Putrefaction and Purity: Death and Denial in Andrew Miller’s Pure


  • Rebecca Downes




The great carapace of human culture is erected to deny our essential corporeality, our persistent vulnerability, and our inevitable extinction; death is quite simply an elephant in the room of Western culture. Inspired by Phillipe Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death, Andrew Miller’s 2011 novel, Pure, is a fictionalised account of the clearing of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris in 1785. True to Foucault’s conception of history as a means of interrogating the present, Miller’s novel investigates the origins of contemporary attitudes to death in Enlightenment values of reason, sanitation and medicalization. This rationalisation coupled with, and complicated by, the Romantic revolution in sentiment that dates back to the late eighteenth century and still reverberates throughout Western society today has led to a collective denial of death and a denunciation of the decaying and diseased body. The book’s title, Pure, refers to this purification of culture through the purgation of death, but it also brings to mind Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which is contemporaneous with the novel’s setting. This paper will argue that Miller’s novel is itself a critique of the kind of abstract thinking or pure reason that serves to deny the body and banish death. Miller’s sensuous, voluptuous prose brings death to life, so to speak, literally and metaphorically depicting the resurgence of the dead body and resituating death within daily life. A contemporary ars moriendiPure exemplifies the praxis of storytelling as a form of embodied knowledge that transcends abstract theory and situates discourse in the arena of shared sentience and shared mortality.