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Monday, 9.20.04: Loss of Innocence

...at three o'clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence... and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day. [F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up"]

I am brainstorming a screenplay. Part of my general brainstorming has been to think about books or authors that I always go back to. This list came to mind -- no surprises to my long-time readers:

The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles)

Heart of Darkness and Secret Sharer (Joseph Conrad)

Many of John LeCarre's books

Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The Year of Living Dangerously (Christopher J. Koch)

In high school I learned that sometimes "heroes" did not win. Heroes (or anti-heroes) always get to a new place as a result of their "night journeys" but often that place did not signify victory or success.

We Americans love our heroes who kick ass. But there is another theme I see in the books I chose: the loss of innocence. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow goes up river to get rid of the menace Kurtz and faces his own weaknesses. Huckleberry Finn discovers the nasty realities of going downriver with a runaway slave. In The Sheltering Sky, Kit makes the journey from a spoiled tourist into her own heart of darkness. In Gatsby, it is Nick Carraway, I think, who loses his innocence watching Gatsby and his terrible friends. In Living Dangerously it is the powerful character of the dwarf Billy Kwan who confronts his disillusionment.

John LeCarre is the master of workplace disillusionment. His characters are always finding the the Cause they are working for has been subverted by the politics and bureaucracy that control them.

Americans love thinking of ourselves as innocents -- simple, smiling, plain-talking, God-fearing, patriotic, democratic, altruistic, and respectful of enormous bounty bestowed on our land. The Loss of Innocence has got to be our favorite tragedy. But, come on -- aren't we a little like the whore who keeps pretending she's a virgin?

I'm sure you will find historians who mark the Civil War as our great national end of innocence. But then World War I came along, followed by the sex-crazed jazz age -- although the nobility of the Great Depression and World War II helped restored our idealism. But then there were the quiz show scandals, the payola scandals, the Kennedy-King assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate... then we took a breather, tired of breast-beating, till 9/11, then Abu Ghraib. Each turn of events was marked as "the end of the age of American innocence."

Our loss of innocence, our disillusionment always comes as a surprise. I thought I knew the score. I thought I knew my way around. But as the famously disillusioned Dorothy Parker once said, What fresh hell is this?

I'm fleshing this out because I think the story I want to tell falls into this category. Stay tuned...

 

NOTES

The classic PBS series of LeCarre's George Smiley books are now available on DVD: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. I just rented them through Netflix. Hope they are as good as I remember.
 

 

 

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