Barthes on Bataille
Georges Bataille's most famous piece of fiction was probably Story
of the Eye, the tail of an object and the mundane absurdities it encounters and
is subjected to. Bataille led a tumultuous life,
enduring a disaffected, suicidal mother and a blind, paralytic father. Early
on, he had attended seminary in France with hopes of becoming a priest, but
soon split from Catholicism. In the 1920's, he began associating himself with
the Surrealists, though always maintaining a distance 'from within.'
Breton soon excommunicated him and Bataille struck
out on his own. He founded quite a few journals which came to publish thinkers
like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida. From 1922 to
1944, Bataille worked at Bibliothèque
Nationale in Paris while continuously experimenting
through writing and publication. Story of the Eye was first published in 1928
under Bataille's pseudonym Lord Auch.
Bataille was fascinated by the opportunity presented
by pornography, not as a confining genre but as a means of expand meaning. Barthes picks up on this by denaturing the story into its
two metaphoric chains: the Eye and the Tear. Barthes
details how Bataille is able to syntagmatically
combine visual metaphors to create new sets of metaphors metonymically.
'But if we call metonymy this transfer of meaning from one chain to the
other at different levels of the metaphor (eye sucked like a breast, my eye
sipped by her lips), we will doubtless realize that Bataille's
eroticism is essentially metonymic.' Barthes
here is using a term defined by Roman Jakobson, a
Russian linguist and semiotician who defined metonymy
as opposed to metaphor in that the former is a contiguity
and the latter a similarity. Barthes himself is one
of the great semioticians and it does one well to
read him in light of his predecessors, especially Ferdinand de Saussure. Barthes particularly
plays on the differences between paradigm and sytagm.
Syntagm is a semiotic relationship in which signs
appear in a sequential order and it is this serial nature of the signs that
lends them associative meaning. Paradigm, in Barthes'
usage, refers to sets of metaphors that can replace one another.
story, the overall structure is episodic, a series of visual scenes in which
two chains of paradigmatic metaphors, liquidity and ocularity
become intertwined and 'dirtied' by their syntagmatic
relation. In the selection of Story of the Eye printed here the reader is
presented with a single vignette, within which Bataille
lays open his ontology for the practice that is this story. 'I stretched
out in the grass, my skull on a large, flat rock and my eyes staring straight
up at the milky way, that strange breach of astral sperm and heavenly urine
across the cranial vault formed by the ring of constellations: that open crack
at the summit of the sky, apparently made of ammoniacal
vapors shining in the immensity a broken egg, a broken eye, or my own
dazzled skull weighing down the rock, bouncing symmetrical images back to
From Bataille's pictorial approach to the telling of this story,
one can't help but notice the primacy of the gaze and as the object of that
gaze, various symbols which gain potency under a psychoanalytic light. Lacan was interested in the gaze as a site of ego
construction while Bataille seems to be taking his
character's gazes and fixing them on various primal symbologies:
sex, love, death, and what the body excretes throughout each of these phases.
In Kleinian psychoanalytics,
urine and excrement is a tool for the subject to express disgust. In Bataille's story, love and death, eros
and thanatos, seem to be in
a never ending cycle of excremental retaliations. Of course, one cannot overlap
these two discourses with entire certainty for although Bataille
was very interested in psychoanalytics and was
himself a patient, it is not known how deeply he
entwined psychoanayltics into Story of the Eye.