Georges Bataille’s 1928 novella Story of the Eye, translated by Joachim Neugroschal and Dovid Bergelson, has often been read for the graphic details of an increasingly inexplicable adventures of a pair of teenagers and their sexual perversions. Narrated by an unnamed male in his late teens, the book tells the story of his passionate affair with Simone, his primary partner. Throughout the book their relationship involves other people including a mentally ill sixteen year-old girl and a voyeuristic English émigré aristocrat. The book also evolves into such a perversion that it is still hotly controversial today. To say this book is risqué might actually be an understatement, but is the book really about fornication?
There are plenty reviews out there that associate Story of the Eye with words like ‘perverted’, ‘disgusting’, ‘sick’ or ‘disturbing’. All these words do have their merits, this is indeed a disturbing novella but to leave it at that would be doing the book a disservice. There have been numerous notable cases regarding literature and obscenity. Literary critics often argue the use of pornographic imagery in literature. Debating whether or not there is any literary value to be found in erotic writing. Susan Sontag argues this very point in the essay “The Pornographic Imagination” which often accompanies Story of the Eye.
In the essay “The Pornographic Imagination”, Susan Sontag looks and trying to define and even understand what and why something is categorised as pornography. Looking closely at other works like Pauline Réage’s Story of O, The She-Devils by Pierre Louÿs and The Image by Catherine Robbe-Grillet. However, it also makes references to Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Oscar Wilde, Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery by Earl of Rochester. Suggesting that there is more to these works than pornography but each having literary merits. While not a term coined at the time, this is an essay looking at the differences between literature and what is now considered paraliterature.
Also found in most copies of Story of the Eye is an essay called “The Metaphor of the Eye” by French literary theorist Roland Barthes which will help highlight that Georges Bataille was doing something far more complex than writing pornography. However, if you do read Bataille’s introduction before the book like I did, you will also discover a few titbits that help decipher the surrealist nature of this novella. In his introduction Bataille talks about his love/hate relationship with his father, a man who went blind via syphilis. He shares a memory he remembers clearly in his head of his father urinating and the vacant look in his milky eyes. With this one memory we have symbolism for the use of blood, milk, urine and eyes which is used throughout Story of the Eye.
The reason this story is important to Story of the Eye is because the novella often references urination and eyes in the midst of the sexual acts. As Barthes explains in his essay, “Although Story of the Eye features a number of named characters with an account of their sex play, Bataille was by no means writing the story of Simone, Marcelle, or the narrator”. The act of sex is often accompanied with some form of violence. The eyes, milk, urine can all be seen as a reference to his memory of his father and any reference to testicles and eggs could be interpreted as metaphors to the creation of life.
While Roland Bathes goes into a far deeper analysis of the metaphors found in Story of the Eye, a slight understanding of the content changes this books topic from sexual perversions to an angry rant directed towards Bataille’s father. His relationship with his father was a complex one. His father suffered from syphilis, which lead to blindness, becoming paralysed and eventually ending in death. His own mother attempted suicide as a result of her husband and his condition. There are other references found in the novella that connect to his life; the priest is an example of this. Georges Bataille went into the seminary in the hopes of becoming a priest; however, he had to drop out to find a job in order to support his mother, thereby he blamed his father for all his lives difficulty and killing his dreams. A topic, I believe, is discussed in more detail in his non-fiction book Eroticism.
I found myself being absorbed in Story of the Eye; although difficult to read, the symbolism intrigued me substantially. So much so that I had to order my own copy of the book in the hopes to re-read it soon. I originally read this as an ebook and for those who know me, this is a rare thing, I do not enjoy reading ebooks, it is not the same. I now own a physical copy, primarily for the two aforementioned essays, which greatly add to the experience. Recently I reread Story of the Eye and I found that I remembered all the plot, it was hard to forget, so I ended up just focusing on how Bataille worked in all the symbolism. I am fascinated by the surreal erotic style of Bataille; I think he is an author I will need to explore in greater details. Story of the Eye comes highly recommended by The Literati, read it and find out why.
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