My rating: 2 of 5 stars
[This is a pornographic novel, and not all of the activities it describes are consensual, so you might avoid this review if you would like to avoid discussions or descriptions of such material.]
Back during the dark heart of the George W. Bush administration, I followed a blog and message board of the radical left whose contributors became increasingly convinced that sex magick (including Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse) was key to the neoconservative elite and their empire. Today, in the deliberations of the alt-right in their quest to defeat the Clintons, such speculations about the occult predilections and supposedly attendant sexual predations of the imperial ruling class have returned, this time among the reactionary right (see here, for instance). How are these hair-raising tales of the night-side of U.S. fringe politics relevant to a French pornographic novel published in 1928?
I mainly wanted to read Story of the Eye because of [P]’s fascinating review, which makes Bataille seem wholesome, almost Rousseauist, but also because I was discussing with a correspondent what books we were reading on Election Day 2012, and I recalled, with the help of my Goodreads catalog, that I was reading Guido Giacomo Preparata’s rather psychedelic tract, The Ideology of Tyranny: Bataille, Foucault, and the Postmodern Corruption of Political Dissent (2007).
For Preparata, Bataille is the key artist and philosopher of our debased, war-ridden, and exploitative postmodernity, the hidden thinker who expresses the truths of our time concealed by more “respectable” philosophers of postmodernism, such as Foucault—not to mention think-tank neoliberals and warmongering neoconservatives, whose implicit philosophy of endless war and unlimited exploitation belies their ostensible liberalism to reveal their actual devotion to Gnostic cults of ritual sacrifice, to the sovereignty of a murderous elite pledged to the formless unholy Void.
Preparata explains that because liberalism promises human emancipation but has actually delivered class oppression, cultural extermination, and imperial war on a technological scale that exceeds anything before it, its devotees require a philosophy that explains what they are actually doing rather than what they claim to do. Bataille’s philosophy fills this need: it advocates an autonomous and vital materialism, which conceives the universe as the self-generative spawning of a headless god, best revealed in acts of sublime violence and sacrifice. He inspires thinkers of the right with a justification for their imperial warfare and grinding down of the poor, and inspires leftists by leveling ethics to a relativizing identity politics that obscures the common needs of humanity and provides cover (behind the academic bureaucratization of anti-humanism) for destructive cultural practices, all while adding a lurid countercultural glamor for those who would play “Sunday rebel.”
(I will confess that I’ve tried Bataille’s theoretical essays and made my way through one or two famous ones, such as “The Solar Anus” and “The Big Toe,” but I find his writing impenetrable and soporific, far beyond the supposed difficulty of Foucault or Deleuze—another reason I opted for his fiction instead.)
Preparata, it should be emphasized, is an economist and published his book with an academic press; not himself an occultist, he proposes as a corrective to the shared crypto-Gnosticism of the postmodernists and neoconservatives a rational and compassionate tradition exemplified for him by Thorstein Veblen, though imbued with a numinous classicism in his allusions to Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and the god Apollo. This latter is obviously in pointed distinction to Dionysus; though Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy in The Birth of Tragedy, to which I largely subscribe, recommends, for psychic and political balance, a dialectical synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus in the artwork, not the thoughtless veneration of the wine-god.
Back to Bataille’s pornographic novel, with all of the above in mind. Story of the Eye tells the tale of two teenagers who begin an energetic exploration of non-normative and fetishistic sex practices, particularly dwelling on eyes, eggs, and urine. Our narrator and Simone soon become obsessed with a more innocent friend named Marcelle and devote themselves to her debasement. During an orgy led by Simone, Marcelle runs to a wardrobe to masturbate in shame, then floods the wardrobe with urine upon her orgasm, and remains locked inside for the duration of the orgy; as a result of this traumatic experience, she has to be institutionalized. Our heroes eventually succeed in springing her from the asylum—[P] is surely right to note in his review that this sequence is a perversion of the classic fairy tale princess in the tower—but she eventually kills herself when she awakens enough from her madness to notice that her deliverers were those who had previously debauched her, particularly a man she thinks of the as “the Cardinal.” Her interpretation of the narrator’s significance is important:
“But who is the Cardinal?” Simone asked her.
“The man who locked me in the wardrobe,” said Marcelle.
“But why is he a cardinal?” I cried.
She replied: “Because he is the priest of the guillotine.”
I now recalled Marcelle’s dreadful fear when she left the wardrobe, and particularly two details: I had been wearing a blinding red carnival novelty, a Jacobin liberty cap; furthermore, because of the deep cuts in a girl I had raped, my face, clothes, hands—all parts of me were stained with blood.
Thus, in her terror, Marcelle confused a cardinal, a priest of the guillotine, with the blood-smeared executioner wearing a liberty cap: a bizarre overlapping of piety and abomination for priests explained the confusion, which, for me, had remained attached to both my hard reality and the horror continually aroused by the compulsiveness of my actions.
The narrator’s identification with both premodern clerical authority and the modern political authority that has supposedly supplanted it (through acts and technologies of terrifying violence) may be the key to the novel’s politics, which I cannot read as Rousseauist: its orgiastic fetishistic rites are in service not to liberation but to power pure and simple, power for its own sake, whether the power of the priest or the revolutionary.
After Marcelle’s suicide, Simone and the narrator flee to Spain with an English aristocrat, where they have further escapades at a bullfight. For example, in the audience Simone inserts a bull’s raw testicle into her vagina and orgasms at the same moment a toreador’s eye is gouged out by a bull’s horn in the arena. Eventually, they find themselves in a church in Seville, one supposedly founded by a penitent Don Juan, where they rape and murder a priest—his eye, too, ends up in Simone’s vagina, but not before spending some time in her anus. Finally, from Gibraltar, they “set sail towards new adventures with a crew of Negroes.”
In several afterwords, Bataille outlines the intersections of his fiction with his own life (much of the urine imagery comes from the debility of his syphilitic father, for instance) and plots a sequel, wherein Simone ends up beaten to death at 35 in a “torture camp,” where she is transfigured far beyond the masochistic by her “labor of agony”—a parody of birth that so blasphemes the universe that the universe becomes all the more exalted in its hideous sublimity.
My interpretation squares with the narrator’s explanation of his own book, offered in the middle of the novel:
To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness. They are never frightened by the crowing of a rooster or when strolling under a starry heaven. In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid.
But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it. My kind of debauchery soils not only my body and my thoughts, but also anything I may conceive in its course, that is to say, the vast starry universe, which merely serves as a backdrop.
I associate the moon with the vaginal blood of mothers, sisters, that is, the menstrua with their sickening stench…
Mothers and sisters—that is, female blood relations—are presumably sickening for Bataille because, like eggs, they stand for generation and their menstrual blood for the processes that generate life. The eye, on the other hand, stands for visionary perception, but it too must be debased because the eye’s idealism has in the western tradition also upheld life by associating it with a higher ideal, God or the Platonic forms or, simply, the truth. Bataille and his heroes are inverted Platonists, no less in love with an ideal, but a dark and negative ideal, an upside-down sublime, a mountain standing on its head, a photo-negative of the good, an anti-truth of the rapture of torture.
As a philosophy, such speculations are not uninteresting, but they are intensely dull when expressed as the hackneyed Catholic-schoolboy blasphemies of Story of the Eye‘s final chapters. The opening chapters, too, failed to interest me; they are a standard male fantasy of finding a woman who will be your perfect fetishistic sex toy, and if the fetishes described are not your own, you may be bored by their elaborate description. Some of the material in the middle, though—the folkloric image of Marcelle’s imprisonment; the scenes at the bullfight, which may shed new light on Hemingway—is thought-provoking and resonant.
All in all, Story of the Eye is a typical piece of “French extremity,” to cite the film genre, a narrative tradition almost unchanged since the days of Sade, whose books I have never succeeded in finishing, and which continues onscreen today. Mechanically reversing the traditional pieties of the west like flipping a series of switches, the devotees of extremity have created a pious tradition of their own, carried on to a stultifying extent in the institutions of culture, particularly the art world and some wings of academe. That conspiracy theorists like those cited in my opening paragraph mistake this ossified counterculture for a dangerous coven is amusing, but Preparata’s judgment is probably truer: the official philosophy of transgression in our time is the alibi of those whose designs are more worldly—wealth and power.
I am not a gelded-eyed Apollonian myself and have written with admiration in just the last few weeks of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg who perceive inhuman powers at work in the cosmos and in society and disparage any weak sentimentalism that would evade this fact. But these disparate writers do not pretend that the human condition can be one of simply melding with the anti-light of the black sun and disappearing up our own orifice in an ecstatic worship of the void; from Lovecraft’s rationalism to Schnackenberg’s Christianity, to say nothing of Yeats’s unforgettably articulated inner conflict between the needs of the flesh and the desires of the soul, these writers chart what actually is: the void, yes, but also every attempt to fill it or redeem it or see ourselves in it, all those human drives from reason to love that exist alongside or in tension with the will to annihilate ourselves or another.
Bataille, and perhaps “French extremity” in general, is without this tension, without this dialectic, and so, for me, does not rise to the level of literature, however well it may function as a book of one hand—or one thought.