.

Dickens’ conception was different again, seeing innocence in a much darker and more sentimental way. Perhaps for the first time, in his writings the loss of innocence became something to regret from the adult perspective. For Dickens, innocence was a symbol in the struggle of good against evil, and much of his work explores the innocent child and their struggle against not just corrupted, but genuinely evil characters. The writings of Henry James were similar, in such works as What Masie Knew, the child is surrounded by immorality and depravity but the child remains morally strong and good.

Lewis Carroll, and others such as D.H Lawrence, developed the idea of innocence as both a dark and nostalgic concept. In Alice in Wonderland, the end of the dream-like state actually results in the symbol of death in the “dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face…” This wretched nostalgia was taken to its extreme by J.M Barrie, who obsessively wrote on the darkness of lost innocence. Alongside others such as Hugh Walpole and Forest Reid, his work is obsessive to the point of being – quite frankly – disturbingly sexual, as well as being very dark. As Coveney writes on Peter Pan: “Barrie’s story is not even so much the tale of a boy who didn’t want to grow up, but, carrying the sentiment to its deadly conclusion, of the boy who wishes so painfully that he need never have been born.”

In a few short paragraphs we seem to be a long way from Eden. And none of it’s making much consistent sense.

In Wordsworth, innocence is something to be left behind, in Barrie, something to be mourned. In Blake, it is the capacity for imagination that is important; in James it is the moral strength. Some writers support innocence for its own sake, others see it as an important stage to adulthood. This variety in conception can perhaps be explained by two key factors, firstly the psychological condition of the author writing on it; J.M. Barrie and Lewis Caroll’s reputation proceeds them. Secondly, the concept of innocence was frequently used as a means to demonstrate a wider social point. This meant that although innocence seemed to be a universal concept, its meaning varied hugely depending on what it was supporting. Coveney (my authority on all things childhood literature) highlights:

“Frequently, indeed, as in the case of Dickens, there was an amazing inconsistency within the work of the same author. The child is now a symbol of growth and development, and now a symbol of retreat into personal regression and self pity.”

However the Romantic writers did perhaps hold one element in common; the reaction against the Calvinist view that children are naturally sinful. This view was abundant in Victorian society at the time, and many Romantic writers saw this as the corruption of society. Much of Dickens highlighted the terrible conditions of children at the time, and Kingsley highlighted this view, such as in Alton Locke, where through the eyes of her puritanical characters she describes children as “of wrath and of the devil.” As Butler, another commentator, puts it: “The mere fact of being young at all has something with it that savours more or less distinctly of the nature of sin…” Read the papers and it’s easy to see this perception alive and well.

Perhaps the best-known example of this kind of perspective is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which needs little explanation. The end of the novel clearly demonstrates the wretched state of the children, and the glory of their adult savior with “a white-topped cap, and above the green shade of the peak was a crown, an anchor, gold foliage.” The point could not be made more explicit as: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.”

However it was the advent of Freud that firmly took the concept of innocence away from the idealism and symbolism in literature and theology of the 18th and 19th centuries, and into the scientific realm of psychology of the 20th century. It could be said that children’s natural sexuality and the unconscious power of the Id (in other words, a child’s animal instincts) pointed to the idea of original sin, but Freud did not take into account any of the Romantic conceptions, as his investigation was scientific. What could be described as ‘innocence’ in Freud is complex, but what is clear is that Freud scientifically moved past the idealized conceptions of the Romantics, and he has been described by some as the destroyer of innocence for so ruthlessly destroying the Romantic idealism of the innocent child. His scientific discoveries seemed to contradict many of the claims that the Romantics made and it is this “unforgivable” (Coveney again) undermining of the Romantic view, which called into question all the naturalistic views of innocence – particularly the amoral and asexual assumption of childhood – which provokes the question whether there was any substance to the Romantic conception at all.

Even more contrasting perceptions on innocence in literature can be found in more recent days. The contrast with the Christian view of natural innocence can be seen in Philip Pullman’s recent, glorious, epic Dark Materials Trilogy. I will not attempt to delve into the full depth of the novels here (fun though that would be); it is sufficient to highlight Pullman’s continual attack on instutionalised religion. Lyra, the heroine, is the second incarnation of Eve and is destined to Fall; to the ruin of the world, in the eyes of the evilly portrayed church. Her Fall, when it comes, does indeed destroy the wicked church, and in the process also kills God (a move which is wonderfully Nietzschen). Central to the novel is the concept of Dust, seen as original sin by the church, but in actuality is the life force of the universe. The church’s view of children is the Romantic view – children do not attract Dust until maturity, whereupon they become sinful, and the church is seen to do many evil acts to prevent this from happening. As Dust is actually positive, Lyra’s reaching of maturity, sexual awakening and the Fall are positive, which is a clear case that innocence (despite its numerous cognitive abilities highlighted in Lyra and Will’s capacities) is still inferior to adulthood. This complex, but unique example turns the whole Christian based view of natural innocence on its head, and highlights how differently innocence can be seen, even with the same assumption of a ‘natural’ innocence.

To provide yet another contradiction; as opposed to natural innocence, philosophers in the 20th century began to speak of a socially constructed innocence. This move partially originates from reactions of Freud; if children had no natural innocence in the Romantic sense, then the Romantic conception must be a socially constructed one, which could then be criticized for being over sentimentalised and idealized. The Aries thesis of childhood, which stated that childhood was a social invention of the modern era, was also important; if childhood, as an idea, was invented, then undoubtedly so was innocence. However, several modern-day philosophers have rejected this view, saying it is only the conception that has changed, and not the concept itself. If innocence is socially constructed, like any such concept it is inevitably going to vary from culture to culture, making any kind of universal definition very difficult. This led to innocence being used in a much more relative sense in the latter part of the 20th century, and the fog of its usage thickened.

 

 

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2i. A Broken Perspective: Innocence Introduced

December 4, 2009

As a person comes to awareness, ideas have to be found to be understood. Innocence is exceptional in so far as it has to be lost.

To understand the very concept of ‘innocence’, one cannot be an innocent; the knowledge is then perhaps dangerous. To possess it is to be changed.

There is certainly a temptation – at least retrospectively – to see the innocent world as a rose tinted one. All sorts of images are conjured up in an instant; worlds of joy and pure wonder without reflection – worlds and minds without conflict, guilt, morality or perhaps even thought.

Yet there is simultaneously a drawing towards the non-innocent; the temptations of reflexive thinking, self-consciousness and knowledge. Could this be as simple as curiosity? Perhaps – there is certainly a temptation to find the edges of life – places where things aren’t simple, the limits, the boundaries. We might long for mindless freedom but we also long for mindful control.

To think about innocence is then a conflict in itself; and as soon as this conflict becomes apparent – as soon as we start to wonder which might hold the greater joy in life – the decision is already made. We are left changed. Perspective, and innocence, broken.

How then to approach thinking about innocence? On one level, it seems inevitably paradoxical. We may as well imagine what it is like to experience nothing at all; to imagine ourselves dead, or infinite. How is it possible to gleam anything from a state of mind which shatters as soon as any thought is put upon it?

So a philosophical enquiry into the nature of innocence is already off to a bad start… We can’t be innocent and know it. However, we can be not-innocent and know it. We might not be able to say what innocence feels like, or even what it is exactly, yet it is more obvious what it is not. Conflict in thought it certainly isn’t – the innocent doesn’t reflect on how to behave. Guilt it is definitely not; the innocent doesn’t have the moral conscious to contradict it. It isn’t clever and, on the face of it, isn’t powerful either. The only thing that is obvious about it is that it doesn’t last.

It is then a concept that mankind created to be beyond itself; like God, ‘good’ or the notions of nothingness and being, it is a concept half beyond us – recognisable perhaps, but never truly understood. Yet innocence has nothing of the grandeur of these other concepts – it the word of the tabloid newspaper, as well as the holy book. It has been used in a million ways and with a thousand different subtleties; the full range of which would be a lifetimes work to explore. Countless images are attached to it, yet some seem to stick – childhood, nudity, playfulness, ignorance, naivety, asexuality, fantasy… One can be innocent in the eyes of the law, or powerless in the face of an external force. One can be stupid and senseless, or unspoiled and beautiful. It can be pathetic and yet full of wonder. Both where we longed to stay and where we never wanted to be.

How then, to even begin to understand the world through Eleanor’s newborn red-sore eyes? Thankfully, although there is no one ideal place to start, there are many possibilities. The notion of innocence, by definition, would have been invented as soon as it was destroyed for the first time. We’ve got the entire history of thought to draw on – in a page or two.

As far as I am aware, when innocence as a concept first began to be used it was assumed to be a natural phenomenon. If one is innocent, one is uncorrupted, unchanged and for better or worse, is a result of nature. Perhaps the very first development of the idea of innocence in Western writings comes from the book of Genesis, as Adam and Eve are undoubtedly created innocent. This innocence seems to be moral in its nature; they have no knowledge of morality until they eat from the Tree of Good and Evil after all. As sin is unleashed upon the world, it also signifies their simultaneous loss of innocence amid the gaining of knowledge of innocence, and so despite this moral knowledge acquired by Adam and Eve – that the snake (and perhaps the talking spirits) tempted them with – the loss is a profoundly negative thing.

It is interesting to note – and cannot be underemphasised – that this short story set the stage for two thousand years of assumptions about innocence based upon it in Western literature. Notably, it is the natural innocence that became its essential characteristic until deep into modernity. The notion that man begins as pure, innocent and close to God, and is then corrupted by the actions of mankind is a central part of the conception – as the image of the asexualised nude.

It is worth noting that an opposing view came out of this story too – Christianity always a leading the way in multiple and contradictory interpretation. Calvinism, the idea that we are all cursed by original sin and that we must work for redemption proved equally, if not more, assumed into the 19th century. Jonathon Swift, for example, once said, rather dramatically:

“You are as innocent as a devil of two years old.”

On this reading, to my mind, Eleanor should have died in the fields – but I’ll come back to this.

“Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man.” were the opening words of Rousseau’s Emile, who was the first to take the theological principle into educational theory. Emile is probably one of the most central works on innocence ever written, and rather than going through it all now, I’ll keep coming back. For now it is sufficient to emphasize his argument that successful education rests on protecting a child from adult influences, so that their natural goodness may be maintained. Rousseau was one of the first to spread the idea of the virtues of innocence – but only as a means to successfully shed oneself of innocence in the virtues of adulthood. Innocence good enough to be protected from adulthood – in order to secure a better adulthood. Paradoxical? We probably shouldn’t expect anything less…

 

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1. Eleanor

November 27, 2009

At first there was only darkness, emptiness all around. There was nothing to feel, nothing that could be heard. But then she stirred and there was light. The girl’s eyes burned red as the light enveloped her and she was suddenly awake. The bright red light poured through her vision and pulsed into her mind and there was nothing else.

After a time, the girl began to become restless with the light and it seemed to grow dimmer for her until it was no more than a yellow haze, so then she opened her eyes and again the bright light consumed her, but this time she recoiled from it. As she clenched her eyes shut once more, she sensed the first tingling of feeling across her eyes and in surprise she yelped in pain. The feeling slowly intensified as the girl desperately tried to lose herself in it, but then it was spreading and her nerves began to scream at her.

Then there was nothing but pain. A pain that spread from her eyes across her face, through her sinuses to her ears and nose, and then mouth at which she screamed. Slowly, agonisingly slowly, the pain moved down her body consuming her heart and stomach, chest and legs, until she was clenching her fists and flailing her legs desperately.

It was when the pain had consumed her entire body and she was completely lost to it that a new sensation pierced her senses and poured down her arm from a desperate outstretched finger. Not pulsing and hot like the pain, but suddenly cool and soothing, and prickling with a new energy. Like the pain that it followed, the cold, ticklish feeling flowed over her until her skin was enveloped by the swirls of sensation that lashed over her body, making her gasp with relief and delight.

Slowly she moved her finger slightly, causing an ice-cold sliver to roll down her hand and back into her, and she gasped again and the movement caused fresh chills leaping across her chest and down her legs, and she consumed herself to the feeling, feeling which left her writhing with pleasure and gasping with delight at every fresh brush against her skin. The cold soon pulsed like the red hot pain and after a few seconds of blissful agony she collapsed again and lay still.

As her breathing slowed and the pulses of feeling faded away she finally opened her eyes once more; and there was light.

The sun was now peeking over the hills to the east and sending shafts of clear white light down on to the fields, and was caught in the raindrops hiding in the long grass. The lacklustre wind sent the blades gently billowing down across the rolling landscape, flying small patters of raindrops across the sunlight once more. In the coolness of the morning there were even a few spirits of frost hiding and spreading themselves out amongst the shrubbery, but they would run from the sun before too long. The light spirits danced over them singing and laughing merrily as they shrunk back from the heat, and started to sink back into the earth.

Eleanor looked at the world and saw that it was good.

She watched the light spirits for a while; the little glowing dancing figures of bright white which leapt over the fields and chased out the wide eyed creatures hiding in the shadows. One of the fairy-like spirits danced up to her and leapt through her hair and across her chest, and Eleanor giggled madly as the spirit landed elegantly on her knee, bowed, and ran off to follow the rising dawn.

Eleanor sat up gingerly, still smiling from the little shoots of feeling that the cold wind shot across her, but with a considerable sense of relief that it no longer was as strong as it was. Gingerly she tried to stand up, her feet sliding on the wet mud and sending her collapsing forward face first back into the grass. Laughing again, she struggled back up and got to her feet after another attempt.

The world around her filled her senses. The chattering birds in the trees to her left had calmed a little now since the light spirits had moved on, but instead sang their morning songs to the rustling trees. Eleanor looked down to the next field where the early mist still hovered and caught sight of the light spirits dancing round it, taunting the rain for wanting to stay in the bright morning. Slowly she took a few hesitant steps down the hill to the field, and when she was sure of herself, started to run.

Again, she couldn’t help but grin madly as the disturbed raindrops in the long grass splashed against her skin, and as her foot landed heavily in a puddle she caught the cry of alarm from the water spirit she had disturbed. She laughed and ran on, clambering over the fence which separated the fields and falling heavily into the mud on the other side. She shook her head, and took a brief glance at the mix of mud and a little blood that now covered her hands; before laughing at the shooting and fleeting pain and ran on towards the mist.

The light spirits opened up for her as she approached and began to dance round her, encouraging her to join in. Eleanor sprang up and kicked, and pranced, and waved, and sang with the flashing white spirits as the mist retreated before them. Just occasionally she caught a glance at the spirit hiding inside, who was sullenly shouting at the spirits round him and desperately trying to grab its raindrops close to it. After a few minutes the mist spirit finally seemed to admit defeat and fell back to the ground and the light spirits cheered, their high resonant voices echoing around the fields. Their song finished, they then, as one, bowed to Eleanor in thanks and flew back towards the sun. Eleanor bowed back to them and waved as they spiralled back into the sky to find another likely spot for a dance.

Now aching from her exultations with the light spirits, Eleanor wandered back across to the edge of the field and sat down heavily against the roots of an old tree, staring at the wide panorama of the morning. Absent mindedly, she gently plucked a brightly spotted mushroom and squashed it between her fingers, letting the mush slop down her hand.

“Hey!” A sharp voice, almost nasal, directed at her. “Leave that alone!”.

Eleanor rolled over on to her chest and found herself nose to nose with a small gnomish creature with a long green nose and half-buried branch-like legs in the wet mud. She supposed that the little thing, whose hairy ears were flapping in the wind, was rather irritated.

“Why?” she whispered back, and the little creature blinked back at her with deep dark green eyes.

But all this did was to draw a long, protracted stare.

“Are you an Earth spirit?” she asked playfully.

“‘Course I bloody well am, think these shrooms just spring out the ground, do yer?” he replied sharply, and stared at her menacingly. “You’re Eleanor ain’t yer?”

Eleanor shrugged, and plucked up another mushroom.

“Oi!“ the spirit cried immediately. “Stop that! Do you need to kill all me crop as well as getting’ them light spirits all excited and keeping all the water away? We’re not going to get any good mist down ‘ere for bloody ages now!”

Eleanor giggled at him and prodded him with her finger, making him rock backwards.

“Don’t be so picky” she said softly, as the sprit mumbled his disquiet and tried to replant one of his legs.

“Don’t you go proddin’ me, young miss, I was raisin’ acorns before you was even thought of!” Eleanor rolled her eyes, but smiled. “And anyways, there ain’t no call for you to be prancin’ about with all them sparkly bastards and upsettin’ everyone else round ‘ere. And in the all-together too, I don’t know; don’t know what the worlds comin’ to these days, I really don’t. Ain’t anyone told you you was naked?”

Eleanor shrugged. “No?”

“Well you bloody well are!” the spirit yelled back. “Now stop pullin’ up all me shrooms!” And with that, he bent back and thrust his head back into the mud.

Eleanor stayed in the fields for the next few days, persuading some friendly earth spirit to let her sleep in their burrow at night, and eating the mushrooms and fruits that she found in the bright sunshine of the day. Despite the occasional mutter of disapproval from the gnomish spirits amongst the trees, she stayed naked.

The days passed slowly for Eleanor; each morning she would wake up before sunrise and wait for the light spirits to come prancing out from the dawn and help to chase the down the shadows and mists, but by the third day they barely had any opposition. She would then wander around the fields for hours on end, running through the grass, trying to leap over the fences, eating whatever fruit she found or talking to the spirits that love the daylight.

She chatted with the gloomy and smelly water spirits that sat sullen in puddles near the edge of the fields, trying to excite them to chase her; but they never did, and she would always end up stamping on them in frustration. She’d shout at the winds until an air spirit would come down to see her at which point she’d to try and persuade it to take her flying; but the best she ever managed to get would be to get the invisible wisp spirit to whistle through her hair. Occasionally she got a few words from the huge tree spirits, though it was usually only a angry deep grumble for her to leave them alone.

By the evening she would switch sides and club together with the spirits who love the shadows and chase all the light shadows out of the fields, before lying back and staring at the stars, trying to will them down to play with her. But they never did.

The rushing sensations of the first morning never returned to her; but she still felt the world around her keenly, the sun felt hot and comforting and every scrape, brush or cut against her skin would make her yelp and smile. On the fourth day she started to explore a little further beyond the first couple of fields, and in the next one she found a large pond and befriended the bright and welcoming water spirit that lived there. The sprit let her swim and splash for hours, and affectionately cleaned her down and squirted water at her to make her laugh. However by the end of the day the spirit grew weary of her constant intrusion and finally asked her to let his water lie still for a while. In response Eleanor plucked up a particularly disapproving mushroom spirit that had been complaining the whole day long and threw it into the pond, and she left them arguing.

Soon she knew her way intimately around the half dozen fields that covered the little valley. When she caught herself looking outside the fields, perhaps to the lofty hills or to the wall of high hedges at the far end of the topmost field, she would look away again quickly and forget what she had seen.

By the sixth day she had found that she had walked all the way round the fields three times without seeing anything she didn’t already know. Most of the spirits were ignoring her now; the earth spirits were leaving, angry at the constant interruptions at night; and Eleanor followed their slow progress, by paw, by twig, and by tiny claw as they left the fields through a hole in the top fields’ hedgerow. She didn’t dare follow. Even the light spirits and shadow spirits were ignoring her now, annoyed at her constant shifting allegiance each dawn and dusk. By the evening the meadows felt cold and unfriendly, and she was forced to sleep above ground, as all the earth spirits had gone and caved in their burrows after them.

The next morning she awoke hungry, afraid and colder than she had ever felt. The fruits had been finished the previous day, and the only spirits she could see creeping on the fields were skulking frost spirits. Eleanor wrapped her arms around her knees and cuddled herself against the cold, tears quietly falling from her cheeks.

Her mind suddenly felt empty, and the cold blasts of wind that had once excited her now seemed to be mocking her in her weakness. She rolled over, sobbing quietly, and lay back against a barren apple tree, but the roughness of the bark just seemed intrusive and painful to her now.

Her desperate eye caught her own hands, and found them to be skeletal, and weak.

“What’s going on?” she shouted suddenly, and her cracked voice echoed a little in the morning gloom.

It was then she turned and her eyes caught sight of a small spirit the like of which she had not seen before. It was in the form of a small female dormouse, with a small cluster of baby pups around her, but it seemed bold and was watching Eleanor intently.

Eleanor, very gently, lay face down in front of the watching spirit until its twitching nose was no more than a few inches from Eleanor’s tearful eyes.

“What are you?” Eleanor whispered, her words bubbling through her sobs.

“What are you doing Eleanor?” the mouse whispered back, so gently she had to strain to hear it. “Didn‘t you want to know more than these fields?” Eleanor blinked as her tears began to dry up, and then smiled suddenly as a tiny pup lost a teat momentarily before gaping and suckling once again.

“Are you a life spirit?” Eleanor breathed, as softly as she could. The spirit still winced slightly.

“Listen to me child.” the spirit squeaked back. “You are wandering why all the spirits in these fields didn’t want to stay with you. You don’t understand why they would not want to play with you, and look after you. You can’t blame them, they are only doing what they know.” The spirit looked away momentarily to stop a young pup moving too far away.

“But I’m the same aren’t I?” Eleanor gasped, suddenly hearing the panic in her voice. “I’m a spirit of the field just like they are right?” The life spirit blinked and looked at her sadly.

“No, child. You’re much more than that. You’re different.”

“No, I’m not!” Eleanor replied immediately, but her shout startled the pups who cried suddenly. The life-spirit didn’t reply for a few minutes as she calmed her pups, and Eleanor was lost in the gentleness of her care towards her young. Finally the spirit turned back to her.

“Yes, you are, Eleanor.” she whispered, even more quietly than before. “And it is a very special thing that you are. You will always be amongst us but you are more than we are.” Eleanor leaned in even closer so she didn’t miss a word.

“What am I?” she breathed. The spirit appeared to pause for a moment.

“I do not know.” she admitted finally. “But do you not think you should find out? You cannot stay in these fields because you will not be able to stay with the spirits. You are cold and afraid, and you are hungry. And you long for more than these fields.”

Eleanor cried once more when she heard those words as she recognised the truth in them. As fresh tears rolled down her pale and mud-caked cheeks, she whispered desperately;

“But where should I go?”

The life-spirit looked down and shuddered slightly.

“The world is a big place, my child. It stretches way beyond these fields, and it is filled with spirits of all sorts that will be there for you if you want them. But it is not an easy place, Eleanor.” the dormouse added, looking back at her. “Go and find new fields. Stay and you‘ll only bring death, Eleanor.”

Eleanor shuddered at the coldness of her words, but she understood, and nodded.

“So I need to go look for new fields?” she asked, her voice cracking as she still cried.

“You will need to make new fields.” the spirit whispered back. “But before that you will need to know why.”

Eleanor shrugged. “Why what? What does that matter?” The spirit gently started to curl up so her pups were huddled close to her body.

“You will find out I’m sure.” she whispered, so faintly that the slight breeze stole the words away. “Now go. Make your choice. Leave these fields or deny it. You’re dying here, and my pups do not long for that.”

Eleanor’s eyes filled up with tears and she had to pull herself away to wipe her eyes clean. When she looked back the spirit had gone.

She felt it then – the harsh punch of hunger that was hammering her stomach, the fever that pulsed her head, the numbing cold that rendered her fingers and toes stiff. She would have to sweat and work hard for her food after all.

Slowly, with teardrops falling round her, she clambered to her weary feet and looked to the distant hedgerow at the top of her fields. Gingerly at first, she clumsily staggered towards it, clutching her stomach and moaning at her fever. As she walked, rain began to fall from the deepening clouds above her, and it made her slip and fall. But each time she would hear the little spirits in the raindrops whisper encouragement in her ears, so she would get back up and stride forward as fast as she could.

After a lifetime of torment she reached the hole in the hedgerow that the Earth spirits had left by. She slowly bent down and crawled into the narrow hole, and once again she could see light, a different light, from the other side.

Even through the pain Eleanor smiled. She knew that the life-spirit had been right – for fresh fields already lay before her.

 

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Back from the Dead

September 22, 2009

No, not him. Me.

Well… not me either. It’s more my internet connection. For you see, I am back online after weeks of wrangling with phone companies to get the thing working. It is now, as you’ll gather.  Aside from this I have got myself a job that I’m so proud of that I’m not going to tell you what it is.

Now things have moved on somewhat over the last month or two; my collaborator and fellow-conspirator has become an internet sensation on a very different and completely unconnected site; but then it’s soooo good that you should go take a look anyway, http://sleepisfortheweak.org.uk/ Seriously, it rocks. You don’t even have to like babies.

Although I am sure she has not abandoned her altogether less pretty, less popular blog-child completely, I think it’s probably fair to say her attention is sticking with that one and quite rightly so. So that’s given me a little impetus for a slight re-branding of BBB; well, along with a couple of other pushes…

The other main reason is the last comment anyone made on this site was mine, around two months ago. Virtual e-tumbleweeds have been rolling across the page for weeks. So I might as well try evolving. Atheists like evolving.

So – expect some life in this poor neglected blog yet. I’m going to use this place as a bit of a curiosity and thinking dumping ground; Christianity will I’m sure feature fairly prominently, but not exclusively. Hopefully some of this might be of interest to somebody; some of the debate we’ve had on the site so far has been great, and it would be great to get something going again…

Anyway, no more introductions. Mainly because I don’t know what I’m introducing. So let’s just see where we go from here…

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Challenge the Devil’s Advocate! – An Argument against Spirit

July 30, 2009

 

Right then, I’m going to put my neck on the line.

This is an invite to everybody who believes in any type of Spirit, be you a believer in a fundamental truth kind-of religion, believe in a personal God, or just believe in some kind of ‘energy’ or ‘otherness’ that extends beyond the human condition. I’m going to stick my neck out and say why I think you’re wrong.

That’s right. I am that much of a killjoy.

I am, however, coming at this philosophically – I have an argument (that is fairly simple) and I want to see whether it works; and the way to do that is stick it out there and systemically try and destroy it. To that end, I’m going to be staggeringly arrogant for present purposes, playing advocate to the devil (though I guess I might accused of that anyway) – but then I’ll join in with any interested readers to try and take it apart. Then I’ll see if I can defend it in a blaze of schizophrenia.

So the challenge is laid down. Let’s see if we can pull my idea apart.

So let us hand it over to the devil’s right hand man:

*          *          *

devil

Spirit (including all religious or spiritual experience) either doesn’t exist, or it’s completely unimportant.

Firstly, what do we mean when we say something ‘exists’? We mean that we can in some way experience it – either directly by use of our senses, or indirectly by its empirically consistent effects. For example we know a pair of plastic devil horns exist because there they are, on my head; I can see them, feel their pointiness. We also know wind exists because we can see what it affects directly – I can see my midnight-black cape blowing around. We also know atoms exist because thanks to use of technology we are able to see them. And we know more abstract concepts like ‘love’, ‘hate’, ‘friendship’, ‘society’ and ‘pain- from-fiery-hell-flames’ exist because we can recognise them from signs and pointers that we directly perceive – we recognise the obsessive behaviour of love, the fairly similar obsessive behaviour of hate, the screams of fiery hell-pain, and so on…

Spirit does not exist on any of these levels. It cannot be directly perceived, nor can we obviously see its impact, like we can with wind. We’re not able to find any evidence for spirit scientifically, nor can we recognise its impact in any consistent manner – as any evidence presented of spirit influencing something concrete can be explained away with more verifiable explanations.

Therefore if some sort of ‘otherness’ of spirit exists it is completely beyond our usual understanding of something existing. Using the concept in a strict sense then, is to limit it to the realm of human experience. We cannot say something exists in a rigorous sense if it is completely beyond all our experience – as, after all, how would we know if it existed or not? This is the first alternative (or prong, of my pointy devil horn of an argument).

The second prong is to say, OK, let’s assume spirit exists in the weak sense – that it occupies some plane of existence completely beyond the sphere of human experience and only impacts on the human mind by way of an intuitive subjective experience that cannot be shared or verified. At best, we can experience Spirit like we experience memory or fantasy.

So the experience itself is fairly intangible. It is a completely vacant experience for us – how can it have any content if it is beyond the realm of human experience – all it can do is point towards something, suggest a shape of something, or give a sign to something. A spiritual experience is then reliant on a person’s creative interpretation to give it any content. A Christian might hear it as the voice of God. A Buddhist might feel it as a state of tranquillity. A devil-worshipper might see it as me. An atheist might see it simply as a random thought.

So then what is a spiritual experience? If it exists at all it is a void in human understanding, filled up by creative human interpretation. Religion tries to make this meaningful by referring us back to holy books and so on – but in itself it does not have any content – or significance.

How could it have much significance? Does it involve anything that we care about, that we put our efforts into? Does Spirit influence your relationships? Your love? Your children? Your job? How could it do – its existence is completely beyond such human-relative concerns. It is, like a fantasy, a private experience that has no bearing on the reality around you. Like fantasy, it might be beautiful, moving, thought-provoking; a creation of the utmost beauty and genius – but such things come from you – not from Spirit. Spirit isn’t in fact needed for it.

So even if Spirit exists on the verge of our consciousness, what of it? It can tell us nothing. Spirit either is effectively an empty irrelevance, useful only for the fruits of human creation – or it doesn’t exist at all! <evil laughter>

Ha ha ha ha!!!!! I have foiled you all!!!! You can never defeat ME!!!!!! Mutual respect, even if you disagree, mutual respect… we prick you, we prick you, we prick you…

*          *          *

Sorry, I think the devil’s advocate got a hold of me rather strongly there… I don’t think its water-tight but he is rather convincing (apart from the evil laugh anyway, that was very unconvincing. And what kind of devil has plastic horns?)

We’re not going to let him win, are we? Come on, you armies of light, let’s give him what we’ve got! 😉

Dx

(NOTE FOR STUPID PEOPLE – I’m not actually condoning the devil here… let’s just play along… )