Molly Guinness

The attraction of repulsion

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That’s Disgusting

Rachel Herz

W.W. Norton, pp. 274, £

Take some boiled maize, chew it, spit it out, put the mixture into an urn, bury it, dig it up several days later, and Bob’s your uncle: the Ecuadoran delicacy chicha. It turns out that ‘controlled rot tastes good’; the particular rot you favour will depend on where you come from. In Sardinia casu marzu is highly prized: it’s sheep’s cheese crawling with maggots. Reading Rachel Herz’s book, it’s astonishing what people enjoy, even before you get to the section on Japanese pornography.

Herz knows whereof she speaks: she has acted as nose judge in the annual National Rotten Sneakers Contest, where finalists aged six to 16 vie for the accolade of smelliest shoe champion. Luckily she keeps such alarming personal information to a minimum and most of her arguments are elucidated with eccentric psychology experiments.

Herz starts by grouping repulsion in loose categories: bodily functions and excretions, disease-contamination, mutilation, animalistic behaviour, sex and morality. To make things horribly clear, she conjures an image that includes all these aspects; then in warped lecture-hall style, she methodically identifies and discusses every abomination contained in her scenario. Even students at the back of the class will be left in no doubt as to why the image of a woman chained like an animal and drinking urine is disgusting.

Next she brings in the experimental psychologists, who have thought up an impressive array of tests, often involving baffling logistics. If, for example, people are asked to remember something they feel ashamed of and then given the choice between a free pencil and an antiseptic wipe, they are much more likely to choose the wipe. Once they’ve availed themselves of the wipe, they are much less likely to give to charity than people who have not been given a chance to cleanse themselves.

Another experiment explores how disgust can operate on a supernatural level: when participants were asked to imagine putting on Hitler’s jumper, they were reluctant to do so even if it had been sterilised. If Mother Teresa had since put it on, she could diminish, but not remove, the evilness of the garment.

Disgust, which feels so atavistic, is the last emotion that children acquire; nine-year-olds can only correctly identify a disgusted facial expression 30 per cent of the time. It’s a cultural construct that gets firmly built into the hardwiring of the brain. Once your personal disgust sensitivity has developed, it stays with you at more or less the same level until old age. People who are more prone to feeling morally scandalised tend to have a high disgust sensitivity score.

That’s Disgusting is full of delightful details like this. There are even tips about how to use disgust to your advantage: if you want to maximise your chances at a job interview, don’t let the interviewer see you anywhere near a fat person.

When it comes to analysing her data, Herz sometimes seems to be doing everything she can to get away from uncomfortable truths. She uses the evidence of controlled rot and unpleasant pornography to explain that disgust depends on expectations, culture and psychology. She is less forthcoming about why people are drawn to what repels them, briefly pointing out that lust and disgust are processed in the same area of the brain.

She takes issue with the theory of a behavioural immune system because of its social implications. ‘The idea that xenophobia, racism and prejudice are biologically advantageous because the fat, foreign or ugly might infect us doesn’t work,’ she says. But the theory was not developed to justify anti-social behaviour, and evolutionary quirks often don’t map onto the realities of modern metropolises. Her alternative theory (that it’s because the fat are strange) is at least as spurious.

Where there are weird leaps of logic, they often seem to stem from the touching respect Herz has for her muse. Disgust seems to her the most intelligent, the most modern, the most poetic of emotions: ‘From our ability to understand the privilege of abundance to the inevitability of our death, disgust holds a mirror up to us.’ It evolved from fear, to warn us of our foremost killer, pathogens, she says, calling it an emotional protest against death. It’s an elegant theory, and if disgust is murkier and more contrary than Herz would have us believe, how much more charming it is to have a fond biographer.