Supping on life soup

THE ANATOMY OF DISGUST by William Ian Miller, Harvard pounds 16.50

A Researcher apparently once conducted an experiment to determine what, if anything, small children would not put in their mouths. Sixty- two per cent ate imitation dog faeces realistically crafted from smelly cheese; 58 per cent ate a small dried fish; 31 per cent ate a sterilised grasshopper, but only 8 per cent would tolerate a lock of human hair. You may think you never wanted to know that.

Disgust, William Miller considers, is a complex, culturally coded emotion. You need to be quite advanced in order to experience it, which explains why toddlers have no problem with excrement, whereas grown-ups, apparently, do not care to eat chocolate dog-turds even when they know they are fake. It seems to be a universal human reaction, and yet definitions of the disgusting do differ across cultures and people and time. Miller cites Charles Darwin, who noticed a Polynesian man utterly revolted by the texture of the meat which he was then eating. But Darwin himself objected more to seeing his dinner pawed about with by the strange man's hand.

The more straightforward bits of Miller's Anatomy have to do with what he calls "life soup": "the roiling stuff of eating, defecation, fornication, generation, death, rot and regeneration". As Julia Kristeva discovered in "Powers of Horror", her great essay of 1982, a whole universe of hopelessness awaits the person who sups hot milk which has grown a skin on it. If you can bear to analyse your instinctive recoil, why is hot-milk-skin such a horrible thing to touch with your lips? Because it's a kiss from death, isn't it: wrinkled, cheesy, omnipresent death. Miller, strangely, makes little use in his book of what Kristeva came to call "the abject". But he does note that "a teaspoon of sewage will spoil a barrel of wine, but a teaspoon of wine will do nothing for a barrel of sewage". The natural world does not work like Batman and Robin. The forces of putrefaction, sadly, always triumph in the end.

In his day-job, Miller teaches law at the University of Michigan. In the evenings, his passion is Old Norse sagas, whose pagan codes of honour were central to his last book, Humiliation (1993). The key chapters of this book accordingly analyse human social behaviour in terms of the same ineffably depressing "life-soup" as we find in nature, swamping us on all sides. Hangmen, lawyers and politicians, for example, he has down as "moral menials", "bottom-feeders" whose role in the social ecosystem is to soak up "moral dirt". And the reason everybody hates a hypocrite isn't just because he swindles us as he "slithers" and "flatters" and "fawns".

"Hypocrites," you see, "impose vices on us: distrustfulness, cynicism and paranoia. They make all virtue suspect; they are parasites on the moral order and sap the strength of the organism they feed on." A clever hypocrite can easily take a good person to the cleaner's, which suggests that, often, the virtuous are stupid and weak. "Like so much else in the realm of the disgusting, [hypocrisy] confuses boundaries so there is no firm point we can trust, and it reminds us that the best things come with sickening side-effects." Just as life comes to us trailing behind it all the stinky, contagious by-products of its inseparable companion, death.

The Anatomy of Disgust is basically an enjoyable, methodologically eclectic academic romp. It doesn't really have a solid line of argument running through it, and some of the smaller points it does contain do not entirely make sense. For example, Miller concludes that disgust, among other things, is the fundamental sticky stuff of democracy. Rather a lot of his explorations in this area have to do with the "downward contempt" he feels for the tattooed, cleft-bottomed builder he has had in to do his home improvements, and the "upward contempt" he assumes his this builder feels for him. This does not read like a lucid excursion into liberal theory. It reads like an intellectually souped-up version of a Jerry Seinfeld routine.

And Miller makes comparatively little of our two most efficacious disgust- busters: science and love. "Deep brown, burnished shit is extruded in a steady, paste-like stream in front of you: uniform, sweet-smelling fruit of the body, fertile medium, not negative substance," Gillian Rose wrote of her colostomy bag a couple of years ago in Love's Work. It is hard, once you have seen it animated with such affection, ever to feel especially revolted by the stuff again.

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