You’re viewing a free article. Subscribe for more.

On Not Hating the Body

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

…The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

—Mkgnao!

… Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form.

                    JAMES JOYCE, ULYSSES

Human beings, unlike all the other animals, hate animal bodies, especially their own. Not all human beings, not all the time. Leopold Bloom, pleased by the taste of urine, and, later, by the smell of his own shit rising up to his nostrils in the outhouse (“He read on, pleased by his own rising smell”), is a rare and significant exception, to whom I shall return. But most people’s daily lives are dominated by arts of concealing embodiment and its signs. The first of those disguises is, of course, clothing. But also deodorant, mouthwash, nose-hair clipping, waxing, perfume, dieting, cosmetic surgery — the list goes on and on. In 1732, in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Jonathan Swift imagines a lover who believes his beloved to be some sort of angelic sprite, above mere bodily things. Now he is allowed into her empty boudoir. There he discovers all sorts of disgusting remnants: sweaty laundry; combs containing “A paste of composition rare, Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead, and hair”; a basin containing “the scrapings of her teeth and gums”; towels soiled with dirt, sweat, and earwax; snotty handkerchiefs; stockings exuding the perfume of “stinking toes”; tweezers to remove chin-hairs; and at last underwear bearing the unmistakable marks and smells of excrement. “Disgusted Strephon stole away/Repeating in his amorous fits,/Oh! Celia, Ceila, Celia shits!”

And, to continue with Swift, there was poor Gulliver. The beautiful and clean horse-like Houyhnhms believe that Gulliver’s clothes are him, and that he is as clean as they are — until they realize one day that the clothes come off, and beneath them he is just another smelly Yahoo. Returning to his home, Gulliver is henceforth unable to tolerate the physical presence of his wife and family.

How crazy this seems, when presented in fiction. One cannot imagine sensible elephants or horses or dolphins shunning others of their kind on discovering that they are, respectively, elephants, horses, and dolphins, with the bodies appropriate for each. And yet — although Swift is an extreme case — this disgust with the body, this anti-corporeal campaign, is a part of the daily lives of most of us, and it is deeply embedded in Western culture and intellectual life. (Not only Western, but that is what I know something about.)

Consider the elaborate flight stratagem of Western metaphysics, where body-hatred reigned supreme (though not uncontested) for about two millennia. One might have thought that the obvious theoretical position was in the vicinity of Aristotle’s: we are animate bodies, and the soul is the living organization of our matter. And yet what amazing contortions others, and even Aristotle himself, have gone through to deny the idea that we are essentially enmattered.

To hate the body, it helps to imagine its opposite. It turns out that the incorporeal was a concept that took a very long time to be invented. Homer says that Achilles’ anger “cast many strong souls into Hades, and left the men themselves to be prey for dogs and a feast to birds.” So the body is the person; and even the psuchê is clearly something physical, albeit insubstantial and needing to drink blood in Hades in order to regain its wits. So when did Western philosophy come up with the idea that there is something about us that is totally incorporeal, and that we essentially are that immaterial super-something?

I pause to celebrate a paradigm of classical scholarship, Robert Renahan’s essay, from 1980, “On the Greek Origins of the Concepts Incorporeality and Immateriality.” Renahan begins by observing that more or less all previous scholars take the concept of incorporeality as obvious and therefore assume that the Greeks found it obvious, too. They therefore retroject it into texts where it does not exist. With painstaking and often withering scrutiny Renahan rebuts them, finding no solid evidence of the concept of the incorporeal — until we get to Plato. (Asomatos, the word often used later on for the incorporeal, could mean, even as late as Aristotle, simply “less dense.”) “For almost two thousand years,” he concludes, “the concepts of incorporeality and immateriality were central in much Western philosophical and theological speculation on such problems as the nature of God, Soul, Intellect. When all is said and done, it must be recognized that one man was responsible for the creation of an ontology which culminates in incorporeal Being as the truest and highest reality. That man was Plato.”

Plato, he argues convincingly, discovered the idea. Discovered, he says; not invented. For the odd thing about this marvelous article is that Renahan himself, educated at Boston College, a Jesuit University, and on the faculty there for many years, is so convinced of the idea’s obviousness that the way he puts his question is, What barriers were there in the Greek mind that prevented them from attaining, for so many centuries, an obvious metaphysical idea that must be the hallmark of any high culture? He, too, shares the preference for incorporeality. I remember reading this article for the first time while waiting for my daughter at a children’s dance class and thinking: it certainly is not obvious to me. (One reason that women have been so persistently ranked beneath men is surely their failure, as they occupy themselves with childbirth and body care, to attain the obvious idea.)

For Plato, the incorporeal was intelligent, lofty, lovable, and pure; and the body was stupid, base, disgusting, and impure, a prison for the soul. For many centuries, Platonism ruled the Western world, and in some ways it still does. Even Aristotle was Plato’s pupil in this regard: he made a secure place for the incorporeal, since intellect, alone of our capacities, he said Platonically, has no bodily realization.

And yet the anti-body metaphysicians were never willing to give up on bodies altogether. Even though Renahan finds the idea of incorporeality so excellent that it is the mark of any truly advanced thought, his Catholic forebears, lining up with Aristotle, did not feel totally satisfied by what this idea could accomplish for them as they tried to explain the world. Bodies seemed so useful for getting around and doing things. (I am happy to note that Professor Renahan, now 86, is still in the body, and has lived and taught for the past several decades in Santa Barbara, as pleasant a place as any to be a body.) Aquinas, Aristotelian at his core, concluded that disembodied souls, necessarily lacking the (bodily) faculty of imaginative perception, or phantasia, would have only a “confused cognition” — until the resurrection of the body restored their wits.

And what should we make of the bizarre metaphysical idea of bodily resurrection, which apparently sensible Christians (and traditional Jews too) have firmly held for centuries, fully literally, and which gave rise to countless convoluted philosophical debates about whether corpses decay while waiting around for that glorious day? And, since they surely must decay, how exactly would they be reassembled at the right time? And if they decay and smell, as they inexorably do, does that mean that human life is of no worth? (This was Alyosha Karamazov’s problem.)

And speaking of Dostoyevsky, I cannot mention bodily resurrection without making mention of Nikolai Fyodorov (1829-1903), the Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher and friend of both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Fyodorov insisted that it is our central duty, as human beings, our Common Cause, to promote the bodily resurrection of everyone who has ever lived, since only this would guarantee eternal life for all. He had complicated ideas about how this might be arranged scientifically through a process akin to cloning; but he also realized that this would cause the world a huge population problem. He therefore spoke ambitiously about space travel, and is thought to have been a major influence, indirectly, on the genesis of the Soviet space program.

Back, however, to Greco-Roman antiquity: everything in the history of philosophy is always so much more complicated than a brief summary makes one think. Even Plato himself wavered in his hostility to the body, as the Phaedrus shows — ascribing intense bodily delight to the best people, although they conceded to body-hatred by forgoing sexual intercourse. And while Platonic ideas remained in many ways dominant, Epicureans and Stoics rebelled against Platonism more radically than Aquinas did later, insisting that all real things are matter (or matter and the void, in the case of Epicurus). Epicurus rudely dismissed Plato: “I have spat upon the Beautiful, and all those who gave on it in an empty fashion.” Stoics, more refined, differed politely, and managed to exert considerable influence over the development of Christian thought. Christian thinkers even appropriated the arcane Stoic ideas of material interpenetration and total mixture to explain how Christ’s divine and human natures were unified. Much later Milton used the same idea to explain how angels had sex: by total interpenetration with one another. In their sexual unions, so unlike us, “Obstacle find none/of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars;/ Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace/Total they mix.” Make no mistake, this delightful daydream is an anti-Platonist physicalist fantasy, with no place for the incorporeal, at least in the angelic realm.

Christian ideas are enormously varied. Some schools, such as the Aristotelianism of Aquinas, think of the body as an avenue to the spirit, and do not repudiate it utterly, though they think it must be transcended. (The dogma of the Incarnation always supplies pressure against total repudiation.) Other, harsher thinkers hold that it is simply a Platonic prison and must be utterly rejected. Even in the former group, however, there lurks a tendency to disgust and body-hatred, which often surfaces in a vile misogyny. After all, it was a Jesuit, trained in medieval Aristotelian scholasticism, who delivered to Stephen Dedalus and the rest of his audience of adolescent boys what may be the most chilling sermon on the evils of the body that has ever been given, and from which hardly anyone who took its ideas seriously could ever fully recover to lead a healthy sexual life.

By now, I think, most people, Christian or not, do not make incorporeality a part of their daily conceptual lives. To judge from the huge popularity of near-death experiences as putative evidence of an afterlife, the typical believer’s afterlife is highly physical, characterized by very intense sights, sounds, and emotions — culminating, it is hoped, in a joyful physical reunion with loved ones. And yet, even if in our secular and materialist culture the prestige of the incorporeal has died, body-hatred lives on. We are all closet Platonists, as recent research about disgust reveals.

For a very long time, the topic of disgust was thought to be so base, so unworthy of science, that no scientific research was done on it. This all changed, beginning in the 1990s, with the pathbreaking work of Paul Rozin, with various collaborators. His experiments were so imaginative and probing that they established conclusively that disgust is not just a bodily reflex, but also has a complicated cognitive content. The key thought in disgust is a shrinking from contamination, and the key contaminants are what he calls “animal reminders” — oozy sticky things that resemble or actually are elements of our own animality.

Rozin’s term is not perfect, because animals have many traits, such as beauty, skill, strength, and speed, which humans do not find disgusting, nor do we find those aspects of ourselves disgusting, even when we notice that in these ways we resemble other animals. The characteristic triggers of disgust are the Swiftean properties: bad smell, sliminess, decay. And the objects that typically disgust people are the Swiftean signs of mortal embodiment: feces, urine, sweat, menstrual fluids, snot, and of course the corpse. These are the things that Platonists most abhor. They are signs, all, of mortality and decay. Most people have at least some self-disgust, and endeavor mightily to conceal or temporarily to remove those aspects of themselves — in vain, as Celia was no doubt to learn in short order.

Disgust is learned: it is not present in infants until the time of toilet training. But it is ubiquitous, and very likely it has to some extent an evolutionary utility. This is the first level of disgust, what I call primary object disgust. In and of itself this revulsion already does harm, because self-hatred always does harm, and it is even worse when it leads to a recoil from close contact with others.

But there is worse to come. In all known societies, with or without Plato, there is a second level, what I call projective disgust, in which properties of disgust are projected onto a social group that is stereotyped as the animal in opposition to the dominant group’s pure soulness. They are said to be dirty, to smell bad. One must not share water or food with them, or, heaven forbid, have sex with them — or at least not without punishing them for it afterwards. Sometimes the subordinated group is a racial minority, sometimes a “deviant” sexual group, sometimes people with disabilities, sometimes aging people, sometimes just women, who always seem to represent the body to aspiring males by contrast to the intellect and the spirit. I once directed a cross-cultural project with a group of scholars in India, and while we found fascinating nuances of difference (between, for example, the role of disgust in the caste hierarchy and its role in racism against African-Americans), the underlying reality was basically the same. An elite constructs a group that constitutes its surrogate body, in order to keep spirit all to itself, and the surrogate body is regarded as repugnant and punished severely for being an “animal reminder” to the creatures of spirit.

Projective disgust is ubiquitous, but it is socially transmitted, and it can be resisted.

I propose five reasons to resist the hatred of the body.

It is the only thing there is. It is real, and the immaterial is, well, immaterial. As Whitman said, insofar as there are souls, the body is the soul.

To say this one need not be a reductive materialist. One may still insist, as have many philosophers from Aristotle to Hilary Putnam, that the most elegant, simple, and predictively valuable explanations follow the level of form and structure rather than the level of ultimate material composition. Still, the forms are always somehow enmattered, and the fact of material embodiment is critical to their functional capacity.

You cannot find your way around without one. Aquinas’ point about the separated souls can be extended to life in general. The body is our link with the world. For this reason, imagining yourself as essentially an incorporeal soul is imagining yourself as impotent.

There are plenty of philosophical theories of how an incorporeal soul might direct the body — some of them deliberately crude (which Gilbert Ryle famously mocked as “the ghost in the machine”), some seemingly sophisticated (Descartes’s two essences communicating through the pineal gland). But if ever the sophisticated ones were once convincing, they are utterly unconvincing today.

Insofar as evil and baseness exist, they come not from the body (as dualists imagine), but from the soul. Who is in Dante’s Hell? Not bodies, peacefully decaying, but souls. It is souls that have evil intentions, that betray, that commit murder and torture and genocide. Kant, speaking about his idea of “radical evil” — evil that antecedes all cultural teaching — quickly observed that of course it does not come from the body but from the will.

Bodies are the seats of beauty and delight. Even the chaste Aquinas defines beauty as necessarily bodily. Pulchrum est quod visum placet: the beautiful is that which, being seen, pleases. So the beautiful is in is essence bodily and it is apprehended by the body. Aquinas singles out sight, sometimes thought to be less bodily than hearing, and smell, and, of course, touch. But even sight has color and shape as its proper objects. If we turn to musical beauty, we will need, with Schopenhauer, to speak of the ways bodies move, reach, strive — musical sounds representing, he thought, the force of erotic striving within us. And why should we pretend to be above the beauties of smell — the manifold scents of a restaurant, for example, so long denied us during covid, or even the scent of a nearby human body? Given that the loss of smell has been a common symptom of covid, our era has given rise to fine essays appreciating this sense.

And touch, though rarely discussed by philosophers, is far from the least in the canon of beautifuls. Back to Milton: he does not even try to make his angels bodiless, or to deprive them of sexual pleasure. All attempts to represent the beauty of the incorporeal quickly say, “Well, it is indescribable” — which is why literary works about the incorporeal, even Dante’s Paradiso, have a hard time holding many readers. The beauty that we understand and are drawn to is enmattered beauty.

 

Hating bodies is a form of self-hatred and leads to hatred of others, human and (non-human) animal. Hating what you yourself are is already pointless and makes for unhappiness. But it is worse still when we know that projective disgust is almost certain to follow. Body-haters are bound to find some surrogate for the animal, the bodily, in themselves, whether it be a racial group, a gender or sexual group, or the aging, who come in for a tremendous amount of body-hatred all over the world.

One particularly significant reason to avoid the projective form of body-hatred is the way it has distorted and poisoned our relationship to the other animals. When humans imagine themselves as essentially immaterial, and therefore “above” the animal (whatever that means), it is no surprise if they neglect the profound kinship that human animals have with other animals. And so it has happened. The other animals are thought of as base and disgusting, and the imputation that we have evolved from animal origins meets with inflamed resistance. Our public debates about teaching evolution in the schools — and whether some other fictional non-theory (creationism, intelligent design) may also be taught as an alternative — are often accompanied with expressions of disgusted incredulity that we wonderful humans could really have apes for ancestors.

With the fiction of the incorporeal driving a wedge between us and all other animal species, we can all the more nonchalantly treat them as if they were nothing. Since I think our torture and exploitation of other animals is a great moral evil, I would like to point out that things would almost certainly not have reached the present stage of cruelty and neglect but for our lies about who we are — our erroneous view that we are not their fellows and family members, but some spiritual stuff floating around somewhere, in or with a body but essentially not of it.

[isnignia]However. However. One big reason to despise the body remains: it is mortal and vulnerable, it is the very seat of our mortality. All the other things that disgust us are not so much “animal reminders” as “pain-and-death reminders.” What is found ugly and disgusting is, first, pain; and, second, death and decay, and whatever reminds us of them. The fiction of the incorporeal is above all a fiction of (painless) immortality. Socrates’ friends surround him in prison, mourning his imminent demise. You are mistaken, he says cheerfully. The real me will not die, because it is not bodily at all, but an incorporeal substance merely trapped in the body. The students cheer up — and those that do not, including Socrates’s wife, are made to leave the room.

Let us begin with pain. Pain, clearly, is both good and bad. It is a necessary part of our self-preserving equipment, a warning signal of potential harm — as anyone who bites her tongue after Novocain at the dentist knows all too well, and as the rare people who are able to survive without any pain-responses know with fear, and with a doomed longing for the useful pain they do not feel. In athletic training, pain is typically a sign of progress. In childbirth, pain is very intense, even at times terrible, but it also a sign of something wonderful in the offing. Yet pain can be too much, unendurable, debilitating, and dehumanizing. Thus we have reason to feel a grievance against the body for giving us that type of useless pain, along with the useful signaling type. And we certainly have reasons to palliate the awful type of pain, although not to do so by totally removing the body’s entire pain mechanism, rendering the person defenseless. Pain, then, is a mixed blessing, but on balance it is not a reason to hate the body.

Not so death. There is nothing good about death (apart from the fact that it may in some cases be the only relief from unbearable and unquenchable pain). The Platonic fiction shields its believers from the ugly, incomprehensible, but perfectly obvious fact that this loved person is now this corpse, decaying before your eyes. Buying into the fiction of incorporeal immortality is contrary to truth and reason, and yet it shields people from a reality so horrible that one is sorely tempted to give truth a pass. And yet the fiction has as its consequence the body-hatred that I have been deploring and the disgust behavior I have been describing. Lucretius was on the right track when he traced some of the worst in human behavior to the fear of death and the avoidance of self and truth that go with it. In short: the solace of Platonism is purchased at a large cost. Is there some less evasive and less contorted way to face our end?

The fear and the hatred of death, I contend, is fully rational. Life, one’s own and that of others, is tremendous and wonderful. And the love of life, including the fear of its loss, incentivizes much good behavior: medical research, other efforts to stave off disease and ill health, prudent daily health behavior, and care for the bodies of others. As Rousseau shrewdly saw, the awareness of death, and its badness, can even encourage in fearful humans a type of egalitarian compassion, an embrace of a common humanity that transcends class and wealth and even religion, bringing people together.

So we should not try to rid ourselves of the fear of death. But it is hard to bear, and it gnaws into us, prompting stratagems of flight. It can lead to body-disgust even in those who are not tempted to embrace the Platonic fiction. Is there, then, a way out of the disgust trap? Platonism removes the fear, but it leads to disgust. And keeping the fear also leads to disgust, or so it seems.

In our pandemic time we see both tendencies very clearly. The constant awareness of death has made most of us atypically fearful, or at least atypically aware of a fear that often lurks underground in our minds. And we do see much evidence of compassion: embracing a common danger has in many instances brought out the most altruistic and humane in people. At the same time fear has also brought out the worst in disgust-pathologies: racist denigration of Asians as if they were the source of the virus; racism directed at immigrants, comparing them to vermin (a common disgust trope); sheer hatred of other people’s bodies on airplanes, leading to sometimes violent aggression and to more or less constant rudeness. Is there no way, as humans, that we can keep the awareness of death before us, not fleeing into the Platonic beyond while still avoiding the descent into the maelstrom of disgust?

Let us consider other highly intelligent animals. Elephants fear death, and seek to avoid it for self and others, and even, as we now know, grieve the loss of loved ones with rituals of mourning. Mother elephants even sacrifice their lives to protect their young from speeding trains. That is how vividly they see death ahead of them, and how bad they think it is. But they stop short of body-hatred. They do not adopt a distorted attitude to their potentially crumbling frames that leads to projective aggression against other groups of elephants.

Do not say, please, that it is because they are less aware. We are finding out more all the time about their communication systems, their social organization, their capacious and nuanced awareness. But we do not find disgust. That pathology appears to be ours alone. In her beautiful memoir, Coming of Age With Elephants, Joyce Poole, one of our greatest elephant researchers, describes the way in which her human community impeded her “coming of age” as a fulfilled woman and mother. The researcher group was highly misogynistic and racist. They deliberately broke up her happy romance with an African man. When she was raped by a stranger, they treated her as soiled and did nothing to deal with her trauma. In elephant society, by contrast, she observed better paradigms of inclusive friendship, of compassionate and cooperative group care. The memoir ends when she returns to the elephant group after a two-year absence, carrying her infant child in her arms. The matriarchal herd not only recognize her, they understand her new happiness. And they greet her with the ceremony of trumpeting and defecating by which elephants greet the birth of a new elephant child. No body-hatred, no disgust, no projective subordinations.

Are we humans, by contrast, doomed to some type of body-hatred, particularly as we age? There are many reasons to think so. The hatred of aging human bodies by younger humans, so common in American culture, is already a form of self-avoidance, of denial that this is every person’s own future. And as we begin to get there, a trip to the doctor can produce not just ordinary anxiety but a disgust with the whole business of bodies. In the early days of the feminist movement, the book Our Bodies, Ourselves proclaimed women’s proud independence of body-hatred. We will not be told by society that women’s body parts and their fluids are disgusting. We will not be tutored into that self-loathing idea. We will learn to celebrate our fluids, to contemplate them with a speculum, to get to know our female insides. We will learn to give birth without anesthesia, as ourselves, rather than allowing our child to be extracted from us in an unfeeling state by an impatient doctor.

I was of that generation, and I believed in its revolutionary attitude of body-love, a curious and happy acceptance of ourselves and the stuffs we are made of. But now I note that as the same women age, and men too, they hate going in for a colonoscopy. Most simply do not want to become acquainted with what Whitman called the “thin red jellies within you and me.” The closer we are to death, the less we want to see those jellies, even on a screen. (It is actually exhilarating to make the acquaintance of oneself in such an exam, refusing sedation, and I heartily recommend it.) The attitude recommended by Our Bodies, Ourselves was not far from the mentality, I imagine, of elephants: the body is us and ours, and what could be more normal than to accept it, live in it, embrace it, refusing even to conceive the idea of the disgusting?

For humans, however, elephantine acceptance is volatile and intermittent, and it is so easy to slip, succumbing to disgust’s many lures.

There are some people, probably many, who do not succumb, who accept and care for bodies (their own and those of others) without a flight into nowhere, and without disgust-pathology. What can we learn from them? I began this essay with James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, and I have long thought that he is a helpful model to think with, as we reckon with ourselves. A fictional character is useful for such an exercise, because we are told his thoughts and can follow them. Our task, it seems to me, is to avoid disgust (and its malign consequences) while disliking and even fearing death. The way Bloom manages this delicate maneuver gives us a detailed paradigm of a balanced and generous humanity.

From his first appearance in the novel, in the passage I quoted as my epigraph, Bloom approaches smell and taste with zest and without disgust at organ meats, with their tang of urine. At the same time he loves non-human animals, and throughout the novel he is always kind and compassionate to them. His ensuing trip to the outhouse reveals a matter-of-fact and even pleasurable relationship to his own excrement and its smell; it is one of the many pleasures of his long day, as he first reads a romance story in the newspaper and then wipes himself with the same paper.Notice that Bloom is always clean. His refusal of disgust does not lead him to soil himself. He loves his bath and the odor of soap, and even appropriates the language of the Mass to refer to his normal pleasure in his bathing body: “Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.” He also cares for his clothing, protecting his trousers from the mildewed and crumb-encrusted seat of the coach on which he rides with others to Dignam’s funeral. You might think that freedom from body-hatred would go with being dirty and smelly, but of course this is not the case in the animal realm. Animals groom and clean themselves constantly, in a matter-of-fact and undisgusted way. So, too, in Dublin: the smelly ones in the novel are the Dedalus family and other impoverished Dubliners, who, hating their own bodies, fail to take care of them. And they constantly project their self-disgust onto others, particularly Jews. In Barney Kiernan’s bar, the aggressive Irish nationalist accuses Bloom of being part of a group that has been “coming over to Ireland and filling the country with bugs” — a classic anti-Semitic disgust trope.

During his visit to Dignam’s funeral, Bloom meditates about corpses and the inevitability of death, as his thoughts stray to his father’s suicide and, later, to his mother’s death and his little son’s death in infancy. He thinks about how all the people around him are dying one at a time, “dropping into a hole one after the other.” And the graveyard reminds him of his own mortality: “Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time.” This is one point in the novel where he might become disgusted, and he does think about the smell of corpses, filled up with gas. But he never gets drawn into revulsion, and especially not into projective disgust. What features of his approach to life block these baneful tendencies?

Certainly Bloom thinks that death is very sad, and to be feared. He does not take the path of Stoic apatheia, denying that any of these attachments and losses matters. But three features of his personality keep him decent and compassionate amid the invitations to disgust all around him. The first is science. Surrounded by all the otherworldly language of the Mass, Bloom nonetheless cannot help thinking in scientific terms and asking worldly questions. A thought of corpse fluids leads to a question about when, and how completely, circulation stops at death: would blood still drip out? A thought of bad gas leads directly to curiosity about how gases make corpses look puffy. He thinks with sadness of how the heart is the seat of emotions — and then reflects that it is also a physical pump that one day stops. In the cemetery he starts to ponder whether corpses buried standing up would come up above the earth at some point, and whether the blood coming out of them “gives new life.” The rat and the flies make him ask what a corpse actually tastes like to a fly. Scientific curiosity keeps him from Platonic fantasy and gives him something intriguing and real to occupy his mind.

Bloom’s second strategy, or more precisely, a perpetual reflex of his mind, is to ask how another person experiences the world. At every threat point, his mobile emotions simply look at the world through other eyes. In the church, although feeling isolated during the recitation of the liturgy, he asks himself how the participants react: “Makes them feel more important to be prayed over in Latin.” He imagines the boring life of the server, who has to shake holy water “over all the corpses they trot up.” In the graveyard he considers the kindly caretaker and what sort of life he must have in that gloomy occupation. He thinks of Dignam’s son, recognizing a kindred sorrow: “Poor boy! Was he there when the father?” Instead of recoiling from the rat and the flies in disgust, he asks sympathetically what the lives of those creatures feel like to them. Molly is familiar with this capacity: “yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is.”

But empathy by itself is morally neutral: a torturer can use empathy to inflict maximum pain and humiliation on the victim. So we must add that Bloom’s empathy is combined with kindliness. He basically wishes well to those whose perspective he assumes, even rodents and insects.

And he has one more method for banishing disgust: humor. There are many types of humor in Ulysses. Some of these are in league with disgust. Bloom’s humor, here and elsewhere, is itself kindly, fantastical, leavening life with a sense of the incongruous, prominently including wordplay. This may be the funniest account of a graveyard in English literature, and without the dark side of the fifth act of Hamlet. It skewers pompous solemnity in a way that brings relief. Here is a quintessential example:

Mr Kernan said with solemnity:

I am the resurrection and the life. That touches a man’s inmost heart.

— It does, Mr Bloom said.

Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daisies? No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Find damn all of himself that morning. Pennyweight of powder in a skull. Twelve grammes one pennyweight. Troy measure.

This passage brings together all of Bloom’s strategies for the avoidance of disgust. He addresses religious fantasy — the classic Christian idea of bodily resurrection — first, with scientific realism, then with joking wordplay (“come forth” and “came fifth”), and finally with empathy for those sad souls on that supposedly glorious day. It should be superfluous to mention that all of Bloom’s mental devices for deflecting disgust while retaining love, and grief, and moderate fear, are also those of Joyce himself in his construction of the novel. We might do worse than to follow his generous invitation.

With humor, with science, with kindness, let us resist the ignoble and damaging project of disgust. It is no good for us, and it makes the world a lot worse for others. We must not be repugnant to ourselves for our physical being, and other people must not be repugnant to us. As Whitman insists, after establishing that the body is the soul,

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough, …

There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,

All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

In a time of plague, and during our society’s current cautious reawakening, if that is really what is happening, can we doubt this?