The question of how to approach “Story of the Eye” is a difficult one. Should I read it with a fresh eye or informed eye? (ha ha) Before even opening this book which was lent to me by a friend I knew it had a reputation as being scandalously sexually explicit, but also having been a profound influence on many high-minded 20th century French thinkers and artists. Equally the cover of this Penguin books edition doesn’t hide the fact of what you’ll find inside by displaying a woman’s torso and her genitals. And yes, I was too embarrassed to read it on the tube. Nevertheless I felt nervous about approaching it uninformed for fear of not "getting it." Without looking at any background about the book or the essays by either Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes included in this edition, I plunged in reading. In general, I like to come to a book fresh without the influence of any reviews or essays to color my opinions before I’ve formed some of my own.
This novel doesn’t hold back opening almost immediately with a teenage boy describing meeting the sexually adventurous Simone who stands over a bowl of milk, hikes her skirt up and lowers herself down to give “pussy” a drink. Before running away, Simone’s stunned mother simply ignores her flagrant sexual exploits with the male narrator and turns a blind eye to the proceedings even when her daughter pisses on her from the rafters. In short intense episodes the unnamed male narrator goes on to describe an unrestrained romp-fest with Simone which include orgies, water sports, creative uses of boiled eggs, freeing a sectioned girl named Marcelle from a mental institution, bull fights and transgressive acts in a church including sexually assaulting a priest. Amidst these explicit carryings on the narrator makes a number of striking observations about dreams, desire, obsession, violence, breaking from convention and death.
So what to make of it all without the informed background or academic arguments to influence my opinion? Like reading a poem for the first time I’m not sure what to think of it. It certainly stirred a lot of feelings for me. Anger. Disgust. Lust. Despair. Boredom. It seemed more to be playing with my subconscious than presenting a coherent narrative I could follow and thoughtfully consider – although it is a story. I dread to think what nightmares might assault me tonight. Certainly this was the author’s intention. For when the libido is given free-reign these transgressive fantasies are the result and as he states “our sexual dream kept changing into a nightmare.” It would be naively idealistic to believe that sex should only ever manifest in romantic expressions of loving passion. Sex is also frightening, indulgent, melancholy and scandalous. It’s frequently expressed as an assertion of power or a willingness to cede our bodies to the powerful. From the heights of ecstasy we often fall into the trenches of despair. If you continuously and heedlessly chase after lust it will turn sour; it will lead to madness. Instinctively we know this. That’s why there is so much shame, so much fear and repression, so many social rules, so much concealing and many furtive liaisons. Without it would we have so much literature? Probably not.
By dealing with sex in such a forthright way does it make “Story of the Eye” great literature? Without even reading about the book’s background and academic arguments focusing on it I can already imagine the debate will be - is it pornography or is it art? A question that can’t be answered. People will use it for what they will. In my book group a few years ago we read Anais Nin’s collection of erotica “Delta of Venus.” This book provokes the same question. To me, Nin’s stories felt both less artful and less interesting than this book (although they are certainly just as frankly and dynamically sexual.) But I was also less offended. There are aspects of “Story of the Eye” which do make me feel very uncomfortable. Not for its explicitness even when it verges into the dodgy territory of necrophilia. But two aspects of the book strike me as deeply suspicious.
Firstly, this book is purely about the male gaze. The narrator is anonymous and Simone is a male fantasy. Without inhibition or questioning she joins him in realizing his most perverse and insidious desires. When they free Marcelle from the nut house she suddenly becomes terrified of the narrator who takes on the symbolic image of a cardinal to her. The narrator realizes she makes this connection from the red blood which covered him when during their orgy he violently raped a girl. This incident wasn’t recorded when the orgy scene was previously recounted. Rape in fantasy certainly is something that should be explored – as it is an impulse which enters into the imagination of some people either as being the perpetrator or the victim. My issue with the way it’s raised here is the callous reference to it as if it were totally expected and not worth mentioning before.
The second thing I found offensive in the book is in a passage where he describes Simone having a different type of climax and makes a racist analogy: “These orgasms were as different from normal climaxes as, say, the mirth of savage Africans from that of Occidentals. In fact, though the savages may sometimes laugh as moderately as whites, they also have longlasting spasms, with all parts of the body in violent release, and they go whirling willy-nilly, flailing their arms about wildly, shaking their bellies, necks, and chests, and chortling and gulping horribly.” This blanket description referring to the way Africans have sex is both a stereotype and diminishing by turning a certain group of people into a symbol for unrestrained sexual expression. What’s particularly inflammatory about the statement is the end description of “horribly” which gives negative connotations to an unconscious physical reaction. Although Bataille seems to be invoking these multifarious sexual escapades as a way of seriously exploring the psychological complexity of lust here he vilifies a race of people by profiling them as showing savage unrestraint and presents it as if he’s making a humorous joke at their expense.
Having pointed those out there are aspects of the book I did find symbolically powerful and resonant. In particular, he has a way of describing the inability to achieve real satisfaction or fully satiate desire even after a climax is achieved – even multiple times. Here he notes the power of dreaming when thinking about the open window in the mental institution belonging to Marcelle as he looks up at it: “It is not astonishing that the bleakest and most leprous aspects of a dream are merely an urging in that direction, an obstinate waiting for total joy, like the vision of that glowing hole, the empty window” Here he suggests that desire is the murky condition which can’t be climbed out of no matter how many times a seeming fulfillment or an actual orgasm is achieved. The fantasy will always remain just out of reach, hanging luminous and attractive in the distance.
Going further, Bataille contemplates that desire for intercourse and the impulse to sexually meld into each other exists on an elemental level. He surmises “death was the sole outcome of my erection, and if Simone and I were killed, then the universe of our unbearable personal vision was certain to be replaced by the pure stars, fully unrelated to any external gazes and realizing in a cold state, without human delays or detours, something that strikes me as the goal of my sexual licentiousness: a geometric incandescence (among other things, the coinciding point of life and death, being and nothingness), perfectly fulgurating.” Here he elegantly suggests that light is a sort of an ideal expression of desire’s fulfillment. The radiance of it is caused by a collision of feeling beyond the flesh. It’s both an idealistic concept and an existentially crushing thought.
From the numerous explicit descriptions there is a building sense that (like in the John Waters’ film ‘A Dirty Shame’) “anything goes” is the new normality. This obviously clashes vociferously against what’s considered the civilized manner of achieving conjugation. Bataille writes “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 savour the 'pleasures of the flesh' only on condition that they be insipid.” His attack on “decent people” is linked to a sense of inhibitions about sex in society. The transgression he describes in this book is a way of bulldozing through this to reclaim the untamed animalistic instinct to have sex and assert that we are “akin to one another in the common isolation of lewdness, weariness, and absurdity.”
All this unrelenting lewdness is comical but also necessary. How else to navigate through the moral and socially polite barricades to deal frankly with how sex expresses itself in our imaginations? The book is elevated by the fact the writer probes the matter so assiduously like a nightmare he refuses to be thrown out of. Bataille’s writing is uneven, sometimes repetitive and doesn’t fully consider many facets of the complex psychosexual being. But perhaps if the book weren’t so short it would lose its impact? Or perhaps it would become such an intimidating swamp of bodily fluid no one could finish it? As it stands, it’s provoked a lot for me to think about and, having restrained myself, I’m now eager to read the included essays by Sontag and Barthes as well as others’ opinions and more information about Bataille himself.
If you’ve read this book I’d be very interested to hear what you think and if you haven’t does frank sexual content put you off from reading books even if they are considered a so-called "classic"?