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
Availability: 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.