Friday, May 04, 2012

Douglas' Purity and Danger

The Holy Roman Empire, reasoned the great Pufendorf, fits in none of the Aristotelean categories: it is neither monarchy, nor aristocracy, nor democracy,.  Therefore, he concludes, it is a monster. Pufendorf thus anticipates what must be one of the most influential social-science books of the 20th Century: Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger, first published in 1966 and another of those short books that I am not going to throw away.

It's hard to remember now just how revolutionary Douglas' book seemed in its time, so thoroughly has it reconceptualized the culture.  The jacket of my old hardcover offers the subtitle "an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo."  That's as good a description as any, although necessarily it doesn't begin to catch the richness and subtlety of the argument.  But the point is that most of the chatterers weren't even accustomed to think in categories of that sort at that time.

Well, qualify that. Douglas did not spring forth full bloom.  In a sense, she carries on and develops insights she learned from her mentor, E. E. Evans-Pritchard.  And if you were French, you would say that she isn't a patch on the efflorescent excesses of her great French contemporary,  Claude Lévi-Strauss. But that's the point: Lévi-Strauss carried structuralist anthropology off to the backside of beyond where almost nobody could keep up with him. Douglas combined the tradition of anthropology with a British empiricist's tone of earthy common sense.

And more thing more: Douglas was an earnest and unapologetic Catholic--more an Anglo-Catholic, which is to say, one who lived in the kind of take-no-prisoners milieu that you would need if you were to survive as a saving remnant. It's not that she was particularly belligerent about it, but any work of Douglas' is informed by a sense of ritual and a feel for the sacred that you wouldn't have expected in the secularist common rooms of 1960s academia.

People speak of Purity and Danger as a book about the Codes and taboos in the (Jewish) Bible, specifically the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  It is that,  although the specific discussion of the Biblical texts is only 16 pages--scant, even within the limits of a short book.  The rest is a more discursive essay--discursive enough that some complain of its disorder.  It's probably a fair cop, unless you keep in mind that she is always exploring and expanding on her basic theme.  

After her, our sense of purity, ritual and taboo cannot possibly  be the same.  This kind of descralization may not be a Good Thing: if you are a traditionalist, she's one of many culprits in vaporizing the standards (e.g., not eating shrimp) on which civilization depends--one who, in short helped to make it possible for an American president to make jokes like this.

1 comment:

Noni Mausa said...

I also would like to recommend Doris Lessing's "Prisons We Choose To Live Inside."

"The five collected essays are generally meant to be read in order though they can be read independently. The essays appear in the collection in the order that they were delivered as lectures. The titles of the essays are:

-When In the Future They Look Back On Us
-You Are Damned, We Are Saved
-Switching Off to See "Dallas"
-Group Minds
-Laboratories of Social Change

Her original lectures, of which the book is a transcript, may be heard here: