July 7, 2016
The Uses of Disgust
In his extraordinary book Leftism, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, by way of showing that indeed all cultures are not equal and that colonialism was far from the unmitigated evil that students are now taught that it was, describes a peculiar custom practiced by the women of a tribe in southeast Asia. When a woman gives birth to her first child, she goes far into the woods alone, where she dashes its brains out against a rock. Then she takes the remains and feeds them to a pregnant sow. When the sow gives birth in turn, she takes one of the piglets and nurses it at her breast to prove how good a mother she is. If this tribe were to fall a little lower into degradation, they might not wait for birth to kill their children.
I assume that my readers will feel disgust at what I have just related. Many will wish they had never heard of such a thing. This sense of disgust warrants some examination. It seems that the most primitive of our five senses, the one that is least bound up with the intellect, is smell. Our eyes see color, but the mind sees things and their kinds: a dog, a house, a flower. Our ears hear vibrations, but the mind interprets and hears words, which themselves are signs of things, many of which are abstract at that. But the smell is immersed in chemicals, in stuff—in stuff most urgent for basic animal life: flesh, blood, excrement, hormones for rutting, and other secretions. What smells good to a vulture, flesh rotting in the sun, smells repugnant to us, because eating such flesh would be bad for us. The smell is then protective; it keeps us from tasting even a little of something that would sicken or kill.
In every language that I know of, words that have to do with bad smells are applied to certain kinds of wicked deeds, those that have something deeply and physically unnatural about them. They do not usually apply to sins of the mind, like lying, or sins of omission, or sins of spiritual disorientation, such as envy or impiety. They apply to sins of a peculiarly nauseating and fleshly sort. Such sins are foul: our English word is cognate with Latin puteri, to stink, from which the Italians derive their word puttana, whore, literally a stinking woman. So the King in Hamlet, who has poisoned his sleeping brother to marry his brother’s wife: “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven!” So the Duke in Measure for Measure, reproaching Pompey the whoremaster:
Fie, sirrah; a bawd, a wicked bawd!
The evil that thou causest to be done,
That is thy means to live. Do thou but think
What ’tis to cram a maw or clothe a back
From such a filthy vice: say to thyself, —
From their abominable and beastly touches
I drink, I eat, array myself, and live.
Canst thou believe thy living is a life,
So stinkingly depending?
Go mend, go mend.
The Duke does not say, nor does Shakespeare believe, that those abominable and beastly gropings of man and whore are the most wicked sins we commit. But among our sins they are the most immediately disgusting; and so he focuses on what it is to stuff your gullet with food bought by them—it is like eating food besmeared with waste.
Disgust, literally the repugnance we experience when we taste something foul, is to fleshly sins what shame is to dishonor. We should not underestimate the protective power of either. We are not disembodied spirits, or calculating machines. We are souls embodied: we blush, or ought to. What keeps the soldier at his station, when he might run to save his skin while exposing his comrades to enemy fire? His training, no doubt, but training that has instilled in him a strong sense of honor, and of shame should he expose himself to dishonor. What keeps the unchurched man from signing a false income tax return? Not much, these days; fear, perhaps; but if he knows that he can get away with the false return but refuses to cheat anyway, you can depend upon it, he has a strong sense of honor. It would be low, base, beneath him, unworthy of him, to lie. His brand of honesty may not be the best, but honorable pagans are not the worst people in the world, either.
I assume that we want to raise children who would be ashamed to be caught in a petty and self-serving lie—cheating on a test, buying a term paper, and so on. We want them not only to know that such things are wrong. We want their sense of honor and truth to rise up against those things, in the way that righteous anger rises up against a villain beating a woman or a child. We do not depend only on theological and philosophical conclusions, or on instruction from a catechism. We want the body also to be involved: the blood, the adrenal system, the muscles, the stomach. We want men with chests. The Lord, says the psalmist, teaches our fingers to fight.
What is true of shame is more obviously true of disgust. Sometimes, surely, we must overcome a physical repugnance in order to perform a work of charity, as Saint Francis kissed the leper, and Mother Teresa cleaned the purulent sores of pariahs in the ditches of Calcutta. But moral repugnance should never be overcome. It should be fostered. It is protective of the individual and of society.
I shudder to give examples, but these days we cannot avoid it, we have become so numb to the indecent and obscene. A friend of mine was a student at the local state university. One night she was walking down the hall of the dormitory, minding her own business, when she stumbled upon a young man, stark naked, passed out on the floor in a drunken stupor. She called security. That was unusual but not all that surprising. Her hall director one night walked past an open door of a room with a bisexual orgy going on, three or four men and a woman, giving a free porn show to all passersby. He shut the door, telling them that what they did was their own business, but they could at least have the courtesy to keep it to themselves.
In a world not gone psychotic about sex, the people involved would be promptly and severely disciplined. Where in the United States in 1950, even in the most liberal and agnostic universities, would the orgiasts not have been suspended or expelled? But now, nothing; the sense of disgust is gone.
Or rather it has not gone, because it cannot really ever be obliterated from our systems. Gangrene smells bad to us. We can, however, make a fetish of the disgusting: we can pervert ourselves so that we delight in what is foul precisely because it is foul. That was the “genius” of the Marquis de Sade, the unacknowledged master of ceremonies of the French Revolution. What had been unspeakable became a matter of pride: raping women and little girls while slitting their throats, inserting explosive cartridges into their orifices, slaughtering people and then stripping them and placing their corpses in obscene forms of copulation, causing the elder liberal Malesherbes to watch as his children and grandchildren were decapitated one by one…. There is no end to perversion, once the barrier of disgust has been publicly breached. It is not merely that you do not hide it anymore. You take pride in it. You put it on parade. You must: your own repressed disgust compels you.
Our sins are, for now, less likely to shed blood, other than that of the unborn children served up to Moloch for what the Supreme Court is pleased to call our autonomy and economic planning. For now. But consider the depths we have already achieved. One Dan Savage, about whom the least one can say is that he is a psychological wreck, whose advice column is filled with creepy-boy obscenities and creepy-boy delight in sickness, whose least disgusting sin is to promote adultery to stave off sexual boredom—he is a thousand times more likely to address your middle-school students and to be praised by their teachers, than is a saintly man or woman of God.
It is incumbent upon theologians and philosophers and statesmen to spell out the reasons why such behavior is wrong. But it is not incumbent upon the common person to do so. You do not say to someone who has brought himself to dine upon feces, so that it is to him an evil second nature, “You know, you should really check a dietician about that.” Nor do you say anything similar to your children. You rely upon their natural sense of disgust: you corroborate it and you direct it. Everything genuinely natural is your ally.
No apologies about this. Persons must be loved; that includes all manner of sinners, and it also includes the children we are raising, whom we wish to arm fully against the madness of our time. Sins must be rejected—and here all the armory of our psychological and physiological makeup should be polished and ready, for self-defense. Intellect without heart is a man with a sword, but no shield and no breastplate. Disgust is a good thick shield. It is not sufficient for the battle. It is necessary.
(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)