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

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.’

At an individual, organic level, disgust seems easy enough to describe. Our own physical body is the gateway of disgust. What is inside us, while it is inside us, is all right, but whatever emerges from the inside of the body to the outside world, with the exception only of tears, is unclean. Clearly, this is true of what emerges from other bodies and threatens to enter our own, but it also holds for our own bodily products. Miller offers a thought experiment proposed by the psychologist Gordon Allport. Think of swallowing the saliva that is in your mouth, or do so. Now imagine spitting out some saliva into a glass and drinking it. The individual can – has to – live with being what both Heraclitus and contemporary abuse refer to as a sack of shit, but once the shit is out of the bag, it is impure and never to be reincorporated. Unless, of course, you are a child. The failure of small children to feel contaminated by their bodily wastes, and their casual capacity to reincorporate all manner of them, argues strongly for the cultural creation of disgust. We have to learn to be disgusted, and it takes an uncommonly long time. It is the central task of early parenthood to teach toddlers not to touch, smell, taste and thoroughly enjoy their excretions. ‘Dirty’ is the word we commonly use to them, but the face we make is the ‘disgust face’ – wrinkled nose and curled lower lip – that Darwin described in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Even knowing this, it is hard to marry the evidently socially conditioned nature of disgust with the instinctive feeling of disgust as we experience it, though there is perhaps a clue in the other great exception to disgust rules – being in love.

Perhaps, cunning symbolisers that we are, we expend vast efforts on teaching disgust rules to children, in order to provide a set of regulations to be transgressed. Sex demands that we suspend our feelings of revulsion about the incorporation of foreign substances into our bodies. Indeed, it rather depends on our rejoicing in doing so. It is a two-way thing according to Miller: ‘To the thrill of transgressing another’s boundary is added the thrill of granting the permission to be so transgressed upon. Somewhat strangely, it is the granting of permission that may be more transgressive than the transgression it authorises, for it is the permission that suspends the disgust rule, not the boundary-crossing that is thereby allowed.’ Not so strange if the boundaries have been rigorously enforced precisely in order that they might be flouted. Ambiguity is not the preserve of the Church, it only aped what humans do best of all, and have the most fun with. Sex, Woody Allen said in happier times, is only dirty if you do it right.

Conversely, disgust gets you off the hook of love if you nurture it as Swift did, both tormenting and releasing himself with the thought: ‘Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;/Oh! Cælia, Cælia, Cælia shits.’ There is a price to pay for this game, and it’s a large one, especially for women – gender parity no more applies here than it does in most other places. Miller makes Lear stand for men’s fear and abomination of the vagina:

           Beneath is all the fiend’s.
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the
sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench,
       consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah! pah!

But Miller suspects that vaginas evoke disgust not just because ‘“Love has pitched its mansion in the place of excrement” or that they are surrounded by pubic hair, or that they secrete viscous substances, or that they are victim of centuries of misogyny’. Their real crime is that they are receptacles for semen, ‘that most polluting of substances’. It’s true that both the retaining and the expelling of semen have been deemed destructive of male mental and physical health, and Miller’s belief is that what most disgusts men about ejaculation and causes them to regard women’s acceptance of it with contempt is an over-arching dismay at fecundity. We recoil instinctively at evidence of ‘generation itself, surfeit, excess of ripeness’. It’s life, death and the whole cyclical thing we can’t stand. Semen, menstrual blood, excrement are a holy trinity of disgust. They are life itself: birth, death, decay and the next cycle of production. We are appalled by life’s fertility, and anything that reminds us of it, especially anything that provokes thoughts of excess, will be found vile. What is most disturbing about lower forms of life is their teeming, swarming, seething, rotting, regenerating nature. So we are disgusted by the nature in human nature. Vegetable excess reminds us that we are part of the organic game. This, I suppose, is not good news for the ecology movement; the more it reminds us that we are an integral part of Mother Earth’s interwoven life plot, the more our stomachs are likely to churn. Our treatment of the planet, cutting down prolific forests, replacing them with sterile concrete roads, might be more indicative of what we really feel than the current greenish rhetoric. Our present eco-hero, Swampy, would be well advised to change his nom de guerre, if Miller is correct.

Sexual disgust is related to this. We are disgusted by overindulgence; surfeit of something desired is likely to result not only in boredom but in distaste:

There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it,
   And nothing is at a like goodness still,
    For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
     Dies in his own too-much.

Orgasm, the legitimate end of the sexual enterprise, is by definition excessive. Enough is too much, and the surfeited man falls asleep, not with exhaustion, but in the face of despair, according to Miller. (Women, inured by childcare and the workaday business of menstruation, knit post-coitally, though this is a little known fact to the sleepier half of the world. It would seem from Miller’s tale that women are altogether less fussed by fecundity and too-muchness.)

We are, of course, deep in Freudian territory here. For him, disgust was part of reaction formation: the trio of disgust, shame and morality worked to prevent the activation of unconscious desires. Disgust may make the fair foul, but it also makes the foul fair in providing a barrier that we will inevitably find alluring. ‘So much pleasure is tied up in the violation of rules we are committed to, the very commitment providing the basis for the pleasure in violation.’ As to the disgust of surfeit, Freud wonders why wine ‘always affords the drinker the same toxic satisfaction’ when men are rarely satisfied with the same sexual partner for long. Mothers are his answer; or rather the fact that the compulsive seducer is always failing to find his mother in his mistress. But Miller demurs. Orgasm is the thing: ‘If wine produced orgasm or if orgasm had the gentle sloping moderate pleasures of wine ... then Adam would be as content with Eve day in and day out as Freud was with his Bordeaux.’ Miller doesn’t say what vintage he considers the female orgasm to be, but it seems to have kept her standing by her flighty man, so maybe we should bottle it and resolve the biological double standard for good.

There might be a historical slant to this. Disgust appears to require a relatively modern degree of privacy in order to exist. It looks, superficially, as if increasing civilisation is a prerequisite for revulsion at unacceptable public behaviour. Yet Miller cites an 11th-century reference to yielding ‘to the call of nature’ to suggest that this euphemism was already available, and that where euphemism exists disgust is not far below. In a 16th-century handbook on manners it is strongly suggested that dinner guests should not ‘foul the staircases, corridors, or closets with urine or other filth’ and that ‘it does not befit a modest, honourable man to prepare to relieve nature in the presence of other people ... Similarly, he will not wash his hands on returning to decent society from private places, as the reason for washing will arouse disagreeable thoughts in people.’ Both private places and embarrassment at bodily activity were well established centuries ago, even if the hygiene rules have changed. This is true even in heroic cultures. The Icelandic Laxdoela Saga describes the escalation of a feud in which the hero Kjartan surrounded the farmhouse of the people of Laugar, ‘blocked all the doors and refused anyone exit and they had to relieve themselves inside for three days.’ A shared sense of disgust had to exist for such a strategy to work. Indeed, the people of Laugar ‘thought it to be a much worse dishonour, greater even than if Kjartan had killed one or two of them instead’.

Things take a murkier turn when Miller moves from flesh and nature to the more abstract aspects of disgust. Once we leave the world of vomit, excreta, semen and pus, and find ourselves using the word ‘disgust’ as a moral condemnation, the argument gets fuzzy. Are we, as Miller states, disgusted by hypocrisy, and if we say we are, do we mean it in quite the same way as we do when we observe someone spitting in the street? Does the ‘disgust’ that he claims as ‘central to moral discourse and the construction of moral sensibility’ stem directly from visceral revulsion, or are we playing with the idea for hyperbole and emphasis? Miller is quite specific. Contempt is not disgust, he claims. Contempt implies indifference and is therefore well suited for democracy with its implication that we should live and let live. It belongs to the world of social hierarchy. Our social inferiors elicit our contempt, and they in turn feel contempt for us. Thus, everything stays in balance. According to Miller, however, disgust is a separate condition that occurs when we observe necessary evils such as hypocrisy, betrayal, fawning and cruelty. We are reminded that fair is foul: we know the politician and the lawyer must lie, but it turns our stomachs to see the moral order contaminated. Adam Smith observes of the unsocial passions – anger, resentment, hatred – that even when ‘justly provoked there is still something about them which disgusts us’. And for Hume, Miller says, ‘nothing quite disgusts ... like the fool.’ This does not feel right. The activities of St Catherine make me feel sick; thinking about being sick makes me feel sick, but cant does not turn my stomach more than metaphorically – it makes me feel angry and ashamed. The shame (at the reminder of common humanity or animality) is the link, I suppose, that Miller uses to connect the visceral with the moral, but it doesn’t convince.

Miller proceeds with the argument by referring to George Orwell’s difficulties with disgust. To feel disgust is to feel threatened with contamination, as Orwell suggests in The Road to Wigan Pier. Whereas contempt remains complacent, disgust is intolerable and therefore itself threatening to the concept of democracy. He was disgusted at the lack of hygiene in his lodgings above the Brookers’ tripe shop, at their slurping of soup, and he knew that no rational socialism was ever going to change his learned visceral responses. So well were they learned that, as a scholarship boy at a private prep school, he could smell that he smelt: ‘I had no money. I was weak, I was ugly, I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt ... I believed, for example, that I “smelt” but this was based simply on general probability. It was notorious that disagreeable people smelt, and therefore presumably I did so too.’ But Orwell’s fastidiousness is always physical rather than moral. He knew perfectly well why the lower classes smelt, the practical and psychological reasons – poverty makes cleanliness more difficult; his own middle-class upbringing was inescapable – but smell they did.

To say one is disgusted by hypocrisy, obsequiousness or stupidity is surely to use the diction of physical revulsion as analogy. Moral outrage may be accompanied by dismay at being reminded of our capacity for low behaviour, just as physical disgust may contain our distress at being implicated in nature’s frenzy, but the idea of being sickened by moral failure is borrowed from rather than fully integrated with the notion of contamination. I suspect that in the moral sphere disgust is one of the names we give contempt. Miller develops his anatomy of disgust without enough regard for the elasticity of language and the satisfaction we get in stretching it around analogous corners. It isn’t that we don’t mean what we say, but that we mean so much more than the words we use.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences