Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Story of the Eye

Author: Georges Bataille

Why I Consider This Book Odd:
Oh God, where do I start…

Type of work: Pornography, fiction

Originally published in 1928, this book was re-released by City Light Books. You can get a copy here:

Comments:  (ETA on 1/19/14:  I have found myself rethinking Bataille lately.  I’ve read a bit more of his body of work, and while I suspect I will always have a negative and visceral reaction to this work, I also think I need to reconsider this book and write about it when I do.  Specifically I need to look into why I had such a visceral aversion to this book because I think a reasonably considered visceral aversion may actually be what Bataille was going for.  At any rate, I felt I needed to post this disclaimer in the event anyone else reads this old discussion.)

It seems unfair for me to completely dismiss Story of the Eye as an enormous turd polished to a sheen by specious intellectualism. I loathe the inverse of this attitude when applied to the books I love. For example, I frequently get a DIAF feeling when I think of Harold Bloom’s contemptuous and elitist dismissal of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, the latter whom he seems to dislike simply because of what he considers her overuse of em-dashes. But it is my opinion that only a critic could find much to love in this odd book, because the subject matter is so repellent, the narrative so useless in terms of depth of story-telling, the plot so outrageous and the character development non-existent. Some people call this style of writing surrealism. Good for them, but I call shenanigans. In order to find any connection to the book, one has to downshift into sheer critical analysis, refusing to answer questions of whether or not one considers a book good versus whether or not one simply finds a book relevant to a certain critical way of thinking.

In certain respects, it all boils down to personal taste, even amongst true critics. My personal tastes rebelled against Story of the Eye because it seemed to me to be an exploitative, meaningless look into perverse sexuality that, while it may have explored elements of rebellion, was just a puerile examination of the disgusting, pushing limits just to push them, telling a pointless story in order to shock. After reading a bit about Georges Bataille’s childhood, the whys and wherefores of the book make a bit more sense to me, but just understanding the author’s motivations does not, in any way, ensure the content can connect with a reader.

I felt a bit hypocritical hating this book as much as I did, for the Harold Bloom reason I mentioned above. Moreover, people like Sartre and Susan Sontag have argued for this book’s relevance, as both a text of transgression and an excellent example of pornographic use of eros and thanatos, respectively. The book influenced the interesting and delightful whackaloon Bjork. There are people likely far smarter than me who think Story of the Eye has literary merit or social merit. de Sade, whose works never raised this level of enmity in me, may not seem that different to some readers.

But for me, there is a stark difference between Bataille and de Sade. De Sade’s works sprang from a need to fight against the limitations of cultural norms, religion and law. His tomes of rape, necrophilia, BDSM, sexual servitude and moral degeneracy were an extreme attempt to strike a blow for personal freedom during a time that was both personally stultifying and socially tumultuous, a nihilistic rage against the machine.  Story of the Eye is just a disgusting tale filtered through odd and sad events in Bataille’s life. There is no surge for a greater breath of freedom reading this book, just an unsettling feeling that one is being forced to read a foul practical joke.

The book is quite short – a novella, really – and comes in at 103 pages. I read it twice trying to get a handle on the content, hoping I could find a critical thread that impressed me.  I failed. In short, this is the book:

A young man recalls his sexually disgusting past with a distant relative, the equally perverted Simone, and the mentally fragile Marcelle. He and Simone explore their bizarre sexuality via lots of masturbation, urine and eggs. Yes, eggs. They include Marcelle, who is driven insane at an orgy and ends up institutionalized. They break her out of the booby hatch, only to have her commit suicide. They have sex next to her dead body and Simone urinates into her open eyes, as you do. To avoid an inquest into Marcelle’s death, the two go to Spain with a debauched nobleman. There are disgusting bullfights that involve impaled mare bladders, more weird sexuality involving eggs, eyes, bull testicles, and urine. Then there is the sexually-charged murder of a priest, the removal of his eye and its use in sex (Simone’s love of globular, soft objects and their relation to her nether regions is possibly the unsexiest thing I have ever encountered…). Then they disguise themselves and flee. Fade to black.

On some level, I wanted to read this text as a sort of bizarre coming of age tale, but it doesn’t work that way. There is no commonality of human experience. That’s okay – the thing I like best about odd books is that often, the commonality is lacking. Bizarre books take me to a place I would not ordinarily see. But having read very dark fiction, truly disturbing non-fiction and all sorts of stuff in between, I haven’t in any way felt as alienated by a piece of fiction as I was by Story of the Eye. I know there is all sorts of symbolism with fluid, eggs and eyes, but ultimately it didn’t matter for me. The content was too outre and too specialized for the meanings to matter.

As always, your mileage may vary, and to be honest, this book is worth reading by odd book fans simply because it is so disgusting and insane. But be aware that I say this in the same way my high school teachers often urged us to go to college so we wouldn’t be at a loss at cocktail parties (got the degree, paid off my student loans, and nary a cocktail party has come my way). The main reason to read this book in my opinion is so that you can say you have. You may get nothing more out of it than that.

10 thoughts on “Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

  1. This book was recommended to me by a friend who likes it a lot and was exposed to it at a young age. I remember thinking, “Where was this book when I was 15?” as I was reading it, too.

    Among the not-so-odd books I enjoy are a few FTL scifi types. I immediately marked a paragraph in chapter 8 of “Eye” knowing even before I finished the story that this would be my favorite passage. It’s the paragraph from when he is on the ground looking up at the stars and describes the milky way.

    I dig the book. I have no high-minded literary reason with which to disagree with your assessment or anything. Just wanted to toss in a vote for the positive on this one. 😉

    1. Misha, thanks for your two cents. Odd books… Man, they really hit people so differently. Increasingly I think there is no real high-minded literary reasons why anything is good or bad, aside from the obvious of just being crappily written. All there can really be is reaction. At least I reacted. I’d rather read a book that makes me yuck out than one that leaves me feeling “meh” inside.

      I am haunted, HAUNTED, by the scene where a recovering Simone and the narrator are playing with eggs in the toilet. I suspect it would require years of psychotherapy to understand exactly why this book made me respond as I did.

      Thanks again for sharing! It never stops thrilling me to see there are other odd book lovers out there!

  2. Hi, stumbled here suddenly. Just another vote on the yes-this-book-has-merit side; I was also exposed to it at a young age (somewhere between 14 and 16 or so)… I think that’s a key factor here. Older now, I’m undertaking a more formal study of transgressive lit, but Story of the Eye will always have a warm place in my heart, for nonintellectual reasons. The eggs, the eggs!

    1. As horribly unintellectual as it may seem, I think sometimes it boils down to whether or not one gets the book. I suspect I did not get this book because for every comment I’ve received, I’ve also received about 10 e-mails explaining the reason why Story of the Eye has merit. The perversion simply did not speak to me. The characters were just too… foreign, compelled by forces I find inexplicable and so outre there is no way I could find the merit others see. For some reason, I could not step back and look at it as surrealist subversion. I just finished reading Necrophilia Variations by Supervert and for some reason, the grounded reality of that particular perversion and subversion worked for me. Gah! Yay for me! I get necrophilia but not the eggs, oh god, the eggs!

      Interestingly, I have a greater fondness now for Bataille. I’ve read off and on and plan soon to finish The Trial of Gilles de Rais and Bataille has an amazing sympathy for the devil, an understanding of what it really means to be a monster to the monster himself as well as the victims. Interesting book.

      Hey, thanks for the comment! I appreciate it.

      1. hey, thanks for the comment on DT & the link. i think /story of the eye/ can be hard to vibe with because, like you say, the characters are so flat… they’re just vessels for bataille, really. all we can really do as readers is stand back and watch. in retrospect, /story of the eye/ makes a lot more “sense” in the context of bataille’s writings on eroticism and transgression… yet i think what appeals to me most is the absurdist tone throughout the book. above all, i think it’s just a fun read. but bataille also has particular conceits in terms of imagery which interest me. i mean, he sets up this metonymic chain of signifiers around the repeated ritual of vaginally ingesting a globular object. my twisted mind has to respect that shit!

        if you haven’t read his essay “the big toe,” it’s quite short and funny:

  3. Hello, I’m from Argentina. Maybe thats the reason of my next bad language…
    Don’t you think only insane people read these books?
    Thinking and thinking, I think (poor vocabulary) a mentally “normal” person is impossible to consume this type of garbage.
    Another cuestion, this doesn’t have several trouble for the future, to his sexual normal fantasies? To this fantasies become in pervertions?

    1. Gustavo, I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. Your English usage is perfectly understandable so no worries.

      As a person who reads a lot of extreme books and ideas, and a person who is objectively not insane, I don’t think only insane people read these books. I think that all kinds of fiction, even that which is normal, can fuel perverse fantasies. Pedophiles are known to look at catalog ads of children in swimsuits for sexual satisfaction. People who are aroused by stumps look at photographs of war casualties. All written material can serve to fuel sexual fantasies.

      So there is a chance that this sort of material can fuel fantasies, but I don’t think it would create fantasies. This is some pretty specific material in this book and one would have to be more or less inclined to find such material sexual arousing before reading the book in order to find them appealing after reading this book. In fact, I think the vast majority of people who read this book will be vaguely disgusted or unsettled, not aroused.

      As to whether or not it will pervert future fantasies, I don’t think we really have much to worry about. Sade has been around for centuries and has been very well-read and the vast majority of people are not sadistic, murderous libertines. Some minds that are already biased can be twisted by such content but it’s rare, I think.

  4. I’m sure this has been said before, but the point of this book is demonstrably not sexual. Nor is it even considered to be a narrative. You review it as if it’s meant to be a good story. It’s essentially one big illustration of the results of Bataille’s postulations from his ‘Theory of Religion’; breaking down the barriers between objects created by human interest. In simple and non-erotic terms, think of when a musician of high calibre is improvising (particularly jazz)and no longer is considering the concepts of note or time signature etc- their playing is instantaneous. This is the feeling that the characters are aiming for. Only, for them, it should generalise to the entirety of life. It has nothing to do with experimenting sexually, only that, if there are no concepts, I guess anything could be sexual and anything sexual would be normal. I guess if you have no interest in metaphysics it’s a bit of a pointless read for you, though..

    1. I’m definitely interested in metaphysics but until this comment had not considered its application to this book. This is an excellent comment and when the revulsion I felt after reading this book has faded (I’m giving it five years, minimum), this comment will be instructive if I decide to reread this book.

      I think that the disgust this book evoked in me made it impossible to apply any critical or aesthetic criteria, so strong was my revulsion. Between the scene with the eggs in the toilet (for whatever reason, that scene haunts me to the point of affecting how I approach globular foodstuffs) and urinating on the dead Marcelle, I was so stunned by the text (not extremity but what seemed like the pointlessness of the extremity) that by the time the priest was introduced, I just grit my teeth and placed mental bets on how his corpse was going to be violated. The relentless nastiness was certainly not planned, but I never would have though to look at the narrative with Jazz in mind. Certainly something to think about.

      I think when I read a book that evokes such disgust I end up reacting to the disgust and not the text. It happens.

      Thanks for this comment, Chris. I’ll do my best to bear this in mind if I reread this book in the future, as Jazz and instantaneous play could be the context that seemed missing to me as I read it.

      I am reading, off and on, Batailles’ The Trial of Gilles de Rais and it’s interesting to me that the brutality of topic doesn’t affect me. I suspect that I am particularly hidebound when too much of my disgust is triggered, though actually, perhaps I am not given some of the other disgusting books I have read. I think I just hated Story of the Eye and discussed the hate to the exclusion of discussing the book? Possibly, but thanks again for this perspective on the text.

  5. I encountered this book through a friend in my high school years, and he told me about how “insane” and “hot” it was, so of course, I had to read it, being the morbidly curious and horny teenager that I was.

    I am no longer friends with this individual.

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