The Delusion of Purity

The Delusion of Purity
My forehead is speckled with a thousand tiny red dots. It’s like a map of the stars, except that space is flesh-coloured and the stars are red. The reason for the dots is not disease or allergy, but the headstand. The reason for the headstand is yoga. The reason for the yoga is purity. And the reasons for purity? That is slightly more complicated.

Initially, I believed that it was illness that drove me to purify. Lingering infections of the ear, the throat and the chest – which I ascribed to numerous causes (loud music, indulgence, poor diet) – had given birth to the kind of lethargy that forces you ruminate on your way of life. At every lumbering swerve of thought I found the same answer: give up vice, unload the heavy freight of impurity that weighs you down.

Ours is a self-conscious age, we are constantly assailed with information about the benefits and dangers of the most mundane of activities. Virtually anything can be given up with a shiver of righteousness, safe in the knowledge that you are cutting out some pollution or poison of the modern world. You might begin by giving up meat, then cigarettes, then alcohol, then TV and before you know it you’re investigating the benefits of semen retention. Austerity and asceticism are, as Nietzsche says, “a saintly form of debauchery.” Addictive and self-indulgent, purity of this kind is hardly virtuous or indeed pure.

It is easy to imagine an early human version of purity, say 20,000 years ago . . . A few unsociable types, unlucky in their encounters with the opposite sex, want to differentiate themselves from their folk via their superior hygiene. Brooding on matters such as sexual abstinence (they’re not getting any), the value of solitude (they’re not popular) and teetotalism (why should those lot have fun), this early version of pure man comes to be seen as apart from the rest of the tribe. With the twisted and bored logic of unwanted solitude, his knowledge inevitably increases and his observations of nature and other members of the tribe lead him to formulate a justification for the life he leads. Soon enough he leads the life of the Holy man.

In light of these suppositions, the barbarities of the Old Testament come as no surprise. In Deuteronomy we read:

If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman. [. . .] ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die. (22:22-24)

All of the stoning to death and sacrifice and banishment in the Bible is done in the name of purity; specifically, a compound of hygiene, blood and social structure. The evolution from Judaism to Christianity is largely an evolution from physical purity to spiritual purity. The first is inspired by a God who forever smites, the second by a God who suggests turning the other cheek when smote.

Islam, Christianity’s younger brother, is perhaps the religion most obsessed with purity, a religion where strict believers wash for prayer five times a day. Islam also directly incorporates the hatred of carnality and vice that is found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Indeed, the present Al-Qaeda Jihad is fought not only because of Western economic and military presence in the Middle East, but because of its moral presence. Osama bin Laden’s 2002 Letter makes this clear:

“You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism and freedom, and other deceptive names you attribute to it. [. . .] We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling’s, and trading with interest.”

Notions of purity often orbit and intersect with notions about sexuality. Pseudo-medical injunctions in the Victorian era against masturbation, miscegenation, homosexuality and other supposed deviancy remind one that the drive for purity is often a pathological reaction to the body and its urges. Such yearning for purity is more like a denial of nature than a curbing of its excesses. Sanity, or rather equanimity, is being able to meet nature without the delusion of its purity or impurity.

Neil Scott | Summer 2004