Argument From Disgust: On DeepSea Ugliness

  January 8th, 2008

Essay by C. Way – Copyright © 2008
Wolf Eel

(10 more like him here)

19th century thinkers like William Paley argued for the existence of God based on brilliant, beautiful, complex designs in nature — flowers, trees, bird plumage.

You might as well argue for the existence of God based on the ten astonishingly repulsive submarine lives in the link above: Alien forms so ugly they resist all aesthetic valuation. With walleyed gill-flutter they shatter the mirror and slither into the soft void beyond, where symmetry, harmony, color, line & beauty all become meaningless. They’re defiantly themselves, in silent, weird, ultra-pressurized pitch — Holy fuck, look at these critters.

My throat catches when I scan them all. The glutinous blobfish. The estuarine rockfish, severe & implacable as an Olmec head. The wheezing porcine lumpfish.

Why do I start to feel this way? Is it because I catch myself finding them wretched and laughable, ridiculously abhorrent, and then become ashamed with myself, knowing they can’t help how they were made?

Is it because I feel humbled in their presence, their ancient miles-removed presence, so coldly distant from mine that they might as well be martians wriggling among asteroids?

Is it because I feel smaller and uglier & more pathetic compared to their spiny, encrusted, cartilaginoid, mucoused, jellied but unselfconscious & heedless & glaring faces? More purely themselves in all their horrorshow gristle than all of us with our dissembling and meta-shit and second-guessing?

There they are, these deeptrench lives, captured in shock at the foot of ours, drinking all our drainage, our oldest and strangest cohabiters, blinking and mouthing in black while we feed them more plastic.

[posted by C Way at 1:37 AM]


[file under: non-fiction & essays ]

Comments (4) To “Argument From Disgust: On DeepSea Ugliness”

  1. Astrophile said:

    Is this real? It looks like a parody of a human being. It appears to have lips and a nose, and even something of a forehead, none of which are common among fish. Perhaps we find it ugly because it looks like a parody of a human being rather than like a proper fish.

  2. C Way said:

    Hi Astrophile, thanks for your comment. This is a wolf eel. As for why we find it ugly, I’d never considered the parody angle — I think you’re on to something. Some of us see this and think “human face”, not “fish”, and subconsciously, in a nanosecond, judge it by those standards.

  3. Suzanne Daniels said:

    Fun musings. Re: Astrophile’s comment: I’ve come face to face with a few aquarium fish with those unheimlich features that make you want to apologize for peering in at them. A book I read,The Cuttlefish, leaps to mind, for some reason–maybe the author’s treatment of the cuttlefish via the distant intimacy of childhood nostalgia… On the other end of the spectrum, there is the visceral reaction we (or many of us) have to insects, which also interests me–why the shiver of revulsion? The ultimate ‘other,’ with facial features–and limbs– where they “shouldn’t” be?

  4. S.Crow said:

    Very interested in this Cuttlefish book, Suzanne, thanks for mentioning it. I agree regarding the visceral revulsion toward insects. I think it’s partly what you describe — the ultimate ‘Other’ness. The structures and anatomy — most importantly, for humans in this regard, the facial structure — are so vastly different and that they strike in us a potent blend of awe, confusion, recoil and fear. Mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, are far more in line with what we know of ourselves — two eyes, a mouth, an olfactory apparatus, two or four legs. Everything’s different in bug land, with chitin and the multiple eyes, and the way some metamorphosize, and the placement and structure of the visual organs… etc etc. And they have real impact on the human project… termites eat wood, bees can swarm, mosquitos transmit disease and sap blood, scorpions and sting and poison, spiders can too, lice can infest, beetles can harm crops…. So I think their extreme otherness combined with their power as global, permanent infiltrating mass have helped them become buried in human DNA for millenia as an inherited wariness and fear trigger. I wish that weren’t the case. Insects are beautiful, powerful examples of natural beauty (in my opinion) and we have so much to learn from them. In my opinion we should all strive to feel past that shiver of revulsion when we feel it about anything in nature we don’t understand. We are all connected, even to bugs and worms and moss and things we bear the least resemblance to.

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