“From whence commeth these swimmings of the brain, these headaches, this continual heaviness to sleep, this gripe of stomach, these fiery eyes, this weakness of sight, this stiffness of sinews, this palsy, these stinking breaths, these hot burning agues these ulcers in the legs, and a thousand other such like, save only of drunkenness?” (Filippo Beroaldo, A Contention Between Three Brethren )
I was reminded of this passage this morning as I examined a mug shot in our local newspaper. This showed the puffy and somewhat blotched face of a young woman recently arrested on a charge that she “hit a man she was dating with a metal baseball bat.” “That,” I said to myself, “is the face of a boozehound who has very recently tied one on.” I cannot, of course, attest her “stinking breath,” but there was no mistaking that diagnostic combination of “heaviness to sleep,” “burning agues” and “fiery eyes.” “That,” I said to myself once again, “ is the face of a woman in the grip of profound disgust.”
Here’s a précis of the newspaper’s description of the events leading up to this mugshot. On Wednesday the police pulled over “a man” who told the officer that he had just been assaulted by a woman with a baseball bat, and that in this assault he had sustained “an injury on his right abdomen, near the ribs.” I do not know whether he said this to excuse erratic driving or simply in the course of small-talk, but he went on to explain that he had “spent the night” at the woman’s apartment, had upon waking been “looking around the apartment for his cell phone,” and had upon the woman’s waking “got in an argument.” As the woman later explained, his looking around “made her feel uneasy.”
Apparently her arguing also made the man feel uneasy, so he shortly “left the apartment,” apparently in such haste that he “forgot his cell phone.” When he returned to the apartment to retrieve it, she of the stinking breath and fiery eyes burst out “holding a metal baseball bat and hit him.” The present whereabouts of the dratted cell phone is not, I’m afraid, mentioned.
Reading between the lines, I surmise that this unhappy couple had been “dating” for a very short time, and that their time as boyfriend and girlfriend may have lasted as little as ten or twelve hours. Their “date” likely consisted of a bibulous pick-up followed by bibulous foreplay and intercourse, whereupon the “heaviness to sleep” got the better of both of them. The dratted cell phone was most likely dropped in the course of the bibulous (and imperfectly remembered) foreplay, and when the heaviness to sleep had passed, the man’s first thought was to lay hold of his indispensable device and make a stealthy getaway. He was, I surmise, in the grip of profound disgust.
As one old writer put it: “Drunken men . . . love all vices and filths, but when his drunkenship is passed he is ashamed of his deeds.” (1) And not only drunken men.
Roused by the sound of his urgent riffling, I surmise that the woman was also gripped by profound disgust. She was likely suffering the usual symptoms of alcoholic hangover, as catalogued by Beroaldo, and these were cruelly amplified by her suspicion that she had played the tramp, by her perception that last night’s inamorato was, in the cold light of morning, a graceless schlub, and (perhaps worst of all) by her apprehension that this graceless schlub was desperately searching for his cell phone because he was in the grip of a profound disgust with her.
It was this strong cocktail of disgusts that the woman described to the police as feeling “uneasy.”
These are, as I said, surmises. So they may be wrong. But they are not in the least implausible given the evidence and what we all know of human lust. Let me put this in a handy motto: After lust, disgust.
Lust is, of course, desire. Sexual desire is, in its season, for many, the most powerful lust, but the biblical “lusts of the flesh” are by no means confined to concupiscence. The intemperate man feels a lust for drink, the proud man a lust for honor, the wrathful man a lust for revenge. The seven deadly sins give us a syllabus of man’s principal lusts. We are all of us prone to the lust for things (greed), for repose (sloth), and for that which is not ours (envy).
Christianity teaches that these “lusts of the flesh” are corrupted in man, and that this is evident in their “imperial tendencies.” The phrase comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote that, in man, “each physical impulse, freed of the restraint which hedge it about in nature, can therefore develop imperial tendencies of its own” (2). The word imperial here means not only expansive, but also commanding (Latin imperare). An animal eats to satiety; only a man (or woman) eats to gluttony. Animals rut to renew their species; only a man (or woman) ruts without regard to renewal of the species.
It is the imperial tendency of the lusts of the flesh—their tendency to take command and become a master—that caused St. Paul to warn the Ephesians against “having the mind darkened” by “deceitful lust” (24: 18, 22). Secular writers on the right have long regarded this insight into the imperial tendencies of the lusts of the flesh as the greatest truth in Christianity; not to mention the greatest indictment against the liberal ethos. Irving Babbitt, for instance, warned against “expansive lusts,” and against the sentimental philosophy that assured men that orderly societies could “come together expansively and on the level of their ordinary selves.” Every “glorification of instinct,” he wrote, must result in psychological and social “imperialism” (3).
It must also result in disgust. As used here, disgust should not be confused with distaste. Distaste is a standing and settled aversion, such as a chaste woman properly feels for performance of oral sex in a public toilet. Disgust is a feeling of revulsion that one feels after one’s mind is no longer darkened by a deceitful lust. It is the scourge, for instance, of an unchaste woman who does not under all circumstances find oral sex in public toilets distasteful. The teetotaler looks upon wine with distaste; the man with a hangover looks upon wine with disgust.
Disgust is born in the ebb tide of lust.
Hence after lust, disgust.
(1) Dictates or Sayings of the Philosophers (1480)
(2) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destinu of Man (1941), vol. 1, 2.4.
(3) Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (1924).