The Compulsion to Look at Horror

Vicissitudes of disgust: Part 2.

Posted May 17, 2019

In a previous post, I began an exploration of the problems one runs into when looking for disgust through history. The assumption that “disgust” is an automatic response, triggered by sights and smells, leads to incorrect interpretations and spurious translations. To introduce the topic, I focused on the case of Leontius looking at dead bodies in Plato’s Republic. Despite a scholarly tendency to force this scene into narratives about disgust, I showed that Leontius’ battle with himself was really an expression of the tripartite soul, concerning desire (to see dead bodies), reason (to look at dead bodies is not rational), and anger (of the spirit, for allowing desire to prevail over reason). Disgust does not enter the account at all.

The argument here is drawn from A History of Feelings (2019) and is part of a larger account of people looking at things from which they feel they should turn away, or else compelling the reader to look at things that are supposed to make us recoil. I begin with Plutarch’s (46-120 CE) account of the consumption of animal meat, often taken as an archetype of disgust narratives. The text contains a curious tension, for in Plutarch’s denunciation of those who feast on flesh there is a repeated invitation to look closely at how horrible it all is. The reader is inclined to look precisely because Plutarch plays on desire—literally the appetite—to see the table bedecked in delicacies, which he then recasts as mortuary slab with many bodies. Plutarch asks the reader, through Pythagorean eyes, to see all those bodies as potential human bodies, or at least as the one-time bearers of once human souls. Moreover, Plutarch rails against the faux refinement of the rich, be they Stoics who fail to live up to their principles of control, or be they Epicureans, whose indulgences were anathema to a Platonist. To be able to see the moral failings of these people, Plutarch compelled the reader to look at the “fearful rawness” of the feast, implicating not only the displayed animal flesh, but the dearth of civilization in those who consumed it.1          

CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
Francisco de Goya, "One Can't Look", Disasters of War, plate 26 (1810-20)
Source: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Plutarch was playing with the profane, transforming meat into corpses in order to challenge the morality of gazing lustily upon it. Susan Sontag’s 2003 classic, Regarding the Pain of Others, understood this desire to see the horrific in precisely these terms. Mutilated bodies become objects of the gaze principally because people know they ought not to look. In her view, drivers slow down to pass a road accident because they genuinely desire to “see something gruesome,” uttering phrases about the terrible sight while being unwilling or unable to turn away.2 Such was Francisco de Goya’s (1746-1828) predicament when he depicted the victims of a firing squad in his Disasters of War series (1810-20), just at the moment the men, women and children were shot. He inscribed the image "No se puede mirar"—one cannot look—yet it is clear that he looked, remembered, committed the image to the paper and, in presenting it to the public, compelled the viewer to agree, while looking intently, that no, one cannot look. Not being able to look is a dynamic part of looking.

Another man who wrung his hands at the desire to see dead bodies was Augustine (354-430 CE). For him, pleasure and curiosity were "functions of physical sensation," such that what might be experienced as a craving for knowledge was actually sensual desire, to know the physical world, especially through the eyes. Explicitly, for Augustine, curiosity craved experience and understanding, which explained the “inherent pleasure in looking at a rent corpse,” even though it “makes you shudder.”

There was no mystery in Leontius for Augustine. A mangled body drew a crowd, flocking “to be appalled, to turn pale…. Monstrous sights are paraded in public shows to pander to this disease of desire.” Augustine was particularly afflicted, his curiosity diverting him to sport hunting and to animal predation. It is amusing to think of the Church Father delighting in a spider consuming a fly. He knew the profanity of such absorbing sensory stimulation, hoping only for the “overwhelming mercy” of God. Delicious horror was his heart’s desire and it was a quality of his eyes to look for such scenes. Unless such desires were intercepted and turned to reflection, they were the cause of vanity.3

In sum, we must take seriously the view that there are no universal elicitors of “disgust” and that where we might expect “disgust” at a scene of horror we often find, in the historical record, something else entirely: desire.


1. Plutarch, ‘De esu carnium i’, ‘De esu carnium ii’, in Moralia, ed. Gregorius N. Bernardakis (Leipzig, 1895). For English comparison (and the source of the unmodified translations here), see Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, trans. rev. William W. Goodwin (Boston, ma, 1874).

2. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Geroux, 2003).

3. Translations here are my slight modifications of Carolyn J.-B. Hammond: Augustine, Confessions (Cambridge, Ma, 2014), 10.35, pp. 162–7.