Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the Erotic Elements in The Story of the Eye

Georges Bataille’s infamous book The Story of the Eye always poses before me a difficult question—what is the difference between pornography and a normal work of fiction suffused with sexual elements? Or, to be more precise, should we call this book pornographic?

Like any pornographic narrative, “The Story of the Eye” follows the sexual adventures of an unnamed late adolescent narrator and Simone, his female partner, in short episodic vignettes. It describes their activities in great details, ranging from orgy to necrophilia accompanied by sheer violence.

But at the same time, another aspect of the novel starts haunting us, thereby prohibiting us to arrive at a straightforward answer to the initial question. Rather than being content with the sexual experimentation of the couple, the narrative seems to become more and more preoccupied with an object, tracing its origin, development and subsequent transformation. The object is, as the title of the book suggests, the eye. Roland Barthes, in his essay “Metaphor of the Eye” (1962), rightfully says— 

"What happens to the Eye (and no longer to Marcelle, Simone, or the narrator) cannot be identified with ordinary fiction.”

He further argues that instead of working within a partial imaginary world where author’s imagination is bounded by the limitations of reality, Bataille straightaway creates a completely imaginary paradigm which lies far beyond reality. Barthes calls this poetic imagination. In this imaginary realm, the object, namely, the Eye, shifts paradigmatically from one substitutive object to another (eggs, testicles and other ovular objects) retaining its geometrical identity, but, at the same time, losing its functional one, behaving as a pure metaphor. There runs another stream, similar in nature and parallel to the aforementioned one. This is a series of liquid metaphors within the text, which flow through tears, cat's milk, egg yolks, frequent urination scenes, blood and semen. These two parallel streams are interdependent and interacts with each other as well.

According to Barthes, the narrative element of the novel, the story of the narrator and Simone, is just a literary mechanism to facilitate this smooth shifting of the underlying objects. As Barthes says in his essay—

“The narrative is only a kind of flowing matter, a vehicle for the precious metaphoric substance; if we are in a park at night, it is so that a thread of moonlight can turn translucent the moist patch of Marcelle’s sheet, which floats out the window of her room; if we are in Madrid, it is so that there can be a corrida, an offering of the bull’s testicles, the enucleation of Granero’s eye, and if in Seville, it is so that the sky there can express that yellowish liquid luminosity whose metaphoric nature we know by the rest of the chain…”

But, this analysis, though rigorous, doesn’t answer a rather simple question—why has such overtly sexual, if not pornographic, narrative been chosen as the carrier of the underlying metaphors? Or, rather, are we doing justice to the book by completely negating its narrative structure? What is the role of these erotic elements within the text?

If we closely follow the story, we’ll soon find out that, throughout the novel, sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, are irrevocably intertwined. Almost all the sexual encounters in the story culminate in either death or utter violence, be it Marcelle’s suicide, Granero’s death or strangulation of Don Aminado. The desperation of the couple to break free from their puritan parents, or at least to completely ignore them, quite categorically hints at the subversive urge of upturning the social taboos and stigmas, and also initiates a process of self-annihilation, the process of estranging oneself from his surroundings and coiling into a never-ending coition. It is far too similar to the state of ultimate bliss, or Nirvana, as prophesied by almost all the religions. But, this is only the beginning. Gradually, it dawns upon the reader that the entire erotic system established in the narrative, with all its rituals, fetishes and practices, is nothing but a primordial religion in itself. So, when the denouement comes with a blasphemous parody of the Catholic Eucharist involving desecration of the bread and wine using a dead priest’s urine and semen, it simply manifests the substitution of one fetishist system with another, substitution of Eucharist and consecrated hosts with eye, blood and semen. Therefore, the Barthesian shift of underlying metaphors finally surfaces and, in the process, engulfs those real metaphors (Eucharistic bread and wine), held so dear to Christianity.

Now, let us go back to our original question about the identity of “The Story of the Eye” as a pornographic fiction.

A truly great work of fiction always has the tendency to transgress. By transgression, I’m referring not only to transgressing the social norms, but also to transgressing the immediate literary genre within which it is operating. For example, Borges’ short story “Death and the Compass” apparently assumes the air of a detective fiction, but at the end, the story levitates to a metaphysical plane breaking loose from the confines of its immediate genre (i.e., detective fiction).

True, that Bataille works within the genre of pornography, utilising almost all of its tools (necrophilia, fetish, orgy etc.), but he also, at the same time, subverts it by the underlying maze of metaphors. The so-called pornographic infrastructure is necessary for him to explore the social taboos (also, the interrelation of sexual and religious fanaticism) and thereby transgressing them, but he never allows his readers to become too much engrossed in those superficialities, diverting their attention by the subliminal superstructure of metaphors and images. So, for Bataille, the use of pornography is, as Barthes suggests, a mere literary ploy, albeit a necessary one, but eventually his novel surpasses it.

1 comment:

Vivek said...

excellent post...would definitely pick this up