Posted tagged ‘categories’

Dirt makes everything more interesting

June 28, 2009

I mean this somewhat more literally than you might think.

It’s always been a matter of pride to me that I’m not very squeamish about insects, hygiene while camping, gory details while I’m eating, and other “dirty” things. The other day at work, Mei Mei offered me a pocky (for the unAZNconscious, a chocolate-covered cookie stick), and because I was on the phone at the time, I left it on my open laptop. When I got off the phone, it had melted onto the plastic above the keyboard, but I pulled it off and ate it anyway, and then scooped up the remaining chocolate and ate that too. I said something like, “Whoops,” to acknowledge to the horrified Mei Mei and to Pelushi-girl that my action wasn’t really socially acceptable. Pelushi-girl said, “Ewww!!”

That incident, along with the Sandman “literary graphic novel” series I’ve been reading, got me thinking about dirt in culture. Sandman is full of mythology, fairytale, and, best of all, different places and eras. Reading the series reminded me that I’ve never really liked ancient Greece and Rome. Of course they were incredible, way ahead of their time, and all that, but I think that’s part of the reason they don’t draw me the way the “Dark Ages” do. The artifacts from the “classical period,” if not the period itself, seem sterile – full of clean, standardized, white statues (often with smooth, blank eyes), and pure philosophy. Everything is visible – nothing hides behind hills or fog or darkness.

The Emperor Hadrian as Mars - all out in the open

The Emperor Hadrian - all out in the open

The Dark Ages, on the other hand, are compelling for me because they are dark, and therefore mysterious – centuries in need of a candle, full of things that go bump in the night… and dirt. Dirt seems to cling to both the artifacts from the period – tapestries and carvings going brown around the edges – and the ideas, which are messier, less rational than those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Somehow, the dirt makes the era more friendly, just as the  traces of pocky chocolate and crumbs in my keyboard personalize my computer.

a delightfully grubby page from the Book of Kells (the gospels, transcribed by 9th c. Irish monks

a delightfully grubby page from the Book of Kells (an illuminated copy of the four gospels, transcribed by 9th c. Irish monks)

In Purity and Danger and other works, anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that many cultures’ ideas about pollution match Lord Chesterfield’s quip: “Dirt is matter out of place.” For example, in Leviticus, certain animals are considered “unclean” because they possess features that, according to Hebrew cultural categories, do not belong together or are out of place. Pigs are unclean not because they carry lots of diseases, eat garbage, etc., but because they are hooved and yet do not “chew of the cud.”

Things are often most interesting when they don’t fit into categories – when they’re dirty. I dislike classes and disciplines that think grouping and assigning labels is enough, without get one’s hands dirty and using those labels to make arguments and determine causality. But my complaints about academic categorization may get their own post later. Now, my focus is dirt. Part of the reason I’m majoring in history is that, more than in science – more even than in “social science” – things in history can’t  be easily categorized. History is dirty.

Of course, I’m lucky that I can look at dirt so theoretically. Maybe if I lived in a mud hut, I’d feel less positively about dirt (though maybe not – I’d probably be even less squeamish, and maybe feel closer to the land?)

Dirt is part of the reason that the Lord of the Rings movies are vastly superior to the other recent fantasy movies. I remember listening to two middle aged women on a train complain that they couldn’t stand to watch LOTR because all of the characters looked like they needed to take a good shower.

But that grubbiness is part of what gives the movies their grit and makes them look real, rather than made of plastic, or worse, made of a substance as intangible as “computer” (although LOTR is sometimes over-digitized, too, as with the Ents and especially the ghosts of Dunharrow.)

Saran-wrap ghosts :(

Saran-wrap ghosts 😦

In movies like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass, on the other hand, everything seems a little too bright, smooth, and shiny. There’s nothing rough and knobby to grab onto or feel friction against or engage with. Everything just glides by.

Are they not all remarkably well-kempt?

Are they not all remarkably well-kempt?

Characters from Lord of the Rings are dirtier in their promotional photos than characters from The Chronicles of Narnia are in their actual fight scenes. I’ll give The Golden Compass characters more of a break on dirt-defined-as-physical-muck, since there’s less of that in the arctic regions. However, there’s no excuse for the series’ general lack of grittiness and dirt in the Lord Chesterfield sense – especially given that a main idea in the series is that Dust can put destiny itself out of place.

Another reason that dirt is interesting could be the  “fascination of the abomination,” as Conrad calls it in Heart of Darkness. Things can be so gross that you want to look.

Some kinds of sex can work like that. Sex, always an act of joining things, could easily lead to Douglas’s unclean “hybrids and other confusions.” Maybe that’s part of why sex is generally treated with so much discretion. The Bible’s idea of correct sex – the coming together of two to make one – is in a sense a completion, and Douglas argues that completeness is associated with holiness in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, sex has to be handled with care, because if the two aren’t well-matched in the view of the culture, as with bestiality, incest, etc., everything could be thrown off balance. It makes sense that sex, and especially nonstandard sex, is often called “dirty,” and that when we want interesting details, we say, “Give me the dirt.”

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