Death, Disgust, and a Possum
Death, Disgust, and a Possum
The other day my attention was caught by a bad smell emanating from near the front gate of my yard. Upon closer inspection I discovered a dead animal, evidently a possum. It had clearly been there a few days in hot weather. Flies were buzzing all around it. A regiment of maggots was feeding on it. It smelt appalling. I had to remove it, holding my breath and averting my eyes. It was a paradigm disgust object. It set me wondering again about disgust as it relates to death (it’s dirty work but someone has to do it). This dead animal, we might say, was “alive with death”: it was proclaiming its death, making a spectacle of it, assaulting the senses with the fact of its death. The flies and maggots were literally alive, and they were the palpable proof of death. Often death looks like a mere absence: we speak of a “lifeless corpse” that could just as well be asleep and which might wake up at any moment. It doesn’t look dead—unlike my possum. We might know it is dead, but it might turn out not to be (life is still an epistemic possibility). We could say that the body is passively dead, whereas my dead possum was actively dead—aggressively and vehemently so. And disgust flowed from it. Death was rendered palpable, perceptible, a datum of sense. It was undeniable. Imagine if this was always so: as soon as an animal dies it undergoes a perceptible change, possibly a spectacular change—it suddenly disintegrates or changes color or becomes covered in warts or smells of sulfur. The death would be a perceptible quality not a hypothesis: it would appear real—a presence not an absence. The animal is not just no longer alive but presently dead, floridly so. Wouldn’t this change our attitude towards death? Wouldn’t death, being so out in the open, seem like a solid observable fact—indubitable and unavoidable. When I saw that possum I saw (and smelled) its death: its death flooded into my brain, my consciousness. I knew that death is real—including my own death. Don’t we habitually regard our own death as rather hypothetical, as not quite real, a rumor not a fact? We believe it will happen but we don’t viscerally sense it. But we could have a far more vivid sense of death’s reality—we could encounter it as an inescapable fact. The rotting corpse, alive with death, presents an impression of death. The possum could not just be “playing possum”; it was unambiguously dead. When you smell a rotting corpse you smell death—you don’t just conjecture it. The feeling of disgust brings with it these intimations, intuitions, and impressions. Death impresses itself on you as your senses recoil in disgust—not just as a thought would, but as a felt reality. It passes from the abstract world to the concrete world: the Form of Death (as Plato would say) becomes an empirical datum. We move from the Cave to the Grave, as it were: from a flimsy concept of death, a mere shadow of the real thing, we are suddenly confronted by a vivid display of it. Of course this is disturbing, because now we can’t keep death at arm’s length (I had to physically remove the body with broom and bucket). All our methods of death denial are circumvented and death hits us hard—its active malevolence becomes apparent. The disgust we feel at the rotting corpse is bound up with these psychic realities—our deep lifelong fear of dying, our horrified knowledge of our finiteness. We carry within us a psychological formation dedicated to death (the “death module”), which operates in us all the time (see Heidegger), occasionally emerging when death obtrudes itself; but it is especially active when death becomes part of the perceptible world—as in the spectacle of the rotting corpse (so sad, so revolting). No wonder disgust is such a powerful and disturbing emotion: it taps into our deepest anxieties, terrors, and disquiets. That poor possum reminds us of what we are as mortal biological beings—food for worms, walking death certificates, future nuisances for the living (the body has to be disposed of). I dropped it in the trashcan and went on with my life.
 Other disgust objects such as disease and excrement partake of the same psychic formation: they elicit the same complex of death-directed attitudes, though less forcefully. We know we need food to live and that without it we would die, but also that all food is killed in the process, leading finally to the excremental corpse. The idea of eating is bound up with the idea of dying. In the case of disease the connection with death is even closer. The rotting corpse is the basic case, however, the shining exemplar. It radiates death, makes an art form of it almost. Notice that zombies occasion disgust in us, because they render death active and alive; by contrast, the recently deceased do not occasion the same reaction, because they are not so deep in death. It all depends on how salient death is, how apparent to the senses.
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