The literary gross-out



WARNING: The title is not kidding. But it's also a pretty interesting entry, I think.

I know I grossed a couple of people out with my recent post on Sara Suleri. Sorry about that; I probably should have warned you. But I'm realizing that I have something of an intellectual fascination with the viscerally gross, and with how and when authors dwell on it in literature. The more I think about it, the more I realize that while modern literature seems to feel an almost compulsive desire to air the emotionally disgusting parts of our lives—the pettiness, bigotry, lying, cheating, snobbery, hypocrisy, and so on—and to feel that doing so is pretty much a goal unto itself, there is very little corresponding instinct to address the human experience of the physically disgusting. I find that fascinating.

When the physically disgusting is described in visceral detail in adult literary fiction, it almost always serves a specific narrative purpose—often, a political purpose. In a war story, for example, a description of a soldier's gaping wounds is an indication to the audience of the brutality of war. In Emile Zola's Germinal, the swollen joints, hacking cough, and charcoal-blackened phlegm of a 50-year-old miner, ancient before his time, illustrates the way in which the capitalist mining system feasts on human flesh. In José Saramago's Blindness, the increasing grossness of the unnamed European capital (layers of excrement and other waste piling up in the streets) correlates directly with humanity's slide into bestial anarchy, and, significantly, the characters most concerned with maintaining cleanliness are also the most sympathetic. Many authors communicate the heinousness of their villains with gross-out scenes. In other words, it seems to me that in most literature, if something is gross, it is because of a corresponding moral wrong. This tradition extends back at least as far as Milton's Paradise Lost, in which the rebel angels' fall from grace results in Satan's inbred children Sin and Death guarding the gates of Hell, a pack of dogs continuously devouring and being born from Sin's womb (so gross!). One thinks, too, of Shakespeare's gross-out tactics in scenes like Gloucester's eye-gouging in King Lear, which illustrates the sickness and cruelty of Regan and Goneril. With very few exceptions, I am having a hard time thinking of physically disgusting scenes in adult literary fiction that aren't there to prove some moral point.

"And with good reason," one might reply. "Scenes like that are unpleasant!" But this argument is so interesting to me, for two reasons. One, as I've already said, is that modern literature DOES feel compelled to explore our emotionally and morally disgusting behavior. Many authors have built entire careers on delving into the ways in which regular people act in emotionally repulsive ways—marital infidelity; internalized and externalized self-hatred; forced social conformity; rape and murder; petty hypocrisy; the list goes on. Why do we feel the need to dissect emotionally disgusting experiences, but not physically disgusting ones? Some authors (I have heard this is true of both Flaubert's writing of Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's of Anna Karenina) intend their portraits as cautionary tales, helping their readers to avoid the same mistakes made by their characters. But surely writers like Philip Roth, Marcel Proust, Julio Cortázar and John Updike hardly expect(ed) their books to result in widescale social reform. The idea that a novel alone could stop spouses from cheating on one another is pretty laughable, after all. I think the reason we feel compelled to examine our socially/mentally revolting behaviors is just that they are undeniably part of the human experience: we are trying to make sense of our reality. This is no less true, of course, of physically disgusting experiences, but for some reason we find them less compelling...or at least, less respectable.

And respectability is tied to my second point of contrast: children's fiction. If adults think it's somehow natural or instinctual to avoid the gross-outs of life, kiddie lit shows plainly that they are wrong. Many kids LOVE to read (and watch) stuff adults find gross. Flatulent dogs, people vomiting slugs, stories about poop and boogers: they find it all delightful—and, perhaps more important, hilarious. Which leads me to believe that maybe the reason the physically disgusting is less acceptable in adult literature, is that we've socialized ourselves to believe it represents the lowest common denominator, that nothing dwells in that space except cheap laughs or cheap thrills, nothing of wider interest that speaks to the human experience in the same way as a story about, I don't know, the hypocritical self-justifications of a corrupt politician.

Which is fascinating because in the real world, of course, the sensation of physical disgust occurs all the time, and is hardly a reliable indicator of moral degeneracy. I get grossed out looking at those videos surgeons use to scope peoples' internal organs, but that doesn't mean the scopes or the organs are morally questionable—in fact, the organs are necessary to life, and the scopes are amazingly useful tools that help keep the organs working properly. A person unused to babies might find diaper-changing gross, but it's no reflection on the moral qualities of the infant or the diaper-changer.

I think we're misguided to write off the experience of physical disgust as an unsuitable subject for literary exploration; to me, it's a fascinating cocktail of emotions every bit as worthy of examination as, say, romantic infatuation or professional jealousy. Often, I find that mixed in with the revulsion we feel is a strange fascination, even attraction: why else do people pick scabs, or stop, lost in a kind of trance, to examine their broken lips of skin after cutting themselves in the kitchen? I'm sure we've all noticed similar behavior. Charles Bukowski writes about a girlfriend of his that was fascinated by his horrible, chronic acne, and would spend hours popping his boils for him (this is one of the few adult literary scenes I can think of that is both gross and morally neutral, even kind of sweet). There's the subjective element of disgust: why should I find so much food to be texturally gross, for example, when other people don't?

And then there's way in which the grotesque lives uneasily close to the object of desire: as Frances pointed out in a comment on my Suleri post, the English word "disgust" derives from the French for "to taste or sample," which points up the way in which a given experience can hover on the borderline between desirable and disgusting. Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover explores this theme eloquently as it relates to food and sex: the luxuriant opulence of the early portion of the movie morphs with surprising ease into the disgust and fear of the second half, in the same way that those old still-life paintings of huge quantities of food can teeter uneasily between appetizing and nauseating. Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry-Picking" and "Death of a Naturalist" also leap to mind as describing the small shift needed for a coveted object—blackberries, frogspawn—to become sinister and disgusting. (Heaney is another one of the unusual examples where the physically gross seems more or less morally neutral; Greenaway definitely isn't.)

In Norbert Elias's classic sociological treatise The Civilizing Process, he talks about the process by which what he calls "the threshold of repugnance" advanced in medieval Europe, and became basically synonymous with what we think of as "civilization." Reading this book was a huge eye-opener for me, and also unexpectedly hilarious, because Elias points out that things I previously considered instinctual reactions or behaviors, very basic things like not picking up a turd and offering it to your friend to smell, actually had to be socialized into people via, among other things, the first European etiquette books:

It is not a refined habit, when coming across something disgusting in the sheet, as sometimes happens, to turn at once to one's companion and point it out to him.
      It is far less proper to hold out the stinking thing for the other to smell, as some are wont, who even urge the other to do so, lifting the foul-smelling thing to his nostrils and saying, "I should like to know how much that stinks," when it would be better to say, "Because it stinks I do not smell it."
From Galateo by Della Casa, 1609

Gross, right? But how fascinating that there was a time when "some were wont" to do exactly that, when the default reaction was one of curiosity, rather than revulsion! And also interesting that what deterred people was not the disacovery of germ theory and the passage of diseases through the handling of waste (the reason most of us would probably give), which wouldn't be accepted for another three hundred years, but a more class-based social anxiety that pressured the upwardly-mobile into a greater level of delicacy.

In any case, I find this whole nexus of socio-historical and psychological issues around disgust to be quite fascinating, and I'd be interested to read more on the subject, both from fictional and non-fiction standpoints. Any recommendations? Or were you too grossed out to read this far?


  • If you're looking for a gross-out recommendation I would suggest Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian". While I've never read it I've heard it's notorious for people not being able to get past page 30.

  • To close the circle here: my kids would definitely still pick up something disgusting and offer it to a friend to experience. We haven't yet managed to ingrain such disgust into our DNA. We have to continually instruct the little ones not to give in to their natural, human curiosity on such things. Some don't fully relinquish it. Ask any guy who went to college. Most of them have probably seen another guy's poop, shared with them because of its unusual size, shape, or coloration.

  • Many, many people have been writing "reviews" of Thérèse Raquin recently, via the Classics Circuit. Not a single one has mentioned one particular scene that is right along these lines. I'm up next week, and I'm going to mention it! I've got to remember to warn people, like you did.

    Some of the Marquis de Sade's writing is truly disgusting. Rabelais works in the other direction - delightful disgust. Jonathan Swift is genuinely interested in disgust - see "A Description of a City Shower," for example. Leopold Bloom on the toilet. Houellebecq. Kleist. Vollman. If Blood Meridian is not disgusting enough, try Child of God.

  • Theduckthief: Yes, McCarthy! I have read Blood Meridian, and it was indeed gross. The tree full of hung babies, etc. And it's very interesting to bring up in this context, because while I feel like the grossness & violence in that novel is there for a pretty traditional reason (to show the reader that the world depicted had a vast moral lack at its center), the characters themselves didn't seem to register it. So, there was actually no EXPERIENCE of physical disgust in that novel, except on the part of the audience. Which is kind of an interesting disconnect.

    Sara: Haha, good to be reminded of this. We don't have kids, but since we got our dog there is definitely a lot more talk in the house about poop, vomit, & other bodily functions. One just becomes more comfortable with that stuff as one is required to, I suppose. But as for college dudes...I think this is the reason I lived alone, off campus for most of my coed career. ;-)

  • Amateur Reader: That's it - I'm loving Germinal; I'll have to pick up Thérèse Raquin in French when I can. Now I don't know whether to read your upcoming post or it better to be surprised, or forewarned? The Leopold Bloom shitting (& Molly Bloom on the chamber pot) scenes are a great thought - I actually considered addressing Joyce & Vollman but ran out of time. I feel like a discussion of disgust in Joyce could easily lead into de Sade (even though I've never read him) - that scene in Night Town with Bello/Bella's interactions with Leopold in the brothel, for example, and the stuff about hanged men ejaculating. Pretty yucky, but sometimes crossing a weird line into titillating. Swift is someone I should really investigate further, as is Houellebecq. Thanks for all the leads!

  • I'm not bothered by it if it has a purpose. However, you mention Blindness... I was infuriated by that book. Not by the depictions of shit on the streets, etc - instead I couldn't handle the rape scenes. It struck me as being overly indulgent.

  • What a fascinating post! Blindness is one of my favourite books and I think the descriptions were a very important part, showing how quickly society can collapse.

    The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover was one of the weirdest films I've ever seen. If you enjoyed that then I recommend you try watching The Delicatessen in which a butcher starts trapping people and then butchering them as meat supplies have dried up in the war. It is supposed to be a comedy, but there are some very gruesome scenes.

    I don't have a real problem with vomit and poo etc in books, but I am finding The Kindly Ones, that describes graphic scenes of Holocaust exectution a bit too disturbing for me.

  • I'll have to come back and read this when I have more time to really think about it - great post on the skim through though. What an interesting topic for discussion! Thanks for the reminder to rewatch The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. AWESOME movie on every level - visually astonishing, whacked out, hilarious, and mmm, Helen Mirren! :)

  • What a thought provoking post! I've never really thought much about disgust in fiction before. I have certainly been disgusted but I am fairly certain that it is generally of the type where the gruesomeness is meant to separate the good guys from the bad. I wonder if there isn't much of the other kind of disgust you describe in fiction because we tend to think of it as being a sign of immaturity? Something for children who don't know better or adolescent boys or the uncivilized. Examining disgust in terms of emotion is therefore much more mature, refined and worthy of attention. Just a thought.

    It's not books, but I have noticed in movies over the past few years that hunters/ trackers when they find blood on something stick their finger in it and taste it in order to assess freshness and whose blood it might be. Does human blood taste differently than animal blood? Anyway, this never fails to disgust me even though it is apparently not considered a disgusting thing to do in context.

  • Fascinating post, epscially liked your point about food scenes in paintings tipping into disgust. You can imagine what that amount of food will look like rotting, or the remains after the feast can't you?

    There seems to have always been a lot more of the bodily functions kind of disgust in books by men than women, but it's starting to move into women's books now. Disgust seems very tied up with the development of realism as the main aim of fiction.

  • is it better to be surprised, or forewarned

    100% neutral. Comlpetely equivalent.

    Goya - I forgot to mention Goya, who is essential here. I mean his series of prints, now available as books - Caprichos and The Disasters of War. This is disgusting material with the highest ethical purpose.

    And if we get into film, the possibilities explode. I'm thinking, for example, of the decisions every maker of a Holocaust-related film has to make. Night and Fog wants to put the most disgusting details right in front of us, again, for ethical reasons. A "talking heads" documentary allows or forces more distance.

  • Interesting! It's almost that the physical miasma is taboo, while the all the moral filth (adultery, etc) has been normalized.

    I reacted viscerally to both Perfume and American Psycho, but there's definitely wrong happening at another level in those.

    Houellebecq's an interesting suggestion, because while there's nothing too disgusting in the novels themselves he certainly does explore the what's and why's of society's norms (mostly sexual).

    I seem to recall there was some physically disgusting stuff in Infinite Jest that was notable for not having a moral component, and for being funny, but I can't remember specifics...

  • Selena: I can totally understand that reaction to the rape scenes in Blindness. For me they hovered right on the edge between necessary and indulgent. I ended up coming down on the side of necessary because of the way Saramago explores the psychology of the doctor's wife and the decisions she makes/changes she goes through as a result of the terrorization of the women on her ward. But yeah, extraneous rape scenes really infuriate me, too.

    Jackie: I have actually never seen Delicatessen, although I really like the director's other work! Thanks for the reminder. As for Holocaust executions, I would find that really difficult as well - it's firmly in the category of gross stuff that happens as a result of complete moral collapse, so you have the weight of the cruelty, bigotry & violence as well as just the descriptions of tortured flesh to contend with.

  • Sarah: Whoa, I had forgotten that that was a younger Helen Mirren! Maybe I should watch it again. Although, every time I do it puts me off food for like a week! Great film, though, I agree.

    Stefanie: Yes, I think you're onto something about the immaturity question - that's kind of where I was going with children's lit; we "adults" have cast off childish things, etc. But it's interesting how few "mature" examinations of the psychology around disgust I can think of in books. Movies, as you point out, I can think of FAR more.

  • Jodie: Yes, you can certainly imagine the decay. And in the painting above, all the animals nosing around the food - probably pooping among the grapes & lobsters? So gross. As for men vs. women, that was another thing I wanted to include in this already-lengthy post, because although almost everyone I talk about here is male, there are a few modern female writers (Mary Gaitskill LEAPS to mind, and I'm also finding it a bit with Lydia Davis) who have a reputation for their inclusion of the physically gross, in a non-morally-charged way. I find that interesting. I'm thinking of searching out Gaitskill's Veronica as part of this field of interest.

    Amateur Reader: Excellent call on Goya. Those nightmare paintings really embrace the whole aesthetic of the gross, rather than trying to depict more shinily the mythological scenes involved. Where do they fit with the moral component, I wonder? It seems difficult to analyze, due to Goya's mental state during their painting. Hmm.

    Also, I totally agree that the possibilities explode with film. On my walk to work today, for example, I was thinking about the role of the physically disgusting in John Waters's work - it seems complicated, and class-based, but maybe less morally marked than some others. Like he's embracing the physically repulsive along with other aspects of life on the fringe.

  • Isabella: Yes, like we're willing to confront moral disgust because we think it serves some larger goal (maybe?), whereas with physical disgust there's almost a reaction like "why would you want to think about THAT?" Maybe it has to do with how commonly we come into contact with stuff that would, if we stopped to think about it, be physically disgusting, whereas hopefully we're not encountering stuff like adultery on a daily basis? I'm really not sure. And ah, another reason to read Infinite Jest. One of these days I won't be able to avoid it any longer. ;-)

  • What a thought-provoking post. The most recent scene of something physically "disgusting" that I've read is in Part II of The Brothers Karamazov, where the narrator talks about the odor of corruption rising from the body of the elder Zosima. The odor and its effect on people is a factor for pages. But there really is no sensory detail. Before that there was the scene in All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy) where the kid treats the bullet wound in his thigh with the heated barrel of his pistol. I read Perfume and I saw The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, but it seems to me the really revolting things are experienced first hand. I'll never forget the maggots on the fish guts I buried in my garden as compost. I'm sure delicacy has something to do with the paucity of physically disgusting things in literature; but perhaps also they're extremely hard to describe. For example, an odor is like nothing else - it can't be described via a metaphor - either you know what the smell is or you don't. Thanks for opening up this point of view; I'll be paying more attention to disgusting things in novels I read!

  • Fun food for thought!

  • Well this is certainly an interesting post. I have a very low tolerance for visceral gross-outs, particularly related to death and torture. (In fact, just reading this post squicked me out.) I almost had to put down Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for precisely that reason. I understand why he included the scene in question (anyone who's read that book will know what I'm talking about) but that didn't lessen my absolute disgust with it.

    You mentioned the lack of female writers who include this type of subject matter. Charlotte Roche's Wetlands comes to mind. I'm all for feminist erotica but not like that.

  • Julia: Interesting point about the difficulty of evoking disgust in words...that's definitely true of odors, for sure. Although, authors seem to manage it frequently enough when there is some moral aspect to the physically disgusting scene. But now I'm wondering if some of the things that have grossed me out in literature over the years relied more on my imagination than on the words themselves - and maybe wouldn't gross out a different reader? Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking response. :-)

    Marieke: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • EL Fay: I kind of grossed myself out writing the post, actually! Sorry about that, though. :-P The funny thing is that I have a really low tolerance for gore, etc., too, especially in films - the night after I wrote this David & I were thinking of renting a movie. He joked, "Maybe something disgusting?" and I was like "Ewww, no!" Thanks for the tip on Wetlands...I think...? ;-)

  • Hmm. Never have a problem with the physically disgusting. Like the disgusting odor coming from Zosima's corpse as mentioned above. And I did not find your previous post so much disgusting as just a differing viewpoint from my own. Suleri describes food as disgusting based upon assumptions/opinions with which I disagree.

    Don't find food or eating typically disgusting (there are exceptions - Monty Python - one more bit, just one more bite - I'll have the lot of it. Put it in a bucket), but apparently she does on some level. Disgusting (the root being to taste as we have both noted) is just so subjective. But... must agree that I relish a good bit of disgusting from time to time. The jolt to enliven. Reading with one eye closed but still reading. Love this post!

  • I would also suggest Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It's set in early 20th century Chicago, concerning immigrants and the meatpacking industry. I couldn't eat meat for a month after reading this.

  • This is all quite fascinating! I thought I'd just contribute something from one of my main areas of interest:

    There's an area of the brain - the anterior insula - which is, among other things, in charge of responding to offensive tastes. This same part of the brain is activated when one sees another person registering disgust on his or her face. (It's easy to imagine how this would be evolutionarily adaptive, pairing with memory to spare us from eating the same rotten/rancid/poisonous food that we'd seen one of our cave-friends tasting and grimacing over.)

    In A User's Guide to the Brain, John Ratey talks about how this brain area is connected to anxiety responses, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even pain stimuli, and in the section of the Wikipedia article I linked to, they point out that it is also "involved in the processing of norm violations."

    This is totally amazing to me, not only on the "Wow, we have a brain region that is specifically implicated in processing norm violations?? What a crazy kind of animal we are!" level, but also in terms of how remarkably it ties in with the Civilizing Process/disgust-is-a-social-convention/social-conventions-are-important-as-norm-regulators issues. Did disgust responses and norm regulation come to inhabit the same area of the brain because of the civilizing process, or did the civilizing process come to tie disgust and norm regulation so tightly together because they are biologically - physically - linked in the human brain?

    In A User's Guide, Ratey touches on the fact that the insular cortex was, evolutionarily, "already there," serving more basic functions as the taste-sensory cortex, but that - in a typically efficient move - that existing framework of the cortex was then recruited for the disgust, and other "higher," cognitive functions.

    I don't know if it's really possible to unravel this stuff for any sort of definitive answer, but I think it's pretty weird and awesome, either way!

  • Frances: In all fairness to Suleri, those attitudes you're disagreeing with may have come more from me than from her. I'd be curious to read a foodie's review of the same essay I read, because Suleri herself seems to feel much warmer toward eating in general than I am, despite the fact that she examines the gross-out experience. But yeah, that reading-with-one-eye-closed image definitely communicates it! :-)

    Duckthief: I've been meaning to check out The Jungle anyway; thanks for the recommendation!

  • David: Thanks for commenting, Sweetie! This is so interesting, as we discussed the other day. Fascinating to think that our brain architecture could have such direct and wide-reaching effects on how our civilization developed and what kind of inhibiting mechanisms evolved.

  • I was reminded of Swift in this-at Gulliver's disgust in the world of the giants in Brobdingnag-in modern literature one of the scenes involving Brigadier Pudding in Gravity's Rainbow comes to mind-

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography