An excerpt from
The Underside of Innocence
On October 10, 1980, Mark David Chapman sold his beloved lithograph of Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self-Portrait to a Hawaiian public relations man for $7500. Chapman, who was strapped for cash, used the proceeds to quit his job, purchase a .38 revolver, buy airfare to New York and book a room at the Waldorf Astoria. From this base of operations he would stalk John Lennon at the Dakota and finally, in December, take his life. I find it suggestive that one icon of innocence was used to fund the assassination of another. For many, John Lennon’s death marked the end of ’60s idealism, summed up in his song “Imagine.” Chapman’s rage was fueled largely by his sense that Lennon had become a rich phony who had betrayed those ideals. Rockwell, with whom Chapman was also obsessed, represents another, earlier style of innocence, associated primarily with the postwar years.
What is it about American innocence that it can be killed again and again and yet spring up in new and different forms? Not long after Lennon’s death, Ronald Reagan would become president, declaring—at least through his campaign commercials—that “It’s Morning in America.” Another shiny new day had dawned, another national baptism had occurred in which the supposedly wretched excesses of the ’70s would be washed away. One of the odd things about American innocence is that nobody can agree exactly when it occurred, or what it meant. Were the ’50s “innocent” or (as liberals would have it) repressed and paranoid? Were the ’60s “innocent” or (as conservatives would have it) gullible and debauched?
Similar questions surround the figure of Norman Rockwell, who still manages to spawn fervent advocates and detractors. Both those who love Rockwell and those who dismiss him agree on one thing: his art embodies a distinctively American style of innocence. To his admirers, Rockwell’s paintings of mischievous boys, swimming holes, and small-town life offer a reassuringly wholesome if somewhat nostalgic vision that wards off the sordid, threatening aspects of modern existence. To his detractors, this same vision betrays both social and artistic naïveté, a kitschy sentimentality that promotes a sanitized view of the world.
I believe that both of these views are mistaken, and that Rockwell’s paintings are darker and more complex than most viewers are willing to acknowledge. They are not so much innocent as they are about the ways we manufacture innocence. For innocence is indeed something we make, not something we are born to—a story we tell about ourselves, not something we are. While we often think of innocence as originary—a quality we enjoy as infants and that tarnishes as we grow older—this view is a relatively recent one, largely a product of the nineteenth century, which fostered a sentimental cult of the child. For almost two millennia before that, Christianity held that we were born in original sin, inherited from Adam. Children unfortunate enough to die before baptism were not wafted on angels’ wings to heaven but consigned to limbo. The seventeenth-century poet and preacher John Donne put it vividly: “There in the womb we are fitted for works of darkness, all the while deprived of light: And there in the womb we are taught cruelty, by being fed with blood, and may be damned though we be never born.” When, in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud brought the unwelcome news that even small children harbor sexual and violent fantasies, he managed to shock middle-class sensibilities, but he arguably did no more than revive and affirm an older form of theological wisdom. Our sense of Rockwell’s world as an innocent one has a great deal to do with the prominence of children in it, but childhood innocence is less a fact than a construction by “adults.”
I put the word “adults” in scare quotes because one so rarely meets a real adult nowadays. Most people one encounters are rather overgrown children, fully ensconced in a manufactured innocence that real children would have no difficulty seeing through. “Adults” love Norman Rockwell because he allows them to bathe themselves in innocence, and because his work seems to lack all the ambiguities, complexities, and problems that might otherwise induce such stressful conditions as thinking or self-examination or informing oneself about the world. There is no overt sex in Norman Rockwell’s paintings, no violence, no real or insoluble unhappiness, no poverty or serious illness or crime, and, until late in his career, no black people except for the occasional porter. (Rockwell, it should be said, had long wanted to depict African Americans but was forbidden to do so by his editors at the Saturday Evening Post, who feared that the mere sight of them might upset most of their readers, and who were, moreover, probably right.)
Of course, people who like Rockwell—and I count myself passionately among them—will respond that they perfectly well know these things already. Obviously Rockwell’s world isn’t the “real world,” or at least not the whole of that world. That’s the point. His illustrations offer a pleasant respite from the pressures and tensions of life. And what’s so wrong with that? Nothing, really—unless one’s whole life is an elaborate and extended respite from those things. For that is what innocence is—an ingrained habit of denying what one knows but doesn’t want to know.
Rockwell himself was under no illusions about the nature of his art:
Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only the ideal aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers [Rockwell is alluding to his own mother here], in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the back yard. If there was sadness in this created world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill [as Rockwell’s wife Mary was] or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life.
He adds, just a little later, that he painted pictures that didn’t disturb anybody because he wanted to be well liked, and “(to be completely honest), the fact that this type of picture pays well has something to do with it too.” For Rockwell, creating a world of innocence is in part a matter of meeting consumer demand—a profitable performance, though for that reason one he can’t fully believe in—and in part a fleeing from the pain and imperfection of real life. Here I won’t make much of the fact that Rockwell personifies life’s woes as female (drunken slatterns, self-centered mothers, mentally ill wives) and its ideal aspects as male (Foxy Grandpas, boys playing football or fishing), though one would do well to keep this in mind later on. I’m more interested here in what he characterizes as his unconscious decision to idealize the world. The phrase is paradoxical, since we usually regard decisions as conscious resolutions. Rockwell feels his was unconscious, yet he calls it a “decision” in part to take responsibility for it. “I unconsciously decided.” Rockwell will not delegate his decision entirely to some mental agency over which he has no control. He will not let himself off the hook for his unconscious decisions. He takes at least some responsibility even for what he does not know, because he understands that our decisions not to know are at least partly volitional. Innocence is a choice not to know something, and therefore a lie, since the very choice must be based on some presentiment, some suspicion, some tiny bit of knowledge (or even a good deal more than a tiny bit) we already possess. Innocence is a pretense of ignorance, a pretense staged not so much for others as for ourselves. This is what Nietzsche rails against in my epigraph—people who can’t tell good “honest” lies because they don’t have the courage to face what is true and false in themselves. They cannot choose to lie because they lie incessantly and unconsciously to themselves. In the 1950s, Jean-Paul Sartre would elaborate Nietzsche’s insight into the concept of mauvaise foi or bad faith.
In this book I shall argue that innocence is manufactured through a process of disavowal—a refusal to own up to or acknowledge what one already knows or thinks or wants. At the end of The Tempest, the enchanter Prospero says of his half-human slave Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” Disavowal, by contrast, is the refusal to acknowledge those things of darkness that are ours. I have borrowed the term from psychoanalysis, though I will not always be using it precisely in a psychoanalytic sense. For Freud, disavowal is one among several ways of suppressing something unbearable. Repression, another of those ways, banishes unwanted knowledge or desires to the unconscious, where they are no longer available to us. Disavowal, by contrast, involves a “splitting” of the self, so that we simultaneously know and don’t know something.
While Freud would not approve, I want to propose an ethical distinction between repression and disavowal. In repression, the conscious mind finds something so objectionable (though also desirable) that it simply expels it and will have no more to do with it. Repression therefore involves, for better or worse, a genuine renunciation. In disavowal, however, consciousness both retains and banishes something. It thereby allows itself to enjoy that forbidden thing on the sly while denying that it enjoys or knows it. Disavowal is not exactly a way of having your cake and eating it too. It’s rather a way of eating your cake and nevertheless being able to deny to yourself, with apparent sincerity, that you ever ate it or had any intention of doing so. Indeed, it’s a way of eating cake while declaring that people who eat cake are disgusting and ought to be locked up. Disavowal is therefore a short-circuiting of ethics, insofar as it refuses to take responsibility for what one already knows or wants or does, engaging instead in childish forms of denial. It substitutes a false conviction of personal purity for a complex engagement with the self and the world as they really are.
While repression divides the self into largely noncommunicating realms of light and darkness, disavowal occupies a murky grey area, neither fully repressed nor fully acknowledged. The philosopher Bernard Williams observed, “One symptom of deep-seated problems of the Freudian kind may be self-deception. But . . . there is a level of self-deception more subconscious than unconscious that can be dealt with by the virtues of accuracy and sincerity. That’s what we have those virtues for.” I would argue that Rockwell’s paintings occupy this level, and do so in complicated ways. Rockwell’s paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the guise of innocence, they often present potentially disturbing materials that they then dare the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell’s work thus lays bare the mechanisms of disavowal. What Rockwell paints is not innocence itself but its manufacture. And his work confronts the viewer with the ethical choice of seeing or not seeing.
To be more specific: the “potentially disturbing” materials Rockwell offers to view are often sexual in nature, even perverse. Oddly, when I have run this thesis by friends and acquaintances, some have found the idea completely outlandish and dismissed it instantly, and others have found it so obviously true as hardly to merit discussion. Reactions were about evenly divided between “You’re crazy!” and “Of course!—so what else is new?” Artistic merit is always debatable, but more interesting, I think, is vehement disagreement over basic facts of perception, when one group finds something as plain as day and another finds it both invisible and impossible. Rockwell’s paintings, I’ve found, are able to induce a kind of hysterical blindness in many viewers, who can’t or won’t see what is staring them in the face.
A few years ago I was discussing my book idea with a colleague, and she mentioned that she knew a painter who had done “pornographic versions of Rockwell.” Intrigued (to say the least), I visited the person in question, a Californian painter and art teacher named Suzanne Lacke who had indeed done several rather risqué versions of well-known Rockwell paintings. As interesting as the paintings themselves, for my purpose, was the way she had come to do them. As Lacke tells it, one day she was teaching an art class and got into an argument with a student about whether Rockwell was a painter or a mere illustrator—a topic on which I will have more to say later. Insisting that Rockwell was the latter, Lacke exclaimed polemically, “You could use his technique to paint anything—even pornography!” And she decided to do such a painting, just to prove that Rockwell’s technique could in fact be put even to so obviously absurd a purpose. But when she started looking through Rockwell’s work to find a useful starting point, she began finding clues of a hidden content. Repainting Rockwell’s Girl at Mirror , whom Lacke transforms into a figure out of Balthus, she “found it impossible to render the flesh without sensing the erotic charge that Rockwell must have felt in painting it.” “I suddenly realized,” she said, “that the paintings are already pornographic, and that only the slightest changes were needed to bring this out.” Instead of doing one on a lark, she undertook a series. Brilliantly, she signed one by condensing the famed “Norman Rockwell” signature into the word “Normal.” In a sense, my whole argument is summed up in that one gesture: the containment of the perverse under the sign of the normal.
Much of this book will concentrate on sexual disavowal, not out of any prurient interest (well, maybe a little prurient interest), but mainly because it is such a persistent theme in Rockwell. I used to think that disavowal always begins in the sexual realm, and that then, having learned its alphabet there, we go on to apply it to a wider field, including such uncomfortable social facts as racial or class difference. I no longer think that sexual disavowal enjoys any such temporal or logical priority. We learn to disavow in many ways from a very early age, and our different forms of disavowal soon become hopelessly entangled. But sexual disavowal is nevertheless a very potent form of it, and people under the sway of sexual disavowal are, more often than not, unusually vulnerable to other forms as well.
Much of my analysis will draw on biographical material about Rockwell’s life, but I should make it clear that my intention is not to psychoanalyze Rockwell, much less to mark him as some kind of “deviant.” Rockwell’s life had its darker zones, to be sure. Some of these have been judiciously revealed by Laura Claridge’s recent biography, and others were alluded to by Rockwell himself in his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator. The young Rockwell knew years of partying and adulterous promiscuity, and he as well as his second wife Mary battled clinical depression. Rockwell’s life included much that could not have found a place in the seemingly innocent world of his work. But in most ways he was, indeed, “Normal.” Nevertheless, the art allows a space for the perverse that the life does not, and Rockwell projected a good deal more onto canvas than a desire for a perfect world. And yet even this perversity is normal—that’s precisely the point. Rockwell’s imagination worked like that of most people, though with greater visual intensity. The perversity of his paintings is the perversity of everyday life, omnipresent though disavowed. To posit Rockwell as patient or “clinical case” is to let ourselves off the hook, and thus to avoid the ethical challenge of his work in confronting us with our own strategies of disavowal. Rockwell has perverse desires, of course, and he often disavows them—common enough. What makes the work noteworthy is its ability to stage disavowal in such a way that it analyzes us. De te fabula narratur—“Of you (viewer, reader) the tale is told!”
Like disavowal itself, my analysis will occupy a grey area between knowing and unknowing. Sometimes Rockwell strikes me as someone in the grip of forces he does not recognize or understand, and sometimes he seems a canny and brilliant analyst of those same forces. I am tempted to call him America’s great philosopher of disavowal, if one can do philosophy in a way that is often unconscious, or semiconscious. But whatever Rockwell knows or doesn’t know, intends or doesn’t intend, however innocent or cunning he may be, the paintings themselves are consistently interesting and provocative. It is there that the wisdom as well as the symptoms assume a consistently clear-edged form.
I have been discussing the question of Rockwell’s innocence on a personal level, as it pertains to Rockwell himself and to the ethical challenge his works offer the individual viewer. But I have titled this chapter “the manufacture of innocence” because innocence can also be mass-produced, like cars or fast food or any other commodity. Innocence is a commodity, as Rockwell acknowledged when he noted how well it paid. The covers of the Saturday Evening Post were printed in the millions, and sold all over the land. Rockwell was part of an industry—an innocence industry—along with fellow industrialists like Walt Disney and the director Frank Capra. All three purveyed a view of American culture that was patriotic, optimistic, and imbued with middle-class values, secure in the virtuousness and rightness of the American way. Perhaps all cultures nurse a sense of their own innocence and virtue, and thus engage in disavowal, since no country’s historical record is clean. But American culture is particularly addicted to this sense of itself, and thus has refined disavowal into a high art. It is for this reason that Rockwell is such a valuable if unrecognized analyst of the American condition—or at least, the condition of the white middle classes in the decades from the 1920s through the 1960s.
The myth of innocence had of course played a prominent role in American culture long before this era. In his classic study The American Adam: Innocence Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, the critic R. W. B. Lewis traced the “authentic American as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history” in writers from Emerson and Thoreau through Henry James. The American Adam embodied the belief that history could start anew in America, unburdened by the sins and failings of the Old World. This myth, notes Lewis, found powerful support in the growth of the Unitarian Church, which attacked Calvinism’s doctrine of inherited sin—a development that, no doubt, also helped free the figure of the child to embody American innocence in a new and central way.
Lewis’s book, which was published in 1955, concludes with an epilogue—“Adam in the Age of Containment”—that looks at American culture in his own day. Lewis sees the postwar years as a time of innocence lost—an era of pervasive disillusionment, hopelessness, and skepticism. “The American as Adam,” he declares, “has been replaced by the American as Laocoön.” He adds, “The new hopelessness is, paradoxically, as simple-minded as innocence: and it is opposed only by that parody of hope which consists in an appeal for 'positive thinking’—a wilful return to innocence based upon a wishful ignorance, momentarily popular in the market place of culture but with no hold at all upon the known truth of experience.” For Lewis, this new, essentially defensive, fearful, and dishonest version of innocence merely parodies the earlier, more generative and complex myth of the American Adam. “A wilful return to innocence based on wishful ignorance” is about as fine a definition of disavowal as one could want. Lewis’s sole error lay in thinking that such sentiments were only “momentarily popular in the market place.” The fact that disavowal has no hold on lived reality is not a weakness but the source of its irresistible and continuing strength.
One difference between the old innocence and the new is that the former was resolutely forward looking while the latter is just as strongly nostalgic. Rockwell’s middlebrow admirers have always loved his work in part because it looks wistfully toward the past. It both partakes of and contributes to the myth that the world was a simpler, happier place then than now. Rockwell’s critics often share the same view but reverse its values. For them, Rockwell ranks with Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show as a vestige of a bland, naÊve postwar culture, one that had yet to experience the awakening of social, sexual, and political consciousness that took place in the 1960s and ’70s. We tend to preen ourselves on our more sophisticated, open views of life and look down on the postwar years, particularly the 1950s, as a land of suburban zombies, inhabited by Stepford wives and Ward Cleavers. Yet at the same time we feel a certain nostalgic tug for paradise lost. Such at least is the premise of films such as Pleasantville, Back to the Future, and (moving zombieland forward a bit in time), The Brady Bunch Movie, all of which stage a confrontation between present-day sophisticates and suburban or small-town presophisticates, brought about through time travel (Back to the Future), through being magically teleported into reruns of an old sitcom (Pleasantville), or else through the inexplicable persistence of the lost innocents themselves, miraculously pickled in their own cluelessness and rendered impervious to social change (The Brady Bunch Movie). In every case, a missionary zeal to bring these hapless know-nothings up to speed is balanced by a yearning to withdraw into their simpler, trouble-free lives.
We like telling ourselves such stories because they are flattering to us. Yes, we muse, our world is an unsettled one, but at least we have broader cultural horizons than did our forebears. Condescending to them as if they were children makes us feel like adults. My own view, though, is that our tendency to identify the ’50s with that era’s sitcoms, and then to relish our own relative superiority, is simply a way of disavowing the fact that we are hurtling toward the 50s at breakneck speed, and may even have passed them heading backwards. Likewise, our impulse to dismiss Rockwell’s work as the kitschy waste products of an earlier, naive time allows us to avoid a confrontation that may be somewhat less soothing to our sense of superiority. A false belief in our own sophistication or knowingness is just another form of innocence. We disavow no less than did the most sanitized products of postwar culture. We have simply devised new strategies for doing so, and our ability to see though some of the older ones only makes us patsies for our own.
Insofar as Rockwell’s era seems like a more innocent time than ours, however, this has a good deal to do with the innocence industry, which disseminated its products on a massive scale. I want to complicate our sense of that time, not by evoking its social and cultural troubles, or by making the obvious point that the purveyors of innocence (Disney, for example) were often quite cynical in their motives, or the equally obvious point that more serious and sophisticated kinds of culture (jazz, the beats, Ralph Ellison, J. D. Salinger, and so on) nevertheless managed to thrive in this infantilizing soil. For these bastions of high or oppositional culture could not operate on the same scale as the innocence industry. More interesting from my perspective is the fact that the same society addicted to mass-produced innocence was equally addicted to mass-produced sleaze. For every Mr. Smith Goes to Washington there were swarms of “Killer Bs”: cheap, noir films filled with violence, gangsterism, and sex. Films with titles like They Made Me a Killer, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, and Bad Blonde. In 1946, the year in which It’s a Wonderful Life appeared, twenty-six Killer Bs left the hive. For every wholesome Disney comic there were others such as Teenage Dope Slaves, Murder, Inc., and Crimes by Women. For every Rockwell cover on the Saturday Evening Post there were mountains of pulp fiction, men’s and crime magazines, whose lurid cover art often depicted graphic violence and sadomasochism. Some very strange things crawled around in the basement of postwar culture, and it was a big basement—bigger than the house. No doubt the “two cultures” were often patronized by different audiences, but many people who saw a Capra or Doris Day film one day doubtless saw The Mad Ghoul or The Whip Hand the next, and many who displayed the Ladies’ Home Journal or the Saturday Evening Post on their coffee tables stashed copies of less wholesome reading matter elsewhere in their homes. I am less interested in the hypocrisies produced by this culture than in the compartmentalization of mind it bespoke—the fact that people could take the products of the innocence industry seriously while also wallowing in less savory fare. Innocence must take on a particularly strained and brittle quality in such circumstances. The best and most interesting products of the innocence industry—and I include Rockwell’s works among them—couldn’t help absorbing, or taking some account of, this vast cultural netherworld and its unwholesome desires.