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Purity Of Essence

By Michael J. Smith on Monday May 26, 2008 08:31 PM

A few days ago I posted some thoughts about a recent conversation with a highly intelligent and sophisticated woman -- let's call her Diotima -- who is completely mesmerized by Barack Obama. I keep recurring, in my mind, to this chat. It was very rich in matter for reflection. I wish I had recorded it.

At some point she mentioned how "exciting" Barack is, and asked, Don't you think so? Don't you sense it?

I had to confess that I just didn't hear the music. All the way back to his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Gulag -- er, Convention; the speech that had everybody so worked up -- the only response I had was to look at the flushed faces of people talking about it and wonder, What on earth has gotten into them? They're on the brink of orgasm over a tissue of unmeaning platitudes.

Perhaps I developed this theme, talking to Diotima, with more eloquence than tact. She snapped, "Well, I suppose you're just much purer than I am." Which set off a train of rumination about this incessantly-recurring theme of "purity", always a reproach from Democrats.

It's amazing how much subtext a single word can carry. There's a whole little movielet that obligingly unreels in the mental Bijou at the mere mention of the word. It goes something like this:

We have the "purist" -- let's call him Diogenes. Diogenes is so concerned with keeping his moral skirts clean that he has withdrawn from the battle, and looks upon it with snide, sanctimonious detachment.

And then we have the Diotimas -- represented, in this story, as folk like Teddy Roosevelt's famous

... man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day....

... and so on and on. What a grandiloquent, ponderous windbag the guy was. And inexhaustible. To think he was actually asthmatic as a lad. Would that it had mortified into an early, galloping consumption.

But I digress. Whether Diotima had this particular passage of YMCA homiletics in mind, who knows? But it's the canonical statement -- from a very suitable source -- of the "purity" trope's underlying argument: the difference between Diotima, struggling, though impurely, to "do something, at least", and prissy, pure Diogenes, absenting himself from the "dust and sweat and blood" of the arena, and sneering at earnest Diotima from the safety of his tub.

The Diotimas love to congratulate themselves on the Promethean sacrifices they make -- including, of course, the sacrifice of their purity, such as it may be (and few who grow to adulthood have much left to sacrifice, in my experience). But in what do these sacrifices actually consist?

My Diotima will vote for Obama -- and will no doubt go home, or on to her job, feeling thoroughly imbrued with the dust and sweat and blood et cetera. Perhaps she will even contribute to the campaign, and feel as impurely, glorily gory afterwards as Genghis Khan after a long day of rape and pillage.

Maybe it's a failure of imagination, but this doesn't seem very, erm, gladiatorial. In fact, it's difficult to see that Diotima has sacrificed anything except a temporarily disquieting intimation of reality.

It's a little like that snide remark of Bertrand Russell's about Immanuel Kant. Russell quotes Kant saying that "It was Hume who first awakened me from my dogmatical slumbers" -- then Russell adds, "but he soon found a soporific that enabled him to sleep once more."

Comments (2)

Al Schumann:

The semantic emptiness of the reproach spares the accuser some dissonance. It's like chanting nonsense syllables as a distraction to carry them through the unease of voluntarily doing something unpleasant and antithetical.


When confronted with even the slightest hint of integrity, a pwogwessive will emit a cloud of self-serving rationalization and head for the nearest exit.

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