from TriQuarterly, Issue 132
Look up purity in an Internet search engine, and you're likely to be brought to popular questionnaires that purportedly determine one's level of incorruption. One purity test option begins with "had a date" and ends with "committed bestiality." Another begins with "kissed someone" and concludes with "had sex on the astral or ethereal planes." Either way, we end up with the non-human. That's one of the less dangerous possibilities to which purity, at least on the silly level, seems to lead.
"Pure? What does it mean?"
Sylvia Plath asks the question in "Fever 103" and enacts a spectacle, an outrageous hallucinatory reverie that extricates her speaker from past identities and fleshly indentures: "I am too pure for you or anyone" (53). But it is an ascent, not an answer. In "Lady Lazarus" the purifying rays of rage overwhelm us as well. "I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air" (9). Pure? To paradise Plath's speaker goes—where only the pure thrive. We can applaud Plath's satire, well knowing that it is foolish to think we are beyond the absolutism of purity. Billions of advertising dollars prove otherwise in attempts to repel time and function. And the fanaticism of many sorts that breathes down too many necks derives its power from conceptions of purity.
We know that the language of purity is connected to horrific violence, ethnic "cleansing," theories of "purity" in race and ethnicity and religious sect, and violence against women that proves ancient in its connection between "purity" and the honor of the group. One of the most contradictory and appalling phrases: Honor killing. The terrible history of purity goes on.
How do we most fully conceptualize purity? What can we make purity mean? Simplicity? Innocence? If so, it's lost to us in adulthood and probably earlier. Does purity exist as a relic in the mind? Is purity the devil's hot white hell and desert landscape and rock garden? There are some rational answers: purity can be conceptualized as positive, surely, if we're talking about food safety, but often the concept in action refers to destruction (cleansing, scouring, eliminating); or paralysis (unchanging, outside time); or exclusion, as an archetype belonging to some conceptions of an intolerant God. There's a clean mind and there's a clean drawer—and there's a difference. If we say "That's pure poetry" we're engaging in a cliché. If we say "That's pure fiction" we're engaging in an insult. We don't often use the phrase "a clean mind." The more popular phrase is "dirty mind." We speak of a "spotless" reputation. Of course reputation can't be controlled. There is, after all, the Internet.
What is my intention here? To ask Plath's question: "Pure? What does it mean?" mostly in terms of literary art, particularly poetry. Purity is a subject, surely one of the great subjects. It is one of the inescapable literary subjects. Yet the idea of purity may become a bitter antagonist, acting below the level of consciousness. How does a call for purity infiltrate whatever in the mind longs for rare shameless grace, and why should such imaginings turn bitter and lodge in us like viruses that replicate? Purity is not only connected in some minds to self-destruction, a violation of the mixed nature of what we are and will be, but purity may be experienced as a certain inchoate imaginative pull. Of course absolute purity is unattainable and thus belongs to the country of the imagination. But so much depends on the quality of the imagination.
The great defense against purity belongs to Pablo Neruda. In "Some Thoughts on Impure Poetry," he advocates "A poetry as impure as a suit or a body, a poetry stained by food and shame, a poetry with wrinkles, observations, dreams, waking, prophecies, declarations of love and hatred, beasts, blows, idylls, manifestos, denials, doubts, affirmations, taxes" (128). He concludes his impassioned defense: "He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall" (129). It is easy to argue for impurity now that Pablo Neruda has done it for us, but purity raises its stern face, glowing. The theme of purity is one that mocks us and yet provides its own volition. Its meanings accumulate.
Is purity Wallace Stevens's "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" from "The Snow Man," or Blake's "Little Lamb"? Or "Cleanness" from the Middle English Pearl-Poet:
Be careful, in coming, that thy robes be clean
and decent for the holy-day, lest thou meet with harm;
if thou approach that Prince of noble peerage,
he hates hell no more than men who are soiled.
Or consider Charles Lamb's "Cleanliness" in which "Virtue [is] next to Godliness." Not only that, but
Soil deliberate to endure,
On the skin to fix a stain
Till it works into the grain,
Argues a degenerate mind,
Sordid, slothful, ill inclin'd,
Wanting in that self-respect
Which does virtue best protect.
Or is the impulse toward purity best captured by James Fenton in "The Gene-Pool" from Out of Danger?
You are unclean!
Get out! Get out!
Out of the gene-pool, Gene.
Lives, including literary lives, are led in pursuit of the phantom of purity. And a study of that phantom, even in its minor dimensions, can make for literature. In her short story "You Should Have Seen the Mess," Muriel Spark gives us the point of view of a seventeen-year-old who forsakes all other values but cleanliness, rejecting even a generous, kind, and handsome young man because of the condition of his linens. This hygienic, self-satisfied little squirrel seems perfectly comfortable and benignly confident about her choices. She's clean, and she's stupid.
Purity? What does it mean?—as long as we have memories, given that our memories are both spotty and spotted? Unless I'm misremembering, it's recorded somewhere that Elizabeth Taylor is alleged to have said that she felt her virginity was restored after every hot bath. She forgot to add that it takes not only a bath, but a bad memory and a miracle. Of course a renunciation of the past, a purging of our histories, means memory must be deeply degraded if it is to be purified: Stuck a feather in his hat and called it—some kind of noodle.
In much literature, purity is both a necessary impulse and a dangerous thing. The impulse to purify is part of the literary art, its compacting, its extremes of selection, the prominence of the "telling detail," even the commonly-held conception that the work should create an illusion of inevitability from which no extraneous matter diverts us. The pressure to purify, to honor silence, to cut the line, the sentence, the stanza, is part of the literary instinct. We can never be or make the ultimately pure, and so the attempt may bear the mark of both ambition and rejection—including self-rejection. On the path toward a new voice, we fall into the ditch of wordlessness again, the destructive sword of purity hanging over our heads. Poets in particular are tempted to edit the past, expunging youthful errors or exuberances or indulgences, even those marks of individuality that amounted to originality. Of all literary forms, the poem, brought up on the most often declared impulse toward concision of any verbal art form, is endangered by the poet's proclivity toward a whittling that can purify it out of existence. Mallarmé sought to "purify the language of the tribe" and Pound, who admired Mussolini for far too long, echoed him. The language assigned to purity can exalt or condemn—or collapse the pillars of the creative act in retrospect. Marianne Moore's most famous excisions were in "Poetry," paring that trademark poem from just shy of thirty lines to a total of three, until the opening "I, too, dislike it" takes on even greater weight, given that the illustrative material is stripped away and reader after reader must note the loss of hands, eyes, hair, a bat, elephants, a horse, a wolf, a tree, a critic, a flea, a sports fan, a statistician, "'business documents and / school-books,'" "half poets," poets, gardens, toads, and "raw material."
When I was an eleven-year-old obsessed with poetry I confessed as much to a quick-sketch cartoon artist at the Ionia Free Fair. He drew my picture atop a tower of books. My legs became little dangly babyish things draped over the first couple of books. The legs were such an embarrassment to me, suggesting powerlessness and yet vanity and presumption where they dangled atop those books, with the name "Shakespeare" jotted on the spine of a thick volume. My great pure dream was reduced to comedy and hopelessness. Well, that's adolescence. Or pre-adolescence. Or adulthood. We are vast to ourselves, but miniature to others.
Sometimes the urge to purify takes a truly destructive turn. Writers who want to purify their work may ultimately want to purify the world of their work. Emily Dickinson requested that her writing be burned. Hawthorne asked that his drafts of unfinished work be destroyed. Patrick White claimed that he destroyed his drafts, but according to his biographer David Marr in the Sydney Morning Herald the reality was otherwise: "The old bastard. Patrick White told the world over and over that none of this existed. 'Don't bother hunting for drafts and manuscripts,' he snapped when I asked him years ago. 'They've all gone into the pit.''' According to Marr, the drafts were "Stuffed into cupboards and drawers in [White's] house on the edge of Centennial Park." Others who talked about wanting their papers tossed into the flames: Thomas Hardy, Nabokov, Philip Larkin. The connection between the corporeal body and the corpus of manuscripts is undeniable. The phenomenon may remind us of Oscar Wilde's famous putative last words, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." As fate would have it, the author always goes, but not always the paper.
In 2006 Helen Vendler visited the subject of the destruction of drafts in her criticism of Alice Quinn's edition of Elizabeth Bishop's uncollected poems and drafts, Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, accusing Quinn, according to the New York Times Book Review, "of undermining Bishop's legacy and of betraying something sacred, the poet's personal trust." Vendler is quoted as saying, "If you make people promise to burn your manuscripts they should" and argued that "personal fidelity is more important than art." She used as one of her examples the supposed request of Virgil to have his writings burned. Whatever our take on the matter of Bishop, using Virgil as our example, are we betraying him at this moment by calling to mind the Aeneid? Legendary last wishes aim for the ultimate purification. Nothing is more pure than nothingness. Nothing is more perfect than nothing.
A "rabbit catcher" is an old term for a midwife. Plath has a poem by that name that's about an actual snare as well as a psychological snare. But it wasn't rabbits she was catching. In the famous foreword to Ariel Robert Lowell narrates a metamorphosis of Plath into a heightened inhuman purity: she "becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another 'poetess,' but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines." How pure, really, and in consequence how inorganic. He tells us that we hear "the pounding pistons of her heart"(xiii). She is "machinelike from hard training," with "her hand of metal with its modest, womanish touch" (xiv). The modest touch of the poet who wrote Daddy? His introduction to Ariel contains one of the most painful lines in any introduction: "This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it" (xv). To a machine, no. To an absolutist of the purest sort, no. But then it is purity that Plath is refusing to succumb to in her last work. When she turned and looked purity in the face and leaned away from the obsessive shadow of perfection, she wrote the poems that made her name. She chose a subject—purity—that could disable as much as liberate her gift. After all, a conception of artistic purity for the artist can be death to amplitude and instinct and an enemy of generativity. It stops us. If she seemed more streamlined, more machine-like to Lowell, her speakers became more humanly complex and vibrantly unfinished to other readers.
If once I thought that perfection was the mother of purity I have only recently realized that I got the generations wrong. Purity is older; purity is perfection's mother. Purity looks backward, to a prior state of being that was whole, unsophisticated, unadulterated. Whereas perfection, like most children, is not interested in the past as much as in the future. However unattainable, it is perfection, not purity, that at least harbors the notion of achievement after an apprenticeship. Perfection claims action for itself. Purity is a state of being, not an action. Once lost, purity may not be regained and cannot be sought in the same site. Purity, more elemental than perfection, takes its metaphorical weight from our perceptions of the body and what the body can bear. Both purity and perfection are allied conceptions, but purity is the more dangerous. Not least of all because we so seldom think about what purity might mean. More often we simply react, repelled at some level by some insufficiency that is beyond imperfect, that seems to attack our sense of wholesome physical integrity.
After my first daughter was born I experienced a period in which I felt one-dimensional. I admit that I come from a family where the failure thoroughly to clean out a can of tuna fish was held with the contempt reserved in other families for a member convicted of murder. But I recall a season after my first daughter was born when my resistance to previous shapes I made in poetry was so severe that I was in the grip of a tightening of possibilities. What was pure enough for my daughter? What could her mother make that might even approximate an awareness that came as if outside of language—who was this imperfect stranger I was? A loathsome purity came over me. The spaces in the work became more prominent, phrases pulled back upon themselves. I was treating my poems like the ancient Greeks treated women in Anne Carson's interpretation.
In "Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity," Carson quotes Hesiod: "Let a man not clean his skin in water that a woman has washed in. For a hard penalty follows on that for a long time." The Greek obsession with boundaries focuses on women, Carson informs us:
Women, then, are pollutable, polluted and polluting in several ways at once. They are anomalous members of the human class, being, as Aristotle puts it, imperfect men .... They are, as social entities units of danger, moving across boundaries of family and house, in marriage, prostitution, or adultery. They are, as psychological entities, unstable compounds of deceit and desire, prone to leakage.
Whether limning Sappho's fragments or writing her own poems, Carson troubles boundaries, puncturing pure form by crossing it, but also illuminating it. Carson's poetry achieved recognition precisely because of its resistance to genre purity and exclusivity, for its cross-breeding of scholarship and the lyric and, at the same time, its heightened attention to purity, silence, and abjection. As she writes of Sappho's transgressive poems, it is the image of "an irony of reference as sharp as a ray of light" (152) that she chooses to employ—sharpness, differentiation, even while she breaks the bulwarks between scholarship and lyric poetry.
In "The Glass Essay" Carson writes of an abjection that mixes human and animal categories and that takes the romantic love poem of longing in a direction that assails purity:
Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself
thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
I can recall a performance by Laurie Anderson during which she quoted the above lines from Carson's poem. A gasp went through the audience.
Which brings me, oddly enough, to Plath again. Carson's baboon image opposes the organic metaphor that has most closely followed women in multiple cultures: the flower. The flower in its symbolic context creates an equation: flower, woman, poet—the ethereal and fleeting, fragile and lovely and pure. No baboon there. (For Carson's image to strike we have to bring with us a conception of women and purity that may seem retrograde. Change the genders and the baboon image performs in a wholly different way.)
In one of the more well-known photographs of Plath a hand reaches toward her with a carnation while Plath's own fingers linger on her scarf. She is looking up, in the other direction from the flower, her mouth open in a smile only partly realized. In another photograph—from 1953—Plath is holding a rose upside down and smiling as if in parody of the role she is supposed to be playing as "female poet." The sexual politics of the literary period suggested that the female of a certain class was somehow exalted but woozily embarrassing. As was poetry. The flowers are somewhat like fumigants. It is no accident that much of the drama of The Bell Jar is about reproduction and the control of reproduction, the "deflowering" of the protagonist. Once "deflowered" Esther Greenwood can't stop bleeding and must be exposed, her privacy violated, her interior broached not only in private but within the medical establishment.
In the lower left of the daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson a flower may go almost unnoticed. The flower held between Dickinson's fingers is at most an ornament, a blurry sign, a bow to convention more than a physical reminder of Dickinson's disciplined attention to her herbarium. And the book on the table next to her—is that a prop too? (We might have more images of Dickinson if she enjoyed having her image captured.) Flowers can be seen as purifiers in the way they have been deployed, whether the flowers are turned from lightly as in Plath's photographs or presented frontally in Dickinson's daguerreotype and yet overwhelmed ultimately by her steady human gaze.
That there is something "pure" about Dickinson's gaze in the daguerreotype is undeniable, it seems to me. She looks out of time and beyond time, and like other writers working with restraining structures (has ever the simplest hymnal form been employed so stubbornly for such radical advances?) she is imparting the lessons only a part-time purist is capable of. We go to Dickinson for the conception that is most compacted, in-drawn, and for breath work of the subtlest kind. We go to Virginia Woolf to trace a style that illuminates consciousness as it moves about an absence, a silence that cannot be completely tainted. We go to Plath to scour the image clean in one tributary of her ambition. We go to Plath, too, to put the dagger in the heart, to understand Listen, bastards, she's through. And wasn't Hemingway a purist? It's a strange experience to read much of his fiction after we note how often he uses the word "and." Shouldn't such a word suggest inclusiveness, a non-hierarchical in-gathering of experience—isn't that a possible reading? Except that the coordinating conjunction is surrounded by the pressure of silence, by the untouched, unreal, the wound that can't show itself, the wound of the perfect man who must insinuate more than sully the moment of grace with ungraceful speech. Or think of Anita Brookner, with her repetitive plots, milling the same sorts of characters in the same quietly devastating situations, creating a literature as intricate and beautiful and pure in some ways as Matisse's palm fronds (as depicted by Elaine Scarry).
The age of innocence is getting a shorter life cycle. But there is a possibility of reckoning with the impulse to purity without being destroyed. Impurity may even need a conception of purity. And if we accept that there is at least a family connection between perfection and purity, a visual artist helps us.
The painter Agnes Martin, 1912-2004, born in Saskatchewan, is known for her spare paintings, many of them grid-like, composed of the most minute acts of attention, purposefully just shy of perfection. Not that she sought perfection in substance or execution. She sought the idea of perfection as stimulus: "I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are" (15). Or, as she explains further, "you get light enough and you levitate" (35). Her canvases resemble landing directions, fields that point toward a clarified state of mind. Her lines and shadings prompt a recalibration and refreshment of sight. Her pale washes of colors, her obligingly imperfect lines, make the purity of calmness and silence and emptiness palpable.
All the same, at first sight her canvases are, frankly, easy to ignore. They arrive in low-intensity, until we adjust and turn up our own intensity. I am fond of Untitled No. I, "acrylic and graphite on canvas," (1993) with its egg shell tint so faint that the canvas makes us think of the Platonic archetype of paper. Other titles emerge as pre-Oedipal, suggesting pure feeling states before language: Infant Response to Love, I Love the Whole World, Happiness—Glee, Little Children Playing with Love. The art works remain somehow like surfaces to be written on, and yet curiously inviolable. Many look like unassuming writing tablets, the kind we used when we were children—the lines allowing us to form our first letters according to a template of perfection that we were meant to absorb. Indeed, Martin is the artist of the fresh-lined page, the page that is already art before we make our first mark. As she has written, "Seeking awareness of perfection in the mind is called living the inner life. It is not necessary for artists to live the inner life. It is only necessary for them to recognize inspiration or to represent it" (31).
Inspiration is, however, a difficult matter to represent—but, to beg the question, difficulty is an artist's inspiration. Nothing is more difficult than perfection—except for purity. We might turn to Gerard Manley Hopkins to see such inspiration at work as he writes of purity as if it were renewable perfection. He writes in "God's Grandeur": "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." The freshness is dear. The freshness is deep. Such deep purity, in the same poem, lives with these lines:
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
The poem is from 1877. At the time, Hopkins could say in the same poem, with confidence, as we cannot, "nature is never spent."
Pure? What does it mean? Plath was right, perhaps, not to answer, but to demonstrate what it means to be overwhelmed by an ideology of purity and then to be spurred into impure voice, acknowledging the power of purity as a cultural conception. When Neruda assails purity he ends with a threat to those who are overcome, raging in his defense of impurity because he knows purity's power, a power that even he, wily and defiant, could not ignore. Wrestling with the tenacious grip of the conception of purity, James Fenton writes, in more abstract terms in an untitled poem, "This is no time for people who say: this, this, and only / this. We say: this, and this, and that too." But then, purity is not human, nor is perfection, but both, we should keep reminding ourselves, are inventions of the human imagination. The products of the imagination demand their own life. Czeslaw Milosz, writing in Unattainable Earth, knowingly or not echoes Neruda when he tells us that the new poetry will include both "the rhythm of the body ... heartbeat, pulse, sweating .... together with the sublime needs of the spirit, and our duality will find its form in [the new poetry], without renouncing one zone or the other" (33). Purity will take its place. We can't help but be disappointed if we long after purity in art or in life. But then, a great amount of literature, inevitably, must be made out of disappointment.
Carson, Anne. "Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity." Men in the Off Hours. New York: Knopf, 2000. 130-57.
---. "The Glass Essay." Glass, Irony and God. New York: New Directions, 1995.
Fenton, James. "The Gene-Pool." Out of Danger. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1994. 101.
---. Untitled. In Out of Danger. 96.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. "God's Grandeur." Mortal Beauty, God's Grace: Major Poems and Spiritual Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Eds. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. New York: Vintage, 2003. 21.
Lamb, Charles and Mary. "Cleanliness." The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Ed. E. V. Lucas. New York: Putnam, 1903. 363-64.
Lowell, Robert. "Foreword." Ariel. New York: Harper, 1999. xiii-xvi.
Marr, David. "Patrick White's return from the pit." 3 Nov. 2006. Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/patrickkwhites-retum-from-the-pit/2006/ 11/02/1 162 339990980.html Accessed November 20, 2007.
Martin, Agnes. Writings. Ed. Herausgegeben von Dieter Schwarz. Kuntsmuseum Winterthur: 1992.
Milosz, Czeslaw. "Into the Tree." Unattainable Earth. Trans. Milosz and Robert Hass. New York: Ecco, 1986. 30-33.
Moore. "Poetry." The Poems of Marianne Moore. Ed. Grace Schulman. New York: Viking, 2003. 135.
Neruda, Pablo. "Some Thoughts on Impure Poetry." Passions and Impressions. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1983. 128-29.
Pearl Poet. "Cleanness." The Pearl Poet: His Complete Works. Trans.
Margaret Williams. New York: Random, 1967. 121-188.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper, 1971.
---. "Fever 103." Ariel. New York: Harper, 1999. 61-63.
---. "Lady Lazarus." Ariel. 6-9.
Spark, Muriel. "You Should Have Seen the Mess." Open to the Public: New & Collected Stories. New York: New Directions, 1985. 141-46.
Vendler, Helen. Quoted in Rachel Donadio's "The Closest Reader." New York Times Book Review. 10 Dec. 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/ 12/10/books/review/Donadio.t.html Accessed November 20, 2007
Editor: Susan Firestone Hahn
Associate Editor: Ian Morris