OF THE EYE
Those of you who read this short novel as the “erotic classic” it’s commonly classified as may be disappointed, if not totally bewildered. Yes, it is erotic in its way, but mixed with outright horror. That seemingly incompatible juxtaposition is a recurring motif that manifests itself in the opening sentence: “I grew up very much alone, and as far back as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual.” This of course is fully in keeping with the concerns of the French philosopher/novelist Georges Bataille (1897-1962), for whom eroticism and horror were one and the same.
STORY OF THE EYE (HISTOIRE DE L’OEIL), originally published under a pseudonym in 1928, was Bataille’s first novel. His later fiction is often a chore to read, being overwrought (MY MOTHER), meandering (BLUE OF NOON) and lugubrious (MADAME EDWARDA) as only a French intellectual could perpetrate. Yet STORY OF THE EYE, which City Lights wisely republished in its original 1928 version (in later years Bataille revised it heavily), has a simplicity and directness those subsequent efforts lack.
Related in startlingly blunt, straightforward prose, it’s about a teenaged boy and his girlfriend Simone, who share a passion for mutual masturbation, urination and bloodletting. That latter obsession becomes evident early on, when they accidentally run down a cyclist and become unhealthily transfixed by “The horror and despair of so much bloody flesh, nauseating in part, and in part very beautiful...”
Simone and her lover spend much time sexually humiliating a friend, the fatally naïve Marcelle; eventually the latter is incarcerated in a sanitarium and commits suicide. From there this combustible pair turn their attention to bullfighting, and in one standout sequence witness a man’s eyeball forcibly expelled from its socket by a bull’s horn.
A quick biographical note: Bataille was friendly with many surrealist artists, but at odds with the movement’s founder Andre Breton (although the two eventually reconciled). In STORY OF THE EYE Bataille actually beat Breton and the surrealists at their own game, as the book’s central motif, of eggs as erotic objects, is stunningly surreal. From the start Simone is obsessed with eggs, which for her represent eyes--needless to add, the sight of the bullfighter’s eye popping is a pivotal one, and provides a further linkage of desire and fright: “A shriek of unmeasured horror coincided with a brief orgasm from Simone…”
All the book’s motifs--the perverse sexuality, bloodlust, urination, memory of Marcelle and eggs/eyes--come together in the mind-scraping finale, involving a priest in a confessional to whom Simone confesses “I’m jerking off while talking to you.” Her impudence quickly escalates to murderous insanity, and the desire-horror connection reaches its apex in one of the most unforgettable depictions of surreal dementia ever put to paper. STORY OF THE EYE might have been Georges Bataille’s first novel, but in its depiction of sexual psychosis it may just be the final word.