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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.