Theories of Disgust
Theories of Disgust
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter suggests that the core examples of disgust are provided by: putrefied flesh, feces, and wounds. Put in terms of processes, we have bodily decay, excretion, and injury to the body. By the last of these it includes not only sliced or ripped flesh but also diseases that affect the integrity of the flesh, such as leprosy. Other cases branch out from these three core areas, sometimes by close resemblance, sometimes more tenuously. At any rate, that is the working hypothesis, to be tested by examining all the cases listed earlier in the book in the light of whatever theory is being considered. Any theory of disgust needs to be evenhanded, both as to cases and as to sense modalities, though some selection of basic cases seems inevitable. With these conditions of adequacy in mind, some theories are considered, beginning with what are considered to be the least plausible: the taste-toxicity theory, the foul-odor theory, the animal-heritage theory, the life-process theory, the death theory, and the death-in-life theory.
THE MAIN THEORETICAL CHALLENGE posed by disgust is the great variety of objects that can provoke it. It is hard to see how we can bring order to this variety without selecting some disgust objects as basic and viewing others as radiating out from the central core. But the danger here is selecting a subset of disgust objects that suits the theory that is favored by the theorist; the theory then becomes too narrow. The converse danger is striving to be all-inclusive, treating all disgust objects as on a par, and then finding that the theory is too broad, including more things than are strictly speaking disgusting. I hope I shall not be found guilty of either error if I suggest that the core examples of disgust are provided by: (i) putrefied flesh, (ii) feces, and (iii) wounds. Put in terms of processes, we have bodily decay, excretion, and injury to the body. By the last of these I mean to include not only sliced or ripped flesh but also diseases that affect the integrity of the flesh, such as leprosy. I then see the other cases as branching out from these three core areas, sometimes by close resemblance, sometimes more tenuously. At any rate, that is to be my working hypothesis, to be tested by examining all the cases earlier listed in the light of whatever theory we are considering. I don’t think the risk of excessive narrowness will be too great if we insist on covering these three basic cases. I also think it is a mistake to single out (p.66) one perceptual modality as primary, in the sense that all the others register disgust derivatively from that one: vision, taste, smell, and touch should all be accorded their rights in assessing any proposed theory; and only a strong argument should persuade us that one sense is basic and the rest derivative.1 I think each sense could by itself register disgust in a subject, even if the other senses did not exist in that subject (not so for hearing, which really does register disgust only derivatively); so, for instance, there could be visual disgust in the absence of olfactory disgust, and vice versa. In other words, any theory of disgust needs to be evenhanded, both as to cases and as to sense modalities, though some selection of basic cases seems inevitable. With these conditions of adequacy in mind, let me now consider some theories, beginning with what I take to be the least plausible.
(a) The Taste-Toxicity Theory. This is the theory originally proposed by Darwin, and sanctioned by the etymology of the word. In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin writes: “The term ‘disgust,’ in its simplest sense, means something offensive to the taste. It is curious how readily this feeling is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food… A smear of soup on a man's beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself. I presume that this follows from the strong association in our minds between the sight of food, however circumstanced, (p.67) and the idea of eating it.”2 The English word “disgust” has the same root as “gustatory,” so in its original meaning it is synonymous with “unpleasant to taste.” Thus, the soup in the beard strikes us as disgusting because we would find it disagreeable to taste the food thus bespattered. And the same would be true, for Darwin, in the case of other disgust objects: rotting flesh, internal organs, feces, snot, bugs, warts—these are all things we are reluctant to put in our mouths, chew, and swallow. We are disgusted by a thing perceived, then, just when we think of ingesting it and know it to be either toxic or nasty tasting; so visual disgust, say, depends upon gustatory disgust. A disgusting object is simply one that we would reject as food, whether this rejection is mediated by taste itself or some other sense that does duty for taste. A poisonous substance will thus be the most disgusting thing of all, while anything nutritious (and taken to be so) will be exempt from disgust. Natural selection has installed disgust in us, according to this theory, as a protective device, to ward off toxic foodstuffs.3 Thus, we regard fresh-cooked meat as wholesome, but are disgusted by rotten contaminated meat. And we regard vegetables as acceptable, but not the feces that result from their digestion. Disgust is geared to edibility, nourishment, and health.
As a theory of the original meaning of the English word “disgust,” this is unexceptionable, since the word is defined spe (p.68) cifically by reference to taste and what is palatable or unpalatable. But the word now has a much more capacious meaning, and it is this meaning that we are trying to capture. The German word “ekel” is not defined by reference to taste at all, and German writers have accordingly not followed the model of Darwin in restricting the concept to taste.4 That is fortunate because the theory faces some obvious counterexamples. It is not a necessary condition for something to found disgusting that it be, or be believed to be, in any way toxic or non-nourishing: many animals that we find disgusting are not regarded as toxic or lacking in nutritional value—rats and bats, slugs and insects—and many a child jibs at eating fat, though she has no wish to maintain that fat is toxic or low in calories. Would you no longer find yourself disgusted by rotting corpses if you learned that they make a tasty and healthy meal? Blood is found repellent but is not nutritionally deficient, not to mention fresh raw heart and kidney. For many items, it is not that we find them disgusting because we reject them as food, but rather that we reject them as food because we antecedently find them disgusting—judgments of nutritional value play no role here. Nutritious human feces, if such there could be, would not be rendered acceptable just by that fact (imagine if some clever scientist found a way to recycle shit as food, without changing its Sosein). Nor is it sufficient for an object to be found disgusting that it be toxic or nutritionally lacking. That would make disgusting most of the inanimate world, to start with, since most inorganic things are not edible—metals, for instance. A foul or bitter taste in the mouth causes food rejection, but not necessarily emotional disgust, as with certain chemicals. Bad tasting is not the (p.69) same as disgust producing. Thus being toxic or non-nutritious is neither necessary nor sufficient for being disgusting. In certain cases, disgust tracks toxicity, but in general the relation is far too loose to build a comprehensive theory around. Even if disgust began as a protective response to bad food, way back in evolutionary history, it has long since lost exclusive contact with that primitive biological imperative. And let it be noted also that the absence of disgust from animals and infants gives the lie to any attempt to ground adult human disgust on a general requirement to protect the organism from bad food—since animals and infants obviously share this need. They spit things out well enough without feeling the emotion of disgust. Finding something to taste bad, or to cause an upset stomach, or even malnutrition, has nothing essentially to do with the emotion of disgust. The only solid connection here is that if we find something disgusting, we don’t want it to touch our mouth or ingest it—not because it won’t nourish us, but simply because we don’t want that kind of contact with what disgusts us.5 Great man though he was, Darwin was off on the wrong foot here. And one general lesson to derive from this failure is that it is unlikely that we will find any simple biological purpose that disgust serves: that is, it is not a simple adaptation—any more than our aesthetic sense in general is. Disgust is more sophisticated and subtle than that.
(b) The Foul-Odor Theory. One of the problems with the taste-toxicity theory is that many disgusting objects are found to be so when not actually in the mouth of the subject and when there is no intention to consume them; then it is necessary to (p.70) posit that we are subjunctively disgusted—if the object were in our mouth, then we would find it distasteful. Linking disgust to smell overcomes this kind of objection, since smell takes in much more of the surrounding world than taste (you can smell things you are not currently tasting). And certainly, the olfactory sense is one that registers the disgusting stimulus with remarkable intensity—with indecent intimacy, one might say.6 Is the disgusting, then, simply that which smells bad? Two of our basic cases confirm this theory—the putrescent and the fecal—and the characteristic stink is surely a large part of the sensory basis of disgust in these cases. Would rotting flesh and fresh excrement seem so revolting if they were sweet-smelling? Would the gorge rise at their presence if it weren’t for the evil odor? Is the mere sight of them sufficient, with the olfactory aspect totally eliminated, even by memory and association? What if feces smelt like chocolate and corpses like roses? These questions have force, and might prompt the idea that disgust and foul smells are bound inextricably together—that the nose is the primary organ of disgust registration.
But again there are problems of necessity and sufficiency. Many examples show that things can be found disgusting that do not offend the nostrils. Wounds and bodily malformations of many kinds do not smell bad, if at all—warts, for instance. Nor do internal organs give off much of an odor. Most bodily secretions have little to no olfactory effect (ear wax, semen), and certainly do not depend on such an effect for their disgust potency. Animals that revolt us don’t smell very different from animals that we enjoy, and some smell hardly at all yet still strike many as utterly abhorrent (e.g., snakes). Sagging old flesh smells (p.71) exactly like young firm flesh. Dirt can be odorless, while being visually offensive, as well as sticky to the touch. So: many things are found disgusting that are guilty of no olfactory infraction.7 As to sufficiency, there are many bad-smelling things that are not reacted to with disgust: mustard gas and chlorine have an unpleasant smell, for example, but do not provoke disgust. Such smells signal a potentially dangerous substance and so prompt retreat from the source, but this defensive reaction is not a case of disgust—any more than nasty tastes always evoke the emotion of disgust. Fear may well be produced by such smells, but that is a very different matter, as we have seen. Associated evil odors may characterize certain core cases of disgust, but they don’t constitute the essence of the category—however important they may be to the disgusting aspect of those core cases. In fact, I believe that corpses and feces would still be found disgusting, though maybe less so, if the smell factor were eliminated; indeed, I incline to the view that the bad smell we experience in these cases is a product of an independently established disgust reaction. In other words, we find these things to smell bad because we already find the source of the associated odors disgusting: the same phenomenal smell from another source would not have an identical repellent power for us (though it is hard to see this because we are so accustomed to the association). In a possible world in which roses gave off the scent produced in the actual world by feces, the people would not be revolted by roses as we are by feces: knowledge of the nature of the source affects the affective response (more on this later). It is a mistake to try to reduce the emotion of disgust to (p.72) its sensory trigger, as if the trigger can do all the work of producing the emotion; in fact, the emotion arises from the way the trigger is interpreted—and this can involve general principles not contained in the trigger, but brought to it. Corpses and feces smell bad to us, at least in part, because of what those smells mean to us—because of what corpses and feces are (or so I shall maintain). In short: a person could be capable of disgust and not have a nose at all, so long as she thought about the world in a certain way and could perceive it by means of other sense modalities. This is why animals don’t feel disgust—the lack of cognitive substructure—despite their generally superior sense of smell (I would bet that feces smell a lot stronger to a dog than to us, despite the notorious canine tolerance of such odors). Smell can indeed be a rich source of disgust, but it is not what disgust consists in. In fact, a case can be made that the disgust aspect of disgust-inducing smells owes a lot to the tactile dimension of smell: the actual physical presence of molecules from the smelly object in the nose, and the phenomenological sense of immediate contact with the foul object—as if the object were coating you, enveloping you, entering you, holding you in its noxious embrace. Bad smells repel us so because the source seems to be acting magically at a distance on us—reaching out to touch us with its abhorrent being. By virtue of their penetrating odor, feces, say, seem to grow tentacles that intrude upon our bodily space, leaving a foul residue on our person. To smell something is to be touched by it, literally and metaphorically. Smell offends because of its affinity with touch.8
(p.73) (c) The Animal-Heritage Theory. We tend to think of ourselves as special: as superior, distinguished, unique, with a dash of the divine running through our silken veins. We stand proudly above nature, with the other animals arrayed beneath us. Nor is this grand self-conception—this species narcissism—without foundation or warrant. For we do possess language, science, art, philosophy, and a moral sense. Among evolved beings we are, in some respects, definitely a cut above. In some traditions, this biological distinction is described as the possession of a soul, which other animals are said to lack. We are supposed to have been created by God, himself a perfect being, with none of the marks of the animal, at least in the core of our identity. Or, in another tradition, we have created God, as a projection of our special being—godly being what we are, or aspire to be, in our essence. We are not merely biological; indeed, in our inner being we are not biological at all. Yet when we contemplate our existence in its entirety we cannot altogether escape our animal nature: we too must die, and rot; we must eat, digest, and excrete; we cannot reproduce without recourse to the messy process of copulation. The body is a locus of disgust, a gruesome biological engine. Maybe we are not so special after all? Acknowledging the facts of our bodily identity, we feel brought down a peg or two, demoted in the grand scheme of things. Feces are not so grand, and yet we live by means of their production; without them we are nothing. This thought can be hard to bear. We want the focus to be on our godlike side, but our biological side keeps asserting itself. We squirm at our own mode of being, as if we are worms (and actually food for worms in the end). We have no trouble accepting that other animals are temporary packages of squelchy fragile tissue, subject to the deep laws of organic existence, but we feel ourselves inwardly to transcend such base material. It is sobering and lowering to recognize that we are not so different (p.74) from them after all. Anything that presses this point home will occasion discomfort, as our vaunted quasi-divinity dissolves into the mess of organic reality. And we are reminded of it continually, just by our own experience of our bodies. We strive for ontological distance from our animal bodies, for spiritual transcendence, but we must accept that everything we are depends on them.9
It is then a natural thought that the disgusting is what drives home our biological roots. To be confronted by our own feces and other aspects of our organic being is to have our nose rubbed in the repellent facts of our real nature as animals like other animals. We are special, but not special enough—not sufficiently transcendent. The prime objects of disgust are simply those things that remind us of our kinship with the broader biological world. To be disgusted at the human body is just to acknowledge the disagreeable truth about our own nature—that we are dirty animals too. Put in terms of evolution, disgust objects assert our evolutionary continuity with the more ancient animal world—the heritage we carry with us of where we came from (and where we are going). Disgust is our response to that part of our nature that demotes us from our supposed position of godlike stature—a part we can neither deny nor escape. Even our loftiest thoughts, our most profound moral insights, depend in the end on the energy we derive from masticated food, once that commodity has undergone the gruesome process of digestion, ending in the expulsion of foul-smelling waste products. Shit, shockingly, is the sine qua non of the soul. That thought occasions a kind of scandalized repugnance. Disgust is the emotion we feel when we are forced to confront our animal nature—our immersion in the biological world inhabited by rats and worms, digestion and death. We are disgusted by the world of worms because we see that we live in that world too, and the fact (p.75) does not sit well with us. Indeed, the central core of the body—what the whole contraption relies upon—is itself a wormlike entity: the alimentary canal, beginning at the mouth and ending at the anus, is like a worm coiled through our body, mindlessly converting living things into dung. It is a blind, consuming, voracious tube. That primordial worm, stretched through every animal body, is surrounded by other soulless organs and tissues, scarcely less repellent (with the repulsive brain, seat of all our pretensions, perched ghoulishly at the top): but structurally and functionally it is still a worm. The intestines look like a big squashed worm. We feel disgust at ourselves because knowledge of our biological nature drives home our immanence in the world of wriggling, damp, organisms—that world we pride ourselves on standing above. A real god would feel no such emotion, being wholly removed from the organic universe; but we are condemned to live in two worlds—the world of the transcendent soul and the world of the digesting body. We are a disgusted species because we are a species.
An analysis of disgust along these lines has been proposed by Paul Rozin, the psychologist who has done the most to bring the topic of disgust to scientific respectability. He writes:
Anything that reminds us that we are animals elicits disgust. An examination of the seven domains of disgust elicitors we have identified thus far suggests that disgust serves to “humanize” our animal bodies. Humans must eat, excrete, and have sex, just like animals. Each culture prescribes the proper way to perform these actions—by, for example, placing most animals off limits as potential foods, and all animals and most people as off limits as potential sexual partners. People who ignore these prescriptions are reviled as disgusting and animal-like. Furthermore, we humans are like animals in having fragile body envelopes that, when breached, reveal blood and soft viscera that display our commonalities with animals. Human bodies, like animal bodies, die. Envelope violations and death are disgusting because they (p.76) are uncomfortable reminders of our animal vulnerability. Finally, hygienic rules govern the proper use and maintenance of the human body, and the failure to meet these culturally defined standards places a person below the level of humans. Animals are (often inappropriately) seen as dirty and inattentive to hygiene. Insofar as humans behave like animals, the distinction between humans and animals is blurred, and we see ourselves as lowered, debased, and (perhaps most critically) mortal.10
This is well put and I detect some glimmers of truth in these remarks, but the theory as it stands is open to telling objections, as follows.
First: is it true that anything that reminds us of our kinship with animals is found to be disgusting? If that were true, literally, then Darwin's The Descent of Man would be deemed a disgusting work, since it insists strenuously on our affinity with animals. So, not all reminders of our animal nature are objects of disgust. Second: why should our kinship with animals per se provoke disgust? Not all animals are found to be disgusting; some are regarded as cute and cuddly. The suggestion appears to be that we think of animals as inferior to us. But why should mere kinship with something deemed inferior to us occasion disgust at ourselves? We feel kinship with human children, whom we regard as our inferiors, but no resulting sense of disgust pervades our contemplation of them or rebounds back on our own self-conception. And what if you are of the opinion that animals are not inferior to us—that, on the contrary, we are (in many ways) inferior to them? Then being reminded of our kinship with them will elicit something more like pride than disgust. Third: not every trait of animals is found to be disgusting, just as not every (p.77) trait of humans is—fur and feathers are not disgusting, or swift agile movement, or maternal love. If we think of our hair as similar to the feathers or fur of an animal, there is no reason on that account to feel disgust at ourselves. Only certain traits of animals are considered disgusting, but then we must have some other criterion of the disgusting than simple similarity to the traits of animals. Perhaps we find particular traits of animals disgusting because they resemble the traits in ourselves we antecedently find disgusting—so Rozin has put the cart before the horse.11 We find organic processes disgusting no matter who or what possesses them; it is not that they are disgusting because animals have them. Suppose there were no (other) animals—we are alone on the planet and always have been. Then we could not make an invidious comparison between humans and animals, revolting at our affinities with such lowly creatures. Would we in such a situation feel no disgust about our own bodies? I think not. Besides, if we regard animals as inferior to us, then that makes us superior to them; so why doesn’t the comparison make us feel better about ourselves? After all, we have a kinship of sorts to many things that we deem inferior to ourselves, such as doorknobs and grass, since we are all physical objects: but no disgust results from appreciating that kinship—just a sense of our own elevation. The kinship only generates disgust if we already find the thing in question disgusting: but then why do we find animals disgusting to begin with? It can hardly be that we do so because we sense a kinship between them and still lower things! Fourth: we really don’t need animals to convince us that we die—we know that well enough by observing our own species. Death may play a role in (p.78) accounting for disgust (see below), but awareness of animal death is not essential to appreciating that role. Finally, we like to keep some animals as pets, stroking and pampering them: they are not disgusting to us. Why should we not select these animals as the ones to which we are most akin? Then we won’t find anything repellent about ourselves, according to that favorable comparison. The animal-heritage theory needs a reason to select the disgusting animals, but then we need to be given a criterion of the disgusting that is independent of merely being animal. If mere similarity to animals were the crux, I would find my view of myself as having catlike agility and the cunning of a fox a reason for self-disgust—which I certainly don’t. And taking myself to have evolved from animals, with many of their traits still in me, is not by itself any ground for disgust at myself—it entirely depends on the traits. What if I reject the whole theory of evolution, supposing my species to have been directly created by God? Do I then abolish all reactions of disgust to my bodily nature? Hardly. What is true here is that I find aspects of my organic nature disgusting, as I do those of other animals, but the reason for that disgust is not that we share such a nature—the traits are disgusting quite independently of any such sharing. It may be true that my organic being drags me down, ontologically, mocking my intellectual and other pretensions, but this has nothing to do with my animal heritage. I would not find myself less disgusting if I became convinced that I evolved from an intellectually superior species, since my organic nature would still be an affront to my self-conception as a godlike entity. Interspecies comparisons have nothing to do with it. It is not that we find certain traits of animals disgusting and then transfer this disgust to ourselves because of a felt kinship; we feel the self-disgust anyway. In point of fact, we generally find our own organic nature more disgusting than that of other species, as the case of feces pungently dem (p.79) onstrates. I am not disgusted at myself qua animal, but qua human being.12
(d) The Life-Process Theory. Living organisms are what we find disgusting, even if they are recently deceased. What are their chief characteristics? There are basically two: food incorporation and offspring production. Both are rich in disgust materials, especially when we consider the machinery that makes them possible—the digestive and reproductive systems. Here it is natural to speak of an organism's “plumbing,” because the anatomy that is responsible is a mass of pipes and pumps, conveyers of fluids and semi-solids—not just the intestines but the veins and arteries, and the tubes and channels of reproduction. This organic plumbing, unlike the (empty!) metal pipes of the plumbing trade, is a prime locus of human disgust. The fundamental life processes proceed through this articulation of soft and slippery pumping pipes. Should we then seek the essence of disgust in the life processes that constitute our plumbing? Is it life itself—at its raw organic foundation—that elicits our disgust? Even in death the life force pulsates and gurgles, as dead flesh is made food for bacteria and worms, resulting in the most disgusting thing of all: the rotting corpse. Putrefaction is a living process. Is it then the very processes of life that excite our disgust? William Ian Miller endorses a view like this in his excellent book The Anatomy of Disgust (it could (p.80) have been called The Disgust of Anatomy). Here is what he says:
What disgusts, startlingly, is the capacity for life, and not just because life implies its correlative death and decay: for it is decay that seems to engender life. Images of decay imperceptibly slide into images of fertility and out again. Death thus horrifies and disgusts not just because it smells revoltingly bad, but because it is not an end to the process of living but part of a cycle of eternal recurrence. The having lived and the living unite to make up the organic world of generative rot—rank, smelling, and upsetting to the touch. The gooey mud, the scummy pond are life soup, fecundity itself: slimy, slippery, wiggling, teeming animal life generating spontaneously from putrefying vegetation.13
Life soup—a nice image: so the disgusting is the bubbling, reeking, living soup that surrounds us? Miller's words are not perhaps as analytically precise as one would wish, and no attempt is made by him to show that his “theory” can provide necessary and sufficient conditions. But I take it we know what he is driving at: the soupy processes that make life possible excite our disgust quite dependably—the soft and soggy tissues of the body, the numerous trickles and spurts of our bodily fluids. Then there is the rapid assault of the ravenous living on the dead, so that they too can digest and reproduce. Life goes forward by dint of these organic processes—the filthy plumbing of the body, with its symptoms and by-products. And these life processes are coolly oblivious to our hot wills and fervent ideals: they proceed, for the most part, automatically, performing their gruesome work behind the scenes, quietly, methodically. They are, in effect, independent agents, assertive of their rights and determined to complete their tasks (just consider the pressing (p.81) bowels and their unblushing imperatives). Nor do they cringe and hide, sparing us their grotesque operation: we are made rudely aware of them whenever the need is great. The stomach will rumble, the fart will escape; the mother's water will break, and the glistening baby will be ejected. Who has the power here—the body or the mind? The body, of course, because we are biological organisms first and foremost, subject to biological laws; and anyway there can be no mind without body. The sheer force of life processes constantly astounds. Life processes and feelings of disgust thus seem intimately joined.14
Again, these reflections strike a plangent chord. The disgusting is indeed limited to the organic, and paradigms of the disgusting pertain to what I have designated our physiological plumbing. But again, the theory seems too undiscriminating about what aspects of life are deemed disgusting. Not everything about living organisms disgusts: the mind is not disgusting, after all, and it too is a life process, part of the biological world; nor is movement—running, leaping, swimming, flying—found disgusting. So what makes certain life processes disgusting and others not? We need an independent criterion of the disgusting to answer that question, since the concept of life itself is too broad to capture the range of objects that disgust us. Talk of soup and plumbing is all well and good, but these are metaphors, in need of literal interpretation. Additionally, the concept of life seems too positive a concept to provide what we seek—a basis for a strongly aversive emotion. Isn’t life good, or just neutral? But disgust objects are bad in some way. Don’t we celebrate life, not deplore it? If life processes are indeed disgusting (some of them at least), then we need to bring these processes under some other concept than life, which fails to (p.82) deliver the negative punch we seek. It simply cannot be that a rotting corpse or a mound of excrement is found disgusting because it makes us think of life. What if we think of life in the form of a field of swaying flowers or a flock of pretty birds? Life processes may often be disgusting, but they are not disgusting qua life—that is not what makes them disgusting. And isn’t life, in fact, the last thing we think about in the presence of these stimuli? Don’t we think rather of…death? Miller subsumes death under life, by noting that death is an occasion for new life, but the primary fact here is death—a highly negative fact, one might say. When we are confronted by the disgusting processes of life, such as digestion or decay, what they may suggest to our mind is not the throbbing reality of life, but the grim static reality of death. We bring these processes under the concept death, conceiving them in that negative context. This is the theory to be considered in the next section. For now, let me conclude with the observation that life and the living are marked both with disgust and with its lack. Human culture—art, science, philosophy, morals—are aspects of life, as is the mind that generates these things: but no one thinks these things are disgusting. There is more to life than soup: it isn’t all gurgling pipes and rank liquids with chunks in them.15
(e) The Death Theory. A linkage between disgust and death is a common refrain in writings on disgust. Ernest Becker's trenchant work The Denial of Death repeatedly juxtaposes (p.83) revulsion at our human body with the fact that we know we must die; the fear of death, he contends, lurks behind out tendency to feel disgust.16 The fear of death runs deep in the human psyche, a nagging constant of adult consciousness, and with it we feel disgust at the body we know must die. We are disgusted at the body because it is the agent of our death, and we fear death above all else; accordingly, what reminds us of our inevitable death is experienced as disgusting. The body has death written into it, owing to its finite and vulnerable biological nature, and this unwelcome message sends spasms of disgust through our anxious consciousness. Disgust is our desperate response to the jabbing fact of mortality. And this is not just death at some distant fixed time, but as a possibility at any moment—unpredictably, catastrophically—as the body reveals its standing fragility. We are born to die and ever at risk of death, and we are revolted by that fact. Nausea is our response to finitude. We are disgusted at the machinery that makes death inevitable. Our fear of death is directed to its biological vehicle—the body—in the form of disgust.17
(p.84) This line of thought is confirmed by a highly salient fact about disgust: its paradigmatic object is the rotting corpse. What could remind us of death more forcefully than the sight, smell, and touch of a dead body going the way of all flesh? In this putrefying entity we see that all along we have been clinging to life by a thread—that once the protective mechanisms of the body are shut down we are quickly made food for the lowest of creatures. With the immune system gone, we are literally eaten from the inside out by the bacteria that naturally inhabit our bodies, patiently biding their time. In a very real sense, the body is fending off death at every moment. This is a highly disagreeable thought. It is impossible to evade the reality of death, as we strive to do, if you are brought face to face with it in the form of a cadaver. The cadaver brings a rush of unwelcome reality, and disgust surges. Thus, the cadaver is found to be disgusting because it is the emblem of death, not because it is the scene of new life. We are strongly averse to death, and disgust encapsulates our aversion. We want the dead thing out of sight and mind so that we can return to our habitual denial of death.
The death theory also appears to score a second major victory in the form of feces and the digestive process. For what is digestion but an agent of death? We eat living tissue, plant and animal, and this can’t happen without killing the living things we eat. A turd is, in effect, the corpse of the organism we earlier consumed.18 We cannot live without killing, and the evidence of it is present every day of our lives. Digestion is a death factory. We feel disgust at this process of destruction, with the final product a pungent reminder of the death that preceded it. Shit signifies the death necessary to life.
Wounds also slide smoothly into place, because a wound, especially a severe, flesh-cleaving one, is a harbinger of death. Before modern medicine, anything but a superficial wound (p.85) was almost certain to lead to death, courtesy of infection. And the blood loss associated with an open wound is also likely to result in death. Wounds disgust us, then, because they are conditions of the organism that precede and cause death. If the wound is severe enough to involve the release of internal organs, as with evisceration, then the level of disgust will be correspondingly high, since such wounds lead quickly and inevitably to death. Thus our three core categories of disgust object—putrefying corpses, feces, and bodily wounds—all seem to lend themselves to treatment by the death theory. In the terms of phenomenology: the intentionality of disgust-consciousness includes in its field the objective correlate of death—death in the form of a present exemplar of it (the corpse), death as having occurred in the past (feces), and death as it might occur in the future (wounds). In feelings of disgust, death is all around, overtly and covertly implicated. Disgust is a mode of consciousness that carries us affectively toward the contemplation of death.19
Further confirmation of the theory comes from the fact that animals feel neither disgust nor death anxiety. That is, they are not haunted their whole lives by the consciousness that they will die; they are spared that human torment. And at the same time they appear insusceptible to disgust. The two go together, suggesting that the reason they lack disgust is that they also lack the fear of death. They simply don’t apprehend themselves as mortal, so nothing can remind them of their mortality; in particular, knowledge of their body does not carry with it awareness of the inevitability of death. They never think: “I am an organism and must therefore die—damn this wretched body!” They just don’t conceive themselves in (p.86) such terms. Death for them is not an issue, a source of dread and resentment—so they do not react to the awareness of its reality with the aversive emotion of disgust. In this sense, they are not averse to their own given nature, as we humans tragically are. They do not regard their manner of being as a death-to-be, with the body as death's complicit enabler. Their consciousness does not incorporate this sickening recognition. Animal consciousness is not a death consciousness, as ours is, miserably so.
The general cognitive principle that brings disgust in its wake is then, according to this theory, the thought that death is our fate, as well as that of all living things. We subsume the perceived world under this conceptual schema, bringing objects into relation with the death concept. Things are interpreted as falling in the shadow of death—or rather, within its bright, stinging light. Our awareness of death is like our awareness of the sun: it is hard to gaze at directly, because it hurts the eyes so, but it is always present, always casting its remorseless, burning light. This awareness, according to the death theory, is what produces the emotion of disgust. We avoid contact with the disgusting object because we want to avoid the reality of death. If we can destroy it or hide it away, then we can keep death from intruding too insistently on our troubled awareness. Avoiding the touch of disgust objects is one of our stratagems for denying death—for distancing it. Disgust is thus an epistemological project—the avoidance of information we would rather not hear about. Accordingly, disgusting objects are shrouded in secrecy, kept private, not talked about—all in order to shield ourselves from the unmentionable and repellent fact of death. In disgust, we strive for ignorance of the object; we don’t want ongoing acquaintance with it. Death, too, is a subject that we prefer to keep in the shadows, smothered in taboo and secrecy. Disgust is death speaking to us, a little too plainly, a little too tactlessly. We are a disgust species because (p.87) we are an awareness-of-death species. When we encounter a corpse our whole mortal condition is laid bare: it is I lying there, rotting and dissolving. We see our fate in the object and disgust envelops us.
The death theory has, I think, the awful ring of truth to it—and indeed, for a while I thought it was correct. The horror integral to disgust is just the horror of death, seen obliquely. But it faces an awkward problem: the skeleton (also the cryogenically preserved body). Bones are a problem because they too remind us forcefully of death, yet we don’t find them disgusting. Standing over a putrefying corpse is one thing, but proximity to a skeleton is quite another. The bones are not rotten, and this is what disgusts us about the fleshy corpse. The skeleton is lifeless, like the cadaver, and is an equally powerful emblem of death, but there is a marked difference in disgust value. Therefore disgust cannot simply be a function of the recognition of death.20 For much the same reason dried (or powdered) feces are nowhere as revolting as wet fresh ones, yet both betoken the death that preceded them. Nor are scars and bruises generally as disturbing as fresh open wounds, yet they also indicate bodily damage and vulnerability. It is not death as such that provokes disgust, but the specific character of the death-implying stimulus. But we have yet to say what this specific character consists in. Once more our theory, though promising, seems to cast the net too wide, entailing that certain things ought to be found disgusting when they are not. Death may be a necessary condition of disgust, but it is not a sufficient condition. Perhaps the skeleton counterexample should not surprise us, because other reminders of the reality of death—such as verbal reports—also carry no tinge of disgust. The stimulus has to have a certain character, a specific Sosein; a mere propositional content refer (p.88) ring to death will not suffice for disgust to set in.21 The question, then, is what the missing ingredient might be—which takes us to the next and final theory.
(f) The Death-in-Life Theory. We have just seen that it is not sufficient to excite disgust that an object or event should convey information about death. The case of a verbal report of death is already enough to demonstrate this: if I say, “People die all the time,” I do not thereby stir up disgust in you. Why? Because my saying this (or writing it) is just an acoustic signal (a mark on paper) and such things do not produce disgust. The skeleton also conveys information about death—it tells us that a person or animal has died—and it does so in an extremely incontrovertible manner: the skeleton is part of the body of someone once living, and no one (in normal conditions) can survive the removal of their skeleton. (Future medical science might make complete skeletal replacement possible, for cases of bone disease, but not at the moment). But why does this part of the body fail to excite disgust, at least once the bones are “clean” and the marrow removed? (Or maybe I should say “much disgust,” since we are not entirely comfortable with the touch of a skeleton.) It is surely because bones don’t strike us as organic in the way the rest of the body does—the muscles, the internal organs, the various fluids and semi-solids. Bones seem to belong with the world of inanimate materials—with, in particular, the world of rocks (they are composed largely of calcium, after all). Fossilized bones simply are rock, and they don’t strike us as morphologically very different from the original. Bones are hard, dense, unbending, breakable, non-putrefying, and odorless—quite unlike the soft tissues of the body. Thus the body (p.89) divides into two compartments: the bony frame and the fleshy covering, and these are differently processed in our thought and feeling. When bones are replaced with metal rods and the like, there is no deep ontological shift, but the same is not true of an artificial heart or leg, if these replacements are inorganic. If a person's biological bones were completely replaced with metal or plastic “bones,” the eventually resulting skeleton would not cause disgust in an onlooker; but the case is not so different from actual bones, because we don’t make much of a distinction between these materials. The Sosein of bone is pretty much identical to that of a suitable inorganic replacement. The skeleton is more like a machine than the rest of the body, a collection of articulated hard parts: thus it clanks and rattles. The skeleton does not strike us as living tissue (though from a scientific standpoint it is—it grows, etc.).22 Somewhat the same thing can be said about cryogenic preservation, though here the flesh survives the transformation: the warm squishy organic parts have made the transition to ice, which is solid, lifeless, unbending, and so on. To freeze something is to suspend the life processes within it, to render it (temporarily at least) inanimate: iced flesh is quite unlike the putrefying kind. The transformation to ice subtracts from the disgust value of the object, by altering its ontological category. (It is an interesting question whether the freezing of excrement can also negate its disgustingness—and it does seem that some disgust subtraction would occur in such a case.)
These reflections suggest the amendment to the simple death theory that we need: what is disgusting is death as pre (p.90) sented in the form of living tissue. It is death in the context of life that disgusts—the death or dying of the living. Not death tout court, but death in the midst of life, surrounded by it. Or again, it is the living becoming dead, making that dreadful transition (or the dead becoming living, as with zombies, vampires, and so on). Disgust occurs in that ambiguous territory between life and death, when both conditions are present in some form: it is not life per se or death per se that disgusts, but their uneasy juxtaposition. The disgusting is “death-life” and “life-death”—neither one nor the other, but both. What disgusts is the interpenetration of life and death, the incongruous joining of the two. In the frolicking lamb, say, we have a pure case of life, so no disgust accrues; and in the bare white bones of an elephant's skeleton, we have an adamant affirmation of death, which also declines to disgust. But in the decaying corpse of a human being we have that intermediate zone of the recently-living-but-now-deceased that is also home to a riot of posthumous life in the form of organic agents of decay and dissolution. Not pure life or pure death, but an uneasy, almost paradoxical, combination or crosscurrent of the two. It is the incongruity of the combination that is the focus of our response, as if two great opposites have mysteriously joined forces. We want to keep these opposites apart, where they belong, but they insist on intermingling, generating a paradoxical (and sickening) mode of being.23 Disgust occupies a borderline space, a region of uncertainty and ambivalence, where life and death meet and merge. In the corpse, death is incontrovertibly present, yet volatile life has not been totally expelled from its Sosein; in the skeleton, by contrast, death is there in all its stark permanence, (p.91) with no hint of the living to qualify it. The eyes of the corpse may suddenly open, we feel, but the eyes of a skeleton never can (and dead eyes are a condensed focus of disgust). The flesh of the dead body is still relevant to the ongoing processes of life, though in a grisly, perverse way, but the skeleton has been cast out into the world of rocks and chemicals, with life just a distant memory. We might say that the proper object of disgust is really a process, rather than an object or condition: it is the process of putrefaction that excites our disgust, as it shifts an object from prior life to manifest death by an application of life (in the form of devouring bacteria). In all disgust objects, a process of transition seems essential, where the two poles of the transition are life and death (soon I will go through our list of disgust elicitors in order to test the theory in detail).
The writer who articulates this position most powerfully is Aurel Kolnai in On Disgust, though an anticipation of it can be found in the nineteenth-century German aesthetician Karl Rosenkranz, and possibly others.24 I shall quote Kolnai at length:
The prototypical object of disgust is, as already intimated, the range of phenomena associated with putrefaction. This includes corruption of living bodies, decomposition, dissolution, the odor of corpses, in general the transition of the living into the state of death. Not however this state itself, since the nonorganic is, in contrast, not at all experienced as disgusting. Not even a skeleton or a mummified corpse—for what is “gruesome” is not “disgusting.” The mark of a disgusting object is found quite specifically in the process of putrescence, and in (p.92) its carrier. There exists an image of putrefaction as an optical-tactile-olfactory formation which is, though complicated, still such as to possess structural unity. Between, say, rotten meat and rotten fruit there is after all a similarity of coloration, not to speak of other common features such as softening. In general we repeat once more that something dead is never disgusting in its mere non-functioning, for then even fresh meat would be disgusting, which is definitely not the case. Rather, substantial decomposition is necessary, which must at least seem to put itself forward as a continuing process, almost as if it were after all just another manifestation of life. Already here we encounter the relation of disgust to what is positively vital, to what is animated. And indeed there is associated with the extinction of life in putrefaction a certain—quite remarkable—augmentation of life: a heightened announcement of the fact that life is there. Evidence of this is provided by the reinforced smell that accompanies putrefaction, the often glaring change of colors, the putrefied “sheen,” the whole phenomenon of turbulence characteristic of putrefaction. But not every pathologically intensified activity is disgusting: neither the ravings of a lunatic, nor the agony of the dying are so. It is not the living being as a whole that in dying becomes disgusting, but much more the body, in its parts: its “flesh,” for example. Thus it is not similarity to death in any sense that is disgusting, and neither is it the approach of the moment of death—but rather the terminating section of life in death.25
In this powerful and suggestive passage we find the essential idea of the disgusting as a process that intermingles life and death; neither pole suffices to define it. I am not sure that Kolnai is right to declare fresh meat and mummified corpses definitely not disgusting, rather than just less disgusting than their putrescent cousins—in fact, the mixture of life and death (p.93) in these cases would seem to qualify them—but I think he is right to stress the paradigmatic status of putrefaction, and to see in this process the template for other disgusting phenomena. Disgust has one foot in the vital and living and the other in the dead and dying: not the dead or the living, but the “living dead.” Disgust proceeds from an oxymoron, a kind of collision or clash of categories. Indeed, it results from the friction between two of the categories most central to our conceptual scheme as self-conscious animals, and hence encodes our “existential predicament”: Life and Death. When these resounding categories refuse to stay separate, but merge together, disgust floods in. Not that any two major categories will induce disgust if they threaten to coalesce—say, the abstract and the concrete: it must be specifically the categories of Life and Death. We fear and shun death and we embrace and celebrate life, but when the two come together, or are hard to tell apart, our reaction is to turn away in disgust—as if we wish to remain ignorant of the fact of interpenetration. We feel positive about the life that throbs even within putrefying flesh, but the heavy weight of negative affect concerning death robs that positive feeling of its usual value: we are torn, conflicted, confused. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry—to marvel or to wince. The astonishing force of life impresses us, but the terrible inevitability of death dampens and depresses. Putrefaction, as disgust paradigm, transparently combines both: the vital and the nullifying. As we will see shortly, this structural antinomy repeats itself with respect to other disgust objects.
One more piece needs to be added to the picture sketched by Kolnai and developed here: it concerns the precise understanding of the notions of life and death that are operative in the complex of reactions that constitute disgust. Is it simply the notions of life and death that might apply to a plant that are in play, or is it something richer and more interesting? (p.94) Surely the latter: it is the notions of life and death as they apply to a conscious being. In the case of humans and many animals, life is the life of a perceiving, knowing, feeling subject—sentience in the broadest sense; and the death of such a subject is the death of a sentient being. My life, say, consists not just of biological processes inside a living body, such as might occur in an insentient worm, but of psychological processes inside a conscious self—indeed, that is the part of my life that really matters to me. Death, for me, is the end of that subjective self, not merely the end of a functioning organism. So when life and death come together, and are apprehended as paradoxically unified, we see consciousness and its termination brought together. In the rotting corpse, we see something that once housed a conscious being and no longer does—and it is as if the consciousness still obscurely resides within the body awaiting its final dissolution. The consciously living is still somehow hovering around the organically dead, and the dead impinges on the living: this is a moment of deep metaphysical transition—consciousness turning to mindless, disorganized matter.26 Similarly, in feces we can see the death of living things, some of them sentient, which have ended up as food; but as well, we see the life processes of a sentient being at work. The conscious life of the food animal is obscurely present in the feces of the predator—after all, it has been consumed along with the organic tissue—but we can also see the imprint of the conscious life that has done the consuming. Conscious animal digests conscious animal: shit is the visible sign of that absorption. The strange vitality of shit, phenomenologically (p.95) speaking, reflects its embedding in the world of sentience. Our attendant thoughts of life and death here contain ideas of the presently conscious and of the no-longer conscious. And even if the life that combines with death is of the non-conscious kind—plant or bacterial life—there is still a conceptual connection to consciousness, because we think of life primarily in terms of sentient life. The microorganisms that are consuming the dead body may not be sentient beings, but they are on a continuum with forms of life that are so sentient; and the horrible vitality they exhibit is as if conscious will were at work in them. The plants that are eaten are at the bottom end of a scale that includes conscious mammals, such as humans, at the other end. Life, for us, is paradigmatically conscious life, and death is paradigmatically the termination of consciousness (of the conscious self); so when we contemplate a life-death nexus, we are reminded of the paradigm cases. Accordingly, our appalled awareness of these life-death juxtapositions is shot through with ideas of the conscious and the once conscious—and of their peculiar relations to the world of biological entities. The corpse was once a sentient being existing by courtesy of a biological entity, and the decay we witness is the activity of tiny living organisms that suggest sentience at a primitive level (a fortiori for maggots and worms). Thus the puzzle of the biological incarnation of consciousness—and the tragic nature of that incarnation—lie at the heart of our disgust reactions—because consciousness and its termination are conceptually present in the life-death pairings that prompt disgust. The emotion therefore has a complex, implicit conceptual substructure, tying together such grand oppositions as Life and Death, Sentience and Insentience. The borderline of life and death is what produces disgust, according to the death-in-life theory, but this borderline is closely bound up with ideas of consciousness and its annihilation—as well as with the tragic and perplexing dependence of consciousness (p.96) on biological matter. It is a kind of metaphysical emotion, spanning the divide between (roughly) mind and matter. The disgust objects are no doubt themselves material, but these objects are brought under psychological concepts—and this shapes the contours of the emotion.27
(1.) I distinguish this from the claim that one sense is paradigmatic, as I suggest touch may be. Touch provides the model, the basic form, but that is not to say that other senses don’t register disgust in their own right. We could, in principle, experience disgust and have no tactile sense at all, via smell, taste, and sight—yet those senses register disgust because of their touch-like features. It is not that only touch truly registers disgust and the other senses do so derivatively or by association; rather, the other senses embed contact-like elements. It is not too much to say that all senses approximate to the condition of touch—they all involve impingement and proximity. Probably touch was the first sense to evolve.
(2.) Darwin, pp. 256–257. Darwin's theory is discussed by Miller, chap. 1, Menninghaus, pp. 183–184, and Rozin et al, pp. 637–638. The idea that disgust arises from the sense of taste is not unique to Darwin: Rozin rejects it, as a general account of disgust as it now exists, but is more sympathetic to the idea that disgust had an evolutionary origin in food rejection. That may be true, though the emotion is now quite far removed from its biological origin.
(3.) Darwin's beard example ill suits his own general theory, because the beard does not make the food toxic exactly—just as food chewed by someone else is not converted into a poison. So that cannot be the reason the food in the beard is found disgusting. What Darwin is searching for, obviously, is a neat adaptationist explanation of disgust—which looks unlikely.
(4.) See Menninghaus, chap. 1. He complains that English-speaking writers on disgust, for example Miller, ignore the rich contributions of German-speaking writers on the topic—evidently justly. His own work displays an astounding breadth of scholarship, as well as keen theoretical insight.
(5.) Darwin's bearded man offends us primarily because we find hair in the mouth offensive—soup in the hair is like hair in the soup. Oral incorporation of other people's hair is generally found repellent, especially when mixed with food: but this is not because we think hair is poisonous (we wouldn’t like harmless fingernails and food together either). There are reasons for not wanting things to have contact with the mouth that have nothing to do with simple toxicity.
(6.) Kolnai stresses smell, describing it as “the true place of origin of disgust” (p. 50). He writes: “through the organ of smell small parts of the alien object become incorporated into the subject, which makes an intimate grasping of the alien object [Sosein] possible. It is in the intimacy made possible by the sense of smell that there is rooted its primary significance for disgust” (p. 50). Note that the notion of intimacy here brings in tactile contact.
(7.) Would complete loss of the sense of smell (with no olfactory memory either) remove disgust from feces? That seems highly doubtful: touching and tasting them would remain off-limits. I think myself that the disgust produced by the smell of feces largely derives from the simultaneous apprehension, by perception and memory, of their tactile and visual qualities; smell concentrates or funnels these other modalities. The senses interact in a single moment of disgust consciousness.
(8.) That is, contact and contamination go together. The worst smell is the smell of the noxious substance on you, as when you step in dog shit. The nose is telling you that contact has occurred and contamination must follow. The closer the object the more offensive its smell becomes, because the threat of contact has increased. Touch is probably the most basic sense biologically, because the contact of objects with the organism is so important to its survival; the other senses warn of potential contacts. The body's boundaries accordingly carry huge psychological weight.
(9.) This will be the main theme of Part Two; I merely touch on it here.
(10.) Rozin, “Disgust,” p. 642. He cites Becker's The Denial of Death as a source. There is no reference to the seminal Kolnai, however.
(11.) Menninghaus critically discusses Rozin's theory (pp. 223–225), making some of the points I make in the text—notably, the point that we find ourselves more disgusting than we find other animals.
(12.) I suspect the initial plausibility of Rozin's position depends upon an equivocation in the use of the word “animal”: there is the neutral use where we merely refer to other species, and there is the loaded use when we speak of “the animal in us,” intending disapprobation. The latter connotes disreputable urges, organic functioning, and the non-psychological part of humanity; but the former has no such negative connotation and includes traits of animals that occasion no disgust (such as their movement and psychological traits). When we use “animal” in the latter way, we in effect point toward the part of ourselves that occasions disgust: but then the theory becomes uninformative—saying merely that we are disgusted by what disgusts us.
(13.) Miller, pp. 40–41.
(14.) We can be more specific: what chiefly disgusts are the generative life processes—particularly digestion and reproduction, with their organs and fluids (and including the generation of bacterial life by the corpse).
(15.) One of the things that influences Miller is the fecundity of life, its excessive, uncontrolled bounty. What occasions his disgust, it seems, is life's want of economy and fastidiousness. This is why he finds swarming insects disgusting. But I don’t find much to resonate with here: thousands of penguins huddled together give me no jolt of disgust; nor do fields of grass or extensive forests. Excess disgusts only when it is an excess of the already disgusting (as I observed in chapter 1). Also: small bits of things can be quite disgusting, independently of any hint of excess or lack of restraint. There seems to be an element of Puritan strictness in Miller's disgust reactions (as also in Kolnai): surplus is automatically frowned upon.
(16.) Becker writes: “man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (p. 26). Later, explicitly linking death and disgust, he says: “The anus and its incomprehensible, repugnant product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death” (p. 31).
(17.) The internal organs disgust because they vividly advertise our total dependence on things that might gum up and malfunction at any moment and are bound in the end to succumb to time and entropy—they guarantee our death. Hence the horror of the visibly beating heart that may stop beating at any moment and must constantly pump viscous blood in order for us to be alive and conscious at all.
(18.) Hence the aptly named article by Leo Bersani: “Is the Rectum a Grave?”
(19.) So the child will begin to feel disgust just when thoughts of the inevitability of death begin to crowd his or her consciousness. This could be empirically investigated.
(20.) Kolnai notes the non-disgusting character of the skeleton, but he also includes the mummified corpse, which seems to me not so clear: see p. 53.
(21.) Also, death which takes the form of an instantaneous conversion to smoke and ashes, as in some science fiction, seems to eliminate disgust, since the ashy residue occasions little disgust (at least of the kind depicted in the science fiction I am thinking of).
(22.) Skeletons strike us as more eerie than disgusting—odd remnants of life that seem removed from life in their physical composition. Holding a (clean) skull in one's hands is a very different matter from holding a freshly severed head, or partly decayed head: the latter might start to talk, but not so the former. In the skull, we see the lifeless infrastructure of the body, not its familiar soft and fleshy reality.
(23.) There is a normative element here: these two things—life and death—ought to be separate and apart, yet they insist on converging. They should be mutually exclusive, not mutually dependent. Nature is going wrong here: it is breaking the rules. Nature is not conforming to our human expectations of how things rightly should be.
(24.) On Rosenkranz, see Menninghaus, pp. 132–133. Rozencranz sums up by saying: “The appearance of life in what is in itself dead is the infinitely revolting within the disgusting.” p. 132 The core of disgust, for this writer, as for Kolnai, is putrefaction; he therefore notes that the inorganic cannot be disgusting, except by analogy.
(25.) Kolnai, pp. 53–54.
(26.) I don’t of course mean that the corpse is semi-conscious; I mean that we can’t help seeing the marks of conscious life within it. This is why we dread any twitching or exhalation—the jaw dropping open is a guaranteed shocker. We close the eyelids to simulate sleep because the open eyes give such a strong impression of conscious life. The passage to death should be marked and unmistakable, not ambiguous and reversible (as with the risen dead).
(27.) This implies that there is no disgust without possession of the concept of mind—which explains children's late acquisition of disgust. Similarly, there is no guilt without possession of the concepts of right and wrong, so children won’t feel guilt proper till they grasp elementary moral concepts.