The OF Blog: Thomas Ligotti, "Purity" (2003)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Thomas Ligotti, "Purity" (2003)

We were living in a rented house, neither the first nor the last of a long succession of such places that the family inhabited throughout my childhood years.  It was shortly after we have moved into this particular house that my father preached to us his philosophy of "rented living."  He explained that it was not possible to live in any other way and that attempting to do so was the worst form of delusion.  "We must actively embrace the reality of non-ownership," he told my mother, my sister and me, towering over us and gesturing with his heavy arms as we sat together on a rented sofa in our rented house.  "Nothing belongs to us.  Everything is something that is rented out.  Our very heads are filled with rented ideas passed on from one generation to the next.  Wherever your thoughts finally settle is the same place that the thoughts of countless other persons have settled and have left their impression, just as the backsides of other persons have left their impression on that sofa where you are now sitting.  We live in a world where every surface, every opinion or passion, everything altogether is tainted by the bodies and minds of strangers.  Cooties – intellectual cooties and physical cooties from other people – are crawling all around us and all over us at all times.  There is no escaping this fact.' (p. 3-4, Teatro Grottesco edition)

"Purity" perhaps is one of my favorite Ligotti stories of the past ten years (coincidentally, I learned today while scouring the web for this story's original publication that there are plans to make a short film based on it).  The opening paragraph contains an excellent "hook" that hints at the type of tale to follow.  Here, the nameless narrator relates a tale from some years ago when he was a child.  Ligotti utilizes a matter-of-fact style of narrative to create sharp contrasts between the mundane family discussions and the very unsettling commentary by the narrator's father on the issue of "non-ownership" and the pervasiveness of commonality in people's lives.

Purity is a concept that appears in many guises, often as a means of indicating the corruption of the ideal.  What Ligotti sets up here in this opening paragraph is the notion that purity is an impossibility; we are all "polluted" with "cooties" that manifest themselves in mind, body, and soul.  We cannot escape "contamination;" it is a part of us.  The setting for "Purity" reflects this sense of impurity, as the narrator's family moves from cursed house to blighted house, skirting the fringes of even more decrepit and sinister houses.  One quickly gets the mental image of paint peeling from weathered frame houses, rank weeds sprouting among cigarette butts, broken beer bottles, and used condoms.  Ligotti does not explicate the environs, yet our imaginations easily fill in the urban desolation hinted at in the paragraphs following the opening scene.  Unsound minds in unsound settings, more or less.

Against this backdrop is the mysteriousness of the father's attempts to somehow undo or at least alter the impurities around him.  We get fleeting glimpses of some vague, possibly nefarious "experiments" on the narrator, his sister, and his mother.  This is heightened during a scene in which a missionary visits the rental house, attempting to proselytize.  The father's response is telling:

"I will explain.  you have these two principles in your head, and possibly they are the only principles that are holding your head together.  The first is the principle of nations, countries, the whole hullabaloo of mother lands and father lands.  The second is the principle of deities.  Neither of these principles has anything real about them.  They are merely impurities poisoning your head.  In a single phrase – Citizens for Faith – you have incorporated two of the three major principles – or impurities – that must be eliminated, completely eradicated, before our species can begin an approach to a pure conception of existence.  Without pure conception, or something approaching pure conception, everything is a disaster and will continue to be a disaster." (p. 6)

There is a bleakness in most of Ligotti's fiction, a sense that nothingness is pure compared to the degradations of life and life's self-deceits.  In "Purity," that nihilistic attitude is more transparent than in the majority of his tales.  As the father works upon the idealism of the missionary, the narrator relates what happens when he leaves the father to do his "work" and he wanders off to a friend's house in the most dangerous part of the neighborhood.  This digression serves to reinforce the earlier scenes regarding the father's earliest experiments on his own family and the mystery surrounding this serves to deflect reader attention from what is occurring in the background.  By the time the tale winds to a close, Ligotti has executed a narrative double-bind:  the philosophy of the father is seen in the experiences of the son and the two actions create a plot/theme reverberation that echoes the philosophy spelled out in the beginning in ways that are disturbing more for the reflections generated by the words and actions than for the actual plot conclusion.

"Purity" depends upon the reader being able to buy into the premise established in the beginning.  Once the reader is committed to wrestling with/against the ideas presented there, then the narrative action can take on frightening implications.  This creates an unsettling reading aftermath, as the very semantics behind "purity" have been twisted here to create something that feels "off" and perhaps "wrong," yet which is powerful for making the reader question just what "purity" might be. 


Anonymous said...

Read Purity last week in Teatro Grotteso. It was my first Ligotti exposure, it might be a good place for everyone to start. Still resonates. Interesting to note that there was so attempt in making it into a film. There is enough there to pad out the meat of the story into a series, like American Horror Story, perhaps. But who among us would have the strength to watch it all?

Anonymous said...

A helpful review. Ligott can be baffling enough that I like to read other people’s interpretations and opinions. For your information and amusement I copy a short extract fromPhilosophy of Horror (1990) by Noël Carroll, who claims that the notion of impurity plays an important role in horror (i.e. in the emotion that readers/viewers of the genre may experience).

“In her classic study Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas correlates reactions of impurity with the transgression or violation of schemes of cultural categorization. In her interpretation of the abominations of Leviticus, for example, she hypothesizes that the reason crawling things from the sea, likelobsters, are regarded as impure is that crawling was a defining feature of earthbound creatures, not of creatures of the sea. A lobster, in other words, is a kind of category mistake and, hence, impure. Similarly, all winged insects with four legs are abominated because though four legs is a feature of land animals, these things fly, i.e., they inhabit the air. Things that are interstitial,that cross the boundaries of the deep categories of a culture’s conceptual scheme, are impure, according to Douglas. Feces, insofar as they figure ambiguously in terms of categorical oppositions such as me/not me, inside/outside, and living/dead, serve as ready candidates for abhorrence as impure, as do spittle, blood, tears, sweat, hair clippings, vomit, nail clippings, pieces of flesh, and so on. Douglas notes that among the people called the Lele, flying squirrels are avoided since they cannot be categorized unambiguously as either birds or animals.
Also, objects can raise categorical misgivings by virtue of being incomplete representatives of their class, such as rotting and disintegrating things, as well as by virtue of being formless, for example, dirt.
Following Douglas, then, I initially speculate that an object or being is impure if it is categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless. These features appear to form a suitable grouping as prominent ways in which categorizing can be problematized. This list may not be exhaustive, nor is it clear that its terms are mutually exclusive. But it is certainly useful for analyzing the monsters of the horror genre. For they are beings or creatures that specialize in formlessness, incompleteness, categorical interstitiality, and categorical contradictoriness. Let a brief inventory carry this point for the time being.
Many monsters of the horror genre are interstitial and/or contradictory in terms of being both living and dead: ghosts, zombies, vampires, mummies, the Frankenstein monster, Melmoth the Wanderer, and so on. Near relatives to these are monstrous entities that conflate the animate and the inanimate: haunted houses, with malevolent wills of their own, robots, and the car in King’s Christine. Also many monsters confound different species: werewolves, humanoid insects, humanoid reptiles, and the inhabitants of Dr. Moreau’s island.”

“Impure” as a general term denoting things that should not be. To the father in the story these things include principles that do not have “anything real about them”. Arguably Ligotti’s most important theme.

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