Georges Bataille’s prose reminds me of a fairground rubber mask; the kind where you stick your fingers through the eye holes and twist it into hundreds of leering, meaningless faces. He had a vast number of interests—psychoanalysis, critical theory, eroticism, politics, economics, anthropology—and they were intricately woven through his work to the point where you can interpret his books as saying almost anything. The Story of the Eye has been read as Sadean pornography, a philosophical treatise, a Roman a’clef with details drawn from Bataille’s own life, etc, but I’m struck by the sense that nobody really knows what it’s about. Everyone just brings their own baggage to it.

Bataille is God’s gift to people who want to sanctify some mad theory they brewed in the radiator with vague Smart Person quotes. “As seen through the lens of [dead French philosopher]’s [out-of-context theory], Beyonce has more rizz than Cardi B”—if you get paid to write stuff like that, Bataille’s your guy. But would Bataille have agreed with these theories? Some surrealists sculpted worlds like private gardens and gave outsiders no way in. Bataille is the reverse. His books are often all key and no lock.

Blue of Noon is typically obscure. My impression is that it’s a pornographic narrative dealing with the underclass of society, and the way they essentially preview death before the rest of us (lucky bastards). It starts literally in the gutter—a couple of drunks laughing and fighting and embarrassing themselves—and ends with fascism looming, the Hitler Youth marching in the street, and nations about to topple into abysms of war and fire.

There’s a kind of symmetry there. Bataille wrote the book in 1935 or 1939 (I have heard both dates), but it wasn’t published until 1957, long after World War II had ended. Like a doctor’s warning to quit drinking that got held up in the mail and arrived after the patient had died of liver failure.

We begin mise en scène. Perhaps mise en abyme. The setting is mid-30s London. Henri Troppmann (“Drip Man”??) and his girlfriend Dorothy are getting drunk at some dive. They are both feverishly sick—lengthy prose descriptions emphasize their filth, their depravity. They are alive in a consumed, rancid, rotting sense that closely resembles death. Their conversations are mad and unmotivated nonsense, such as Dorothy’s garbled memory of her mother on the elevator. We’re watching two lost people who are circling the drain. Dorothy is incontinent, and Henri is sexually impotent. They are unhappy together or apart.

The word for these characters is “abject”. They are at the bottom of society, like the figures Bataille wrote about in his famous essay Abjection and Miserable Forms. The filth and vomit are status markers counting them “out” of respectable bourgeoise society, just as a fine suit is a marker counting you in.[1]Are they really abject? They seem to have a lot of money—Henri bribes some service workers into to helping Dorothy after she soils herself, for example. I’m struck that a lot of Marxist … Continue reading

The ultimate form of abjection, of course, is death: which is the book’s main subject. It’s filled with subtle, and not so subtle nods, that Henri and his friends might be close to the end—or perhaps even beyond it. Like this:

Before being wholly affected by drink, we had managed to retreat to a room at the Savoy. Dirty [Dorothy] had noticed that the elevator attendant was very ugly (in spite of his handsome uniform, you might have taken him for a gravedigger.)

Later, Henri receives a letter from his wife. It’s very strange, worded in a way that suggests he is already deceased.

Lazare took me home. She came in with me. I asked her to let me read a letter from my wife which I found waiting for me. The letter was eight to ten pages long. My wife said she couldn’t go on any longer. She blamed herself for losing me, yet everything that had happened had been my fault.

There’s no reason to write a letter to a dead man, and his wife knows he’s alive (she later attempts to phone him), but “she blamed herself for losing me” is a striking choice of words But it seems to me that most of the characters aren’t meant to be humans so much as the embodiment of societal, historical, and psychoanalytical concepts. Such as when Henri dreams he is trapped in a dystopian Russia—a barren wasteland of factories and warehouses, ruled by a woman called “Lenova”.

(As a child, I’d always heard that “Lenin” meant “man of iron”, and Stalin had adopted his own name—”man of steel” to upstage him. But apparently both sides of that are wrong. “Iron” in Russian is железо/zhelezo, and Lenin’s name comes from the river Lena, in the land of his Cossack ancestors. The reason for Stalin’s choice of name is unknown but was probably just a homage. Nothing to do with the book, of course. I just thought that was interesting.)

I guess you’re getting a sense of how Blue of Noon is written: very dreamy and slipstreamy and loose. Characters are impressionistic studies. Events are freighted with symbolic baggage. It’s only 150 pages long but feels accordionlike, as though it could be collapsed far smaller, or expanded far longer, without really becoming any different. Take it for what it is: a weird, out-of-focus snapshot from a man staring off the edge.

Neither the wife nor Lenova appear in the story. Many other women do, though. One is Dorothy. Another is Xenie. Another is a “skinny, sallow-fleshed Jewess” called Lazare, whose name reminds us of the Biblical figure of Lazarus. That figure, of course, is famous for not being dead, and Lazare is the book’s most conspicuously living figure. She’s a saber-rattling Marxist activist who Henri seems terrified by, as though she’s a light shining into all his hollow spaces. But even she seems haunted by death. After all, where did the Bolshevik revolutions end up?

Near the end of the book, when it’s obvious that war is coming—a rictus spasm of violence that everyone fears and secretly relishes—Henri overcomes his impotence, and has sex with Dorothy over a graveyard, while pondering his own death. I was reminded of the way the penis of a corpse will fill with blood. Soon, with Germany firmly Nazified, Henri tries to flee…to France. That was funny. He can’t run. Not from Nazi Germany, not from death, not even from who he ultimately is.

The book moves at whirlwind pace, although it’s not always clear where it’s going. There are little flashbacks and side stories and detours. It really captures how memories feel from a time when you were drinking heavily: like a card deck shuffled out of order. There’s quite a few references to then-contemporary things that would have seemed quite out of date by 1957, like Austrian singer-actress Lotte Lenya, and the Bal Tabarin cabaret in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, and even the eruption of Krakatoa, which was still within living memory in 1935/1939.

Blue of Noon contains necrophilia. Henri has sex with his mother’s dead body (or attempts to). This bizarrely pathological act (which doesn’t even appear on the page) seems to be the one thing people know about the book (the way that nobody remembers a damned thing about The Master and the Margarita except Belphegor the cat). But what’s more interesting is the way Henri behaves toward his own necrophilia: while bragging about necrophilia, he also lies about it to Lazare, hiding the identity of the corpse. Even while admitting to something horrendous, he’s still spin-doctoring the truth; trying to salvage his reputation. I suppose that’s true to how people behave in real life. If you’re caught stealing a million dollars, admit to stealing nine hundred thousand. Who knows, you might still make out with a hundred large!

The book takes stabs at politics. It also takes stabs at body horror and dysmorphia and the dissolution of boundaries and many other things. It’s prime-time Bataille, in other words, firing ideas around like lethal buckshot. There are fantastic runs of surrealist prose. There’s also a sense of gutter-mouthed profanity that reads more like Tropic of Cancer than anything. Did the translator take liberties with the book?

Bataille’s prose seems to teem with wild horses, stamping the ground, nostrils flaring, ready to gallop in any direction. Perhaps over the reader. Yet if you have a strong stomach, Blue of Noon is worth reading. It’s a strange and surreal look at the past. Maybe the present and future, too.

The excessive descriptions of bodily fluids might be off-putting, but really, it’s like a fractal: you zoom out, but the picture remains the same: a diseased churn that foretells approaching disaster for everyone. The body starts to die, the nation starts to die. An act of vomiting is a match cut for the Beer Hall Putsch. Like Sade, Bataille was good at taking the affairs of the body and expanding them outside it, projecting them onto society at large. Hangover diarrhoea is caused by a drinking binge. But you did not go on a drinking binge for no reason, but because you were, on some deep level, unhappy. A person who puts poison into their body is a person who wants to die. And what causes that feeling, apart from (ultimately) the society you live in? Everything in the world is twisted together, a braid tightly-woven from the obnubilation of shadow. It’s often unclear what’s wrong with the world, but once you start throwing up, it’s undeniable that there is something wrong.

Maybe that’s the core of Bataille’s whole deal. He studied abjected things. The waste, the filth, the rejectamenta of body and society. The haruspices of Ancient Rome sought to learn deep truths by inspecting entrails. Bataille was a haruspex of society’s shit and vomit.


1 Are they really abject? They seem to have a lot of money—Henri bribes some service workers into to helping Dorothy after she soils herself, for example. I’m struck that a lot of Marxist critical theory is left in an odd position by capitalism, where theoretically anyone with money can buy their way into society, regardless of what status markers they do or don’t have.

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