Disgust and the Non-Human World of the Weird

Rereading an essay on Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction in Jonathan Newell’s A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror:

“As previously noted, philosophical investigations of weird fiction have often emphasised ideas at the expense of affect. This is true of speculative realist readings of horror generally and Lovecraft specifically, such as those offered by Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker. By neglecting affect, philosophers have missed a key component of Lovecraft’s aesthetic strategy for conveying what he calls ‘absolute reality’.”1

Most of the contemporary thought deals in Ideas and abstractions to a great degree. Idealism in its various manifestations has once again taken up a central place in our cultural readings, even if they espouse some form of realist vector. Affect, for me at least, is central to all ‘voluntarist’ traditions, especially those dealing with the pessimistic worldview. I think Newell is right in his development of an affective criticism based on Disgust. I’ve long felt this affective angle in thought has been left out except for a few well know works among others:

– Winfried Menninghaus: Disgust – The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation
– William Ian Miller. The Anatomy of Disgust
– Carolyn Korsmeyer. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics

In Artistic modes “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. In virtue of this savoring, this dwelling on the encounter, the emotion constitutes a singular comprehension of the value and significance of its objects.” (Korsmeyer) Most authors of gothic, terror, horror, and the weird deal in the affective aspects of our response to both the outer cosmic horror of existence, and to the inward turn to the horror of consciousness itself (Ligotti). Most horror deals with our ‘mortality’ and filters our dread of both the outer and inner forces that can lead us to madness and death. It’s more about the body than the mind in many respects, even if there are mental aspects to it we come to it aesthetically because it addresses our affective regions of fear, disgust, and terror. The weird revels in less rarefied forms of horror, derived not from the subject-affirming power of sublime fear but from the subject-dissolving power of disgust. The disgust precipitated by weird fiction emanates from a specific source – the non-human world, what philosophers have called the world-in-itself. This book interprets the weird as a speculative and affective negotiation of the real, in its most elemental sense.1

“Theorists, scientists and philosophers studying disgust have frequently drawn links between disgust and animality. William Miller cautions against reductive models of disgust, stressing its lack of rigidity or psychological fixity and noting that ‘we do not need the example of the animals to remind us that our bodies generate, fornicate, secrete, excrete, suppurate, die, and rot’. But even if disgust cannot ultimately be traced to a principle of animal origins, as Rozin hints, that does not mean that psychosocial conceptions of animality and its contrast or lack thereof with the human cannot precipitate especially strong disgust reactions.”

Newell in his book addresses the main Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century traditions of the weird: Poe, Machen, Blackwood, Hodgson, and Lovecraft. As he suggests,

“In Lovecraft’s fiction the universe itself is a malignant force – a force I describe in relation to Arthur Schopenhauer’s ontology, which identifies the world-in-itself with an all-encompassing, non-sentient ‘will-to-live’. Key to Lovecraft’s works, I contend, is the revelation that even the most seemingly dependable human conceptions, such as those of selfhood and self-knowledge, are unreliable: his weird stories are rife with protagonists who, with spasms of revulsion, apprehend not only the emptiness of their human values but the reality of their own alienage, of the strangeness and repulsiveness of the universe, and of a continuity between human beings and that nauseating cosmos. The only solace from this endless horror lies in a dissipation of the self, a loss of ego kin to madness which I relate to Schopenhauer’s formulation of the sublime and to the nullification of the will in the moment of its apprehension.” (p. 29)

Thomas Ligotti reflecting of this sad state of affairs tells us that “the supernatural is the metaphysical counterpart of insanity— the best possible vehicle for conveying the uncanny nightmare of a conscious mind marooned for a brief while in this haunted house of a world and being slowly driven mad by the ghastliness of it all. Not the man’s-inhumanity-to-man sort of thing, but a necessary derangement, a high order of weirdness and of desolation built in to the system in which we all function. Its emblem is the empty and inexplicable malignity that some of us see in the faces of dolls, manikins, puppets, and the like. The faces of so many effigies of our own shape, made by our own hands and minds, seem to be our way of telling ourselves that we know a secret that is too terrible to tell.”2

This notion that there is a “necessary derangement, a high order of weirdness and of desolation built in to the system,” a sense of malignity staring back at us from the dead world of “dolls, manikins, and puppets” affecting us through mood and atmosphere; an antagonistic grotesquerie of ever-abiding decay and malignancy, an incursion that seeps into us from the Outside-in. The notion that the malignant presence of a non-human otherness pervading all of existence, and most of all that this ‘dark power’ of cosmic despair and pessimism resides deep within our own psyche from which there is no escape, no redemption, no salvation. For Ligotti unlike many of his forbears it is not so much the metaphysical mystery behind creation, but rather the repulsive decrepitude and slow disintegration within the self-conscious entity we are that leads his characters – not towards some ultimate transfiguration and transcendence, but into the very heart of darkness where entropy, dissolution, and the desolation of reality reveals its repugnant face. Whereas for many of his forbears – Poe, Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft, etc. There is a sense that the weird offers a mystic recognition of a panpsychic oneness immanent throughout Nature, for Ligotti the universal contagion, contamination and corruption of things leads only to self-repugnance and ruination, hinting at a cosmic despair and pessimism deep within the Schopenhauerian framework of an imprisoning cosmos ruled by a malignant system become an ‘infernal paradise’.

  1. Newell, Jonathan. A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror (Horror Studies) (pp. 170-171). University of Wales Press.
  2. Bee, Robert. “Interview with Thomas Ligotti.” Thomas Ligotti Online. 11 April 2005 (originally published in 1999). http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t =231.

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