Ariel says: Today’s guest post comes from someone very dear to my heart – Neil Patrick Harris! I’m kidding of course. It’s my boyfriend Jeremy! He had to read Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye for his European Literature module last year, and would frequently read me out passages that scarred me for life. I didn’t want to suffer alone anymore, so I asked him to write a piece about some, er, old-skewl…”erotica.” As you can see, I’m struggling to find accurate words to describe this book. To put it in terms people here might best understand you know how there are people out there who thought the sex in Fifty Shades was shocking? Well, this would make their heads explode.
I also apologize for his British spelling of words. My computer is going apeshit over all the errors. I’m sorry, but there is no reason to put a “u” in favorite.
With all that in mind, enjoy!
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Hello everybody, and welcome to Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.
Some consider it to be an Existential masterpiece, whilst others have condemned it as one of the most depraved fetishistic fantasies ever written. [Ariel says: some, including myself, have reacted by saying “ew” repeatedly.] My personal favourite review of the book came from Goodreads user Patrick, who condemned Bataille’s work as “unabashedly, humiliatingly retarded.” He closes his comment by saying that he’s “read better fanfic porn,” which is worrying because it suggests that he read the book expecting to be sexually aroused by it. If you haven’t read Story of the Eye, the first thing you should know is that you would never, ever read it for that reason – this becomes clear enough in the seventh line, when the narrator begins musing on what his favourite vagina synonym is:
“I was unable to see as far up as the cunt (this name, which I always used with Simone, is, I think, by far the loveliest of the names for the vagina).” [A line that is always best read in the voice of Hannibal Lecter.]
[Ariel says: It makes E.L. James’ penchant for calling Ana’s vagina her “sex” sound rather pleasant.] [Matthew says: I don’t get it. That is commonly considered a most charming euphemism to this day.]
Still, Patrick was gracious enough to give Bataille’s novella two stars, so he must have gotten a kick out of it somewhere down the line. [Matthew says: “I couldn’t even rub one out to this sick, retarded waste of time. Two stars.”] Anyway, I digress. As far as erotic fiction is concerned, it’s somewhat the same old story: a weak-minded narrator/protagonist becomes enamoured with a strong and reckless member of the opposite sex. What ensues is best left unmentioned, but I am going to mention it anyway, otherwise I would have nothing to write about. Story of the Eye combines the rapiness of Christian Grey, the emotional insensitivity of Travis Maddox and the aggressively blunt sexual language of Gideon Cross. [Ariel says: Nothing has ever been more terrifying.] [Jeremy says: Exactly.] E. L. James and Sylvia Day should both pay homage to Georges Bataille, because if you’re going to write fiction about abusive relationships and sadomasochism, you might as well do it properly, which is exactly what Bataille did over eighty years ago. [Ariel says: Old school, yo.]
Below is a brief summary of Fifty Shades of Grey that I found online:
When Anastasia Steele, a young literature student, interviews wealthy young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, their initial meeting introduces Anastasia to an exciting new world that will change them both forever.
For the benefit of anybody who’s never come across Story of the Eye before, I figured I would summarise it in a similar fashion, to give the general gist of Bataille’s novella:
When [unnamed male narrator], an adolescent virgin, encounters distant cousin and young sex-psychopath Simone on a family holiday, their meeting introduces [unnamed male narrator] to a horrifying new world of inappropriate sex-play, masturbating in wardrobes, raping clergymen and orgies in cafes, churches, beaches, bullfights, murder scenes, lunatic asylums, their own houses, other peoples’ houses… orgies all round really, that leaves both characters largely unchanged, asides from a slight sense of Existential ennui.
[Ariel says: The saddest part of all this is that somewhere out there someone got a boner from reading that.] [Matthew says: Orgies IN THEIR OWN HOUSES?]
Let’s put it this way, it isn’t exactly Twilight fan fiction. E. L. James might show a blatant disregard for the Christian morals that Twilight is based around, [Matthew clarifies: Not just Christian morals. MORMON morals. The most popular subcategory of Christianity!] but at least Bella and Edward don’t roll up to a church and molest a priest, like Bataille’s young, raunchy protagonists. [Ariel says: This was literally the only redeeming part of Twilight for me. I specifically remember closing the book and thinking, “At least no priests were molested in this book.”]
The book was written in the 1920s and became renowned as a story designed to shock, as well as being an aggressive attack on the Catholic Church as an institution (in case you hadn’t gathered that already). [Ariel says: I’m sure people were tweeting about it constantly. #ThisIsNotTheBeesKnees]
One cannot deny that, at points, there is also some very interesting metaphorical and sub-textual stuff going on. For instance, Simone is fascinated with ovular objects and other foodstuffs that symbolise fertility throughout the novel. There is also a running commentary on the sexual naivety of adolescents, but that’s less sub-textual, more painfully obvious. [Ariel says: BOO no one cares about the symbolism here. Let’s talk about the gross stuff again.] [Matthew says: Ariel, I am pretty sure subtext about sexually arousing foodstuffs counts as “gross stuff”.] [Jeremy says: It only gets grosser.]
Simone treats her vagina in the same manner that many toddlers treat their mouths: anything goes in. She begins with farmyard produce, particularly eggs, but her enthusiasm gets the better of her over the course of the book, and she goes on to experiment with all sorts horrible things, like severed eyes and testicles and, of course, the occasional finger and/or penis. [Ariel says: Jeremy, how come we never experiment with severed eyes and testicles? We’re not adventurous enough.] [Jeremy says: Your birthday is coming up next weekend, you don’t know what I have planned for us.] [Matthew is uncomfortable.]
“Put it up my arse, Sir Edmund,” Simone shouted. And Sir Edmund delicately glided the eye between her buttocks. [Presumably all of her other orifices were full up by this point.]
So this demonstrates Simone’s sexual naivety which is arguably due to religious and parental oppression – fair enough. [Matthew says: I’d be sticking eyeballs up my ass all the time if only it weren’t for my Catholic upbringing.] But one cannot help but feel that Bataille could have achieved his message without being quite so grotesque. The first chapter alone, which is only four or five pages in length, involves six uses of the word cunt, three acts of incest, a rape, someone getting urinated on and the unreported death of an innocent cyclist. As a cyclist myself, this part really touched a nerve. [Ariel says: As someone who is often deeply resentful of cyclists this delighted me.] But, cyclists aside, this theme of debauchery and death continues throughout the novella.
On top of all of this, the second page features the worst bit of sexual banter that I have ever witnessed. The sexual tension between the cousins is palpable at this point, so Simone makes her move, at the expense of one very unfortunate household pet:
Now in the corner of a hallway there was a saucer of milk for the cat. “Milk is for the pussy, isn’t it?” said Simone. “Do you dare me to sit in the saucer?”
“I dare you,” I answered, almost breathless.
Simone proceeds to squat down and lather her nether regions in the cat’s milk. Now, I’ve heard some truly dreadful pun-based pickup lines, but this has to be the worst. Quite frankly, it freaked meow’t. Even Cosmo wouldn’t endorse this sort of behaviour: Having a hard time getting your man into the bedroom? Why not heat things up with this saucy trick…
The whole thing is unhygienic, and unhygienic isn’t sexy [Ariel says: Exactly why Ana using Christian’s toothbrush wasn’t sexy], and also the wordplay is too simplistic for my liking. Seeing as Georges Bataille was widely considered to be one of the most prominent French intellectuals of his time, surely he could have come up with something a little wittier. Unless it was… just an honest mistake? If Simone had had the chance to read the work of mother-daughter writing duo Phyllis and Kristin Cast, this whole sticky situation could have been avoided – if it goes “me-eeh-uf-me-eef-uf-snort,” it’s a cat, but if it doesn’t, it might just be your vagina.
For all of my criticism, I would begrudgingly recommend this book to anybody who is open-minded and has an interest in Existentialist literature of the early Twentieth Century. If you buy the Penguin Classics version as I did, you even get an assortment of extra goodies with it. There’s an essay by everybody’s favourite unfathomable Frenchman Roland Barthes, written in his trademark style that makes you wonder if he had had a falling out with the man who invented the full stop.
Even better, there’s an analysis by Bataille himself in which he admits that the fictional Marcelle probably represented his own mother; this is a character who most notably locks herself in a wardrobe in the second chapter so that she can pleasure herself. Bataille goes on to say “It is impossible for me to say positively that Marcelle is basically identical with my mother,” making himself sound like a guilty pervert facing the prosecution on an episode of Law & Order. [Ariel says: He’s been begrudgingly watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU with me. I’m actually surprised this episode hasn’t been written already. This book has basically written a whole season’s worth of plot-lines for them.]
It seems that even Bataille himself was mystified by what certain aspects of Story of the Eye were meant to signify. [Matthew says: Good thing for the intentional fallacy, eh? That one’s a joke for all my English major homies!][Ariel says: English major five!]
This has led me to believe that at least some of it was written as disgustingness for the sake of disgustingness, making Story of the Eye the Scrotie McBoogerballs of the Twentieth Century.
[Ariel says: You can tell by his South Park references that he’s my boyfriend.]
The only difference is that Bataille wrote his book under the pseudonym “Lord Auch” to avoid getting in trouble, rather than blaming the whole thing on Butters. Also the Kardashians never got murdered as a result of Bataille’s novella being written, but he did include the outlines for a sequel with his fourth edition (published in 1967), so there is always hope.
That’s almost it for what I have to say about Bataille’s dark masterpiece. Obviously it’s rather different to the modern erotic fiction that has been critiqued, discussed and mocked on this site previously. It’s bolder in its story but often subtler in its message, and it’s challenging because it is intellectually stimulating, rather than challenging just because it’s badly written. [Matthew says: Word.] [Ariel says: It’s also challenging in that there is a scene where an eyeball is stuck up someone’s bum. That is a kind of challenge we have yet to face on this blog.] [Jeremy says: Not very romantic, but then again…]
Some critics have even praised Bataille for his feminist angle; after all, it’s Simone who occupies the Christian Grey/Gideon Cross role [Ariel says: This is also a first for this blog], whilst the male narrator trails around in her wake. There is the mysterious Sir Edmund who pops up around halfway through the story, but it’s pretty fucking unclear what he’s even doing there in the first place – he’s essentially some sort of ineffectual pimp who wanders around and indulges in a bit of casual voyeurism.
Asides from the squatting in milk and slaughtering of cyclists, there is a lot to be said for Story of the Eye – it’s considered as a literary classic by many for good reason. The obscenity is ridiculous now, which makes it difficult to really appreciate how shocking to society it must have been back in its day. With his questioning of commonly held values and taboo subjects, Bataille must have unsettled and pissed off many, many people by writing this novella. But, as people always say, you can’t make an omelette without sticking a few eggs up your vagina breaking some eggs.
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Ariel says: Jeremy sometimes posts for the political blog The BackBencher (which I occasionally even read!), so if political things intrigue you for some reason, you should check it out.