11. The Age Of Innocence
Sweet and wild, if you like, the first airs of spring, sweeter than anything in later days; but when we make an analogy between spring and youth and believe that the enchantment of one is the enchantment of the other, are we not dreaming a dream?
Youth, like spring, taunts the person who is not a poet. Just because it is formative and fugitive it evokes imagination; it has a bloom too momentary to be self-conscious, vanished almost as soon as it is seen. In boys as well as girls this beauty discloses itself. It is a delicacy as tender as the first green leaf, an innocence like the shimmering dawn, "brightness of azure, clouds of fragrance, a tinkle of falling water and singing birds." People feel this when they accept youth as immaculate and heed its mute expectancies. The mother whose boy is at twenty has every right to feel he is idyllic, to think that youth has the air of spring about it, that spring is the morning of the gods. Youth is so often handsome and straight and fearless; it has its mysterious silences-its beings are beings of clear fire in high spaces, kin with the naked stars. Yet there is in it something not less fiery which is far more human. Youth is also a Columbus with mutineers on board.
As one grows older one is less impatient of the supposition that innocence actually exists. It exists, even though mothers may not properly interpret it for boys. Its sudden shattering is a barbarism which time may not easily heal. But in reality youth is neither innocence nor experience. It is a duel between innocence and experience, with the attainments of experience guarded from older gaze. Human beings take their contemporaries for granted, no one else: and neither teachers nor superiors nor even parents find it easy to penetrate the veil that innocence and ignorance are supposed to draw around youth.
If youth has borrowed the suppositions about its own innocence, the coming of experience is all the more painful. The process of change is seldom serene, especially if there is eagerness or originality. The impressionable and histrionic youth has incessant disappointment in trying misfit spiritual garments. The undisciplined faculty of make-believe, which is the rudiment of imagination, can go far to torture youthfulness until a few chevrons have been earned and self-acceptance begun.
Do mature people try to help this? Do they remember their own uncertainty and frustration? One of the high points in Mr. Trotter's keen psychological study, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, indicates adult jealousy of the young. Mr. Trotter goes beyond Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse in generalizing their kind of youthful experience. He shows the forces at work behind the patronizing and victimizing of the young.
The tendency to guard children from sexual knowledge and
experience seems to be truly universal in civilized man and to
surpass all differences of morals, discipline, or taste....
Herd instinct, invariably siding with the majority and the
ruling powers, has always added its influence to the side of age
and given a very distinctly perceptible bias to history,
proverbial wisdom, and folklore against youth and confidence and
enterprise and in favor of age and caution, the immemorial
wisdom of the past, and even the toothless mumbling of senile
The day will come when our present barbaric attitude toward youth will be altered. Before it can be altered, however, we must completely revise our conventions of innocence. Youth is no more certainly innocent than it is certainly happy, and the conspiracy of silence that surrounds youth is not to be justified on any ground of over-impressionableness. Innocence, besides, can last too long. Every one has pitied stale innocence. If a New York child of ten becomes delirious, his ravings may quite easily be shocking to older people. Already, without any particular viciousness or precocity, he has accumulated a huge number of undesirable impressions, and shoved them under the surface of his mind. What, then, to do? The air of spring that is about him need not mislead his guardians. They may as well accept him as a ripe candidate for a naughty world. Repression, in other words, is only one agent of innocence, and not the most successful. Certainly not the most successful for domesticating youth in the sphere that men and women consider fit to be occupied. If youth is invited to remain innocent long after it recognizes the example and feels the impulses of its elders, the invitation will go unaccepted. Youth cannot read the newspapers or see the moving pictures without realizing a discrepancy between conduct and precept, which is one hint to precept to take off its bib.
This knowingness is not quite what it seems to be. Youth is never so young as when experienced. But those who must deal with it cannot lose by making it more articulate, by saving it from the silly adult exclusions of jealousy and pride. For this jealousy and pride continually operates against youth in the name of dignity and discipline. And so the fiction of happy youth is favored, the fiction that portrays youth as the spring time of the spirit; that pipes a song about a lamb, and leads the lamb to slaughter.