Get it out of your system

Jenny Diski

  • The Anatomy of Disgust by William Ian Miller
    Harvard, 313 pp, £16.50, April 1997, ISBN 0 674 03154 7

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, a sort of comfort in a morally confusing world, to find some sweeping generalisation we could all agree to, regardless of history, culture or class? Only a brave and doubtless partially informed person would claim definitively to have found anything which all humanity has in common beyond microbiology. Try a life without love being meaningless, the need for the individual to have control of the means of production, or the ubiquitous appeal of the smell of frying onions, and there will always be someone ready to show that these truths are not universal. It’s just possible, however, that William Miller has cracked the problem with his simple but glorious statement: ‘One simply did not drink pus, even back then.’ If we want to find a common response on which all people at all times and all places can agree, then the pus-drinking activity of St Catherine of Siena, c. 1370, is surely where to look. The usual mêlée of cultural and emotional variation falls away in the face of it. Relativism withers at its mention. Not even those whose pus St Catherine drank managed any degree of equanimity. As her hagiographer, Raymundus de Vineis, tells it, only Catherine was prepared to attend one of her fellow nuns whose suppurating breast cancer smelt so bad that no one else could abide being in the same room. So far, so decent. When, however, Catherine came to dress the wound, the stench caused her to vomit. In order to punish her wilful body, and get a saint-like hold on herself, Catherine decanted the pus into a cup and drank it. The patient was less than grateful; she came to loathe Catherine, taking the rather modern view that whenever the ‘holy maid was anywhere out of her sight ... she was about some foul act of fleshly pleasure.’ She was not so far wrong. Christ appeared to Catherine in a dream, and as a reward for subduing her nature, drew her mouth to the wound in his side and let her drink to her heart’s content. We may or may not, down the generations and across belief systems, consider this behaviour holy, but would anyone deny that it is disgusting? Mind you, relativism dies hard: there are South American peoples who regularly feast on manioc root softened with the saliva of the women of the tribe, and groups who make soup out of the ashes of their dead, so let us say that in a variable world it is impossible for us in this time and place to imagine anyone not finding pus-drinking disgusting.

In so far as disgust belongs in the realm of the body, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that Christianity has a lot to answer for in its construction in the West, with the ambivalence of the Church in matters of the flesh and the curious implications of the adoption in 1215 of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hatred of the body as the material prison of the spirit combined uneasily with the dogma of transubstantiation. Although ‘disgust’ was not to enter the English lexicon until the early 17th century, Wycliffe was able to make clear his emotional response to the idea of eating the actual body of Christ at Mass: ‘If thou’ were to ‘see in liknesse of fleisch and blood that blessed sacrament, thou schuldest lothen and abhorren it to resseyve it into they mouth.’ But Miller suggests that Christianity’s troubled attitude to flesh and blood is only part of the story of disgust. The deliberate echo of Robert Burton in his title signals his wish to produce a meditation on the natural history of disgust and his belief that it is as much hard-wired as socially induced. His claim is that ‘for all its visceralness’ disgust ‘is one of our more aggressive culture-creating passions’; that ‘matter matters and ... only polemical foolishness will allow us to ignore the fact that some of our emotions generate culture as well as being generated by it.’

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