In Defense of Disgust

One of the funniest men who ever lived, W.C. Fields, whose mask of comic malevolence will live forever, was asked once if he liked children.  He replied instantly:  “I like children—fried.”   His view of dogs and women was scarcely any better.  Women he regarded rather as elephants: “I like to look at ‘em, but I wouldn’t want to own one.”   His detestations, in fact, were delightfully democratic.  “I am free of all prejudice,” he airily announced.  “I hate every one equally.”

Now unless your sense of humor is a bit Presbyterian, this is awfully funny stuff.  But only because we know that he’s not being serious.  Indeed, if he really were serious—that is, if the misanthropic impulse were not part of a larger gag but the genuine article—such curmudgeonly conceits would hardly inspire laughter.  More like loathing for a man so twisted and perverse as to treat little children like so many pieces of fried chicken.  Or women as no more than a pachyderm on parade.  Certainly there was nothing funny about the Death Camps of the Third Reich, which succeeded in cooking great numbers of women and children (men also) in carefully stoked gas ovens.

The point is, we find the idea of human sacrifice, of cannibalism, fundamentally repellent.  We viscerally recoil from so barbarous and bloodthirsty a practice.   We may take a certain vicarious pleasure in witnessing the eating habits of Hannibal Lector, but we do not, for both profound and obvious reasons, wish to dine with him.  In other words, in treating such derangements with the disgust they deserve, we testify to the “wisdom of repugnance,” to use an inspired phrase coined by Leon Kass.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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However, we need to ask ourselves a very hard question.  Is our revulsion for such reprehensible behavior, not to mention our contempt for those who indulge it, a function only of feeling, of untutored emotion?  Or is it rather something so rooted in right reason that not to feel that way is to confess arrant and complete moral bankruptcy?

The distinction is not a light one.  C.S. Lewis has identified the salient issue in a classic work published more than sixty years ago, The Abolition of Man.  There he illustrates the point with the famous episode from the poet Coleridge, who observed two tourists at a waterfall, the first pronouncing it “sublime,” the other merely “pretty.”  Coleridge, in esteeming the first, while execrating the second, was making the point, which until very recently almost everyone shared, that to call a waterfall merely pretty is to venture an opinion so aesthetically deficient as to arouse contempt in every sentient breast.  The disgust felt, moreover, was not a function of taste or temperament; nor was it any sort of time-bound affair, which is to say, an eccentricity peculiar to 19th century Romantic poets.

Ah, but something very strange has happened to overturn such tablets of moral and aesthetic judgment.  Lewis calls it “the poison of subjectivism,” the triumph of which has left so many human and ethical moorings upended.  Same-sex marriage, for example, which did not exist during his lifetime (Lewis died in 1963) is now seen by growing numbers of people as a mere matter of choice between two consenting adults.   What right has the state, or ordinary citizenry for that matter, to tell two people that they may not love one another?  Or, to raise yet another specter, what about incest?  Surely that immemorial taboo needs to topple, too.  After all, if there is real consent in place, what’s the problem? (Or necrophilia, for heaven sake, where the matter of consent would seem no longer to matter at all!  See what a brave new world we have come to?)

Lewis, of course, remains fiercely reactionary in his refusal to go along.  How, he asks, can anyone be truly righteous, unless his mind and will conform to the objective order of value, of being itself?  If the finality of all education, to recall the teaching of Aristotle, is to impart to the pupil a liking for what is likable, an aversion for what is not, it is because the universe is quite simply structured that way.  “To call children delightful or old men venerable,” Lewis continues, “is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.”

What would Lewis make of the moral wreckage that today’s imploding culture has left in its wake?  I think he would conclude that it is not just that chaos ensues when fixed and universal standards are disregarded, which is the moral point; but that in every instance the first casualty has been the very nature inscribed in our humanity from the beginning, which is the metaphysical point.  That in raising-up generations which no longer revile what is evil, nor revere what is good, the constitution of being itself is under assault.  In short, we have loosed a terrible solipsism upon ourselves, the fallout from which will mean that we are no longer recognizable even to ourselves.   A more precise definition of Hell, incidentally, you will not find.

And so we have got to try and reach those who no longer share, and have thus grown insensible to, a whole scaffolding of certitudes and intuitions on whose maintenance civilized life depends.  If we are not to become those “trousered apes” of which Lewis writes, immersed in a kind of post-human barbarism for which the only standard of adjudication is appetite, then we have simply got to re-introduce our world to those ancient and timeless distinctions that separate us from the simians (yes, even very clever ones).  Killing one’s children, or neighbor; seducing his wife, or stealing his car; co-habiting with members of one’s own family or sex—these are things about which we need to be on the same page in expressing our total moral disapproval.  Nothing less than a shared sense of outrage, of shame and disgust, needs to resurface across the fruited plain if we are to escape the Dark Night we are entering.

One of the examples Lewis cites in his compendium of maxims, reminding us of the universality of the human heart, is the Hindu proverb that says one must never strike a woman, “not even with a flower.”  Surely that should give us pause, living in a society where violence against women is sanctioned in all sorts of ways.  A huge sex industry has grown up, for instance, where an ethic of exploitation expressly victimizes the woman, leaving her an objectified mess.  What else is pornography but a species of reductionism in which the mystery of the Other becomes nothing more complicated than a series of interchangeable parts totally disconnected from the person.  When people become no better than commodities, when the entire architecture of their own natures is seen as malleable (“From now on,” warns Pope Benedict, “there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be”), should it surprise us that the use and disposal of human beings becomes a mere function of convenience?  Small wonder then if the figures on spousal abuse, rape, and divorce go up and up.

And then, finally, there is this example from that great Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, (also cited in The Abolition of Man), in which “death,” we are told, “is better for every man than life with shame.”  How utterly and politically incorrect that is!  How many of us there are for whom anything is preferable to death, including shame.  There are fewer and fewer things we would not scruple to do in order to escape that eventuality.

“Hypocrisy,” Oscar Wilde tells us, “is the homage vice pays to virtue.”  The way things are going these days, why even the hypocrite may become an endangered species.  In a time of an accelerating descent into barbarism, of the sheer vertiginous fall of virtue into vice, alas, there may not be much point left in paying homage to anything.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the gates of Auschwitz. The sign reads “Work Makes One Free.”  


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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