William Ian Miller’s The Anatomy Of Disgust

The Anatomy of DisgustWilliam Ian Miller has advanced degrees in both law and literature from Yale, and while he relies on the former to earn his living as a professor, the latter has given his writing uncommon depth and acuity. His 1997 book The Anatomy Of Disgust borrows more than just its title from Robert Burton’s 1621 philosophical treatise The Anatomy Of Melancholy. Burton famously drew on a wide range of sources, from poetry and philosophy to science and medicine, in his investigation into the dimensions of depression and sadness, and Miller brings a similarly varied arsenal to the subject of disgust – Norse epics, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Rabelais, Hobbes, Adam Smith and Charles Darwin are all frequently cited. His aim is to explore the emotion of disgust: what causes it, and under what circumstances; how we react to the disgusting; what our sense of the disgusting says about us; even how disgust informs our moral and social order. But he begins, rather logically, with the physical: how we perceive the disgusting using our sense of smell, sight, taste, touch and sound.

The first thing that needs to be dispensed with, in Miller’s eyes, is the etymology of the word disgust, which is derived from the Latin dis (expressing a negative or reversal) and gustus, meaning “taste.” From its etymology, you might imagine that disgust is principally a matter of tasting, but Miller argues that this is a confusion; as much as we may fear eating or drinking something disgusting (and therefore potentially contaminating or poisonous), we most often perceive the disgusting through our senses of sight, smell and touch. It is only after passing muster before these senses that we even consider ingestion. And unlike other emotions, disgust is intimately and ineluctably linked with sensation: “Disgust cannot dispense with direct reference to the sensory processing of its elicitors. All emotions are launched by some perception; only disgust makes that process of perceiving the core of its enterprise.”

There is also, Miller notes, a curious consistency in what we categorize as disgusting. Inanimate objects rarely provoke us to disgust, whereas the living, the dying and the dead are all much more capable of unsettling us, of causing our faces to pale and our hairs to stand on end. There is a curious connection between disgust and death, as if our visceral reaction to the disgusting owes something to the disgusting object’s ability to remind us of our own mortality. Life, when it teems, spawns, oozes or festers, has the power to disgust, and the byproducts of life – semen, menstrual blood, excrement and urine – likewise provoke disgust in us. Miller cites Swift’s famous poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which the amorous Strephon makes the fatal mistake of too closely investigating his beloved’s bedroom, where he discovers, to his horror, beauty instruments designed to pluck chin hairs or squeeze blackheads. When he opens her chamber pot, his senses are given the final assault, and he proclaims his discovery: “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” And so ends Strephon’s lust. Miller correctly notes that Swift sees disgust as being fatal to desire, but he goes even further in his argument, attributing to Swift a form of misogyny that the poem, I do not think, sustains. Strephon, after all, is likewise a figure of mockery, and it’s difficult not to see the entire poem as a sendup of the courtly love tradition, in much the way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 mocks the same pretensions.

His larger point, that disgust kills lust, stands, but he adds an interesting twist: disgust, by erecting barriers between people, also helps distinguish romantic or loving relationships. Sex, after all, involves enough physical intimacy and exchange of otherwise disgusting bodily fluids that it would be unthinkable except with someone for whom we have strong feelings of affection. We certainly do not want strangers holding our hands or sharing our beds, let alone sharing our toilet, and yet lovers cherish this kind of intimacy. The parent-child relationship also necessitates a suspension of disgust: my mother and father surely did not enjoy changing my diapers – human excrement, in itself, is always disgusting – but they did so anyways, out of love and devotion, and they relay those stories to me with something bordering on pride.

The second half of the book focuses on the moral and social implications of disgust, and how the emotion of disgust has been harnessed in the creation of culture and society. Think, for example, about the revulsion we feel at the idea of sex with family members, and you will quickly understand the efficacy of disgust in policing the prohibition on incest. Do we not also feel disgust at bad manners and poor hygiene? The homeless, though we may also pity them, often provoke our disgust, and that very feeling of revulsion is a powerful impetus to do otherwise, to dress, groom and behave in a way that spares you from becoming an object of disgust.

I often found myself disagreeing with aspects of Miller’s analysis – inevitably, given the scope of his undertaking – but even in disagreement I found him insightful, and the sheer expansiveness of the evidence he marshals – from literature, philosophy, psychology and science – together with his commentary make this a supremely entertaining, provocative book about a profoundly uncomfortable subject.