The Ernest Becker Foundation
|McGinn's "The Meaning of Disgust"|
|Wednesday, 28 March 2012 12:57|
Of Recent Interest… is the new book by philosopher Colin McGinn, The Meaning of Disgust (Oxford UP, 2011). Warning! This book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart! If you are not prepared to think philosophically (that is, with focused and lengthy attention) about all those things that make you gag, vomit, and screw your face up in revulsion, this is not the book for you. Even if you are ready for such a jaunt, I wouldn’t suggest you advocate this as a selection for your book reading group, or that you propose to read it aloud with your lover. You may want to take it in small doses. I will try to keep this review in the general “rated PG” range, though it will mean that some of McGinn’s most pungent writing (pun intended) cannot be quoted.
“Disgust belongs in the area of human experience most protected by taboo and hedged with euphemism.” From that opening sentence, it is already clear that McGinn’s work is going to lean into Becker’s ideas about death denial. McGinn does not disappoint on that score. Becker’s work is one of those most prominently drawn upon by McGinn in his illumination of disgust.
The first part of the work presents McGinn’s “analysis” of disgust. Here he looks at disgust in the context of other negative emotions, at what causes disgust specifically, and what these things have in common. It turns out (surprise!) that there is a tight little pool of literature dealing with disgust, and McGinn knows this literature well. McGinn presents at least six distinct theories of disgust, starting with the very concrete (Taste-Toxicity Theory – we evolved to be repulsed by that which is poison to us) on through to more abstract theories, such as the one to which McGinn subscribes, the Death-in-Life Theory. This states that we are most disgusted by the “mixing” of life and death. McGinn draws this theory from philosopher Aurel Kolnai. Kolnai was a Hungarian born Austrian, a Roman Catholic convert, who because of his Jewish background had to flee the Nazis and spent most of his career in England and America. But his work on disgust was published in 1929, and I couldn’t help but notice the common themes it seems to share with a number of passages from Wilhelm Reich’s work on the nature of fascism. That connection might be worth exploring further, if you have the stomach for it (I don’t!)
In the second part of this book, McGinn relates disgust to “the human condition.” Here again, there are echoes of Becker throughout. McGinn writes with grace and humor, and many of his passages sparkle with the sort of existential wisdom that draw so many readers to Ernest Becker’s work. In my view, the strongest part of McGinn’s work here is his focus on disgust and humor. Clearly, much of our humor is based on throwing that which is disgusting into people’s face. Laughter is one of the social acceptable reactions we have to disgust. Much of our laughter easily combines with “OOEEWW GOD!” and a facial expression of revulsion. If you doubt that, try reading this section of the book while looking at yourself in the mirror!
Now, much as I “enjoyed” this book (if that’s the right word) I also found it very frustrating. Many philosophers seem to be allergic to the concept of the dynamic unconscious, mostly I suspect, because it ultimately asserts that we are motivated by irrationality rather than rationality. That sort of cuts philosophers, the self-fancied doctors of rationality, off at the knees. McGinn is all philosopher in this regard. Thus, although he certainly has read at least Becker’s Denial of Death and quotes from it liberally, he persistently (mis)reads what Becker is saying because it is shorn of the dynamic unconscious. Thus, for example, McGinn characterizes Becker’s view of disgust as the Death Theory, which woodenly interprets “fear of death” as a conscious condition, and therefore sees disgust as rooted in the idea that “we know we must die.” But that is not at all what Becker meant, though it is the common way philosophers tend to read him. I suggest the absolutely fundamental hermeneutic for properly understanding what Becker was driving at is Becker’s repeated claim the death is an extremely “complex symbol” to a self-conscious species. This, in turn, cannot be adequately understood apart from the workings of a dynamic unconscious. Reading McGinn reading Becker is like watching a film in black and white that you have already seen many times in full color.
There are many other statements McGinn makes throughout the book that one could quibble with; for example, his repeated claim that animals do not feel disgust - any dog or cat owner who has tried to sneak a medical pill into the pets’ food will tell you this is highly disputed! But it would frankly just be disgusting to end my review of such a fine book with such quibbling.
Laughing at Death
Becker “too dark?” He said laughter reflects a very advanced stage of faith and grace. See Neil’s "Laughing at Death: The evolution of humor to disarm fundamentalism.”
Download a .pdf version of Neil's essay here.