May 3, 2013

The NSFW Files: "Story of the Eye," by Georges Bataille

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite the erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)
Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille
Story of the Eye
By Georges Bataille
Review by Karl Wolff
The History: In Susan Sontag's essay, "The Pornographic Imagination," she discusses five novels, including The Story of the Eye. My essay series, The NSFW Files, will cover three, the first being Georges Bataille's 1928 shocker. Easily dismissed as juvenile and vulgar, a reader new to the capacious works of Georges Bataille should first have some historical, literary, and aesthetic background surrounding the novella. Written in 1928 by Georges Bataille under the pseudonym Lord Auch, the novel went through four versions (1928, 1940, 1941, and 1967). The City Lights edition I'm using for this review is based on the 1928 version.*

When it was written, France had endured the hardships and atrocities inflicted by the First World War. To put a perspective on how this effected the nature of French culture I will throw out some not-so-random numbers. 1.4 million. That is the number of French military casualties. During the Second World War, the United Stated had 418,000 total deaths, including military and civilian casualties. I mention this because during the Twenties, France becomes the hot-bed for the artistic avant-garde. Creating this infusion of literary and artistic radicalism involved a rejection of the old values that killed millions in the trenches, left survivors scarred and insane, toppled most European monarchies, and obliterated the techno-capitalist-progressivist optimism that fueled the Nineteenth Century.

Amidst this cultural change and aesthetic avant-garde is Georges Bataille. Novelist, poet, anthropologist, surrealist, pornographer, philosopher, and literary critic, Bataille is comparable to William T. Vollmann in terms of scope of knowledge and dwelling on the more salacious aspects of human existence. Story of the Eye is the tip of a massive, fascinating iceberg. (I will explain more of his philosophy and how it dovetails with Story of the Eye below.)

In addition to the creative maelstrom of the Twenties, Bataille's pornographic fiction is part of a larger French literary heritage. The United States has the historical baggage of being founded by the Puritans with their funny shaped hats, harsh Calvinism, and penchant for hanging Quakers. France is an entirely different animal. Apart from France's ferocious secularism following the 1789 Revolution, France also has two literary figures instrumental to understanding this novella: the Marquis de Sade and Alfred Jarry. Jarry wrote Ubu Roi in 1896 to the shock of polite French society. Sade, as Sontag wrote, "had never been forgotten. He was read enthusiastically by Flaubert, Baudelaire and most of the other geniuses of French literature of the late nineteenth century ... The quality and theoretical density of the French interest in Sade remains virtually incomprehensible to English and American literary intellectuals, for whom Sade is perhaps an exemplary figure in the history of psychopathology, both individual and social, but inconceivable as someone to be taken seriously as a "thinker." Sade's literary footprint looms large in Story of the Eye.

(I will be approaching this analysis from a literary perspective, avoiding the condescension implied by both the moralizing and pathologizing perspectives.)

The Book: Story of the Eye is broken into four parts. The first is "The Tale," concerning the carnal misadventures of an unnamed Narrator, his friend Simone, and a girl named Marcelle. The Narrator and Simone participate in a series of sexual situations. Marcelle also participates, is scandalized, institutionalized, and, shortly after the Narrator and Simone free her, she hangs herself. As fugitives, the Narrator and Simone flee to Spain. They meet a debauched English aristocrat named Sir Edmond and their carnal misadventures escalate in ferocity and intensity. In one scene, Simone reaches orgasm upon witnessing a bullfighter getting gored, the bull's horn going through the bullfighter's eye. The final scene in this novella involves the Narrator, Simone, and Sir Edmond sexually abusing a priest, eventually killing him. The reader understands the title of the novella because of things done with a plucked out eye. With Bataille, as with Sade, sex is inextricably linked with death. In French, the orgasm is called "la petite mort," translated as "the little death."

The second part, called "Coincidences," is Bataille's biographical and psychological explanation for "The Tale." In this essay, he gives a kind of psychological exorcism, explaining his eccentric and torturous childhood. His father, a syphlitic, slowly disintegrated, mentally and physically during Bataille's childhood. His mother also attempted suicide. During the First World War, his family had to abandon his father in their home during the German advance. Like a bonus featurette on a DVD, Bataille pulls back the curtain and explains the transpositions and substitutions he made to his personal history. Taken alone, "The Tale" would be an amusing shocker and probably fade into literary obscurity. "Coincidences" transforms this shocker into literary art. The artistic merit is gained from how Bataille uses pornography. (By comparison, look at how the steampunk genre uses history.) The last two parts include "W.C.", a short essay about an abandoned work similar to Story of the Eye, and "Outline of a sequel," which follows Simone and the Narrator fifteen years after the novella, with Simone dying in a scene of sublime torture. (Again the sex and death motif.)

The Verdict: Yes, Story of the Eye is pornographic and yes, it is an example of literary genius. "The Tale" has cardboard characters, inexhaustible sexual acrobatics, and is festooned with four-letter words. But ... it is a monument of psychological confession and the power of transgressive literature. Besides influencing the Surrealists, Bataille's work can be seen as an early version of bizarro fiction.

*For more on City Lights and their legal battles, check out my review of Mania! by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover.
Read even more about Story of the Eye: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet

Filed by Karl Wolff at 7:05 AM, May 3, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |