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What Does Literature Feel Like?

Reading from the Guts: of Text and Disgust

Solveig Dunkel


Le fondateur du Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby, avait des opinions pour le moins tranchées sur les romans de William Faulkner. Sanctuary, en particulier, avait attisé sa colère. Dans un essai cinglant, intitulé « The School of Cruelty » et publié en mars 1931, Canby déplore ce qu’il perçoit comme la situation tragique des écrivains du Sud, faisant de Faulkner la figure de proue d’un prétendu « sadisme américain ». « So it will be with this new sadism », écrivait Canby, « the novel cruelty by which the American scene with all its infinite shadings is made into something gross, sordid, or, as here, depraved with an ironic depravity in which the trivial by a kind of perversion becomes more horrible than professional evil ». Faulkner n’est évidemment pas le seul exemple de littérature jugée « dégoûtante » : selon Chuck Palahniuk lui-même, soixante-treize personnes se sont évanouies lors de lectures publiques de sa nouvelle « Guts ». Malgré le plaisir évident de l’écrivain à décrire avec force détails les évanouissements dont il a été témoin, ce chiffre précis est difficile à corroborer. Cependant, de nombreuses critiques de lecteurs publiées sur le site indiquent que les affirmations de Palahniuk ne sont pas infondées. Un lecteur écrit ainsi : « I need to talk to someone about this book. I’m trying to digest it. I don’t know if it’s vile trash or provocative writing. It made me feel very strong emotions, which is usually a hallmark of good writing in my opinion, but the emotions were so, so unpleasant […]. I don’t know if my heart or stomach can handle the rest of the book. Is it worth it? » Voilà une très bonne question. Comment un texte, qui repose sur des mots sur une page et non sur des images, peut-il provoquer des réactions aussi violentes ? Par ailleurs, un texte peut-il être « digéré » ? Et peut-il y avoir un quelconque « plaisir du texte », pour reprendre l'expression de Roland Barthes, dans la description de quelque chose de « tellement, tellement désagréable » ? À travers l’étude de trois textes (Sanctuary de Faulkner, Hogg de Samuel R. Delany et Haunted de Chuck Palahniuk), cet article s’intéresse aux mécanismes littéraires et esthétiques permettant une lecture profondément somatique de la fiction, notamment par l’expérience violente du dégoût. Nous tenterons de déterminer le rôle esthétique et politique qu’occupe le dégoût dans ces œuvres, afin de démontrer que le désagrément physique provoqué par l’expérience du dégoût dans un texte littéraire oblige les lecteurs à affronter leur conditionnement social en les amenant aux limites de la lisibilité.

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1“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas as I do” (17), Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text. Reading, on this account, does not only suppose an out-of-body experience, a form of ecstasy, of transcending one’s flesh. The interaction with a text would imply an independence and autonomous sentience of the body, completely divorced from the mind, an instinctual and reflexive movement of pleasure. But what about a text which exclusively conveys displeasure? What about the visceral jolt of disgust one experiences when the content of the text is so gruesome, so unbearable, that the reader cannot help but feel like retching?

  • 1 The present article is a pilot study, and this specific corpus focuses on three male American write (...)

2This paper focuses on three specific texts which take disgust as their core (anti-)aesthetic focus: William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg (written in 1969 and published in 1995) and Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted (2005). I will focus on the literary and aesthetic mechanisms enabling a profoundly somatic reading of fiction, especially in the experience of disgust. The corpus under scrutiny does not aim at being comprehensive, and numerous other books could be analyzed through a similar prism.1 However, it could be argued that Sanctuary, Hogg and Haunted, despite their different dates of publication, display a surprising number of similarities. Firstly, they all raised public outrage at the time of their publication. As the different reviews mentioned in this article attests, the scandal these texts raised has, in all three cases, contributed to their success. Furthermore, they all explicitly aim at arousing a sense of deep-gutted feeling of disgust in their readers. The source of disgust in these three novels is of a similar nature, or at least is tailored with a very specific audience in mind. Indeed, Faulkner, Delany and Palahniuk clinically pinpoint taboos rampant in the American society of their time, almost ruthlessly rubbing salt on cultural sore points—namely pedophilia, necrophilia, rape, and incest. Finally, they all describe the body as being turned inside out, and exhibit the interiority of the human form to the public eye. Through a focus on disturbing and gruesome content, these transgressive books, to use Coco D’Hont’s analysis, invites “a critical look at dominant ideological narratives that form the basis of ‘America,’ both within and outside the world of fiction” (20). By putting their readers in the uncomfortable position of spectators of unbearable acts, these books use disgust as a destabilizing force subverting and challenging dominant political structures. Written respectively during the moral crusade of the Prohibition, the sexual, racial and gendered inequalities of the 60s and the post 9/11 American society, they all tirelessly confront their readers to what society and good taste want to keep at bay. In the same way, I argue that disgust works against standardized forms of cultural consumer culture by creating a form of consumption based on the vulnerability of reading.

  • 2 For the sake of this discussion, I will focus on two specific short stories in Haunted: “Guts” and (...)

3Palahniuk’s Haunted features no ghouls or ghosts, but it is filled to the brim with blood, sperm, and gore.2 Perhaps this is where the “hauntedness” of the title lies: in the lasting feeling of nausea the reader experiences after putting down their copy of the book. The first short-story, “Guts,” which tells the story of a horribly failed masturbation session ending with a rectal prolapse, is aptly named: it is, undoubtedly, a gut-churning graphic story. According to Palahniuk himself, an astounding number of people have fainted during public readings of this text: “In all, seventy-three people have fainted while I’ve read ‘Guts.’ Over the internet, I now hear stories of other people making their peers pass out by reading it aloud. So that number keeps growing” (411). Despite the writer’s obvious delight in describing in vivid detail the fainting spells he witnessed, this specific number is difficult to corroborate. However, a plethora of readers’ reviews on the popular website indicate that Palahniuk’s assertions were not completely unfounded. One reviewer writes:

  • 3 The occasional references to non-professional reviews in this article can be informative when discu (...)

I need to talk to someone about this book. I’m trying to digest it. I don’t know if it’s vile trash or provocative writing. It made me feel very strong emotions, which is usually a hallmark of good writing in my opinion, but the emotions were so, so unpleasant. I just finished reading “Exodus,” and I don’t know if my heart or stomach can handle the rest of the book. Is it worth it? (“Haunted” by Chuck Palahniuk)3

A good question indeed. What is the point of disgust for disgust’s sake? How can a text, which relies on words on a page and not images, provoke such violent, somatic reactions?

4The disturbing content of a novel can indeed participate to its success, and it could be argued that Sanctuary’s success, unlike William Faulkner’s other novels, can be partly attributed to the very intense emotions it provides, which would make it a prototype of American texts aiming at arousing disgust. Sanctuary, as opposed to the other two, relies on the paradoxical power of the elliptical treatment of the disgusting, a fact demonstrated in John T. Matthews’ “The Elliptical Nature of Sanctuary.” One can imagine that Faulkner, an avid reader of Joyce, was influenced by the 1921 trial which banned the publication of Ulysses in the United States, and avoided any overly graphic depictions. Indeed, although less graphic than the two other works under scrutiny, Sanctuary’s publication undoubtedly had a visceral impact on its readers. Tellingly, the metaphor of the difficult digestion of disturbing texts can be found in Ted Robinson’s review of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1931:

When I read, a couple of years ago, William Faulkner’s remarkable novel, The Sound and the Fury, I was excited and astounded, and I warned my readers to look out for a new genius. His second book, As I Lay Dying, justified my enthusiasm and prophecy. Now comes a third—Sanctuary. I seized it eagerly; I devoured it in large gulps. And I had indigestion; if I could spew forth its memory for good, I would do so. […] It is the most brutal book I have ever read. I have a pretty strong stomach and I am fairly hard-boiled, but Sanctuary nauseated me. (Inge and Blackwell 54, my italics)

5The recurrence of the gastric metaphor, of consuming text as one would gulp down a meal, of digestion and indigestion, is noteworthy. Reading these texts seems to have provoked profoundly somatic reactions in these readers’ bodies, especially on a visceral level. In “Reading is not Eating,” Janice A. Radway offers to re-examine “the specific metaphor which has often been used to give force to the peremptory dismissal of popular literature, that is, the metaphor that equates the actual reading process with processes of consumption” (1), noting

the subtle shift in the metaphor away from reference to processes of exhausting or using up materials and toward the designation of the biological processes of ingestion, incorporation, and absorption. In this variant, the consumption metaphor equates the process of perception and comprehension with that of eating. Consequently, mass culture has regularly been characterized as “predigested,” “pap” or “gruel” which is easily and commonly swallowed whole. (10)

6Radway encourages us to rethink the symbolic association between eating and the reading of mass-produced literature as the consumption of junk food. If we were to extend this specific metaphor further, it seems that somewhere in the traditional reading/digesting process, something turned sour with the books under scrutiny. Once the reader closes them, they are left with a vile aftertaste. Online reactions to Haunted and Sanctuary are marked by a shared sense of revulsion mixed with admiration, a rejection to consuming them, and a lasting ambivalent impression.

7The internet is rife with lists of books deemed among “the most disgusting” or “the most disturbing,” attesting the presence of an avid readership for this type of content. Haunted and Sanctuary are often featured on these lists, alongside the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom (written in 1785, published in 1904), Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) or Delany’s Hogg. These books all engage with transgressive fiction, a genre defined namely by Michel Foucault (1997: “A Preface to Transgression”), Robin Mookerjee (Transgressive Fiction: The New Satiric Tradition), and Coco D’Hont (Extreme States: The Evolution of American Transgressive Fiction 1960-2000). According to D’Hont, transgression is never gratuitous, and I would like to add that in the same manner, disgust is not used in this corpus merely for disgust’s sake. I offer to focus specifically on the stylistic features of a few chosen texts belonging to the transgressive genre aiming at arousing revulsion in the readers. In the list of books that readers generally deem highly disturbing, Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg ranks highly. This novel tells the story of Franklin Hargus, nicknamed Hogg, a truck driver who rapes for pay and performs a whole variety of unbearably violent acts throughout the novel. Hogg progresses tirelessly between graphic pornographic scenes and depictions of extreme violence. As a case in point, most reactions to Hogg typically seem to vacillate between complete revulsion and grudging admiration: “The most depraved, disgusting, brilliantly sickening perversion I have ever read. Although it is worth 5 stars for its brilliance, I cannot give it anything other than a ONE STAR. Yuck” (“Hogg by Samuel R. Delany”), one reviewer wrote, while another commented: “This is a book I can’t give a star to. I need some sort of alternate system to rate it […]. It’s both the worst book I’ve ever read and one of the best” (Ibid.). When faced with works such as Hogg, the five-star review system used on websites such as shows its limitations: as Liz Janssen notes in her review of Hogg, “for many readers, a text’s value lies in its ability to deliver those straightforwardly positive or pleasurable emotions which Hogg refuses to do. For others, the text’s prodigious ability to disgust is proof of its excellence” (Janssen). In this way, the three novels under scrutiny, by their focus on the disgusting, invite readers to reconsider what constitutes “good” literature—or perhaps even what constitutes literature, as they bring their readers to the limits of readability by their power to disturb. The reviews switch between denigration of the quality of these books because of their repulsive content, and celebration of their mastery for the exact same reasons.

8My argumentation will be three-fold. The first two sections will focus on the literary mechanisms implemented in the corpus under scrutiny to inspire disgust, or represent the disgusting, first through an objectification of the body, then through narrative processes putting the reader into an uncomfortable or even unbearable position. The third and final section of this paper examines the role disgust plays in these books, in order to demonstrate that the physical unpleasantness caused by the experience of disgust forces the readers to confront their societal conditioning by bringing them to the limits of readability.

Gaping Mouths and Unwanted Fluids: Fear and Loathing of the “Body-Object”

  • 4 Michel Foucault developed the notion of biopolitics and biopower during a series of lectures at the (...)

9While the study of disgust in artistic production is slowly gaining momentum (thanks to the works of Winfried Menninghaus, Sarah J. Ablett or Carolyn Korsmeyer, to name but a few), it should also be noted that tackling a work of art as something that goes against the very notion of beauty remains somewhat scarce. Yet, disgust as a theory needs to be inscribed in a long tradition of aesthetics and philosophy. The study of disgust has inspired works by phenomenologists, psychoanalysts, anthropologists, neuroscientists, philosophers. Charles Darwin is recognized as the first scientist to form a working definition of disgust in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), but the field of “disgust study” remained quite inactive for the following century (Powell 3). Overall, it appears that disgust is an inherently dual emotion: it is simultaneously the product of evolution (for instance, disgust directed towards inedible or harmful foods, in order to ensure survival) and culture (disgust directed towards the consumption of insects, although edible, in most Western societies, for example). Sexual taboos and moral revulsion often respond to the same duality: there is widespread agreement that incest is prohibited in most societies because of an evolutionary mechanism working against the threat of inbreeding. From an evolutionary and social point of view, disgust thus operates as a regulating force. If Foucault posits the individual body as the site of resistance to the regulation of disciplinary powers, then disgust transcends the form of social control imposed by biopowers, by defining what constitutes a “normal” and socially acceptable body.4

10This theoretical detour is helpful to understand the interactions of reading and the feeling of disgust in the three novels under scrutiny. Disgust, as mentioned previously, is both objective and subjective. Beauty and disgust are tailored for the society they target: in this case, it is primarily the American audience of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Moreover, the expression of disgust can be summarized as resting on the following mechanisms: 1) conflation of subjects and objects, objectification of the human body; 2) confusion between humanity and animality; 3) exhibition of what should be concealed, either the visceral interiority of the body, or taboo and disturbing sexual acts.

  • 5 It is possible to further complicate this statement. In Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction (...)

11The fear of the reification of the human body is central to Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection, a concept which overlap with that of “disgust.” In Powers of Horror, Kristeva argues that the breakdown of the distinction between subject and object blurs the boundaries of selfhood, leading to abjection. While Sanctuary is undoubtedly the least graphic work of this corpus, the trial scene at the end of the novel illustrates well the threat of objectification of the human flesh. Lee Goodwin, a Southern bootlegger, is wrongly charged for the rape of the young heroine, Temple, a crime the reader knows was actually committed by a gangster named Popeye. The latter being impotent, he used a corncob to violate Temple, an exhibit which is presented to the jury during Goodwin’s trial: “The district attorney faced the jury. ‘I offer as evidence this object which was found at the scene of the crime.’ He held in his hand a corncob. It appeared to have been dipped in dark brownish paint” (283). The phallic corncob, the object making up for the body, is displayed for the audience to see. As opposed to Palahniuk and Delany’s writing styles, which rely on the excruciating description of every tiny detail of the gruesome scenes, Faulkner’s style is less graphic. The exact nature of the “dark brownish” paint-like substance staining the corncob is not made explicit, but it is not difficult for the reader to connect the dots, and understand that it is Temple’s blood. Brandishing the corncob still coated in Temple’s vaginal blood in front of a packed courtroom, the district attorney exhibits the obscene object which replaced Popeye’s penis, publicly recreating the intrusion and violation of rape.5 Suddenly, the obscure name of the main female protagonist of Sanctuary starts to make sense, which subverts a famous biblical phrasing: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, whom you have received from God, and that you do not belong to yourselves” (Corinthians 6:19). The “sacred” sanctuary of Temple’s body has indeed been violated, and while the rape scene is never described explicitly in the novel, the trial scene recreates it obliquely. Temple’s description, sitting on the witness bench, clearly posits her as a passive object to be gazed upon:

From beneath her black hat her hair escaped in tight red curls like clots of resin. The hat bore a rhinestone ornament. Upon her black satin lap lay a platinum bag. Her pate tan coat was open upon a shoulder knot of purple. Her hands lay motionless, palm-up on her lap. Her long blonde legs slanted, lax-ankled, her two motionless slippers with their glittering buckles lay on their sides as though empty. Above the ranked intent faces white and pallid as the floating bellies of dead fish, she sat in an attitude at once detached and cringing, her gaze fixed on something at the back of the room. Her face was quite pale, the two spots of rouge like paper discs pasted on her cheek bones, her mouth painted into a savage and perfect bow, also like something both symbolical and cryptic cut carefully from purple paper and pasted there. (284)

12Surrounded by a male audience, Temple is turned into a porcelain doll: “her eyes, the two spots of rouge and her mouth, were like five meaningless objects in a small heart-shaped dish” (286). This description, similar to an ekphrasis, turns the young girl into an object to be dissected visually, as André Bleikasten remarked: “Temple has been taken apart, her body disassembled, dissected, anatomized: her hair, her face, her hands, her legs have become membra disjecta, objects among objects” (244). An array of materials—resin, rhinestone, satin, platinum, paper, paint—overlaps with a heap of body parts: she appears as a porcelain effigy, a ragdoll, or an “effigy of profaned virginity” (Ibid.). Indeed, the main mechanism of the disgusting in the novels under scrutiny is the debasement of the human body through its reduction to its bare corporeality, or through its exposure of the very thin line between the notions of body and object.

13The movement of debasement, of a reduction to the bottom, is made quite literal in the three novels of this corpus, as the characters spend a significant amount of time lying on the ground or on their knees. For instance, much more graphically than the preceding excerpt, Hogg’s incipit brutally opens with description of the narrator “squatting […] behind the bottom landing of the stairs that went to the basement” (13) of his building, performing fellatio on a neighbor. Indeed, Hogg’s narrator seems to be entirely focused on oral gratification and oral defilement: after all, he is only referred to by the sordid nickname “Cocksucker,” and the word “mouth” appears no less than 234 times throughout the novel. Hogg strives to leave a bad taste in its readers’ mouths. After all, symbolically and evolutionarily, disgust emerges from the mouth. As Rozin and his colleagues have argued, disgust acts as a safeguard to protect the mouth, and the rest of the digestive system, from contamination. Moreover, the mouth shares an indisputable connection with the anus, as they are both the end of a tube running throughout the body, a fact which the narrator of “Guts” sardonically describes: “The big problem is, we’re all connected together inside. Your ass is just the far end of your mouth. If I let go, the pump keeps working—unraveling my insides—until it’s got my tongue. Imagine taking a four-hundred-pound shit, and you can see how this might turn you inside out” (18). The mouth, because of its intrinsic link with the sense of taste, is a core physical location of disgust. Additionally, like most other corporeal orifices, it is an entry-point to the interiority of the body: by being left open, the mouth threatens to break the idealized impenetrability of the human body, exhibiting it as an open mass vulnerable to infiltration, penetration and pollution. In the same way, throughout Sanctuary, Temple is crouching in the darkness of the bootleggers’ house or in her bed in a Memphis brothel, her mouth grotesquely gaping: “her mouth open upon a soundless wail behind her lost breath” (38), “her mouth [opened] in that round, hopeless expression of a child” (141), “her mouth round and open like a small empty cave” (138), “her mouth gaped and ugly like that of a dying fish” (238), “her mouth gaping in straining protrusion, bloodless” (238). Simultaneously sensual, pitiful and disgusting, Temple’s mouth-cavity, which should enable the production of language, is rendered completely useless. Her mouth resembles a black hole, sucking and swallowing but ultimately silent, a space of simultaneous pleasure and terror. Bodies are degraded to tubes that ingurgitate and regurgitate fluids and matters, and rarely in the expected way.

14It is extremely striking that the three books under scrutiny should all focus to such a great extent on gaping mouths, on mouths being overstuffed, on mouths regurgitating and vomiting. These gaping bodies that are so easily penetrated evoke the grotesque appearance of inflatable sex dolls, but also the horrified black empty mouth of horror, à la Munch. Tellingly, the covers of the two editions of Haunted both represent a horrified facial expression, with bulging eyes and a wide-open mouth, as if right from its cover, Haunted was signaling the importance of gaping body orifices which are scattered across the various stories that compose it, from the narrator’ rectum in “Guts” to the open mouth of the realistic dolls in “Exodus.” The beginning of this short story is a perfect illustration of the disgusting associated with oral fixation. It opens with the members of a police station during a training session to practice cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The description of the CPR doll relentlessly weakens the line between the organic body and objectification: “The dummy is a Breather Betty model, just a torso with a head. No arms or legs. Rubbery blue lips. Eyes molded open, staring. Green eyes. Still, whoever makes these dummies, they glued long eyelashes on her. They glued on a glamour-girl wig” (155). While this plastic body is clearly provided with female attributes associated with sensuality, the narrative voice reminds the reader that it is what a body sexualized to the extreme looks like: “just a torso with a head,” the non-sexual limbs simply discarded. As a police officer starts to perform CPR on Betty, a putrid fluid erupts from the rubber mouth:

He leans back, coughing, sitting on his heels. Then he spits. Splat, there on the health-room linoleum tile, he spits. The mouth guy wipes the back of one hand across his lips and says, “Damn, that stinks.”
The people crowded around, Cora Reynolds among them, the rest of the class, they lean closer.
Still squatting there, the mouth guy says, “There’s something inside her.” He covers his mouth and nose with one cupped hand. […] A fat bubble swells between Betty’s blue rubber lips. Some liquid, some salad dressing, thin and milky white, the bubble swells big. A greasy gray pearl. Then a Ping-Pong ball. A baseball. Until it pops. Spattering the greasy off-white soup everywhere. This thin, watery culture, puffing a cloud of stink into the room. (156-157)

15The efficiency of this gruesome description lies both in the strong stimulation of the senses, and in the efficacy of the comparisons. Through the repetition of the word “stink” and mundane gustatory associations (to salad dressing or soup, for instance), the senses of smell and taste are specifically stimulated—senses which play the most important part in awakening disgust. Hearing, through the onomatopoeia “splat,” and sight, because of the brutally visual metaphors used, are also strongly mobilized. An overwhelming aesthetics of contamination is already at work. Significantly, the use of the word “culture” evokes a bacterial infection, while the “cloud of stink […] puffing” into the room conjures up the image of fungal spores. Similarly, the man who has touched the repulsive fluid finds himself reduced to this single point of contact: “the mouth guy.” Palahniuk’s use of textures to arouse disgust is noteworthy. The adjectives all refer to a nondescript substance, with undefinable color and texture (“thin and milky white”, “greasy,” “greasy off-white,” “thin,” “watery”). The sheer number of adjectives creates an uncomfortable feeling of sensory overload.

16Indeed, “Exodus”’s plot centers around the unwanted eruption of liquids that should never have come out of a body, plastic or organic. The narrative voice soon reveals after this incident that the substance in question was sperm: “some of it maybe six months old. Dating back to the last mouth-to-mouth class session. But, hey, there was so much of it. Besides, running it for DNA, the genetic signifiers showed this was the work of twelve, maybe fifteen different men” (158). These details do not really create any surprise, but they are a pretext to add a layer of disgust. The discrepancy between the nonchalant stance of the narrator and the repulsive excess being described—a feature of transgressive literature—certainly contributes to arousing more disgust. As a social rule, most bodily fluids tend to be perceived as disgusting, a fact which Sanctuary, “Exodus” and Hogg exploit to great effect. The eponymous protagonist of Hogg delights in consumption of bodily fluids (urine, sperm, mucus, pus or even feces), as his name indicates: “They call me Hogg ’cause a hog lives dirty. I don’t wash none. And when I get hungry, I eat my own snot. I been wearin’ these clothes since winter. I don’t even take my dick out my pants to piss most times, unless it’s in some cunt’s face” (36). Hogg’s shameless relish in being abject, both morally and hygienically, establishes him as the very embodiment of the disgusting. Rolling around in his filth, he is quite literally as happy as a pig in mud. Dirt, after all, can represent a liberation from the stifling oppression of society. By smearing his own feces and filth on every available surface, literally or metaphorically, Hogg and his literary dirt embody society’s excrements: the unfit, the marginalized, the ones that cannot be digested by the system and revel in it.

17Squatting, crouching, prone, gaping and open-mouthed, the body is pushed to its limit, its orifices filled and emptied, the flesh turned inside out, sometimes quite literally. For instance, the narrator of “Guts” clinically chronicles the spectacle of his own intestines being sucked out of his body by a pool drain:

This thick rope, some kind of snake, blue-white and braided with veins, has come up out of the pool drain and it’s holding on to my butt. Some of the veins are leaking blood, red blood that looks black underwater and drifts away from little rips in the pale skin of the snake. The blood trails away, disappearing in the water, and inside the snake’s thin blue-white skin you can see lumps of some half-digested meal. (18)

18The narrator’s complete detachment from the scene being described is evoked through a depersonalization of his own body. Even more so, the narrator’s intestine is personified by a metaphorical process. The tube is turned into a pale and bloody snake, swimming in the pool in the midst of digestive remains. Both “Guts” and our corpus are marked by an anxiety and a fascination towards the transformation of the human body into an object. As a consequence, objects and human limbs seem commutable. The corncob, for instance, replaces Popeye’s penis in Sanctuary. In “Guts,” the narrator lists a variety of objects used by teenagers to perform anal masturbation: a carrot, a pool drain, a candle... Pierre-Louis Patoine, in his in-depth analysis of the short story, notes that these items “appear as the dangerous prostheses of the body, to the point of making the organism foreign to itself by introducing an exogenous logic which risks annihilating it” (185, my translation)—a logic which is also that of Faulkner’s corncob-penis. The Body-Object is on the constant verge of destruction, but it is also described as nothing more than a plastic doll that can be used and abused without any moral consequences.

19These three books focus on the body as an object, or the body reduced to its bare corporeality, which turns it into nothing but piles of meat. The emphasis laid on digestive tubes, moreover, reduces the body as a mechanism whose only task is to ingest and evacuate. For instance, Hogg describes himself as “an old shit-tub” (Delany, 2004 267) and a “shit machine” (263). In the same vein, Palahniuk evokes in the short story “Exodus” an uncomfortable moment that left the main character feeling like “just skin. Just a skin tube with a tight hole at each end. An object” (159). Indeed, “Exodus” tells the gruesome story of a social worker, Cora, who works in a police station. One day, she orders dolls used sexual abuse interviews, which children can use to point out where they were inappropriately touched. However, the dolls turn out to be anatomically-detailed instead of anatomically-correct, and the text goes to great lengths to describe the uncomfortable life-likeliness of these silicon bodies when Cora first opens the package they were delivered in.

The foot was pink rubber, finished with clear, hard toenails. The skin smooth, without a freckle or mole or vein. At this, the detective put a hand around the ankle and lifted it to show a smooth pink knee. Then a pink thigh. Then a shower of white packing peanuts. […] And a naked pink little girl hung from the detective’s fist near the ceiling. […] Her mouth hung open, a silent gasp, showing white teeth small as pearls, and the smooth pink roof of her mouth. A little girl the age for Easter-egg hunts and First Communion and Santa’s lap. (162)

20As it soon becomes obvious in this excerpt, the text goes to great lengths to describe the anatomic details of these fake children’s bodies. The reading experience is made extremely uncomfortable by the number of slippages it sets. First, the unpacking of the dolls is depicted as an erotic unveiling, where a foot, a knee and then a thigh are slowly being revealed. The doll is immediately identified as something human, or at least corporeal, hence provoking an immediate sense of connection with this body-object. Of course, most people would feel a terrible sense of unease when considering a child in any kind of sexual context. The narrative voice humanizes the doll by emphasizing its innocence through obvious clichés: it is, after all, a little girl with blond curls and unblemished skin, “the age for Easter-egg hunts and First Communion and Santa’s lap.” The doll is ultimately an object, but it does not look like one—when does the object stop, and when does the corporeal begin? The story does not settle the issue. Cora discovers that the policemen of the station, the ones who supposedly engaged in sexual acts with the Breather Betty mannequin, also abused the dolls.

21“This is just what human beings do—turn objects into people, people into objects. Back and forth. Tit for tat” (171), the narrator of “Exodus” tirelessly repeats. This is perhaps where the irony of “Exodus” lies: ultimately, no children were harmed in the making of this short story. Even within the diegesis, the dolls are not actual children, they simply look exactly like them. The emphasis laid on the disgust Cora experiences towards the dolls being sexually abused by policemen, that feeling which makes her “just a skin tube with a tight hole at each end,” is perhaps a metatextual reflection on the literary bodies of characters, which are themselves body-objects, and ultimately fake, or at least unreal.

22Indeed, “Exodus” can be interpreted as a metatextual reflection: is abusing something that looks human, but is ultimately not, morally reprehensible? Couldn’t it be argued that the disgust we feel towards fictional characters is similar to Cora’s uncomfortable “gut feelings,” as their flesh is not made of plastic but of written marks laid on a page? In the same way, it is unlikely that anyone would take Hogg’s narrator as a realistic portrayal of an eleven-year-old boy. Described as “a cocksucker who likes a face full of [shit] now and then” (263), he not only takes part in but also appears to take pleasure from the different deviant sexual acts portrayed. The narrator is clearly signaled as not being a real boy, but a literary body and a literary object, which can take and undertake anything. According to Patoine, “Palahniuk’s project makes it clear that it is possible to conceive a relationship to the text that is not based on identification with the characters, but on sensory and motor resonance with certain elements of the diegetic world and the text as artifact” (87, my translation). The reader feels “touched” by the text, not because they identify with the characters, but rather because the sensorial mechanisms set up by the text take over the reader’s somatic responses. These somatic reactions are encouraged through metatextual devices set up by the texts, where the reader’s morbid curiosity is reflected in the form of imprisonment, captivation being turned into captivity—various levels of participation are required of the reader in the scenes described.

A Captive/Captivated Audience

  • 6 The literary representation of the disgusting is to be found in excessive and sensationalist repres (...)

23One could argue that disgust lies in the inability to avert one’s gaze when common sense and taste would require to look away.6 A significant similarity between the novels of our corpus is their emphasis on the presence, real or fictive, of an audience. For instance, in Sanctuary, two accounts of Temple’s rape are presented. The first one is delivered through the victim’s own words to the lawyer in charge of defending Goodwin before the trial. Temple’s first account, although more phantasmagorical than graphic, leads the lawyer, Horace Benbow, to feel “a hot, hard lump in his stomach.” Faulkner adds: “Suddenly he was walking fast, the coffee jolting like a hot, heavy rock inside him” (1993 222). The act itself is eluded from the plot, and the reader, by being confronted with the tangible silences within the plot, is forced to imagine (and thus potentially to symbolically participate in mentally reconstructing) the rape of a teenage girl. The second account of Temple’s rape happens at court, during the trial, although the description of the events is omitted from the narration. However, the sick thrill the audience of the trial seems to experience in hearing about the girl’s defilement, referred to by the District Attorney as “this ruined, defenseless child” (288), is noteworthy: “Louder,” he demands of Temple. “Speak out. No one will hurt you. Let these good men, these fathers and husbands, hear what you have to say and right your wrong for you” (285). Throughout the scene, the audience of the court is turned into a non-individualized character, an uncanny Greek chorus of sorts, whose reactions indicate both horror and voyeuristic pleasure as they participate figuratively in the reconstruction of the rape: “The room sighed, its collective breath hissing in the musty silence” (286). It is tempting to see a forced association between the audience of the trial and the reader, who also participates as a spectator in scenes of rape and violation. It cannot be denied that the three books under scrutiny still attract readers, perhaps in search of such feelings of discomfort. One irate reviewer of Sanctuary, probably used to more graphic forms of media, wrote in 2017: “I thought this was going to be about rape, brutality of human nature, and other awesome things. But instead, it was about... Fuck, I don’t even know what it was about” (“Sanctuary by William Faulkner”). This specific reader’s disappointment is tangible. The moral depravity and physical violence instrumentalized in these novels lead us to wonder whether works such as Sanctuary, Hogg, and Haunted willfully exploit the potential attraction for moral baseness of their readers. Hence, readers are placed in the same position as the crowd during Temple’s trial, eager to learn more about her rape, which suggests the complicity of readers in not only witnessing, but also enjoying the unbearable.

24Indeed, the three works under scrutiny raise the question of the position of the reader/audience in front of the unbearable. In “Exodus,” the narrative voice regularly turns to the horrified expressions of the characters and describes in great detail their experience of nausea, as the portrayal of the spectators of the regurgitating Breathing Betty shows:

Everyone standing there, breathing behind a cupped hand or a handkerchief. Blinking back the smell that makes their eyes water. Their throats slide up and down inside their neck skin as they swallow and swallow to keep their scrambled eggs and bacon and coffee and oatmeal with skim milk and peach yogurt and English muffins and cottage cheese down, deep in their gut. (157)

25Confronted with a repulsive image, the last thing one would want would be to think about food. Through a process of mise en abyme (the characters look at the disgusting spectacle and the reader looks at the same spectacle while simultaneously experiencing the symptoms of the characters’ disgust), the narrative voice viciously provides an endless list of the characters’ breakfast menus. Similarly, Sanctuary regularly confronts its readers to the spectacle of characters vomiting, in the manner of Gowan helplessly drooling and vomiting the alcohol he had previously ingurgitated (1993 34), the unnamed young girl vomiting upon learning about sex (152) or Horace Benbow’s vomiting in reaction to the conflation of Temple’s description of her rape and his own incestual impulses (223). Vomiting and nausea are the first symptoms of disgust, and one could wonder if the in-text descriptions of characters being overwhelmed with disgust does not aim at eliciting sympathetic disgust into the reader, who would, in their turn, feel like “spilling their guts.”

26Hogg, needless to say, features several scenes of vomiting, but the act is often described not as unpleasant, but rather as erotic. This blatant lack of disgust is certainly noteworthy. Indeed, the most striking element of Hogg is the fact that the characters do not experience disgust, as if they simply refused (or were completely unaware of) socio-moral sources of disgust. However, the readers’ impression may be vastly different, as the reviews quoted previously indicate. This is probably partly due to the focalization strategy of the novel: indeed, the scenes of graphic sex and extreme violence which make up Hogg are flatly narrated through an internal focalization by an unnamed eleven-year-old boy. This narrative framing is undoubtedly disturbing, as the association of sexual acts with children, and more specifically between children and adults, is revolting by most standards. This, of course, is easily understandable. Childhood is symbolically entangled with the notions of innocence and purity. In Hogg, the reader is forced into taking an unbearable point of view: that of a child not only engaging in a variety of explicit sexual acts, but enjoying them.

27The somatic involvement of the reader through narrative mechanisms is dramatized in the opening of “Guts,” in which the narrator addresses directly the reader from the opening lines of the short story:

Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can. (12)

  • 7 This strategy is similarly used in the first line of “Exodus,” by inviting the reader to establish (...)

28From the first words of the short story, the instructions provided create a profoundly corporeal reading experience, until the last lines of the short story, “Now you can take a good, deep breath. Because I still have not” (21), establishing a power imbalance between the narrator and the reader.7 Moreover, they invite the reader to partly experience the narrator’s organ prolapse during an attempt at erotic asphyxiation in a pool, thanks to the use of an internal, homodiegetic focalization. Viscerally stuck to the bottom of the pool, the narrator gasps for air. Indeed, if the readers follow the preliminary instructions, they would be left gasping for air as well by the end of the text. Of course, most readers will not stop breathing at all, but as Patoine points out, “these instructions can still generate stress, activating simulations of blocked breathing, somesthetic images of suffocation. It thus puts the body of the reader in connection with the conative instructions of the narrator” (178, my translation). The invitation to “listen as fast as you can” blurs the sensorial boundaries between reading and listening experiences. Indeed, it seems that “Guts” was written to be experienced publicly, in the manner of a hazing ritual, or the ghost stories shared in summer camps around a fire, in which the most disgusting and horrific tales are shared to see who has the “guts” to go through experiencing disgust. Perhaps it could even be argued that what prompted endemic fainting spells during Palahniuk’s public readings of “Guts” may not be attributed merely to the content of the text itself (although it is undoubtedly gruesome and taps into the elementary mechanisms of disgust), but rather to the obscene display of the disgusting in public, not read within the confines of one’s mind, but spoken out loud in packed libraries. In the essay, “The Gut Effect,” the afterword to Haunted, Palahniuk emphasizes the physical affect public readings had on his audience:

The publicist who watched all three events said the people fell the moment I read the words “corn and peanuts.” It was that detail that made seated people go limp. First, their hands slid off their laps. Their shoulders sagged. Their heads flopped to one side, and their weight carried them to the floor or into the lap of their neighbor. (409)

29The passage Palahniuk quotes here is significant. It is specifically the details of the content of the narrator’s unspooled intestines floating in the pool which provoked fainting and vomiting among the audience members, and no other gruesome passages, suggesting that the devil is indeed in the details. Miller defines the feeling of disgust as follows:

Disgust is a feeling about something and in response to something, not just raw unattached feeling. That’s what the stomach flu is. Part of disgust is the very awareness of being disgusted, the consciousness of itself. […] Disgust necessarily involves particular thoughts, characteristically very intrusive and unriddable thoughts about the repugnance of that which is its object. (William Ian Miller 8)

30In the corpus under study, the conflation of the experiences of listening, looking and reading, associated with narrative mechanisms putting the reader into disturbing and unbearable positions, creates an overwhelming sensory and cognitive experience. Faced with the spectacle of the disgusting, the reader’s body is supposed to be affected to various degrees. This is partly due to the fact that writing the disgusting intrinsically implies being confronted to intolerable objects, social, moral or sexual—objects which societal regulations keep at bay.

The Politics of Disgust: Fear and Loathing of the “Art-Object”

31Does disgust convey a message? Does it mean anything? After a first reading of the three novels, at least, this is probably what makes them so disturbing—they seem to offer no obvious social commentary in their use of the disgusting. Hogg’s final words illustrate this fact. In a surprisingly tender scene between the two main protagonists, Hogg, the fictional embodiment of filth, turns to the young narrator:

“Hey… is everything all right?” He looked at the road. “What’s the matter?”
I turned to watch the fleeing trees. “Nothin’.” (268)

32This single word, amputated of its last letter, is the first one the narrator pronounces out loud in the whole novel. Just like the young narrator, the reader is indeed left with “nothin’.” Any attempt at rationalization, at aestheticization, at justification, seems for naught. In her analysis of what she calls “the literature of shock,” Felski comments upon the feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness a reader can experience after being confronted to disturbing content:

The literature of shock becomes truly disquieting not when it is shown to further social progress, but when it utterly fails to do so, when it slips through our frameworks of legitimation and resists our most heartfelt values. It is at that point that we are left floundering and speechless, casting about for words to make sense of our own response. (2008 110)

33And yet, disgust undoubtedly operates as an intrinsically political force. As a matter of fact, social experiments led for instance by Inbar et al have proven that disgust is accurate in determining the political orientation of a person, conservative subjects showing higher disgust sensitivity than liberals. It would be simply untrue to state that the novels of our corpus offer no social commentary at all: Sanctuary, through the treatment of Temple’s bodily degradation, undoubtedly takes a critical look at the Southern constructions of class, gender as well as morality, at a time where religious groups presented Prohibition as a battle for public morals. In the same way, D’Hont posits Hogg’s use of transgressive content (and specifically, disgusting subjects) as providing a distorted image of the ideologies of the American Dream and Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society”: “rather than an American Dream, Hogg’s world is a capitalist nightmare where everything, and everybody, is for sale. In his own view, Hogg has simply taken capitalism to a new level by turning rape into a day job.” (35) In the same way, “Exodus” and “Guts,” written during George W. Bush’s presidency and his defense of traditional family values, evoke the commodification of the human body and question the very existence of a socially-acceptable body though unconventional sexuality. Due to the physical unpleasantness that they provoke, these texts force readers to contemplate what they have been taught to ignore. Disgust as a literary tool operates as a prism for critical interrogation of the society in which the texts were written.

34In light of this, one might wonder to what extent literature is an efficient medium to convey and arouse disgust. The first observation that could be made about the corpus under scrutiny is the fact that the three selected novels tap into widely-spread socio-moral condemnations, such as rape, incest, pedophilia, the consumption of bodily wastes and uncommon sexual practices, a conscious choice on the part of the authors. For instance, Faulkner famously wrote the following lines about the genesis of Sanctuary:

I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to [the publisher], who […] wrote me immediately, “Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.” (1932 338)

  • 8 In the very first chapter, Horace Benbow thinks that Popeye “smells like that black stuff that ran (...)
  • 9 The novels that immediately preceded and followed the publication of Sanctuary, The Sound and the F (...)

35Perhaps this statement allows to understand the explicit references to Madame Bovary in Sanctuary: Flaubert’s novel aims at being a “book about nothing” (Flaubert 305), and focuses on amoral subjects, such as adultery.8 Emma Bovary also consumes what is deemed an excessive number of cheap novels, another comment upon how literature ought to be ingested and digested. Sanctuary occupies a unique position within Faulkner’s oeuvre, precisely for its deliberate departure from his then-burgeoning literary modernism.9 Therefore, in the context of early twentieth-century American modernism, Sanctuary may share similarities with Haunted. Indeed, Palahniuk explains in the afterword to Haunted that his “goal was to create horror around very ordinary things: carrots, candles, swimming pools. Microwave popcorn. Bowling balls” (407). Delany evokes in an essay the difficult process of publishing Hogg (for obvious reasons), and recounts a telling anecdote. After a discussion seminar of eight people was organized to review Hogg’s manuscript to determine if it was publishable, Delany received recordings of the meeting:

No writer could have asked for a more astute and sensitive discussion of a manuscript. Listening to the dialogue, I felt that everyone on the panel had read the book carefully and intelligently. They’d all taken in its intentions, its various and several points. None of them had missed any subtleties or major moves in the text. All seemed to have found many sections moving. All agreed that the material was extraordinarily distasteful: It is.
The breakdown as to which people felt the book should be published and which people felt it would be dangerous to publish (not because of legal repercussions, but because of what it might do to unstable readers) was, however, interesting. (1999 305)

36The mention of Hogg’s dangerous influence on “unstable readers” suggests the power of contamination of the disgusting—not just for the body, but also the mind. Besides, Delany’s simple acknowledgment of the distastefulness of his own work is significant. For him, as well as his critics, Hogg inspires such disgust as it offers to apprehend “conservative anxieties” through the prism of art:

Hogg is a novel that really is filled with precisely what conservative forces in the country claim is rampant in all pornography… violence against women, torture, murder, racism, filth, the exploitation of children, and other acts too perverse to name. The only place it breaks with this […] classical and conservative description of pornography is that it is carefully written, not sloppily hacked out; and it examines those subjects not from the point of view of sociologists and psychologists with their ready-made categories of “victims” and “monsters,” but examines them as seriously—and relentlessly—as the people caught up in such acts are capable of. That it finds touches of humanity here and there even among murderers and criminal psychopaths is, of course, troubling. (307)

37Hogg’s double play on eliciting empathy and disgust, according to Delany, makes it inherently subversive, which the author once again readily acknowledged: “Well, Hogg is a story written to trouble” (310). Since Delany and Palahniuk are both openly gay authors, one can wonder if their depiction of sexuality as disturbing and transgressive enables them to ironize the conservative perception of homosexuality in conservative circles. Mookerjee places transgressive texts within the satiric tradition, analyzing this specific genre as challenging belief systems. In the same way, D’Hont argues that Hogg “uses its protagonist to visualize, exaggerate and critically explore this offensive stereotype of homosexuality as violent paedophilia and shoves it into the reader’s face, developing ‘the homosexual’ into an almost satirical creature which crosses sexual and social boundaries to the point of their collapse” (40). The disgusting can be interpreted as systematically challenging and disturbing ideology. Tim Dean writes that:

What makes Delany’s fiction equivocally transgressive is that his characters rarely seem to struggle with the barrier of disgust that ordinarily prevents consumption of bodily excretions and waste. […] One never gets the impression that Delany is trying to shock his readers […]. Instead, his scat play constitutes a central part of what Mary Foltz has anatomized as Delany’s “excremental ethics,” one in which encounters with waste—whether of the human or the social body—open the self to experiences of pleasure that undo the self. (76)

38In Hogg, what should be repulsive is, on the contrary, experienced as pleasurable, at least by the characters if not the readers. This forced confrontation with societal “excrements” (moral or corporeal) leads us to wonder if disgust does not tell more about the host of this emotion rather than its source—tell me what disgusts you, and I’ll tell you who you are. Moreover, Hogg and “Guts” present the male body as penetrable without emitting obvious value judgments. Patoine analyzes Palahniuk’s staging of the male body as such:

if “Guts” has upset some listeners so much, it is perhaps because the somesthetic experience proposed by this fiction conflicts with other forces (bio- and anatomo-political) producing the male body, and more specifically with the norms of male sensitivity. […] Whether it is the young man using a carrot to touch his prostate, the man inserting a wax probe into his urethra, or the narrator stimulating himself anally with the drain of his family’s pool, each time the male body and the normal map of its sexuality are reorganized. These penetrated bodies (by the urethra, by the anus) or who enjoy anal pleasure (and underwater suffocation) are counterproductive bodies from an economic and reproductive point of view, and therefore bodies outside the norm. (182-184, my translation)

39Needless to say, male homosexuality—and by extension the male body not conforming to heteronormative forms of sexual gratification—faces deeply-anchored prejudice in the Western world: numerous studies on disgust have shown that male homosexuality tends to be associated with the sensation of disgust (see Lambertus). By embracing disgust as unavoidable, Hogg and “Guts” relish in depicting the disgusting, shoving it into their readers’ face. While this may be true, I would like to turn from these considerations to the physical, somatic response these texts have on the readers’ body. Claire Margat describes disgust as, above all, a physical and de-intellectualized spasmodic movement of rejection:

Whatever its objects, disgust manifests itself by its reactivity. It is a jolt, a visceral rejection that we must try to understand as such. It is not a judgment or even a feeling, it is a reaction of rejection, an emotion relative to sensations—an emotion which contains a motion, either the beginning of a movement of retreat, of rejection, or an internal movement of retching. (19, my translation)

40Any attempt at understanding and evaluating a text, in the face of the disgusting, is interrupted: one cannot rationalize or analyze, as the physical affective response takes over. Enjoyment can be found in disgust, pleasure in displeasure, and the non-negligible audience of horror and gore movies is undoubtedly evidence of this. Bourdieu adds:

Disgust is the ambivalent experience of the horrible seduction of the disgusting and of enjoyment, which performs a sort of reduction to animality, corporeality, the belly and sex, that is, to what is common and therefore vulgar, removing any difference between those who resist with all their might and those who wallow in pleasure, who enjoy enjoyment. (491)

41The “displeasure” of the text, it seems, operates in the same way as the pleasure of the text, the involuntary outburst, the visceral rejection, “that moment when my body pursues its own ideas.” The metonymic movement from the gustatory system to aesthetic appreciation (or lack thereof) evoked earlier is telling, and seems to indicate that reading is indeed a profoundly embodied experience. The word “language,” after all, finds its etymological root in “lingua,” the tongue. The experience of disgust brings evidence that the act of reading, the interaction between a reader and a literary text, mark a movement from the semantic to the somatic, as Matthew Rubery and Leah Price note: “Texts are encountered by bodies, whether that means brains […]; eyes […]; ears […]; hands […]; or skin” (Rubery and Price 7). Perhaps “stomach” and “guts” could be added to the list. It could even be argued that in the three texts under scrutiny, affect is the endgame, and nothing else. Because of its very nature, the disgusting cannot be contemplated from a safe distance, cannot be disinfected and sugarcoated. In the face of a shocking text, Felski notes:

We are rudely ripped from aesthetic reflection to the baseline workings of biology, confronted with the stark evidence of our involuntary responses: the manufacturing of adrenalin, the acceleration of heart rate, the constriction of blood vessels. Our body may react even before our mind registers what it is at stake, underscoring the extent of our emotional suggestibility and physical vulnerability. (2008 117-118)

The text moves its reader, and can even be experienced like a slap in the face. A reviewer wrote this insightful following comment about Hogg:

There’s something to be said about a book that is so physically debilitating, so mentally draining, piling on so much atrocity that such horrible things even soon become mechanic, dull, and unbearably tedious.
There’s something to be said about an exploration of depravity so vile that when the reader’s eyes dart around the page, trying to find any sort of narrative anchoring, they start to consider the humanity in monstrosity, the camaraderie in perversity, the comfort in violence. There’s something to be said about Hogg, but I’m not sure I can ever find the right words. (“Hogg by Samuel R. Delany”)

42This reader’s emphasis on the physical response to the text—the physical and mental exhaustion experienced, the movements of the eyes on the page, the sense of loss—paves the way for the incapacity to express any clear, clear-cut opinion on something that willingly hits where it hurts. The threat of contamination, in the end, can also reach the reader. I personally felt uncomfortable reading Hogg in public, afraid that someone might read the lines I was looking at over my shoulder, and draw conclusions about my personality from what I was reading.

43In “The Gut Effect,” Palahniuk presents his literary project when writing Haunted, and provides an explanation for the visceral effect his work had on his audience:

My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monsters or magic. This would be a book you wouldn’t want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover.
Because only books have that power.
A motion picture, or music, or television, they have to maintain a certain decorum in order to broadcast to a vast audience. Other forms of mass media cost too much to produce to risk reaching only a limited audience. Only one person. But a book… A book is cheap to print and bind. A book is as private and consensual as sex. (411-412, my italics)

44The medium of books, in the era of mass media, offers for Palahniuk an intimate form of consumption, based on vulnerability. Indeed, either in the confines of one’s head, or in a packed library during a public reading, the reader/listener is in charge of producing literary characters into mental projections. On this account, it could even be argued that a modernist writer such as Faulkner and contemporary authors like Delany and Palahniuk write as they do (and about what they do) as a means of resistance to the reifications of mass art in the American culture industry. The disgusting serves as a counterattack to standardized forms of consumer culture. The power of Sanctuary, Hogg and Haunted lies in their capacity to trouble, to disturb, and the forced questioning they provoke in the reader to re-consider the very definition of what constitutes literature, by violating the prohibitions of representing the disgusting, and by refusing to turn the disgusting into an aesthetic object. Yet, the power remains in the reader’s hands: a revolting book can be slammed shut in less than a second.

45If we are saturated by images through mass media, the medium of written materials implies an intimate assimilation of the content through reading: the voice of the reader superposes the narrator’s. Hogg troubles because it is distasteful, and without disavowing its status as a literary work, as Delany makes very clear: his project is in direct contradiction with the industry of culture, which, following Adorno’s definition of mass culture, aims at offering standardized and comfortable forms of enjoyment. Horkheimer and Adorno stated that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (94): therefore, the art we produce in our societies today is homogenized, reproducing endlessly the favored storylines of the hegemonic dominating structure. In contrast, Hogg constitutes for Delany an “aesthetically serious [undertaking]—not in spite of [its] pornographic aspects but because of them” (Delany, 1999 295). This statement could be extended to Sanctuary and Haunted. These books are shocking and remarkable in the somatic experience they force on the reader. The disgusting, in this interpretation, is not antinomic to aesthetics. Rather, it acts as a pure form of transgression, by relentlessly probing the limits of what is deemed acceptable—socially, morally, literarily.

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1 The present article is a pilot study, and this specific corpus focuses on three male American writers. This article does not suggest that only male writers have produced transgressive literature tapping into arousing disgust. Kathy Acker’s work, for instance, is certainly proof of this. However, the question of women engaging with the disgusting would introduce variables worth exploring in a longer form.

2 For the sake of this discussion, I will focus on two specific short stories in Haunted: “Guts” and “Exodus.”

3 The occasional references to non-professional reviews in this article can be informative when discussing an emotion as visceral as disgust. Rita Felski offers to overcome the distinction between the way literary critics read and non-expert readers, who tend to read texts in a less clinical way: “For critics, the text is an object to be appraised; for readers, it is an encounter based on closeness and vulnerability” (2020 124). In Uses of Literature, she also points out that the “somatic register of response receive[d] the short shrift in literary criticism” (2008 117) and she proposes that literary critics adopt an “aesthetic of shock” when faced with “all that we find grisly or abhorrent, to warring impulses of desire and disgust, subterranean dramas of psychic anxiety and ambivalence” (130). This vulnerability, this spontaneity and rawness of the reading experience, is of the utmost importance when considering the visceral quality of the act of reading. The reader-response theory, developed by literacy scholars such as Stanley Fish, David Bleich, Norman Holland and Louise M. Rosenblatt, lays emphasis on the pivotal role of the reader in constructing textual meaning. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem, Rosenblatt argues that the text acts as a stimulus working as the “blueprint” (86) and a guide of the reader’s experience. Disgust, thus, encourages us to reconsider the bodily impact of literature both inside and outside of academia.

4 Michel Foucault developed the notion of biopolitics and biopower during a series of lectures at the Collège de France (1975-76: Society Must be Defended, 1977-78: Security, Territory Population, and 1978-79: The Birth of Biopolitics). He also broached this idea in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, “The Will to Knowledge” (1976).

5 It is possible to further complicate this statement. In Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction, John Duvall argues that during his trial, Goodwin is “stripped of his whiteness,” adding that “Lee’s complete racial reassignment requires a prosthetic intervention” (44). Duvall thus highlights the fact that the corncob which was used as the prothesis to rape Temple is presented during the trial as “dipped in dark brownish paint” (Faulkner 1993 283), reassigning Goodwin’s racial identity to blackness through color associations. Consequently, his corporeality is symbolically reduced to a black penis.

6 The literary representation of the disgusting is to be found in excessive and sensationalist representations, in the literary tradition of Victorian sensation novels, which aimed at gripping and shocking the reader by exploring scenarios which wrestled with the social anxieties of the Victorian era. Sensation novels were designed to electrify the nerves of the reader, thus representing for D. A. Miller “one of the first instances of modern literature to address itself primarily to the sympathetic nervous system” (146). As disgust is first expressed through the digestive system, the somatic impact “on the nerves” of reading is displaced, in our corpus, on the guts.

7 This strategy is similarly used in the first line of “Exodus,” by inviting the reader to establish an empathic relationship with the characters: “Please understand. Nobody here is defending what Cora did” (155).

8 In the very first chapter, Horace Benbow thinks that Popeye “smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth” (Faulkner 1993 7), in reference to Emma Bovary’s death after ingesting arsenic.

9 The novels that immediately preceded and followed the publication of Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August, are all recognized as modernist masterpieces. Sanctuary is also an intricate piece of fiction, displaying Faulkner’s modernist techniques.

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Solveig Dunkel, « Reading from the Guts: of Text and Disgust »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Solveig Dunkel

Université Paris Nanterre

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