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Purity and Danger in Fin-de-Siècle Culture: A Psycho historical Interpretation of Wagner, Stoker and Zola

According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the quest for purity is usually accompanied by fears of change, ambiguity and transgression. Translating Douglas’ insights into historical terms, one may assume that sensibilities about what is pure and what is impure will grow stronger during times of intense social and political change, for instance, during the stormy decades around 1900. This period was characterized by a profound identity-crisis and at the same time was marked by a quest for purity. One may think of a deepened concern for hygiene, of the rise of racist movements, but also of an intense longing for cultural reform and regeneration. Notwithstanding their many differences, these phenomena are linked through their concern for the formal distinction between what is pure and what is impure. A study of the work of Wagner, Bram Stoker and Zola gives some insight into the language of purity, serves to show the religious meaning of formal categories of purity and impurity, and makes it clear that the quest for purity in one area is related to the quest for purity in another area.

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