Bodies of Horror
In this experimental writing piece (a pastiche; a mixing of forms), I will look into the politics of disgust, and Othering that occurs in Jonathan Swift’s text, Gulliver’s Travels. I chose the text because of the strong ring of posthumanism within the text, especially part IV of the novel where Gulliver visits the country of the Houyhnhnms.
“Nothing can well be more mortifying, than to reflect, that I am of the same Species with Creatures capable of uttering so much Scurrility, Dullness, Falsehood, and Impertinence, to the Scandal and Disgrace of Human Nature” (Works, III, 171-72).
Order precedes existence. Our existence is coded into a system of comprehensibility so as to impart meaning to the world around us. To understand that there is any meaning at all also pronounces the notion that this meaning generation is a human-made activity. The ability of humans to scribe boundaries and draw lines is a way of asserting differences, thereby creating and maintaining order. But what if that order is challenged? What if the boundaries that prevent spilling of fixed categories is no longer turgid? How is one to accommodate these shifting fluidities? What affects do such incidents register?
The term "disgust," in its simplest sense, means something offensive to the taste. It is curious how readily this feeling is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food. In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty. (Winfried 2003, 2)
Disgust circulates bidirectionally – the “naked savage” is the “object” of disgust to Darwin, and for the “naked savage”, it is the “cold preserved meat” that is the object of disgust. Different “objects” qualify as objects of disgust for the actors in the narrative – a body, a food item, and while Darwin does state that disgust arises for “anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food”, it is precisely a corporeal body and not an edible item that provokes disgust within him. The “naked savage” becomes almost synonymous to the stranger, the unusual offensive food, the abject, the Other that qualifies to evoke disgust within Darwin. Another observation of note is that the savage’s hands do not appear to be “dirty”, which had they appeared so, would have lent some legitimacy to Darwin’s disgust. What outrightly provokes Darwin is to have his food touched by somebody who does not belong to his “group”, an outsider, and more so, someone who is “uncivilized”, the Other. It is with his tactile touch that the savage apparently impurifies Darwin’s food and forays us into the realm of that emotion called disgust with the body as the sight and site of its action, and with the senses – sight, and touch as the ancillaries.
A strong visceral emotion, disgust was, according to Kant, the spearhead of the aesthetic judgement and theory, “a strong vital emotion” qualified to “penetrate the body so far as it is alive” (Winfried 2003, 1). Capable of provoking the entire nervous system, disgust puts everything within its proximity “at risk” (Winfried 2003, 1) – and is a “state of alarm and emergency, an acute crisis of self-preservation in the face of an unassimilable otherness, a convulsive struggle, in which what is in question is, quite literally, whether to be or not to be.” (Winfried 2003, 2)
“I fell into a beaten Road, where I saw many tracks of Human Feet, and some of Cows, but most of Horses. At last I beheld several Animals in a Field, and one or two of the same kind sitting in Trees. Their Shape was very singular and deformed, which a little discomposed me, so that I lay down behind a thicket to observe them better. Some of them coming forward near the place where I lay, gave me an opportunity of distinctly marking their Forms. Their Heads and Breasts were covered with a thick Hair, some frizzled and others lank; they had beards like Goats, and a long ridge of Hair down their Backs, and the fore-parts of their Legs and Feet, but the rest of their Bodies were bare, so that I might see their Skins, which were of a brown buff Colour.” (Swift 2012, 237)
As the object of disgust “threatens the stability of our corporeity”; it destabilizes the line that separates the inside of our body from its outside. Disgust arises when the border that separates the inside of our body from its outside is violated, when the inside penetrates out, as in the case of blood or shit. “It’s similar with the saliva: as we all know, although we can without problem swallow our own saliva, we find it extremely repulsive to swallow again a saliva [which was spit into a glass] out of our body—again a case of violating the inside/outside frontier” (Rosenkranz 2015, 3)
“the ugly Monster, when he saw me, distorted several ways every Feature of his Visage, and stared at as an Object he had never seen before; then approaching nearer, lifted up his Fore-paw, whether out of Curiosity or Mischief, I could not tell…..Several of this cursed Brood getting hold of the Branches behind leapt up in the Tree, from whence they began to discharge their Excrements on my Head; However, I escaped pretty well, by sticking close to the Stem of the Tree, but was almost stifled with the Filth, which fell about me on every side” (Swift 2012, 238).
Emmanuel Levinas writes, “It would seem that the human individual should be thought of first within the formal framework of his belonging to a genus- the human genus. He is part of a whole, divided into species and culminating in an undivided unity, in the logically ultimate identity of the individual, situated among empirical data and recognizable by specific spatial and temporal indices, in which that unity presents itself as a “being” in its particularity, and which according to Aristotle, “alone exists”, beyond the ideal or abstract existence of genera” (Levinas 169, 72).
Levinas’ dwelling on “uniqueness” can be read as an interpretation of the idea that binds human beings to a particular form, a particular group that they must stay true to. Any aberration is bound to tease the senses into unease, evoking emotional reactions, and/or ostracization.
When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and Disposition, only a little more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech, but making no other use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Voices, whereof their Brethren in the country had only the share that Nature allotted them. When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or a fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo, than of my own person. By conversing with the Houyhnhnms, and looking upon them with Delight, I fell to imitate their Gait and Gesture, which is now grown into an Habit, and my friends often tell me in a blunt way that I trot like a horse, which, however, I take for a great compliment” (Swift 2012, 297).
Omnis ars naturae imitatio est.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre Nous. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
Menninghaus, Winfried, translators: Howard Eiland and Joel Golb. Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation. State University Press of New York, 2003.
Nussbaum, Martha. Hiding from Humanity. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Rosenkranz, Karl. The Aesthetics of Ugliness. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Penguin English Library, 2012.