Although apparently a work of pornographic and sadistically sexual fiction, Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye is actually an exposition on the workings of language, metaphoric and metonymic chains, and syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships. Yet what it reveals to us is something that is more taboo and policed than sexuality ever was. Through a psychoanalytic and dream-like story of an inanimate object whose image takes on a life of its own, Bataille reveals to his readers and to himself the profundity and filth of the unconscious. Ultimately, in this novella (or poem, according to Roland Barthes, since its events are so improbable), literature is used to transgress what we have used to sublimate evil – language.
To say that this is a book solely about sex, sexuality, or pornographic exposition would fundamentally ignore that the first metaphoric chain does not start with the sexual symbol of the bulls’ testicles but with the asexual symbol of the eye, the real “protagonist” of the story or at least the starting point for a generative chain. But this is not just the story of the eye in its socket or as a visionary piece suspended by vitreous humor but of an object that takes on new uses, from sexual exploits to equivalence with urination and which starts an unanticipated series of metaphoric and metonymic chains. The first relationship that unfolds is one between the eye and the egg, originally paired for their obvious similarities: both are white, globular, a bit squishy, and have liquids associated with them. The colored iris is to the yellow yolk as the whites of the eye are to the albumin of the egg. This relationship initiates the first metaphoric chain that takes place in the story which follows with testes, the milk saucer, and the sun. This gives rise to a second chain consisting of the associated liquids – tears, vitreous humor, yolk, whites, semen, milk, and sunlight that is described like a golden urine shower. Once these two paradigmatic chains are established – the globular and the liquid – Bataille begins to linguistically manipulate the functions and relations, creating new components without context and reversing the means of idiomatic expression. This is to say that any object from the first paradigm can be mixed with an example from the second in a syntagmatic line. Therefore, an eye can be urinating, bowels of a horse can be spilling like cataracts, and eggs can be sexualized like testicles. As Roland Barthes writes in “The Metaphor of the Eye,” “By virtue of their metaphorical dependence eye, sun, and egg are closely bound up with the genital; by virtue of their metonymic freedom they endlessly exchange meanings and usages in such a way that breaking eggs in a bath tub, swallowing or peeling eggs (softboiled), cutting up or putting out an eye or using one in sex play, associating a saucer of milk with a cunt or a beam of light with a jet of urine, biting the bull’s testicle like an egg or inserting it in the body-all these associations are at the same time identical and other.” This way, Bataille creates the metonymic chain of unconscious substitutability which are to reveal free (un-policed) yet bound (to the two types of chains) associations of the psyche.
The mix-ups of idioms and dictional uses serve the purpose of psychoanalytic revelation and show the method through which Bataille revealed things even to himself, unconsciously. The most obvious idiomatic mélange is done by Simone in her eponymous chapter six. She confuses the expression “to break an egg” (“casser un oeuf”) with “to put an eye out” (crever un oeil) and speaks of “breaking an eye” and “cracking an egg.” This would be a prime example of a “Freudian slip,” in which these mistakes are not just meaningless slips of the tongue but proto-synchronistic revelations of repressed unconscious or subconscious associations. This mix-up could be a sign that she is being cured psychologically during the physical convalescence following her bicycle accident. In psychoanalysis, the client is supposed to be in a somewhat drowsy, not completely conscious or controlling, state for this relaxation is supposedly meant to help one release remnant gems of the unconscious. While the author consciously articulated this to depict an unconscious association of one of his characters, Bataille later reflected in “Coincidences” that the story itself contains various unconscious projections that he wasn’t cognizant of while writing. Various memories and tragedies of his subconscious, from the harmless memory of his brother pretending to be a ghost with the same sheet Marcelle would later wave to the horrific visual of his blind father urinating with the whites of his eyes almost completely showing, were re-revealed to him in re-reading his writing. In reflection, he was also shocked to see that he had projected the bipolar insanity of his mother into Marcelle. Furthermore, when he wrote about a bullfight that he had actually saw, Granero’s last bullfight, he didn’t notice that the bulls’ testicles (les couilles in French) of chapter ten fit into this same globular paradigmatic chain with its corresponding secondary liquid – semen. After this was pointed out to him by a doctor, he realized that he was “transferring, to a different person, an image that had most likely led a very profound life.” Thus the unconscious substitutability is revealed not just as a conscious theme that is intellectualized but one that even remained unconscious and uncontrollable for the author that wished to exposit it. Bataille himself said that in writing this he wasn’t conscious of all the associations he was making between globular items and their parallels, in the sort of dream state he was in while he was writing. This further shows that this is the story of the an inanimate object that takes on the life of its own with only moderate agency. This is essentially what is supposed to happen in psychoanalysis and is also the method that Bataille uses, somewhat unknowingly, to write this story.
One can conclude from all of this that The Story of the Eye is innocuous since it is not actually about perverse and sadistic sexual behavior but language. Yet this is as much of a fallible belief as to think it is actually about sex, for if there latter were true, it would reduce and contain its insolence into a single sphere rather than allow the evil to permeate every structure that frames our lives, especially the syntactic. What is much more discomforting about this book is that it is not about sex but about the unconscious associations that can both be sublimed or transgressed linguistically. To say this book is about language seems to make it harmless, but then one must recall what the function of language has been and what it is covering, and that it was the transition that brought us from infancy to childhood and began to socialize and cloak our nefarious, now unconscious, desires. The narrator in Story of the Eyepoints out a distinction between the perversities of sex and that of something more “harmless” when he distinguishes between simple debauchery and real debauchery. The former includes just the “insipid” lusts for “pleasures of the flesh,” which the narrator finds too simplistic since “the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it.” The author and the narrator do not want to be limited to transgress within a sphere that is already looked at as transgressive but rather to make everything filthy, in a means that is erotic but not solely sexual. “My kind of debauchery soils not only my body and my thoughts, but also anything I may conceive in its course” (Bataille 49). Sex is too obvious of a “taboo,” having taken on a variety of restrictions but is generally accepted in some form. At the very least, it is taken as a biological necessity for the propagation of the species. But what is even less easily accepted? That we all have been brought into life through this act with the seeds of evil within us; that is to say, with a plethora of violent motives, selfish hysterics, and perverse desires, and that this unconscious is still repressed within us now. And what has cloaked these? Language.
Georges Bataille believes that literature is, by necessity and fundamentally, always both evil and infantile. This may seem counterintuitive because literature uses language, which sublimates and aestheticizes evil, to achieve its ends. Yet ultimately, the purpose of literature, Bataille believes, is to re-introduce ourselves to this evil. As we leave infancy (“infans” meaning without language), we begin to trade off hysterical, selfish cries for the words that articulate our biological needs like, “I’m hungry.” Language allows something that would usually be viewed negatively in a socially acceptable way through mundane, casual uses of rhetoric, euphemisms, and idioms. Literature, on the other hand, is used to transgress arbitrary boundaries and allow us to explore the unconscious in a fictionalized and less dangerous setting (although literature has surely posed an apparent threat to various societies, and one must wonder for what reason). The unacceptable, evolutionarily dangerous whims of the unconscious have to become sublimated through the acquisition of language as a liaison between infancy and childhood while allowing conscious thoughts and perceptions to cover unconscious, pre-language selfish needs and motives. Other French authors may agree with Bataille that there is a fundamental link between literature and evil while also using it to sublimate and idealize transgression, such as Genet does in beautifying a life of crime. Ultimately, Bataille wants to subvert, pervert, and invert the function language as an aestheticizing, sublimating, idealizing tool and turn it into a means for excavating the filths of the profoundly perverse unconscious whose danger is the only thing that can be sublimated in a hyperreal sphere of fiction.