Thursday, February 16, 2012

Purity test

In college, a "purity test" made the rounds. It's probably still making the rounds, 25 years later. It consisted of hundreds of "Have you ever?" questions: what kinds of sex have you had, what kinds of resticted substances have you ingested, where and with how many people... It went on and on, a litany of sins major and minor. Getting a high score gained you collegiate street cred. Either that or a trip to the emergency room.

"Purity" is closely associated with sinlessness, not just in our society but pretty much species-wide. A virgin maiden wears white to show she is spotless. Ritual cleansing before worship in a temple appears almost everywhere. And taboo foods and substances are "unclean."

Today, you'll see similar associations between "pure" and "natural" in consumer prodcuts. This is odd, because until recently, purity was clearly an unnatural phenomenon, requiring human or superhuman intervention. Mostly. Pure clear streams ran out of the rocks, of course, and pure ore was sometimes found embedded in rocks. But most of our physical purity is manufactured (think of Ivory Soap's trademark "99 44/100% Pure").

Nature is not pure, or at any rate, organic nature is not pure. Our body depends on bacteria in our gut to digest our food, and on trace elements in water to fill out our nutritional needs. We live now—and always have—in a soup of organic and inorganic ingredients, a constantly shifting mixture of bits and pieces.

What we want to avoid instinctively is pollution. We want to keep most of the infectious germs out of our respiratory and digestive systems so our immune system does not become overwhelmed. We want to keep toxic chemicals from subverting and breaking down the processes our internal chemistry is constantly churning to keep us intact and functioning. Pollution is mostly a matter of degree, not of true purity.

We like purity because it fits how our brains work. We like discrete objects and clearly delineated ideas. We like rules and laws because when we lose our sense of structure, we literally feel lost. And so when we say what exactly something is, and when we can even say that is all that it is, we feel more secure in the universe.

It's a running theme in this blog, but the trouble seems to come when we then take that categorization and reimpose it on the universe: purifying populations; purifying ourselves of sinfulness; purifying toxins, creating lethal concentrations of them. Purity—real, created purity—belongs in the world of ideas, and in the dead world of inorganic chemistry, not in our living world.

1 comment:

Anthony Noble said...

When you say "we like purity"...who is your "we"? As makers of maps, we have to keep it clean...otherwise people may get lost. Though, an 'impure' map may just be the christ that burns up a fig tree and makes us wonder if this place is forbidden or a key to something crucial...if only we are brave enough.

I often wonder if anything just pure evil...propably more fair to just call it a building block of the tree of knowledge vs. the tree of life.