Disgust is an instinct which saves us from eating contaminated foods and poisons. We feel a sense of revulsion upon seeing vomit, rotten meat, excrement — all things which would sicken and kill us should we consume them. As Daniel Kelly, author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust says:
You have this quick, reflex-like tendency to move away from whatever you find disgusting. You might not actually move, but you’ll have this flash of motivation to jerk away from it. Some of the really interesting things about disgust are the more psychological components of it. When you’re disgusted by something, it captures your attention. It seems offensive and tainted in some way, and we think about disgusting things as though they have the ability to contaminate other things. So, if something we find disgusting touches another object, that object becomes disgusting as well. We track where the property of disgust is in the world, and that tendency seems to be automatic.
Spiritual corruption was described by pre-Christian Hellenics as miasma. It was a repellant feeling of taint, a sense of contamination. In The Dunwich Horror H.P. Lovecraft said of his obscene Elder Gods, “as a foulness ye shall know them” and it was as a foulness they (and contemporary sensitives) experienced miasma. There is a feeling of wrongness about people or objects tainted with miasma: words like “filthy” and “slimy” are often used by people who can feel miasma. (A group which is far smaller today than it was in the past, but we will return to that later).
It is important to note that miasma, unlike our conception of “sin,” carried no particular moral baggage in and of itself. One could acquire miasma through impious behavior, but miasma could also be acquired through daily activities like being present during childbirth or cleaning a dead body. As Polytheist and Classics scholar Galina Krasskova puts it:
[M]iasma was a natural thing, neither good nor bad, a natural consequence of certain actions or coming into contact with certain things. Sometimes this is inevitable and then you perform the appropriate ritual cleansing. No big deal; except it is. Ritual purity was practically an obsession to ancient Greeks and maybe it should be for us as well.
And yet miasma has acquired moral baggage — it has, paradoxically, come to be seen as a good thing whilst efforts to cleanse it are associated with oppression, priggishness, and fanaticism! And much of the blame for this topsy-turvy state of affairs can be laid at the feet of Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism.
To Postmodernists and cultural Marxists, “purity” is a dangerous term most frequently used for malevolent purposes. Purity is defined by the dominant class: those who are insufficiently “pure” of blood or creed are subject to oppression. (Surprisingly, they often miss the ramifications of “doctrinal purity” and its cost in Marxist countries). To be “pure” is to be privileged, and privilege is inherently a Bad Thing. As Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph warn in their essay “The Moral Mind:”
Purity is often deeply moralized, not only as a concern about the self but also in the form of beliefs and feelings about groups and the world as a whole. This is one source of what might be called the “dark side” of purity intuitions, and indeed a concern (or obsession) with purity is often associated with horrific violence and oppression, particularly when it pairs up with intuitions from the In-group foundation — for example, the Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing” and the Jim Crow laws in the American South that kept African American bodies and body processes separated from those of whites.
If purity is inherently oppressive, filth is inherently revolutionary. Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva has famously spoken of “abjection” as our reaction to that which threatens the boundaries between self and not-self:
Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them…
A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver.
For Kristeva (and many other scholars following her lead) our response to the abject is at the heart of racism, classism and the multitudinous forms of Othering by which we establish our identity. Religion is simply a way of dealing with the terror abjection engenders: any focus on the “sublime” is merely so much graveyard-whistling to distract us from the filth inside us and the rot which will inevitably claim us as its own. The greatest art is not that which gives us a glimpse of the transcendent, but that which stares unflinchingly at excrement. In this worldview there is little place for ritual purification: it is better instead to wallow in the miasma as a show of contempt for those with less “enlightened” sensibilities.
Such ideas would have been unthinkable in the pre-Christian world — and, I would submit, in any world where refrigeration had not made decaying food less ever-present and antibiotics had not made septic wounds less common. Much as the anti-vaccine movement took root only after polio, measles and rubella were nearly conquered, a pro-filth philosophy can exist only where cleanliness is the rule rather than a hard-won exception. Our ancestors knew firsthand that rot was poison. That fact is no less real for our forgetting it.
What can we do against this tide of spiritual sludge? That is a topic for another blog post. For now perhaps the most important thing we can do is to see it (or smell it) for what it is. From there you can understand that in a foul world cleanliness is not an act of oppression but the highest and holiest of sacred Transgressions.