Spring 2009

Leftovers / Dinner with Kant

The taste of disgust

Christopher Turner

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Distaste or disgust involves a rejection of an idea that has been offered for enjoyment.
—Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 1798

In the Norwich Castle Museum in England, there is a painting by William Hogarth of Francis Matthew Schutz in his bed, pale-faced and vomiting into a chamber pot. On the wall behind him, a quote from Horace is inscribed above a lyre—the instrument that the poet symbolically hung up in the Temple of Venus when he stopped playing the field. It reads: Vixi puellis nuper idoneus (“Not long ago I kept it in good order for the girls”). A parody of the sickbed portrait, the painting was commissioned by Schutz’s new wife as an admonishment for his gluttony and debauchery; according to Hogarth’s biographer Jenny Uglow, it was intended “to fill [Schutz, who was third cousin to the Prince of Wales] with disgust for his debauched bachelor days.”

Schutz’s heirs evidently didn’t want to be similarly reminded. After he died in 1779, aged forty-nine, his only daughter had the chamber pot and vomit painted out. Until the painting was restored in the early 1990s, Schutz was seen reading a newspaper in bed, but at an awkward angle, as though without his glasses. The desire to substitute words for vomit, logos for disgust, was more than an act of simple, Protestant censorship; it unwittingly struck at a knotty problem at the very center of the emerging philosophy of aesthetics, the so-called “science of taste.”

Eighteenth-century philosophers and critics such as Gotthold Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, Friedrich Schlegel, and especially Immanuel Kant were much preoccupied with the problem of disgust because, unlike the ugly, the evil, and the sublime, the disgusting was deemed to be unrepresentable in art. “One kind of ugliness alone is incapable of being represented conformably to nature without destroying all aesthetic delight, and consequently artistic beauty,” Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment (1790), “namely, that which excites disgust.” It was thought that a disgusting object could not be redeemed or made beautiful by being painted, that its image would assault the viewer just as the object would in reality. The disgusting, for these philosophers, became an indigestible block, an unwelcome leftover that returned to worry and unsettle all their attempts to police it.

The attention devoted to disgust, even as it was prohibited, revealed a secret fascination. Philosophers tried to outlaw the representation of disgust because there was already an appetite for such images. Schlegel, writing in 1795, moaned that the contemporary fetish for the disgusting was “dying taste’s last convulsion.” (He would no doubt have interpreted Hogarth’s sickbed portrait against the backdrop of these death throes.) An understanding of what Kant and others meant by aesthetic “taste” (gustus) is necessary before we can understand why “distaste” (dis-gustus) was so offensive to their philosophy of art.

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William Hogarth, Francis Matthew Schutz in his Bed, ca. 1755–1760, repainted version. Schutz reads a newspaper. Courtesy Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

It seemed paradoxical to Kant that taste, one of the least valued senses, should be used to designate an aesthetic pleasure that is primarily visual or aural. Kant thought that the “subjective” senses of taste and smell were inferior to the “objective” senses of sight, hearing, and touch because they don’t put us in relation to an outside—they operate “chemically,” within the body. Tastes and smells appear to be inside us, they seem to have already been absorbed, and that is why they had a privileged relation to nausea for Kant; fetid smells and unpleasant tastes provoke violent vomiting as the stomach tries to turn the intruder out.

Kant came up with his own ingenious solution as to why we praise someone for his good taste when referring to his aesthetic judgment, even though taste is related to the same lowly, digestive function as smell. He called smell “taste at a distance”; it gives us a “foretaste,” which is useful in warning us about what to avoid. The nausea it inspires keeps us from breathing noxious gases and from eating rotten food. But, although in this respect smell is preliminary to taste, Kant considered taste to be the more productive sense because it interferes less with our individual freedom. Tasting is a deliberate act; you can choose what you put in your mouth, but smell is intrusive and unavoidable, “less sociable than taste.” Scent is forced upon you whether you want to smell it or not. Taste, Kant wrote, also has “the specific advantage of furthering companionship in eating, something the sense of smell does not do.”

It was around the dinner table that Kant stumbled across the answer to the question of why aesthetic awareness is called taste. In the Critique of Judgment and later Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, in a manner more suited to an etiquette manual than a work of philosophy, Kant laid down fastidious rules about how such social occasions should be conducted. In so doing, he found himself having to theorize the opposite of taste: disgust.

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In 1786, four years before he wrote his famous treatise on taste, Kant hired a cook and began to give dinner parties at his new house in Königsberg. These took place at lunchtime, as was customary in Prussia at that time, but it was said that “Kant could sit till seven or eight in the evening, if only someone stayed with him.” Kant was in his mid-sixties; he was a hypochondriac, and suffered from heart palpitations, poor digestion, and seasickness (even on lakes). Despite these sensitivities, he liked to swap recipes, choose ingredients, and plan meals, and, in his later years, when his mind was going, he would digress and start writing menu plans in the middle of his philosophical manuscripts.

One guest, privileged enough to have been invited by the famous philosopher, remembered the dinners fondly. They were rather formal affairs:

One sat down without ceremony, and when someone was getting ready to pray, [Kant] interrupted them by telling them to sit down. Everything was neat and clean. Only three dishes, but excellently prepared and very tasty, two bottles of wine, and when in season there was fruit and dessert. Everything had its determinate order. After the soup was served and almost eaten, the meat—usually beef that was especially tender—was carved. He took it, like most dishes, with English mustard, which he prepared himself. … He preferred that the mealtime was devoted to relaxation and liked to disregard learned matters. At times he cut off such associations. He most loved to talk about political things. Indeed, he almost luxuriated in them. He also wanted to converse about city news and matters of common life.

For Kant, the ideal dining companions were men of taste, “aesthetically united,” and not only interested in “physical satisfaction—which everyone can find for himself—but also social enjoyment for which the dinner must appear only as a vehicle.” The guests, “no fewer than the number of the Graces, nor more than that of the Muses” (between three and nine), should not splinter into small groups based on proximity but instead address everyone. There must be a “covenant of security”—a “certain sanctity” and “duty of secrecy”—at the table to ensure that there are no limits to the freedom of the conversation. Chatter should never come to a standstill. Nothing should allow “deadly silence to fall.”

Kant provided advice on how the host of such a tastefully arranged dinner could keep the conversation easy and uninhibited. It should begin with narration (of news), continue with reasoning (in which it is hard to avoid a variety of judgment), and end in jest (as laughing aids digestion). Food lubricates the wheels of free and general conversation, and the guests leave having “found culture of the intellect—one wonders how much!—in the purpose of Nature.” Theodor Hippel, the mayor of Königsberg and one of Kant’s friends, recorded some of these conversations for use in his novels; he also joked that “sooner or later [Kant] would be writing a Critique of the Art of Cooking.”

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William Hogarth, Francis Matthew Schutz in his Bed, ca. 1755–1760, original version. Schutz, not in a reading mood, vomits into a pot. Courtesy Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

Kant’s remarks on arranging the perfect dinner party privileged speech over the bodily function of eating. Taste, in Kant’s view, was a gregarious and discursive act in which one speaks with what he called a “universal voice.” The subject feels an irrepressible urge to communicate his experience of beauty, and it is only the immediacy and vivacity of the voice that can provide the basis for this aesthetic intersubjectivity. That is why all the fine arts were ranked by Kant in the Critique by analogy with speech and language, and why poetry was privileged over painting as the art capable of producing the maximum of “disinterested pleasure”—the philosopher’s definition of aesthetic experience.

Aesthetic taste transcends the sensory pleasures of eating and is communicated in language. By contrast, the disgusting constitutes an appetite, and Kant reasoned that the aesthetic attitude cannot survive its instinctual force. In a section of the Critique titled “The relation of genius to taste,” Kant affirmed the seeming paradox of a beautiful ugliness, but the disgusting marked for him the limit to representation—the borders both of the legitimate and the possible—that even the genius cannot transgress. For Kant, it was one of the attributes of genius to be able to represent “negative pleasures” by incorporating into the artwork “things that in nature would be ugly or displeasing.” A skillful artist could incorporate ugliness by sweeping it into a powerful and strained totality to create beautiful representations of ugly scenes: “The furies, diseases, devastations of war, and the like.” However, the disgusting remained the species of ugliness that defeated Kant’s genius:

For, as in this strange sensation [disgust], which depends purely on our imagination, the object is represented as insisting, as it were, upon our enjoying it, while we still set our face against it, the artificial representation of the object is no longer distinguishable from the nature of the object itself in our sensation, and so it cannot possibly be regarded as beautiful.

The disgusting object annihilates the distancing power of representation and, in Kant’s words, “insists on being enjoyed” in its crude materiality, both as an image and in reality. Kant puritanically turned his head away from the paradoxical, hedonistic, and formless intensity of disgust’s pleasures, which threatened to smother him.

By the time he wrote the third Critique in his mid-sixties, Kant was obsessed with the state of his bowels: “He is the most careful observer of his evacuations,” a friend wrote after visiting him in 1783, “and he ruminates often at the most inappropriate places, turning over this material so indelicately that one is often tempted to laugh in his face. … I assured him that the smallest oral or written evacuation gave me just as much trouble as his evacuations a posteriori created for him.” But it was to exactly these confusions—the way vomiting portends the failure of language and speech, thereby confusing the oral with the anal—that Kant (and Schutz’s descendents) objected.

Speech was the medium on which Kant sought to build his idealized community of mankind, but he found the disgusting unspeakable and indescribable. Disgust, and the vomit it causes, open the mouth up to the excremental function, sullying the purity of speech and staining the transparent and impressionless medium with a viscous materiality. The disgusting was the repressed leftover—always threatening to return—that aesthetic philosophy couldn’t hold.

Christopher Turner is an editor of Cabinet. His book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came To America, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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