The Anatomy of Disgust

David Futrelle reviews William Ian Miller's book "The Anatomy of Disgust".

Published February 26, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

in the midst of the Depression 1930s, George Orwell was commissioned to write an account of working-class life in England's industrial north for the Left Book Club, a book-of-the-month subscription service for parlor pinks. The result, "The Road To Wigan Pier," seemed designed to unsettle his editors. The first half of the book did indeed describe the hard life of working-class northerners, among whom Orwell had spent some miserable months, but the second half was a different proposition entirely -- a polemic attack on socialist cranks and a surprisingly sympathetic exploration of middle-class priggishness. Orwell suggested that the "real secret of class distinctions in the West," the real obstacle to true egalitarianism, was the (not altogether unjustified) middle-class belief that "the lower classes smell."

William Ian Miller concludes his marvelously fertile new book, "The Anatomy of Disgust," by picking at the subject of Orwell's nose. Like Orwell, Miller is convinced that disgust is inimical to true democracy, forcing us to draw invidious distinctions between the "pure" and the "impure," between the impeccably proper and the irredeemably vulgar. At the heart of the emotion of disgust, Miller notes, is a deep misanthropy, a hatred of the (sometimes fetid) fertility of "life soup." The easily disgusted draw back in horror at our bodily wastes, the inevitable result of our corporeal existence. They look with contempt on anything too full of life. "Disgust recoils at what we are and what we do," Miller observes. "Disgust gives us reasons for withdrawing" from the world.

Miller's book, a wonderfully unclassifiable work that mixes history and philosophy with autobiographical reflections, ranges from frank (though never crude) discussions of the comic potential of flatulence to the deeper implications of disgust for democratic society. Miller charts the landscape of disgust, drawing careful distinctions between it and related emotions like fear and loathing; he reexamines the role of disgust in what historian Norbert Elias called "The Civilizing Process."

This is a book that could easily have descended into the merely gross. But Miller, who teaches history, is not interested in shocking his readers. If anything, he is overly dainty in his language, writing about even the ickiest of subjects with carefully evasive euphemism. "We are proud of our production and quite pleased if especially large amounts are expelled in one effort," Miller notes, expounding upon feces. "We look upon our creations far more often than we admit, or if we don't look we imagine with pleasure our extraordinary productive capacities."

But there is a certain charm to Miller's fastidiousness. Who better to write about disgust, after all, than a man who is easily disgusted? "The Anatomy of Disgust" is not a book that would please Beavis and Butt-head, but it's one that should appeal to the Beavis and Butt-head in all of us.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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