Anxiety, Disgust: The Sublime and Counter-Sublime of Ecstasy and Horror

Anxiety is an affective state and as such can, of course, only be felt by the ego. The id cannot have anxiety as the ego can; for it is not an organization and cannot make a judgement about situations of danger. On the other hand it very often happens that processes take place or begin to take place in the id which cause the ego to produce anxiety. Indeed, it is probable that the earliest repressions as well as most of the later ones are motivated by an ego-anxiety of this sort in regard to particular processes in the id. (Freud- The Complete Works)

Freud’s mythology of the inner workings of the psyche still fascinates, even if they were his own fictions of the mind just like Kant’s fictions and categories. Humans love to invent the fictive elements of what they do not comprehend, and then impose those fictions as “truth”. Religion did it before analytical psychology, just like in our current age we are inventing the neurosciences as the new truth of the psyche. Fictions supersede fictions from age to age under the critical gaze, because scholars cannot be satisfied with the previous generations fictive truths.

If one reads Freud as literature rather than psychology one can still gain insights, since his own work was an outgrowth of late decadent romanticism. The psyche as horror story, full of anxieties and defenses against the all powerful id (Outside). Sometimes one has to be inventive in one’s reading to develop theories of the Sublime and Counter-Sublime. The sublime begins in a primal repression and defense against a threat to the ego-self, one that would if known obliterate and annihilate it beyond recall. We see that in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy where he traces this whole pessimistic history of the ego’s defensive measures against the truth into its cultural and religious determinations. Our need for mastery and self-divination and identity spawned the whole Romantic movement in poetry and literature that began during the Renaissance with the figure of the Magus and would culminate in the master-slave delusions of Hegel.

What I love about Bataille is that he would be one of the first to undermine this whole tradition with his dark surrealism and base materialism of decay, destruction, and annihilation of the ego-identity. Others would follow…

The cult of personality would culminate in the wit of Oscar Wilde who says, “The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.” This cultivation of the ego-identity as supreme would have its counter-sublime in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the very power of this ego-sublime would end in self-annihilation as the personality’s rejection of its own dark forces return with a vengeance as Dorian’s alter-self in the figure of the painting is destroyed, killing both self and its shadow in self-annihilation.

The whole decadent tradition of horror descends from the daemonic poetry of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel” as Paglia reminds us: “The Decadent Late Romantic line of Poe, Baudelaire, Moreau, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Beardsley, and Wilde descends directly from Coleridge’s mystery poems.”1 Edgar Allan Poe would up the ante in his poetry and macabre tales spinning out the threads of those decadent figures from Coleridge’s imaginative vampires and sailors into weird tales that would haunt not only the American, but French Psyche for a hundred years or more. As Paglia puts it succinctly,

The French accused America of slighting her greatest poet in Poe, who may sound better in Baudelaire’s translation than in English. Poe, like Coleridge, is a giant of imagination, and imagination has its own laws. In Poe’s tales and Coleridge’s mystery poems, the daemonic expresses itself nakedly. Dionysus always shakes off rules of Apollonian form. (SP 322)

This sense of the Dionysian formlessness would be central to Georges Bataille’s reception of that whole decadent tradition which began with Baudelaire’s Poe. As Stephen S. Bush in his essay “Sovereignty and Cruelty Self-Affirmation, Self-Dissolution, and the Bataillean Subject” describes it:

Georges Bataille populates his writings with the imagery of torture and murder. His fiction revels in sexual assault. He speaks of evil as having a sovereign value for humanity. He speaks of there being intimacy between the sacrificers and the victims in human sacrificial rituals. He compares sex to human sacrifice. He describes himself meditating on photos of a man being dismembered and recounts his ecstatic experiences of joy and anguish in doing so, going so far as to call the wounded victim beautiful. He holds forth violation and transgression as things that reveal our true nature.2

One would imagine Bataille as the modern Sade, but he’s in fact just the opposite; whereas Sade would promote the ego and identity as supreme, Bataille would demote it and seek to dissolve it in the non-human or inhuman continuity of Dionysian natural flux. Bataille sees cruelty and violence as permanent aspects of the human condition. For Bataille there is both a fascination and repugnance at such shocks of cruelty, the one leading to self-affirmation while the other ends in self-negation. The shock of cruelty is also the shock of beholding individuals who are subject to no constraints, who obey no norms, no conventions, and no authorities other than themselves. (NE 47) So there’s this polarity between the Sadean self-affirmation of cruelty as gratification, and the Bataillean version as self-negation without pleasure which ends in dissolution and rupture, ecstasy and horror.

Bataille would provide an antagonistic counter-sublime to Andre Breton’s surrealist sublime, one that would shift the focus from utilitarian and political-social relations of the profane world of work to the sacred realms of ecstatic horror and darkness just beyond the confines of acceptable norms and normalcy. His was an entry into the nightmare lands of thought and being, exposing the naked self to a world where self-negation and self-affirmation lived in pure contradiction without resolution or recognition. A non-dialectical world of mystery and cruelty that few understand or condone. This was the realm of sovereignty and communication, intimacy and continuity with the inhuman core of our humanity.

What I disagree with in Bush’s essay is that he seeks to tame Bataille’s anti-social and anti-utilitarian diagnosis. He never mentions Durkheim’s sacred/profane dualism which underpins Bataille’s theories of religion, sovereignty, and communication. Instead he tries to bring Bataille back into the ethical and utilitarian fold, limiting Bataille’s vision to some erroneous estimation as a “thinker whose ethical position includes self-affirmation, not just self-effacement” (NE 50). For me the whole point of Bataille’s base materialism is an absolute non-dialectical vision of negation beyond the utilitarian world of work, politics, and desire. He seeks to guide us out of the discontinuous world of the ego-sublime and back into the continuous world of the inhuman; both natural and monstrous. If this entails doing violence to our self-pretentious civilized affirmations and ethics then for Bataille that is a price we should be willing to pay. As Bataille would say in his passionate narrative Inner Experience, “To face the impossible – exorbitant, indubitable – when nothing is possible any longer is in my eyes to have an experience of the divine; it is analogous to torment” (p.1).

From its beginnings in the literature of terror up to our own era of dark tales of horror, from the novels of King and Barker to the weird tales of Lovecraft and Ligotti, there is a deep and abiding sense that in the end cruelty and violence will prevail. Such an non-utilitarian and unethical conclusion of our existence can only be construed as pessimistic and nihilist. Living as we do in a decaying civilization teetering on the edge of implosion even as its leaders live in denial of the natural forces of climate change that in the end will not care one iota about our human wants and needs, our spurious denialism nor our political or social world of utility. The universe is as Lovecraft suggested over a century ago: “Contrary to what you may assume, I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist – that is, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the… cosmos… gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy.” Lovecraft thus embraced a philosophy of cosmic indifferentism. He believed in a meaningless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their naturally limited faculties, could never fully understand. His viewpoint made no allowance for religious beliefs which could not be supported scientifically. The incomprehensible, cosmic forces of his tales have as little regard for humanity as humans have for insects.

That the mechanistic world view has given way to the world of quantum forces changes nothing in that sense, and yet it opens possibilities that Lovecraft would have incorporated into that existing system of cosmic indifferentism without blinking an eye. Others like Thomas Ligotti would append to the objective view of cosmic indifferentism a more epistemic pessimism, fusing a dark surrealism of psyche and the immaterial forces of a malevolent cosmos rather than one wholly mechanical. In such a realm a new counter-sublime would arise in which fascination, allurements, and the repulsive would open up the world to an aesthetic of disgust and horror where sewers and ruins would replace paradise with an infernal garden of the frolic.

One such advocate of the darker folds of this ruinous world of disgust is Matthew M. Bartlett whose works are based on a sense of the macabre and grotesque worlds where the strong sense of disgust fascinates even as it repulses. The first thing that comes to mind in reading many of his stories is the aesthetic sense of disgust, and yet because it is based on a sense of aesthetic horror it does not nauseate so much as make us think and reflect rather than feel nauseous and repulsed. Because of our distance from the very real threat of touch, smell, and taste we can experience the allurements and dark revolting images at one remove, allow ourselves to vicariously participate in certain dark insights into human or non-human behavior that would otherwise send us packing. “Disgust affords a powerful means by which difficult truths are conveyed with maximum aesthetic impact.”3

Carolyn Korsmeyer in her book Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics informs us that “aesthetic disgust” is a response that, no matter how unpleasant, can rivet attention to the point where one actually may be said to savor the feeling. There are forms of disgust that fascinate and repulse at the same time. Most theoreticians will divide disgust between “material” and “moral” categories. It is material disgust that interest us in its horrific forms. Although much of the macabre and grotesque if filled with forms of disgust that many moralists would find repugnant and off-limits, its just this exposure to twisted sexual and sadistic behavior of the sick and mad creatures of horror that awaken that visceral and nauseous recoil that is the signature of this strong emotion.

Much more pertinent is what disgust forces upon us rather than our moral reaction to it. It exposes to us the wounds within us both mentally and physically, the human frailty and finitude of our situation in the world. Aesthetic disgust opens us to all those material processes that for the most part people shun and turn away from, such as sour milk, sewage, and slime; slugs, maggots, and lice; infected sores, gangrened flesh, and decomposing corpses. These things prompt unqualified visceral disgust and may include unpleasant involuntary responses, including the gag reflex, nausea, and even vomiting. But even if we do not reach the latter stages of reaction, the physical recoil of disgust is palpable.

What’s unique in horror stories is a certain distancing from the actual physical sense of such disgust, a more discursive and imaginative embrace of disgust as an aesthetic phenomenon rather than a literal enactment of it through our senses. Both in literature and film the reader/viewer is at one remove from the actual physical horrors such that they can experience such revolting scenes through the mind rather than the flesh. A vicarious rather than visceral partaking of this strong sensation. From Plato to Kristeva aesthetic disgust has fascinated us through its allure and aversion. Such concepts have imposed a sense of distancing that has formalized the aesthetics of horror by way of separating the senses of sight and hearing from the more visceral senses of touch, smell, and taste. Both in literature and film we apprehend disgust through our eyes and ears rather than experiencing it in its obtrusive immediacy through these other strong senses. It’s this ability to observe and listen that allows us to aesthetically appreciate what otherwise would nauseate and repulse us to the point of physical sickness.

Are we fearful of the ugly truth? Is it too disgusting to approach? Why hide from this monstrous existence? Shouldn’t we follow those before us? Aurel Kolnai’s long essay “Disgust” from 1929, the first dedicated philosophical study of this emotion; William Ian Miller’s Anatomy of Disgust (1997); and Winfried Menninghaus’s compendious Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003). It bears affinity with certain theoretical applications such as Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004) and Julia Kristeva’s examination of the abject in The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), as well as the many analyses of the disgusting in art such as Robert Rawdon Wilson’s The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust (2002). Carole Talon-Hugon’s Gout et degoit: L’art peut-il tout montrer?

After I finish rereading Matthew’s works I’ll post a more lengthy review on my site. This was only a preamble to show the importance of this type of horror and why we need it more than ever. I’m working through Gateway to Abomination, Creeping Waves, and his latest – Stay Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities.


  1. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 320). Yale University Press.
  2. Biles, Jeremy (Editor),  Brintnall, Kent L. (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  3. Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (March 17, 2011)

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