Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Subsection: The Essay
Something rotten in our sterile world
Disgust is more than the antithesis of desire; it’s a visceral reaction that is one of our primary drivers. But is it hardwired, or is it learnt, asks ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
In our back lane is a string of sausages. Hard, shiny and by now chocolate brown, they’ve been there a week or more, untouched by the myriad scavenger species – six-, four- and two-legged – that ensure nothing edible or usable lasts long out there. But these sausages are different: not rotten, not even rotting, yet dogs sniff them and walk away. Sausages! What in God’s name is in them?
In March last year, in similar vein, the food writer Nonna Joann Bruso left a Happy Meal unrefrigerated on a shelf. Her husband worried it would stink, attract mice and ants. But no. None of the above. For a few days, she blogged, “it smelled delicious”.
But when it went on smelling just fine, Bruso got worried. This March, a full year later, she wrote: “My Happy Meal is one year old today and it looks pretty good. It NEVER smelled bad. The food did NOT decompose. It did NOT get moldy, at all.” The picture reveals the miracle: the bun is a little puckered, the fries slightly tired-looking but otherwise good as new.
A truly modern American, that Meal was determined to stay Happy for eternity. Come what may.
Mostly, we seem hardwired to be disgusted by putrefaction. But tales like these suggest it may not be so simple. There may be things much more harmful to us than rot – non-rot, for one.
The food writer Michael Pollan advises: never eat anything that doesn’t rot. Aesthetically, too, this is good advice; never wear, hang, sail or build anything that won’t rot. Perhaps even morally: never love anything that won’t rot. Our affection for the organic makes a family of all creatures for whom tempus fugit; rot distinguishes us from rocks. At this level, rot defines life.
Rot is dissolution, the passing on, or parcelling out, of energies from one creature to the next, or the next 10,000; a handing over of batons. Rot is what cleans up, moves on, gets going when the party’s over. At this ecological level, it is easy to see rot as a good thing.
But if rot is both good and bad, where does this leave our sense of disgust? Can we trust it? Is it, perhaps, not hardwired after all but learned and therefore changeable? Is it, then, credible? And what of aesthetic and moral disgust, which have consequences for social and even planetary order. Is it the same emotion? And is it also learned? Does it need revision? And is this possible?
Disgust, which many of us would probably define as the opposite of desire, is one of our primary drivers. It determines not only what we wouldn’t eat but who we wouldn’t touch or let our children visit, what we wouldn’t want our houses, clothes or faces to look like and, to a large extent, what we believe to be vilely, inexcusably wrong.
Yet disgust is seldom discussed. Other negative emotions can be chatted over in polite conversation. Hatred, envy, fear, even jealousy – these we can talk about and even admit to with relative ease and relative strangers. But disgust, which our minds link closely to its objects (from faeces to child porn), is not considered nice.
One reason is that disgust is visceral. It feels deep and autonomic; hardwired. The very word (from the Latin gustus, taste or appetite) carries the sense of oral and visceral revulsion. This gives it the feel of truth – as in “gut feeling”. So its incompatibility with conversation may relate to its incompatibility with the food that conversation so often accompanies.
There are obvious reasons for this, survival reasons. Food-type disgust – what psychologists call “core disgust” – is clearly mouth-based, the first in a hierarchy of defences that, once the mistake has been made and the microbes ingested, proceed through vomiting and diarrhoea to phagocytosis (where your white cells ingest the invaders). That’s all pretty straightforward. Giving disgust an intelligible evolutionary “purpose” reinforces our sense of its status as instinct.
But even at this physical level the picture is immediately clouded by the seemingly perverse fact that many of our best-loved foods are essentially rotten. It’s not just “live” yoghurt and botrytis riesling, product of the “noble rot”. Fermented, mouldy and otherwise rotten foods include wine, coffee, vinegar, chocolate, bread, cheese, olives, salami, miso, crème fraiche, worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, tofu, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, to name a few.
The list goes on, and although some of these foods (such as coffee) are pretty much sterile by the time they hit your tastebuds, this is not true of all, by a long way. Indeed, you could live pretty well eating nothing but food that is crawling with microbes; a lot better, we now know, than if we swallowed only what was sterile.
To some extent this relates to what we know about probiotics, which has given rise to the popular conception of “good germs” and “bad germs”. But it’s not even that simple, as the hygiene hypothesis makes clear. It took us most of the modern century to realise that sterilising our lives not only wasn’t delivering perfect health, it was actually making us sicker.
The mysteries of the immune system are just starting to be unpicked by science but it is now widely accepted that the super-clean environments for which modernism strove are at least partly responsible for the contemporary epidemic of allergic and auto-immune diseases across developed nations.
In other words, just as the pursuit of happiness makes you sad, even bad germs can be good for you, depending on dose and circumstance. Our systems are designed to be tested and although what doesn’t kill you may not always make you stronger, babies who eat dirt are healthier than those whose mothers keep them squeaky clean.
And it’s not just germs. Parasites, too, which modern sensibilities find especially disgusting and which modern science has all but eliminated from developed countries (except, I guess, head lice), now turn out to be, at least in some instances, beneficial.
The Yahoo executive Jasper Lawrence was so debilitated by adult-onset asthma that finally, facing hospitalisation, he headed to Cameroon, deliberately infecting himself with hookworm by walking barefoot around public latrines.
Sound disgusting? Sure. But as far as he’s concerned, it worked. Lawrence, who considers himself cured, now runs a Tijuana clinic that offers helminthic therapy (inoculation with hookworm or whipworm) for the treatment of chronic conditions including asthma, autism, psoriasis, lupus, inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and colitis) and even multiple sclerosis.
The Nottingham immunologist David Pritchard has also experimented with helminthic self-inoculation. The therapy is not yet approved but the literature is substantial; side-effects are few and results often startling. Pritchard says he gets “an email a day” from people clamouring to be infected.
The scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe’s mate Juba puts maggots in his wound to clean it is another reliable stomach-turner. Now, though, maggots are again used in hospitals to treat antibiotic-resistant staph infections in diabetic foot ulcers, cleaning up both the bacteria and the necrotic tissue.
In sex, too, disgust and desire seem not only to merge but to reinforce each other. The American academic William Miller wrote in An Anatomy of Disgust in 1997: “Love … involves a notable and non-trivial suspension of some, if not all, rules of disgust.” But it’s more than that. For (and some people will find this in itself a disgusting thing to say) sex positively revels in disgust. Hence the reams of socio-moral minutiae that attempt to distinguish what is OK, sexually, from what is not.
So can we or can we not rely on our disgust as a guide to judgment?
The first scientist to give disgust any serious attention was Charles Darwin but recent scholarship treats disgust as a much broader and more significant emotion than the simple evolutionary mechanism of Darwin’s meditations.
In 1997, the American psychologists Paul Rozin and Jonathan Haidt set out the seven “elicitors” of disgust. These are: food, body products, animals, sexual “deviance”, violations of the body envelope (including gore and deformity), poor hygiene and contact with death and corpses. (They later added contact with strangers and “certain moral offences”.)
Rozin and Haidt theorise that the common factor is fear of death; that what disgusts us is evidence of our animal nature and, by extension, of our own mortality. “We have repeatedly found,” they write, “that reactions to contact with corpses and death are among the best predictors of a person’s overall disgust sensitivity.”
As Miller notes, “ultimately the basis for all disgust is ourselves – that we live and die and that the process is a messy one emitting substances and odours that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbours.”
Arguably, this refusal of animality and death drove the entire modern movement, with its grail of a synchronous, light-filled world, a clean, ordered existence and an eternal, germless present.
The modern kitchen with its miracle appliances; the modern suburb, merging outside and inside in a seamless patio-and-pool-filled Eden; the modern skyscraper with its promise of infinite agency; the super-clean childhood, the hairless body, permanent youth; steel that did not rust, plastic that would never corrode, food that would never rot.
It was a dream that could only have taken root in 20th-century America, with its mix of dour Calvinist discipline and reactions against it. And what a dream. Even now, mired as we are in the obesity, climate change and market collapse the modern dream engendered, we are still playing out its endgame. Even now, we pursue it, refusing to acknowledge the cost, to see the baby in the bathwater.
Aesthetically, throughout our houses, lives and cities, the result has been an explosion of hideosity and kitsch. Where desire is fervent but unachievable, denial steps in, and denying our animality produces kitsch. As Milan Kundera famously says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit”.
There is a deep irony here. Modernism intended abstraction to transcend kitsch – banning expression, figure, plot and decoration as unconscionably vulgar even as it affected to disdain aesthetics altogether – but allowed it to generate the deeper kitsch of its own denial.
Postmodernism may have replaced brick-veneer with stuck-on classicism and other forms of phoney McMansionery but the urge is the same. The desire to live in a house that does not age is more than just laziness, a reluctance to invest in the futile war on entropy. It is also a need to deny the ravages of time in order to deny our own mortality.
This contains an element of sympathetic magic; the fear that contact with or even proximity to something that represents decay – something disgusting – will contaminate or infect us, even when our reason tells us otherwise. This fear of contagion is a well-documented aspect of disgust. Reluctance to wear even the well-laundered clothes of dead people, to eat chocolate shaped like a turd or associate with “rock spiders” exemplify the irrational fear of defilement.
Which brings us to moral disgust. As William Miller notes, “moral judgment seems to demand the idiom of disgust”. The ancient Greek condition of miasma, a sense of personal pollution that rendered one unfit to enter the temple, was thought to derive from sex or defecation but also from contact with a corpse or a murderer. The dead, but also the criminal, were miaroi, or filthy, unfit to commune with the gods.
This merging of physical and socio-moral disgust runs through many cultures. Haidt and Rozin record an interview with five Hopi Indians in Arizona who list causes of tiyoyaeiwai, or disgust, to include not just putrefaction but incest, aggression, defilement of nature and other offences against the “good way”.
As meaning-needy creatures we feel moral disgust – the theory goes – at those things that seem to render life meaningless. For Americans such things include war, senseless murder, racism, rape, child abuse. For the Japanese, existential distress or ken’o derives from a personal failure to fit the social bindings (hence hara-kiri), whereas the Hopi feel tiyoyaeiwai when the world is critically “out of balance” and for Hindu people Kali Yuga is the sickening moment of sin and chaos presaging the end of the world.
But if disgust is contingent, it is educable. And perhaps this is our task; to become less disgusted by nature and our part in it – bodily fluids, maggoty wounds, dirt-eating babies – and more disgusted by our defilement of nature.
In fact, the mix of chemicals with food – ammonia and coffee, mothballs and gravy, supermarket aisles toxic with chemical odours, market prawns that reek of chlorine, mothers (I’ve seen it) who spray their children with Mortein each morning before school – is often more disgusting than straight putrefaction.
Maybe, if disgust is to continue to serve its evolutionary and transcendent purpose, these need to become the new elicitors: ocean-wide oil spills, moronic deforestation, mass extinction. And the dangerous aroma of baby mixed with bathwater.
ILLUSTRATION: Simon Letch