Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mary Douglas' "Purity and Danger": Book Review

Why do we let those close to us lick the same spoon, or eat off the same dish? Why kiss away tears but not snot? How do we learn to live with some filth and yet recoil at other dirt? And how does this all relate to "primitive" ritual, magical belief, and ethical culture?

This book manages to be accessible for the non-anthropologist or historian of religion, yet too densely argued and scattered for the novice. How can it be both? Douglas writes in a no-nonsense style that I enjoyed, when I could grasp her points. Too often, like many critics, she's engaged more in a grudge match with previous academics and uses a considerable amount of this text settling scores, some from the time of "The Golden Bough" and the formative years of her discipline. While she makes her own argument known, the details of tribes, the skipping about that many of the chapters engage in through time and culture make her intricately developed thesis appear probably more fractured and piecemeal than she intended.

The centerpiece, therefore, stands out as the lasting reason for which this earlier book is known, and you can see from her later work that she returned to Leviticus with gusto. "The Abominations of Leviticus" pioneered a cultural approach to the laws not as health codes -- although she notes that ethical control, hygiene and dietary concerns may well be by-products of these Mosaic restrictions and allowances -- but as aesthetic counterparts drawn from the natural world to the cohesion that the military camp and the Hebrew tribes demanded for survival and identity. She reads the proscriptions and prescriptions as conceptual structures of what fit the divinely mandated order that the Hebrews strove to impose-- following God's will as they understood it-- on their natural surroundings. Here, Douglas provided a paradigm shift for scholars trying to figure out what had eluded them about these seemingly arbitrary do's and don'ts. I have to admit I was reminded of a Monty Python routine that takes glee in enumerating similarly detailed provisos and prohibitions.

Of value, too, remain cogent observations late in the book (my battered 1970 Pelican paperback may have different pagination) that relate to our own times. Most do not keep kosher or follow "primitive" rituals, but Douglas cautions us. We too follow our own elaborate yet apparently "natural" habits of cleanliness, and our own magical formulae. Douglas notes that when religions filter down to the masses, ordinary folks tend to minimize the philosophy and maximize the material benefits. Moral conformity and adherence to ritual guarantee, adherents are assured, continued prosperity. But, how long can the magic lamp be rubbed, she wonders? The danger comes when the magic, the pizazz of the ritual becomes vulnerable to disbelief. Too much stress on the ritual may lead to the exposure, as I compare it, of the charlatan and not the wizard behind the curtain. How does a religion safeguard itself against dissent? How keep the rituals potent and their promise fresh>

How do religions sustain their aura? Douglas suggests three ways. 1) Suggest an enemy's to blame for undoing the religion's good effect. Demons enter on cue and sinister forces can be blamed at work here. She faults this as a half-hearted answer that makes the religion appear weak, as if it cannot explain the whole of existence without resorting to boogeymen.
2) Attend to fine print, or else the incantation will not be efficacious. She likes this approach better, as the devil or angel as it were may lie in the details. Also, the audience and priests need to be cleansed, guilt-free-- again if the ritual fails, scapegoats often can be found close at hand to take the blame. This method also establishes moral purity and aspiration to a higher sense of communal goodness to bind the worshippers more closely to assure the success of the religious ritual. 3) Change its tack, as Douglas puts it. Religions can alter to meet the times, the mood, the circumstances.

Considering various "faith communities" in our curious parlance of our own generation's bureaucracies, applying Douglas' three responses to the present day secularizing drift and fundamentalist tendencies proves, now over forty years since its first publication, a salutary exercise in putting beliefs to the test. This book remains admittedly too much a collection of notes and readings rather than a tightly-knit thesis. Overall, its chapters move along fitfully, but Leviticus insights and the closing "The System Shattered & Renewed" retain their own verve for today.

(Image: the Routledge cover's genius, compared to my mangy, bird-nibbled, unclean $1 used Pelican 1969 copy with its René Magritte monochrome painting, pretty boring; this appeared 8-30-07 on Amazon US)

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