Innocence versus Experience

The Vice Presidential debate on Thursday evening represented a clash of dichotomies. Male versus female. Conservative versus liberal. Republican versus Democrat. Young versus old. Newcomer versus veteran. Worldview versus worldview.

In this election season, it is easy to see how much impact preconceptions have on perception. Do we call it “fairness,” “deregulation,” “redistribution,” “unpatriotic,” or “wasteful spending”? What do these terms mean? The answer depends on who you ask, and when, and where. In politics, the same scenario can look very different when seen from opposite angles. A few choice words have an enormous impact. Think about how much influence a few chords of ominous music have on an otherwise innocuous scene in a film.

Contrasting perspectives have fueled literary pursuits for centuries. William Blake’s poetry collections Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are a good example. Consider the two poems entitled “The Chimney Sweeper” (from Songs of Innocence, from Songs of Experience). From such similar subject material, Blake created two distinct poems. The tone of the latter is defined by the double meaning of “weep, weep,” the phrase “notes of woe,” and misery; while the former leaves readers with an image of warmth, peace, and just rewards.

A parody, a work that mimics and mocks another, operates from the same basic principle: what is reasonable when seen by candlelight is ridiculous under a street lamp. Consider Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, or Fielding’s Shamela.

The idea of a gulf between literati and politicians is largely inconsistent with history. What is more, it ignores the parallels between political language and literary texts. Speaking to the heart of public affairs and politics has always involved risk, delicacy, and a bit of cloaked humor.

As Swift reminds readers in the final chapter of Gulliver’s Travels,

“I meddle not with any Party, but write without Passion, Prejudice, or Ill-will against any Man or number of Men whatsoever. […] I never suffer a Word to pass that may look like Reflection, or possibly give the least Offence even to those who are most ready to take it. So that I hope I may with Justice pronounce myself an Author perfectly blameless, against whom the Tribes of Answerers, Considerers, Observers, Reflecters, Detecters, Remarkers will never be able to find matter for exercising their Talents.”

Apparently, modern politicians are not the only ones who can speak with tongue in cheek.


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