In this, we find possibly the most direct aspect of the abject as a literary device rather than a trajectory or catalyst for literary furtherance: where in pre-modern times literature would seek the supplication of tragedy via God, via prayer, via faith, we find that the modern writer is divorced from religion. As Kristeva says, that option is forfeited—even if faith is central in the story, even if the author actually speaks with conviction of the power of God, there is still the modern angle of society and social ills being more real, more present, than the relationship of the protagonist with God. It is not a question of God being present, being extant, or not: it is a question of death and how society deals with death. When even the most pitiful death occurs in a pre-modern text, unless it is of someone evil and unredeemed, the death is predicated on the repair of supplication, of consecration, of burial even in holy ground. I mentioned in the introduction to this essay how I like to read vampire stories—supposedly true ones—from the Balkans: often, in historical, native, vampire lore from this region the curse of the vampire is itself broken and the undead goes back to being normal, nice, docile, dead once the corpse is buried in a proper manner in a consecrated churchyard. In much of modern literature, there is no curse but neither is there consecration. Both are removed. In any case, the abject is localized in the horror of what has happened: a murder, an unexplained death, a body thrown out without proper burial. These are all things that understandably repulse us and likewise horrify us in their ability to occur in the first place.
Though the abject is the matter of disgust while abjection is the process of repulsion, Kristeva finds the sublime inspired by the abject—forged from it in fact—even when she discerns little jouissance in the abject realm. She is far from the first to make this discovery, though she articulates it better than anyone else I’ve read on the topic. The sublime arises from the abject just as the sublime was found in the early ruins so beloved by the British Victorians: they loved such ruins so much, tempered by the centuries and eroded by rain and snow, as to go forth and build follies that imitated ruins where no ruins existed. They built useless, expensive, monuments to decay and that—the creation of a thing of decay and loss in the wake of no such real loss, or false loss to replace real loss,—is truly abject. The horror of something grand fallen into nothingness, dissolved beyond usefulness, decayed to its primeval corpse-self, is the territory of literature where Kristeva finds the greatness of abjection. Through her Biblical examples, her classical examples, her in-depth study of Céline’s writing, Kristeva takes her reader away from the simple point of the abject being simply that which is disgusting or foul, and into the complex arena of the abject being that which pushes margins. The contemporary term “trainwreck” well comes to mind, as the abject is that which can inspire both our collective sense of horror and acknowledgement that something awful has transpired but also that very special fulcrum that balances between mystical surprise and very organic repulsion. In such, in the truly abject despite its multiple and varied forms, we locate the powers of horror.
by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay ..