God preserve us from all innocence,” Querry tells Mother Agnes in Graham Greene’s 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. It’s a jarring assertion. Moral purity isn’t usually cast as dangerous, and people don’t ask God for protection from it.
But Querry means it. He has another kind of innocence in mind, a state of consciousness, not of heart and soul. His comment refers to one particular character in the novel, but Greene clearly intends the remark to apply broadly, to be one of those dramatic moments when fiction becomes instruction. This innocence isn’t a moral condition. It’s a cognitive one. If you have ever spent twenty minutes telling a confidant about a personal matter only to realize that for all his kindness he has no imagination for your experience, you’ve seen it at work. Or when someone deliberately causes injury to another, but disavows any malicious intent. Cognitive innocents aren’t actively selfish, but they are incognizant of two things, the inner lives of others and their own baser motives. They live entirely in their own outlook, which they believe is free of wrong. Social life is less an interaction of persons than it is a management of human objects. They have the advantage of inner clarity (however illusory) and outer incuriosity.
This kind of innocence can become an unconscious license to overlook others or deny human agency, as in Sartre’s examples of mauvaise foi and forms of passive aggression. Niebuhr saw it at work in foreign policy: “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem, are insufferable in their human contacts.” Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were sinless, cognitively innocent and morally innocent. But after the Fall, with moral innocence shattered, this other innocence turns into a mode of obtuseness. It is sin-blind and self-unaware. It will not and cannot see itself addressed when Jesus looks upon sinners and says with authority, “go and sin no more.”
A classic study is The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel of failed love in upper-crust 1870s Manhattan society. The plot turns on May Welland, a young socialite surrounded by people mindful of her happiness. Lovely but childlike, she is betrothed to Newland Archer even though he is secretly in love with her cousin Ellen Olenska, an elegant but compromised woman whose marriage to a ne’er-do-well count in Europe has fallen apart. Manhattan elites don’t quite know what to do with the countess and her irregular status. Her presence highlights the intellectual limits of Archer and May’s world.
At one point, as Archer discusses Ellen’s situation with May’s mother, innocence appears before him as a forbidding presence. She remarks, “I’m afraid Ellen’s ideas are not at all like ours.” Archer stares at her “firm placid features” and has a fearful thought: “he asked himself if May’s face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.” All he can do, though, is reflect upon it—“he asked himself.” There is no point in responding to it because it’s not ready to listen. Mrs. Welland doesn’t pretend to understand Ellen’s “ideas,” and she certainly doesn’t bother to question her own. The issue is settled: Ellen is outside the circle of the right and proper. The judgment is innocent in that it sounds so nonjudgmental—“she’s just different from us”—but we realize its peremptory meaning. Archer does, too, as he sinks into a silent, melodramatic plea: “Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”
As the social drama proceeds, Archer feels its insipid force. May’s world of propriety and denseness oppresses him, but she is altogether comfortable within it. He could abandon May for her more interesting cousin, but that would mean rejecting the social world he has inhabited all his life. May senses his wavering and assumes it stems from a married woman whom Archer hasn’t thought about in years. At a critical stage, she even offers to step aside: “Newland, don’t give her up because of me!” It’s a masterful—and barely conscious—manipulation. Archer terms her attitude “superhuman,” and it has the desired effect. He presses to move up their wedding date.
He is soon disappointed. They embark on a three-month honeymoon in Europe, where Archer hopes that bohemian boulevards and ruined castles will open May’s mind. But she prefers to hike and shop. The society of cosmopolitans doesn’t penetrate her “infantile shyness.” He wants to visit the National Gallery in London; she thinks about altering her wedding dress. Europe and its long history of power and tragedy float across her consciousness without making an impression, leaving her the same being from beginning to end. Why should innocence change? Can the innocent change?
At one point, Archer mentions a French tutor they have met, a gracious man who’s known the likes of Maupassant and Mérimée. “I did rather want another talk with him,” he tells May. She’s surprised. Entertain a common servant? Archer cites the man’s intelligent conversation, and “she broke into an appreciative laugh. ‘Oh, Newland, how funny! Isn’t that French?’”
Her flighty reply reveals the power of cognitive innocence. He poses something out of the ordinary and she dismisses it. Archer realizes further converse with the Frenchman doesn’t fit into marriage with May, and “he perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in the future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him.” What she doesn’t understand, she suppresses, in herself and in him, too. He is more knowledgeable and perceptive than she is, more worldly and sociable, but “May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.” Innocence has its own kind of aggression.
When they return to New York, his love for Ellen continues and Ellen responds in kind. But others sense it and they, along with May, conspire to shuttle Ellen off to Europe without uttering a word of truth about the threat that their romance poses. Archer acquiesces. How can he hurt someone as good and simple and loving as May? The marriage is maintained without May ever having to realize the complications of her husband’s feeling. She is able to triumph and keep her purity.
This is the innocence that Querry denounces in A Burnt-Out Case. It’s about to destroy him. He is a famous architect who, disgusted with his worldly ways and mistreatment of women, has abandoned everything, journeyed deep into Africa, and joined a leper colony as a resident worker. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and he doesn’t tell the priests who he is. He just wants to serve, to comfort the afflicted and dying. It’s not intended as penance—Querry has no further aim than to get away and toil humbly—but it amounts to the same. At one point, his deformed helper wanders into the jungle, perhaps to die, but Querry hunts him down and passes the night with him in a ditch, hugging him to keep him warm.
He meets a middle-aged, self-righteous plant manager and his young, uneducated wife Marie. The man recognizes him and seeks a friendship, though Querry prefers to avoid him. Later, on a trip to town, Querry ends up giving the wife a ride so that she can visit a doctor and test for pregnancy. They pass the night together in a hotel room talking, and she admits that her husband repels her. Querry is sensitive to her plight, and she is infatuated with him. Earlier in life, he would have seduced her and left, but now he has no interest in those games.
Days later, she shows up at the colony with an accusation: She’s pregnant, and Querry’s the father. The nuns and priests are horrified. Nobody believes his denials but the camp doctor. The nuns reluctantly allow him a private moment in her sickroom, where he says, “Why have you told them these lies?” She admits to some bending of the truth, but insists that she had, in a way, slept with him.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“I didn’t want him. The only way I could manage was to shut my eyes and think it was you.”
“I suppose I ought to thank you,” Querry said, “for the compliment.”
“It was then that the baby must have started. So you see it wasn’t a lie I told them.”
She smiles kindly at him and he stares in appalled wonderment. “You’ve burned the only home I have.”
He leaves the room and faces Mother Agnes, who asks him to leave for good. She has no experience with this strange form of guile that half-deceives itself as it deceives others, so we can’t blame her for trusting the girl. Marie knows in some vague way that the accusation shall free her one way or another from a loveless marriage, though the fact is blanketed by her infatuation. Querry discerns her tactic and warns Mother Agnes, “Be very careful yourselves of that little packet of dynamite in there,” but the woman cannot connect the poor creature in the other room with anything treacherous.
She answers, “She’s a poor innocent young thing . . .” before Querry interrupts and asks God to save us from all innocence, adding, “At least the guilty know what they are about.” He knows he can’t win, not against a girl who believes her own lies even as she knows they are lies. It’s a daunting mental trick. Innocence here works as a mental block, not a moral state. A few minutes later, when her husband confronts him, Querry laughs at the absurdity of it all. The husband thinks he is laughing at him and shoots Querry dead.
It is hard to condemn May and Marie. As Querry notes, they don’t know what they are about. They know not what they do. Or at least they don’t seem to. But somehow they get exactly what they want. May’s innocence allows her to evoke in Archer the feelings she wants him to have and ignore the feelings she doesn’t want him to have, preserving for herself a world insulated from humanity’s variety, including its defects and ambivalences. Marie’s innocence allows her to abuse a man selflessly aiding the sick and to escape her odious husband. Her claim of innocence serves a dream-world wherein she gives herself to another in genuine love. Each woman affirms her goodness at the very moment she maneuvers and positions. If they didn’t secure innocence for themselves, they would have to acknowledge life’s ugliness, the tragic and venal turns of the will. That includes recognition of their own crooked purposes. Cognitive innocence is a therapeutic way out of the darker shadows of desire, but it brings relief only to the ones who possess it.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor at First Things.