KORSMEYER, CAROLYN. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. Oxford
University Press, 2011, 194 pp., b&w illus., $99.00 (cloth), $29.95 (paper).
Carolyn Korsmeyer’s latest book is as remarkable for its simultaneous focus and breadth
as for its vitality. She targets what she calls “aesthetic disgust, . . . an emotion
appropriately aroused by certain works of art—and by other objects as well—that signals
appreciative regard and understanding” (p. 3). The book’s breadth comes from the other
questions raised by this relatively non-standard topic in aesthetics. For while there have
recently been many analyses of disgust by scientists, philosophers, and artists, and much
deliberately disgusting art, the standard aesthetic theories pay little attention to this
emotion. They tend to reject it as a visceral response that cannot form part of an aesthetic
experience unless transformed into something else. Korsmeyer, by contrast, thinks
disgust functions aesthetically in a wide variety of ways, and often maintains its
immediate, visceral character within an aesthetic experience, providing unique insight
and intensity. Her extended argument for this conclusion is supported by a wealth of
examples from the arts, popular culture, cooking, and other sources. Along the way, she
revisits a number of standard problems in aesthetics, and engages aesthetic theorists from
the past and present, moving comfortably between “analytic” and “continental” authors.
She is a generous critic, with an appreciative understanding of the authors she discusses.
But she shows their accounts of disgust to be inadequate. This reveals other
vulnerabilities in their theories.
Korsmeyer’s first chapter surveys current theories of emotion to see how they
apply to disgust. Such theories differ over the role of cognition in emotion. Disgust
requires a theory that can accommodate its visceral immediacy, cognitive freight, and
cultural variability. Korsmeyer finds such theories in the work of Jenefer Robinson and
Jesse Prinz (who start at the automated response end, but then fold cognition in), and
Robert Solomon and Martha Nussbaum (who see emotions as embodied judgments,
including the visceral response as part of the judgment). She implies that these thinkers
end up in a similar place, and proposes to retain insights from all of them. (I couldn’t help
wondering what this mediation would look like in detail, but can’t fault the author for
leaving the attempt to us and returning to her central focus.) After a useful categorization
of disgust elicitors, she closes the chapter with a meditation on the meaning of disgust, a
theme that continues throughout the book. She acknowledges her debt here to work by
William Ian Miller, and to the phenomenologist Aurel Kolnai.
Chapter Two, “Attractive Aversions,” describes three traditional reasons for
thinking that disgust cannot be integral to positive aesthetic experiences. Its foul objects
aren’t worth extended attention. Imitations of those objects can evoke disgust’s visceral
aversion just as strongly as the real objects, so artists can’t manipulate it readily. And if
an artist successfully includes a disgusting object in a work, its qualities are transformed
into something more suitable for aesthetic contemplation (e.g., the grotesque, the ugly,
the comic, the tragic). Korsmeyer’s response to these objections takes the rest of the
book. But we learn immediately that she accepts the second charge, what she calls the
transparency of disgust, and rejects the other two. The transparency of disgust means that
it escapes the supposed paradox of fiction, for the appearance of a disgusting object
automatically evokes the response. The other puzzles, however, remain. If anything, the
transparency of disgust intensifies them. How can squirming maggots, rot, decay and
feces, eviscerated corpses and foul odors be worth extended attention? How can the
reaction of disgust remain intact as part of a positive aesthetic experience? How can it
leave room for imagination?
The argument continues over lunch in chapter three, where Korsmeyer talks about
disgust as a positive element in gourmet cuisine. The kidneys prepared “so that a whiff of
urine remains within them” (p. 81), the “high” meat that is beginning to decompose, and
Mitterand’s famous last meal are just three dishes in a long menu of illustrative examples.
The chapter expands the theme of the meanings of disgust, including the eating of the
sublime and the terrible, and supports Korsmeyer’s claim that disgust can be subtle rather
than overwhelming. We also get more of her philosophy of perception: “there is no
coherent sensation,” she says, “without cognition – that is, without taking the object of
sensation to be something or other.” (65) In support of this claim are examples like the
odors of blue cheese and rotten food. The odors are similar, but the perceptions differ
depending on which you take their source to be.
Although disgust can be part of the pleasure of eating, the unaltered emotion, says
Korsmeyer, is not part of the diner’s positive experience. In cuisine, disgust is converted
to deliciousness. There may be a significant reminder in smell, flavor or appearance of
what has been transformed; but the emotion itself has been converted.
This is not always true in art. Korsmeyer begins her fourth chapter with examples
of disgusting elements that are integral to positive aesthetic experiences. Drawn from
multiple arts and historical periods, they powerfully demonstrate that the uses of disgust
in the arts are widely varied in every respect. Aesthetic disgust can come in small doses.
The recoil needn’t be “all or nothing,” it can be subtle enough to go unnoticed. Aesthetic
uses of disgust can be funny, erotic, or filled with existential angst. They can aid the work
of other emotions, or be front and center. In accounting for this variety, the author is led
to a broader set of conclusions. “The emotions,” she says, “and in particular the aesthetic
emotions, are partially constituted by their specific intentional objects” (88). Thus,
aesthetic experiences are “singular”. Each has its unique emotional quality as an
experience of that specific work, performance or situation. And aesthetic disgust is
“fragment[ed]…into as many pieces as there are works that arouse it” (97). Goya and
Rubens each made stomach-turning paintings of Saturn devouring one of his sons. But
the specific features of each focus our imaginations and stimulate our reflection in unique
ways. The same event (handling a decaying corpse whose limbs keep falling off)
generates horrified sympathy in Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, and a grim, detached black
humor in Martin Cruz Smith’s Havana Bay. In sum, “no single answer to Mendelssohn’s
question, ‘Whence this peculiar satisfaction?’ will be adequate” (112).
The fifth chapter completes Korsmeyer’s main argument regarding disgust and
the paradox of aversion. She first argues that pleasure is not a single sensation, and
should not be made central in the understanding of aesthetic experience. Rather, she
proposes “a more cognitivist perspective that stresses the insights afforded by aesthetic
emotions, insights that gratify but perhaps do not actually please in the familiar sense of
the word” (114). She quotes Aristotle with approval: “As pleasant things differ, so do the
pleasures arising from them” (NE, 1153a6-7). Pleasure and pain are not, as often thought,
opposites. Pain is a sensation, pleasure is not; so their combination is not logically
inconsistent, though it remains psychologically puzzling. Rather than being a sensation,
“…pleasure seems to behave more like a modifier of attention, intensifying for a host of
reasons some experience that the participant would rather have continue than not” (118).
So Korsmeyer rephrases her main question: “What is it about the object of
attention that so absorbs us that we stick with it rather than turning away when it becomes
difficult?” And in particular, “What does aesthetic disgust deliver that other emotions do
not?” There are many correct answers. The gross-out evokes delight in disgust for its own
sake. It faces artistic limits, since the greater the “yuck” factor, the less room for
imagination. Nevertheless, gross-outs dominate a surprising amount of contemporary art.
Korsmeyer speculates that one attraction of such work is the opportunity to show what
one can tolerate.
But the “yuck” factor only explains a few examples of aesthetic disgust. In other
cases, what is that “macabre allure” about? As promised, Korsmeyer seeks answers in the
meaning(s) of disgust. Her answer, in short, is that “Disgust is a constant signifier of
death. . . .[D]isgust is . . . a response to the transition between life and death” (122). That
transition, of course, is of intimate concern to all of us, and both repellent and fascinating.
Where disgust helps an artwork ring the changes on it, our engagement with it makes
perfect sense. (Sometimes, as here, Korsmeyer speaks as if this were the fundamental
meaning of disgust, as if this meaning came packaged with every case of the experience.
But I doubt that she actually thinks this, and she does not need it to make her case. It is
sufficient that the meaning is ready to hand as a natural symbol for aesthetic use.)
The author now folds this insight about the meaning of disgust into a further
exposition of her cognitivism. Works of art, she notes, are generally not providers of
propositional knowledge. Or rather, their propositional content turns out to be platitudes
like “Life is short,” “Love is wonderful,” or “War is hell.” The value of concentrated
absorption in the work is to provide a poignantly concrete apprehension of such truths.
One is able to dwell in them, to feel them as meaning (among other things) this. “…[I]t is
the acute impression of a particularly skillful or eloquent artistic rendering of a truth that
brings it home.” This leads Korsmeyer to the climax of the chapter, her introduction of a
new aesthetic category, the sublate. If the sublime can be described as the conversion of
heavy fear into light exaltation, the sublate is the opposite: it converts insight into mortal
flesh. It is “aesthetic insight in a bodily, visceral response” which preserves intact the
“somatic spasm of disgust.” “The experience gives rise to an apprehension, a grasp of an
idea that is so imbedded in affective response to the work that provokes it as to be
virtually inseparable” (134). As throughout the book, her marvelous illustrations give
substance to this claim; it seems a perfect description of what is happening in them.
Chapter five completes the author’s main argument. The remaining two chapters
reinforce her conclusions in two ways. “Hearts” reviews the appearances of that organ in
art and popular culture, often providing compelling examples of aesthetic disgust at work.
The final chapter is a kind of coda, in which Korsmeyer demonstrates that aesthetic
disgust can be an integral part of its supposed opposite, beauty, and takes us behind the
scenes to see how the trick is managed. It provides her opportunity to reconstruct the
notion of the beautiful, to meditate on the contrast between “pretty” and “beautiful”, and
to talk about difficult beauties. Again, the examples and the analysis are well integrated,
and the case is compelling. The most piercing example in the book, for me, was the
passage from Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, a sickening description of the torture of
a nun who manages all the same to hang on to her self and “to think of the tears, the
blood, and mucus and loose teeth in her mouth: these are not bad things, these are just me
and I’m alright” (175). I can’t help agreeing, not just about the description but about the
thing described, that it is all at once horrifying, disgusting and beautiful.
Savoring Disgust is a groundbreaking book. It will certainly become required
reading for anyone studying its central theme, and should prove a fertile, stimulating and
perhaps provoking source for those working on the many other topics its author broaches.
It advances the discussion on most if not all of those, while not pretending to be the last
word. This reviewer will be thinking about its content for a long time.
DAVID CLOWNEY. Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies, Rowan University