Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Jun 2018

The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

What is the boundary line between art, philosophy and pornography? Is there a line and is it important to have one? These are substantial questions of discourse and philosophy addressed in two short essays included in the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. These essays, The Pornographic Imagination by Susan Sontag and The Metaphor of the Eye by Roland Barthes, battle with these issues at the end of a novella which quite deliberately seeks to push notions of perverse sexuality to their outer limits.

Bataille was an author who, as part of the 20th century European surrealist movement, was unapologetically committed to exploring the different dimensions of what sociologists often call ‘transgressive’ behaviour – activity, in this case sexual activity, that broke the boundaries of conventional morality. The limited background material I’ve read about Bataille tends to emphasise his position in the emerging French philosophical and sociological tradition of the second half of the 20th century and he is often discussed as influential on the likes of Foucault, Derrida and Lacan.

However, The Story of the Eye seems to me to owe a significant debt to a very British maverick - artist and poet, William Blake. Blake’s unconventional philosophies have been the source of a huge body of critical analysis and much of that refers to Blake as ‘a visionary.’ His ideas certainly put him well outside the mainstream and applying the label ‘transgressive’ might well be in order. In fact, Blake also believed in living his life according to his own philosophical credo and this often brought him into conflict with established social mores. His poetry wasn’t easy either but if we look at the sometimes impenetrable Proverbs of Hell which are to be found in the bigger work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (circa 1793) we find an aphorism that I think applies aptly enough to Bataille’s novella:

 “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom...You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

I think that there are plenty of readers who will find Bataille’s text difficult to read – not because of obscurity or complexity but because of its fearless disregard for the boundaries of taste. It sets out the relationship between the young man who narrates the story and Simone, the young woman he has an obsessive sexual relationship with. Their determination to transgress acceptable behavioural boundaries leads to them drawing a third person into their orbit, Marcelle, who is both fascinated and repelled by them. Ultimately, their refusal to let her go and the moral conflict this creates within her psyche, eventually destroys her. And this boundary line between the creative and destructive power of unconfined sexuality is something that repeats throughout the story, building exponentially with each new outrage.

Simone and the narrator join forces with an English aristocrat who is rich enough to enable and witness their excesses and the Bataille’s original story ends:

“On the fourth day, at Gibraltar, the Englishman purchased a yacht, and we set sail towards new adventures with a crew of Negroes.”

And this is a conclusion you might think tacky enough to conclude any two-bit pornographic fantasy but I think, as both Sontag and Barthes suggest, that there is something more going on here. The central conceit of the novella revolves around the fetishisation (if that’s a word) of objects and the way in which the abstract erotic quality of the object can subtly transmute. The object in question here ends up being the eye and the defiling of the eye but we only arrive there by way transmutation from the egg to the (bulls) testicles as objects of sexual and erotic stimulation. Ultimately this must also be the fate of the eye, snipped from the socket of a defiled and degraded priest – the window of the soul becomes a window on the flesh.

Susan Sontag says something characteristically acute and pithy about what she felt lies behind Bataille's often brutal and confrontational eroticism in The Story of the Eye:

“One reason that Histoire de l’Oeil …make(s) such a strong and upsetting impression is that Bataille understood more clearly than any other writer I know of that what pornography is really about, ultimately, isn’t sex but death….It is towards the gratifications of death, succeeding and surpassing those of eros, that every truly obscene quest tends.”

That is not to say, I think, that every piece of pornography transcends to art or to this level of metaphor but in this instance there is, I think, a case to be made. Bataille outlined what might be included in a sequel to the original story and this rather supports Sontag’s interpretation of the relationship between the erotic and death. In this second instalment Simone is now thirty five years old and:

“She dies (in a torture camp) as though making love, but in the purity..and imbecility of death: fever and agony transfigure her. ….But with no result. Nor is it masochistic, and profoundly, this exaltation is beyond imagining; it surpasses everything. However, its basis is solitude and absence.”

As I said earlier, this most certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – or glass of absinth. Copies are available in the Penguin Modern classics edition which includes the novella, the essays, Bataille’s outline for a sequel and his own reflection on the story and its origins. It’s not expensive and a bit of shock and outrage might be just what you’re looking for?


Terry Potter

June 2018