The notion of secondary virginity has been a mainstay of the environmental movement, extending to its very language. Untouched forests and other tracts of wilderness are said to be "virgin." When people come into them, the tracts are said to have been defiled. But hold on: the virginal state can be recaptured. "RESTORING A POLLUTED BAY TO ITS FORMER PRISTINE GLORY" was the headline on a story about the improbable cleanup of New York's Flushing Bay. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989, Exxon agreed to pay a billion dollars to "restore pristine beaches and waterways." When an alien creature, the toothy and fearsome northern snakehead, from Asia, recently infested a pond in Maryland, some environmentalists proposed to restore the ecosystem to a virginal state by means of mass poisoning (followed by mass electrocutions), killing everything in it.
We may scoff at secondary virginity in any literal sense, and yet we have long taken the idea of secondary integrity for granted. Many of the world's great religions offer some sort of procedure for removing the stain of transgression (though the garments sometimes come back from the cleaner with a tag saying that not everything came out). Even a secular faith such as communism offers a second chance. After Stalin's death, in 1953, many of those accused during the Great Terror were publicly "rehabilitated"; in millions of these cases, unfortunately, the rehabilitation was posthumous. Other secular faiths, such as public relations and political consulting, put more of a premium on timeliness. Reputation Management, a magazine I have often picked up from the giveaway racks at airports, seems to be largely devoted to a form of secondary integrity. Bill Clinton, continually reflowered, has passed through the tertiary and quaternary stages and is well on his way to millenary integrity.
A suspension of belief in the idea that life is a one-way street has obvious moral dimensions. In the movie Groundhog Day the character Phil, played by Bill Murray, is caught in a time warp, condemned to live February 2 over and over again. ("Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?" he asks the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where he's staying. She replies, "I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen.") In one exchange Phil explains to his co-worker Rita the feeling of abandon that has come over him, in a life cut loose from the ordinary bonds of contingency.
RITA: I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It's inspiring in a way.
PHIL: My years are not advancing as fast as you might think...
RITA: Don't you worry about cholesterol, lung cancer, love handles?
PHIL: I don't worry about anything anymore.
RITA: What makes you so special? Everybody worries about something.
PHIL: That's exactly what makes me so special. I don't even have to floss.
No one is immune from the allure of the status quo ante. What varies widely is how far people go to achieve it. The solar system itself apparently goes farther than anyone: in a cosmic version of Groundhog Day a large asteroid strikes our planet every so often, wiping out much of creation (600,000 more years of winter!) and rolling back evolution in the process.