Gross natural products

Richard Davenport-Hines defines the yuck factor

The Anatomy of Disgust by William Ian Miller, Harvard University Press, pounds 16.50

For William Ian Miller, who is an American professor of law, disgust is a "marvellously promiscuous and ubiquitous" emotion, at once vigorous, familiar, strange and estranging. The preoccupation with self-interest in modern western political thought and the pathologising of sexuality in the 20th century have, he argues, made us forget how many of an individual's life choices are determined by revulsion.

Miller examines how ethical judgements invoke the idiom of disgust in such phrases as "What revolting behaviour!" He recalls that early Christians thought of "sin and hell as raising excremental stenches and loathsome prospects". Disgust, he concludes, ranks as a more important emotion than envy, jealousy, anger, fear, regret, guilt, sorrow, grief or shame because it "installs large chunks of the moral world right at the core of our identity, seamlessly uniting body and soul".

He insists that Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld and Robert Burton's 17th- century Anatomy of Melancholy are more eloquent about human motives than the mean, cheap reductive narratives of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, Miller cannot rival Burton as a stylist or in the vivid superabundance of his anecdotes.

Generally, Miller's anecdotes are sparse, over-abstract and fussy. His stories - of St Catherine of Siena in 1370 inhaling and sucking the suppurating breast cancer sores of a fellow nun as an act of self-mortification, Charles Darwin's disgust when a native of Tierra del Fuego touches his food, and the revulsion of a white New Yorker in 1852 when Antiguans try to shake his hand - lack the rich plenitude of Burton's anecdotage. Nor, except in Catherine's case, are they repulsive enough. The Victorian explorer John Speke's taste for eating the embryos of pregnant animals he had killed, and the disgust of his African huntsman at this contempt for fertility, is not mentioned by Miller but is exactly the kind of authentically disgusting anecdote he should have deployed more often.

Miller's generalisations about food, vomit and shit can be delightfully provocative. As disgust is a sensory expression of aversion, he associates it with misanthropy. Though he has a lively discussion of the effect of working-class Lancashire smells on George Orwell, Miller is too genteel in his literary tastes. It is trivial, if not lazy, to dismiss Genet and Bataille as poseurs seeking only "cheap thrills". His praise of Orwell as "the 20th century's real poet of disgust" is soiled by his ignorance of Paul Bowles, one of the supreme poets of disgust of any century.

And Miller is too earnest about sex to make much sense of it. Orgasm he treats as humiliating. "Semen is of all sex-linked disgust substances the most revolting to men ... because it appears under conditions that are dignity-destroying." Most men's experience of semen comes from the cheerful sterility of a good wank, but Miller seems to have forgotten what this is like: "The horror of semen is that it has the power to feminize ... because it is sexual, fertilizing and reproductive."

Too often his personal attitudes are disguised in the armour and accoutrements of a general critique. He understands the power of cultural determinants of disgust, without realising how eccentrically personal his judgements are. Miller analyses at length the "contaminating" effect of a tattooed builder with jeans "worn low so that when he bent over his rear fissure (oh, the trials of decorum!) was exposed". The most ludicrous moment comes when Miller's wife, in a T-shirt with the slogan "save endangered mammals", meets the builder wearing a T-shirt of his own, which has "crack kills" inscribed beneath a cartoon of a human being crushed between the cheeks of a naked backside.

Arguably more disgusting than sartorially challenged builders are parents who find transcendent meaning in the potty-training of their children and insist on sharing every moment of the revelation. "Changing diapers," Miller announces, "is emblematic of the unconditional quality of nurturing parental love." He publishes his own experiences of toilet training with a lack of restraint for which his children may not thank him. His daughter "felt such a revulsion to faeces ... that she refused to wipe herself for fear of contaminating her hand", while his son "not only removed underpants but the pants over them if one drop of urine dripped out after he went to the bathroom". Chacun a son degout.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee