Book review: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they are really 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. (49)

When my proctor for the major portion of my comps suggested that one of my possible comps questions could be a comparison between Andre Breton’s Nadja and Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (which was published under the pseudonym Lord Auch), I was like “Far out! How cool would it be to compare two Surrealist love stories?” I liked Nadja quite a bit, after all. I naively did not look more into Story of the Eye, I just ordered the book and picked it upat the library. Even more naively: I didn’t read the back of the book. I didn’t even think that it would be that different from Nadja: I imagined that it would have a disjointed narrative and be rather misogynistic. Now, I am a grown-up– a grad school grown-up, mind you, which means that I take everything with a grain of salt– but if this book is read as a narrative and a piece of literature, there are only four words I can say: assault on the senses. I have not read anything by the Marquis de Sade (though I did see “Quills”), but if one reads Story of the Eye literally, I can say with absolute confidence that one will find this to be one of the most depraved things ever written. Ever. Most of the prose is so foul that I cannot quote much here lest I risk having the post taken down due to inappropriate content; I can’t even reproduce a summary for the exact same reason. Just look up Story of the Eye on Wikipedia; it also goes into the perverse symbolism behind the pseudonym Lord Auch, which is unsurprisingly almost as debauched as the novel itself.

Being the responsible student that I am, I looked up some scholarly analyses of the book to try to take the edge off. I am going to need to pick up Roland Barthes’ Critical Essays because it has “Metaphor of the Eye,” one of the first investigations into Story of the Eye (shockingly, it took almost 40 years for anyone to actually regard it as anything other than pure porn). Though I have not read “Metaphor” in its entirety yet, I have been able to find some good summaries for my blogging purposes. I’m also going to need Styles of Radical Will, which features Susan Sontag’s essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” and Michel Foucault’s Bataille: A Critical ReaderThere is a surprising amount of symbolism amongst all of the kinkiness involving eggs, eyes, and certain bodily fluids. The book is also (very indirectly) something of an autobiography of Bataille’s own life experiences. These factors made the reading of Story of the Eye somewhat less painful.

There is a LOT of debauchery in this book, making it impossible to get through without feeling dirty or needing to cleanse one’s brain matter. At the core of this debauchery is a “love story” between the two main characters, the narrator (who remains unnamed for the duration of the book) and Simone. Another character, Marcelle, is involved for about half of the book before she succumbs to her insanity and hangs herself in a sanitarium wardrobe. There is also Sir Edmond, who enters the story when the narrator and Simone escape to Spain to avoid questioning regarding Marcelle’s suicide (since they were at the scene and their attempt to jailbreak her led to her suicide). Though there are characters, there is no character development. The “narrative”– disjointed as it is, which is largely due to the shock value of the actual words– is a love story, but the book itself is about “the Eye” and different iterations of eyes (eggs, bull’s testicles, and other similarly round objects). A second thread in the story deals with fluids: namely egg yolks, milk, and practically ALL bodily fluids. This focus on objects (i.e. imagery) and metaphors therefore renders the story less of a story and more of a poem. Like Breton (with whom Bataille had a falling-out with shortly after meeting), the aim with the book was to disrupt the suffocatingly logical structure of the traditional narrative and utilize different literary tools to create a new kind of “story.”

Scholarly analyses are not the only sources that delve into the metaphorical aspects of Eye. My edition of the book, which was published in 1987, has some notes from Bataille himself in the epilogue chapters. These notes illuminate his goal of evoking imagery with words. His father was blind and paralyzed (Bataille says something about him being “syphilitic,” so I’m guessing he had a very advanced case of syphilis); he had to urinate so frequently that he had a small container that he kept in his chair and was totally unashamed about relieving himself in front of anyone at any time. Bataille states that he loved his father more than his mother, and that his milky white eyes stayed in his thoughts (conscious or subconscious) when he wrote about eggs and obviously eyes in particular. Interestingly, after he finished writing the book, a friend brought to his attention that bull testicles look much like eggs.

His mother, on the other hand, is vaguely reminiscent of Marcelle. After his father had a complete mental breakdown due to the deterioration of his body and brain, his mother went into a state of “manic-depressive insanity (melancholy)” (95). One day he had found her in the attic, hanging by a rope. She was able to be revived. She also may have tried to drown herself at another point; Bataille is rather vague, saying that he found her near the creek, soaked up to her waist.

There is another point in the story that the narrator finds a wet sheet hanging that belongs to Marcelle. When Bataille was a child, he saw another child hiding under a sheet like a ghost, which terrified him at the time. But he did as Surrealists do: he took an innocuous childhood memory and imbued it with sexual symbolism for the purpose of story-telling. After all of his discussion about connecting elements from his story to his own life experiences, he states: “I never linger over such memories, for they have long since lost any emotional significance for me. There was no way I could restore them to life except by transforming them and making them unrecognizable, at first glance, to my eyes, solely because during that deformation they acquired the lewdest of meanings” (96).

If I briefly compare Eye to Nadja, I have the following thoughts: Nadja was a mental fetishization of a woman, whereas Simone (and, to an extent, Marcelle) was a physical fetishization. Bataille goes on and on (and ON) about Simone’s body in the crudest of terms, whereas Breton was more interested in Nadja’s mental state as making her beautiful. Breton relied on actual imagery to create a disjointed narrative, whereas Bataille relied on verbal imagery (which is why I don’t count this book as “Art History”). In both stories, there is an internal reflection the part of the author and a fascination with madness and the subconscious (this is much more direct in Nadja). I’ll be interested to look into more critical analyses on both books, not only for studying purposes but for my own enlightenment.

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