Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Ceremony Of Innocence: A Sunday Rumination

     The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
     The ceremony of innocence is drowned...

     [William Butler Yeats, ”The Second Coming,” 1919]

     We expect poets to use allusive and indirect language, but we also expect to be able to puzzle out what they mean by it, with a little effort. In that light, the two lines above from Yeats’s most famous poem pose a considerable challenge.


     Many would argue that “the blood-dimmed tide” had receded by 1919. After all, the “Great War” was over. Europeans, though shaken by the carnage of the previous four years, were returning to the usages of peace. German militarism and lust for territory had been so soundly rebuked that it was argued that World War I had put a permanent end to military aggression.

     But that was what people had said before the war. After Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna, the subject was French military aggression. Fifty-five years later, Bismarck’s imperial ambitions and the prideful demands of Louis Napoleon III brought another war. A mere forty-three years after that exercise in armed cupidity, Kaiser Wilhelm II, overcome with envy at the colonial possessions of other European powers, resolved upon another test of arms.

     Men obsessed with power and glory will go to war upon any pretext. There will be such men for as long as Mankind should exist. The dynamics of power will guarantee that such men will rise to hegemony, and that they will overestimate their chances of success.

     The “blood-dimmed tide” will recede now and then...but tides are like that.


     Innocence is a word of many applications. Strictly rather than figuratively speaking, it denotes that quality of a man upon whom no guilt rests; that is, one who has not violated the rights of any other man. The first figurative extension of that meaning goes to intention: we speak of a man’s motives as innocent if he intends no harm to others. A second, far more problematic extension brings us to ignorance of malevolence and malevolent possibilities: the mental state wherein a man is unaware of the existence of evil, possibly because of youth or a sheltered upbringing, possibly because of a lack of intelligence or imagination.

     All three of these interpretations have their place. Each is celebrated by some, derided by others. Tracing the connections among conceptions of innocence, the proclamations of various religious authorities, and the prevailing attitude toward religion and religious affiliations can be highly illuminating, especially when applied to nations rather than to men.


     The United States was often called “an innocent nation” or “a nation of innocents” prior to our entry into World War I. Those who labeled us thus had in mind our extremely small military, our disinterest in the acquisition of colonies, and our lack of involvement with the quarrels and clashes of the “Great Powers” of Europe. The assumption was that Americans were individually and corporately disinclined toward military adventure. Some would say that we lacked the “martial virtues.” Squaring such assertions with the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War was left as an exercise to others.

     When, after the Great War, America emerged as the foremost naval power in the world, it confused such considerations. The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which to my knowledge was our first exercise in the fatuity which we call today “arms control,” muddled matters still further. Granted that Europe had been exhausted by war and was recovering only slowly, its potentates continued to regard their states as more militarily ready, willing, and able than the distant commercial republic that had taken command of the oceans. Our insertion into the Great War had hardly altered their attitude toward “innocent America.”

     Attitudes are far different today, even though the rivers of the Eastern world periodically run red with blood, while Americans are as pacifically inclined as ever and wholly uninterested in the acquisition of colonies and client states. Regardless of the accuracy of such assessments, there is some justification for holding that today, innocence of intention is essentially absent from the world.


     The “blood-dimmed tide” approaches a fresh peak. Few are the peoples and states of which it can be accurately said that they’re wholly innocent in both action and intention. In the midst of rampant violence and militant voracity barely restrained by prudence, innocence is a hard thing to find.

     We must look away from that which is deemed newsworthy to have a chance of finding it. Of course, they who dominate news reporting strive unceasingly to keep us focused on their emissions. That makes it more than mildly gratifying when one succeeds in doing so, and discovers innocence, both figurative and actual, in the process.

     Where to look? Consider the prayer offered by the character of Colonel Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson, in the following snippet from We Were Soldiers:

     Contrast the essential innocence of the first part with Moore’s “one more thing” conclusion. Not quite what we want, eh? We must look a little further:

     This prayer for peace and amity is a ceremony of innocence celebrated each and every day. The “blood-dimmed tide” cannot “drown” it. Repeated attempts have demonstrated that no exertion of secular power can silence it. Even in places where public Christian rites are forbidden by law, still Catholics gather to celebrate the Mass: the contemporary re-enactment of the Last Supper, Christ’s offer of his flesh and blood as the sacrifice that redeemed the world.

     If you seek innocence but have had trouble finding any...
     If the thunder of cannons, near or distant, makes you need to stop your ears...
     If the world seems consumed by rapacity, its movers and shakers absorbed in the pursuit of power at any price...
     If all those around you, even in your own house, have come to seem predatory and false...

     Avail yourself of the Mass. No matter where in America you might be, it’s regularly celebrated not far from you.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

  1. My first and last attempt at criticism. I promise.

    The first line is retrospective, a reflection on the horror that recently ended.

    Innocence has the sense of naivety. The ceremony is the ritual mantra shared by pacifists of all stripes. In the vulgar, whistling past the graveyard.

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