The Dream of Purity
Postmodernity and Its Discontents
Great crimes often start from great ideas. Few great ideas prove completely innocent when their inspired
followers try to make the word flesh but some can hardly ever be embraced without the teeth being bared and
daggers sharpened. Among this class of ideas, pride of place belongs to the vision of purity.
'The German Final Solution', observed the American writer Cynthia Ozick, 'was an aesthetic solution; it was a
job of editing, it was the artist's finger removing a smudge; it simply annihilated what was considered not
harmonious." The German psychologist Klaus Dörner calls his readers 'die Nazis auch als Bürger zu sehen, die
genauso wie die Bürger vor und nach, ihre Antwort auf die Soziale Frage gesucht haben the 'social question' to
which they sought the answer being the question of 'pollution', of the stubborn presence of people who 'did not fit',
who were 'out of place', who 'spoiled the picture' and otherwise offended the aesthetically gratifying and morally
reassuring sense of harmony. In the early years of the modern era, as Michel Foucault reminded us, madmen were
rounded up by the city authorities, loaded into
and sent to sea; madmen stood for 'a dark disorder, a
moving chaos .
.. which opposes the mind's luminous and adult stability'; and the sea stood for water, which 'carries
off, but does more: it purifies'.
Purity is an ideal; a vision of the condition which needs yet to be created, or such as needs to be diligently
protected against the genuine or imagined odds. Without such a vision, neither the concept of purity makes sense,
nor the distinction between purity and impurity can be sensibly drawn. A forest, a mountain range, a meadow, an
ocean ('nature' in general, as distinguished from culture, the human product) is neither pure nor impure that is, until
it is spattered with the leftovers of a Sunday picnic or infused with the waste of chemical factories. Human
intervention does not just soil nature and make it filthy; it introduces into nature the very distinction between purity
and filth, it creates the very possibility of a given part of the natural world being 'clean' or 'dirty'.
Purity is a vision of things put in places
from those they would occupy if not prompted to move
elsewhere, pushed, pulled or goaded; and it is a vision of
that is, of a situation in which each thing is in its
rightful place and nowhere else. There is no way of thinking about purity without having an image of 'order', without