Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo; Ark/Routledge & Kegan Paul; London.
The history of most religions can be written as a struggle between High and Low Church. There is always a tension between those who adhere to ritual and tradition and those who seek salvation only from things of the spirit. As an ecumenical institution, Christianity practically begins with Paul’s insistence on the faith that saves as opposed to the law that condemns. In religious studies as well, ritualists are lined up against those who would strip off layer after layer of magic, superstition, and taboo before reaching the pure center of faith and ethics. In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas followed in the footsteps of Robertson Smith, Emile Durkheim, and her distinguished mentor, Evans Pritchard, all of whom took seriously the forms, as well as the spiritual content, of religious life. Her subject is the notion of “pollution” or what we now call dirt. To take a familiar case, why does Leviticus prohibit the eating of pigs and fish with out fins? Surely, not for reasons of health: trichinosis was not discovered until the 19th century. Such taboos have more to do with order than physical well-being. Anomalous or ambiguous phenomena and events upset the order of things–an order which is imposed by our systems of classifying everything: male/female, light/dark, water/land, air/earth, kin/foreign, right/ left … and so on. Inevitably, there are cracks in any system: four-legged creatures with wings, swine that divide the hoof but do not chew the cud, squirrels that fly through the air but also walk on the ground, men that sleep with their mothers. “Any given culture must confront events which seem to defy its assumptions…. That is why …we find in any culture worthy of the name various provisions for dealing with ambiguous or anomalous events.” In our own secular culture, dirt–what William James called matter out of place–takes the place of pollution. Our obsession with cleanliness may have more to do with our sense of order than from anything we know about microbes.
In the Old Testament pollution was a subject of some importance. It was seen primarily as a violation of Holiness, which “requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.” Holiness is,therefore, right order and wholeness or perfection. It is pollution if a priest has only one eye or if a man confounds the order of things by mating with his sister. Morality is more a question of rights. It protects a husband against adultery, but Holiness separates what should be kept separate. Incest, adultery, and homosexuality are abominations not so much because they infringe upon anyone’s rights but because they are confusions. It is easy to read a Freudian message into all the taboos on sexual behavior and bodily emissions. Obviously, we are all more or less interested in our own bodies and tend to see the universe as a projection of our physical shapes. We devise tools to extend the use of our hands (hammers and axes), our feet (the wheel and the Mercedes}, and even our eyes (the telescope and microscope). We classify in animate objects as masculine or feminine, and our old system of weights and measures was based, by and large, on the proportions of the human body. In fact, we still measure horses by hands and whiskey by fingers. It is only natural for us to be concerned with apparently borderline cases. Saliva, excreta, and nail-clippings have magical properties, precisely because they were but are not part of us. Disputed boundaries are always dangerous.
The most important boundaries on our lives are the basic facts of “birth, copulation, and death,” in Eliot’s phrase. They are all periods of transition and times when the social order is threatened by disruption. We hedge them about with laws and taboos in an attempt to defuse the danger and reassert society’s right to control even our grief, our joy, and our intimacy. The rituals which surround a marriage or a burying help to “create a reality which would be nothing without them. It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought. For it is very possible to know some thing and then find words for it. But it is impossible to have social relations with out symbolic acts.”
Modern men have done their best to do without symbolic acts. In the name of enlightenment and humanity, the ritual forms which gave meaning–and even existence–to our inchoate passions and aspirations have all, by and large, been swept away as so much insincerity. The points raised by Douglas in l966 (reissued by the wisdom of the publishers) now seem more than ever like warnings. “If a ritual is suppressed in one form,” she observed, “it crops up in others, more strongly the more intense the social interaction.” No society can survive without ritual and taboo, but it is equally true that rituals are not generalized abstractions: they are an inextricable part of the social order which they help to reinforce. Change the ritual and you change the society. The strong new social rites offered by the likes of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Sun Myung Moon may have their merits as religions, but they are not the fruits of a centuries-long adjustment to Western social life. They go straight to the raw nerves of existence and serve to reinforce a sort of culture that we in the West have not experienced since we learned to make tools out of bronze. As the symbols of our common life become extinct, they are being replaced by sectarian fetishes which serve to divide, not unite us. A people that loses its national rituals is no longer a nation. It is an uneasy federation of tribes. (TJF) cc
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