Reductio ad mysterium

Beware the salesmen who say, “It’s the soap in Duz that does it.” The statement is plausible, and therefore suspicious. The word itself may be noun in Azeri, verb in Luxembourgish, a numeral in Mauritian Creole; I am referring to the North American cleaning product, vaguely remembered from earliest childhood, more precisely recalled through the commercial jingle.

It was a lie. Duz wuz not a soap at all. It wuz an amphipathic detergent: one of those technological innovations of German laboratories, tasked with getting around the national shortage of oils during the late Great War. They found a surfactant more efficient than soap; one which did not waste effort binding the limestone and chalk in hard water to the dirt scum it was separating. Or so I understand.

Now, I do not propose to bring Messrs Procter and Gamble before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I can’t afford the lawyers. There is evidence in the Internet that the product was a powdered soap before it became a powdered detergent. Yet I distinctly remember that slogan, from a time well after the soap component must have been retired. And I have found confirmation for this memory on YouTube.

Quite frankly, such avowals are in the heart of modern life: assertions that are plausible, but not strictly true. I could give other examples. In some, such as the whole concept of “government investment,” they are not even slightly true; and in many fields, such as that of insurance (public or private, it makes little difference) a bottomless pit of moral jeopardy is concealed by the surface claims.

We have not truth, but approximations to truth, that will not bear investigation. This is what makes us so different from our mediaeval, or other pre-modern ancestors, whose circumstances freed them from what I will call (with apologies to Ratzinger) the “dictatorship of hype.” Or rather than fall into hype myself, I should say they simply lacked the machinery by which hype of this sort could be generated, and poetry abused.

For the line in question is poetry indeed: “The soap in Duz that does it.” But it is poetry degraded. Somewhere near the beginning of his penetrating commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Thomas Aquinas notes that poetry and philosophy share an origin in the apprehension of the wondrous. I say they expound, yet neither can “explain” the mysteries, including that mystery of an existence (our own) that comes out of nothing.

Yet upon consulting the Wicked Paedia I find that the operation of detergent is no wonder at all. It can all be explained to any specialist’s satisfaction, in words of twelve syllables or less.

Which takes us, naturally, to the stain of sin. How is it to be eradicated? Clearly, we must begin by understanding what it is, and there we encounter a modern “problem,” carried forward through all human ages. The very existence of sin is mysterious, and can be casually denied, for as we sin we become less conscious that sin is sin, and slide by degrees into the modern glibness. If the German laboratories cannot invent a product to wash it away, why don’t we just ignore it?

Macula, guilt, is left over. We are soiled; it will not go away. Freud and other shrinks thought they could isolate it in their laboratories — explain it away — yet after more than a century of attempts we still feel it, like the itchy pyjamas that Duz promised to soften. Drugs may suppress it, temporarily, but at an hideous cost. For even when the sense of sin is gone, the guilt obstinately remains. Paradoxically, we have reduced this “problem” to the mystery again.