Georges Bataille’s prose reminds me of a fairground rubber mask;... | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

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.
Sorry about the silence. I have been busy. If you... | Reviews / Books | Coagulopath

Sorry about the silence. I have been busy. If you haven’t heard the news, my Hollywood career recently didn’t skyrocket. I have been not cast in Black Widow 2, and not rehearsing for this film now occupies the majority of my time. I can’t wait for you to not see me acting alongside Scarlett Johansson. The film’s script does not contain a sex scene between us, and Ms Johansson did not whisper that perhaps we could violate SAG-AFTA rules and perform it unsimulated, and I have not decided whether to not be lead by my head or my heart on this issue. Let’s talk about My Terrible Life by Sunny McCreary.

McCreary is a pen name of Michael Kelly, an online humorist who went viral in nineteen-ninety-$DATE with Roy Orbison in Clingfilm. These surreal vignettes describe German citizen Ulrich Haarbürste, who is a fan of rockabilly legend Roy Orbison, wrapping his idol in clingfilm.

It always starts the same way. I am in the garden airing my terrapin Jetta when he walks past my gate, that mysterious man in black.

‘Hello Roy,’ I say. ‘What are you doing in Dusseldorf?’

‘Attending to certain matters,’ he replies.

‘Ah,’ I say.

He apprises Jetta’s lines with a keen eye. ‘That is a well-groomed terrapin,’ he says.

‘Her name is Jetta.’ I say. ‘Perhaps you would like to come inside?’

‘Very well.’ He says.

Roy Orbison walks inside my house and sits down on my couch. We talk urbanely of various issues of the day. Presently I say, ‘Perhaps you would like to see my cling-film?’

‘By all means.’ I cannot see his eyes through his trademark dark glasses and I have no idea if he is merely being polite or if he genuinely has an interest in cling-film.

I bring it from the kitchen, all the rolls of it. ‘I have a surprising amount of clingfilm,’ I say with a nervous laugh. Roy merely nods.

‘I estimate I must have nearly a kilometre in the kitchen alone.’

‘As much as that?’ He says in surprise. ‘So.’

‘Mind you, people do not realize how much is on each roll. I bet that with a single roll alone I could wrap you up entirely.’

Roy Orbison in Clingfilm stories stick to your brain like leeches. Even if you don’t laugh, you also don’t forget. Taking a stab at why, it’s because they’re so specific.

Every detail is memorable. Ulrich Haarbürste (lit: “Hairbrush”) is a funny name. Germany (aside from 1933-1945 and some select periods before and after) is a funny country. Haarbürste’s writing is strange, possessing the grammatically correct yet “wrong” register of an educated man who has learned English as a second language. A terrapin is an unusual pet, and “Jetta” an incongruous name for one (cars are known for being fast, turtles are known for being slow.)

And although Roy Orbison is portrayed as a willing (if occasionally reluctant) partner in Ulrich Haarbürste’s games, the idea of a fan wrapping a celebrity in clingfilm is peculiar and evokes the behavior of the Bjork stalker (a psychosexual desire to possess and control and objectify). And at least Bjork is an attractive woman, while Roy Orbison—who achieved fame in the 60s, was stomped flat by the British Invasion, and then staged a latter-day comeback—was a weedy, gangly, jug-eared man (it was laughable whenever a photographer posed Orbison next to a sexy car: he looked like a Make-A-Wish kid whose dying request was to be James Dean.) Making him the target of Haarbürste’s obsession is yet another individualistic fingerprint in a crime scene full of them. Specificity = good. Genericity = bad.

Am I explaining the obvious? Probably, but it eludes most writers, who hate specificity like it murdered their puppy. It’s believed now that writing must be “relatable”: your story should be set in Anytown USA, starring a character exactly like the reader. No deviation is allowed: if you describe your hero as enjoying marmalade on his toast (so the thinking goes), you’ve alienated the book-reading section of the market that prefers jam on theirs. And since you cannot predict the tastes of nine billion people, the only solution is to write characters with no traits at all.

Think of Harry Potter. He has no personality. JK Rowling actually writes good characters most of the time: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are incandescent on the page, and even controversial later additions like Stepin Fetchit the House Elf, Shlomo Shekelstein the Goblin Banker, and the Trans Bathroom Molester are vividly memorable. Harry, however, is boring. He is not an interesting person, he is a person that interesting things happen to. I read the The Deathly Hallows‘s final chapter with a sense of embarrassment. “Wait, you think I care about Harry’s life after he defeats Voldemort?”

Online, we see too many attempts to recapture whatever Roy Orbison in Clingfilm had. Most fail, because they’re too general, too “relatable”, too Harry Potter. They take the form of “I’m a 20 year old boy with a hot sister and [something wacky happens]”. They cast too wide a net and lack the sting and punch of the particular. They do not contain terrapins called Jetta.

I was delighted to discover that Michael Kelly has a website (and book) full of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm stories. I was also delighted to discover that this is not his best work. Not by a long shot!

One of his many projects is My Godawful Life. Which I haven’t discussed at all.

Kept in a bird-coop by his parents, Sunny McCreary endured a childhood of neglect, abuse and being bullied by pigeons, only to find it was all downhill from there. In the course of the most painful life ever, he survived tragedy and maiming, a savage convent school education, being pimped out in pink-satin hot pants, a degrading addiction to helium, and having a baboon’s arse grafted onto his face. Then things got really bad.

This book is a parody of “misery lit” such as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It. These books, with their combination of luridly-described child abuse and sanctimonious hustle-positivity (“as my stepfather shoved my entire face into a woodchipper, I reflected that each day is a blessing from God”), provide a satirical target a mile wide, but what monster would mock the memoirs of abused children? The same monster who would wrap Roy Orbison in clingfilm, that’s who.

The book is so goddamn funny it’s unreal. It just keeps going and going and going. You’d think the joke would get played out somewhere around page zero, but it never does. Each chapter has a new outrage, a new horror, a new source of ridiculousness. The part where Sunny halfheartedly attempts suicide by jumping in front of parked cars and out of ground-floor windows.

Mr Kelly seems to have soured on the book. Which is a shame. It’s great!

[Edit, 2013: I repent this now, in fact I would pretty much like to forget I wrote it. It has moments of inspiration but it also has moments of the most appalling playground crassness. I would still maintain the things I was parodying are worse, but it crosses lines, sometimes with purpose but sometimes gratuitously, and what was bracing in the original five-page bit becomes wearing stretched to 300. Also, I wanted it to be more than a rag-bag of sick jokes, so it’s a rag-bag of sick jokes that develops delusions of grandeur.

What are these delusions of grandeur?

Well, midway through, Sunny adopts an autistic child with “Tourettes” called Euphemia. (I don’t exactly remember the circumstances: I’m reviewing this from memory because I gave my only copy away to a girl who has now moved far away from me for reasons which may or may not be related.) I find “genius child” tropes tedious, and was expecting and hoping for her to die. She doesn’t, and gradually mutates into arguably the book’s most vivid character.

Euphemia provides another source of comedy, but also acts as a foil to Sunny: pushing and provoking him to leave his shell. They fight a lot, but in the end form a good pair. Their interplay adds a lot of muscle and fiber to the book (which, I’ll admit, is mostly one note banged on a piano over and over.) The final couple of chapters are actually written by Euphemia, and basically address the phenomenon of misery lit head on, without a satiric voice. There is great evil in the world. But there’s also a force adjacent to great evil: a force that compels people to watch and stare and rubberneck at car accidents and enjoy outrage and misery. Suffering as entertainment. Is there something wrong with people who buy and read misery lit? Michael Kelly seems to think there is, and I would agree. It inspires the same revulsion in me as people who have sex with their furniture: even if the act itself isn’t wrong, enjoying it indicates there’s something wrong with the actor. The book might embarrass Kelly now, but it has only become more and more relevant, as this stuff continues to encroach into the mainstream.

Kim Jong Il was Supreme Leader of North Korea. He... | Reviews / Books | Coagulopath

Kim Jong Il was Supreme Leader of North Korea. He was also a prolific writer. Wikipedia tells us that “Kim published some 890 works during a period of his career from June 1964 to June 1994”. That sounds like a lot, though I hear most of those books were actually vampire/werewolf erotica.

This particular book is adapted from a speech the man gave in 1991, in the midst of the crash of the Soviet Union. It’s 54 pages in length, so quite a long speech—I hope nobody had to go to the bathroom. I read it to learn about the Juche school of Marxist-Leninism, and was disappointed. Kim Jong Il is not one for boring the audience with theory. His descriptions of how the Juche system works all go like this:

The Juche idea is a man-centred outlook on the world. It has clarified the essential qualities of man as a social being with independence, creativity and consciousness. It has, on this basis, evolved the new philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.

The Juche idea has raised man’s dignity and value to the highest level.

In our socialist society, which is the application of the man-centred Juche idea, the interests of every
individual are respected.

Because it is the embodiment of the Juche idea, our socialism is a man-centred socialism under which man is the master of everything and everything serves him.

Fluffy stuff. I am reminded of the time Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed a nation called “Rationalia”, with just one line in its constitution. “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” It’s really easy to run a country: just make laws based on evidence. While I’m relieved that there’s such a simple road to paradise, in practice there seem to be devils lurking in the details. Likewise, a founding principle of “man is the master of everything” sounds good, but what does it mean? Is man also the master of other men? I suppose North Korea is a eighty-year experiment in answering that question with “yes”.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf isn’t my favorite book—it’s dull, and has some problematic bits (he repeatedly calls Joseph Stalin an “autistic [r-slur]”, and the chapter spent discussing his favorite anime shows is beyond the pale), but it’s big and hefty. There’s the implication of thought behind it. Even if it’s mad thought, it’s a believable and credible basis for a movement. You could use the hardback edition of Mein Kampf to club an enemy to death.

Kim Jong Il’s writing falls to the other extreme. Although light and readable, it displays no evidence of thought whatsoever. It’s just rah-rah feelgood nice stuff, emptily asserting that the Juche philosophy means certain things, regardless of how improbable or self-contradictory they might be.

Socialism is a new social system which differs fundamentally from all the exploitative societies that have existed in human history. As such, it has to blaze a trail despite fierce struggles against the class
enemies. Therefore, it may meet with transient setbacks in its progress. However, mankind’s advance along the road of socialism is a law of historical development, and no force can ever check it.

To be honest, it doesn’t “read” like something a Marxist-Leninist would write: it has the prose style of a tech CEO who hires PR firms to scrub his Wikipedia page of sexual harassment allegations. You could not beat an enemy to death with Our Socialism Centered On the Masses Shall Not Perish. Whack someone with this book and they would gain life-force somehow. Wrinkles would mysteriously disappear from around their eyes. The spring would return to their step. Only by staring at the page through a microscope can you discern any influence from, say, Hegel (note that the rise of socialism isn’t a fact contingent on particular circumstances, it’s a law. But somehow we still have to fight for it…).

The book swings like a weathervane from the banal to the palpably absurd.

The Juche idea’s approach towards people of different classes and strata is that they should be judged by
their ideas and actions

The pampered heir apparent of North Korea, gifted hundreds of totally undeserved jobs, positions, and titles by his father—could actually write (and say) this without provoking gales of laughter. Such was his power. I think I would prefer to live in a society that’s openly tyrannical and reft by classism, rather than a variant of the same that hides tyranny under classlessness. I can’t find the tweet that went something like “At least medieval peasants weren’t subjected to the humiliating fiction that their king wanted to have a beer with them.”

Pictured: a brave Hillary Clinton ventures into the house of a common person

It appears that Juche’s main point of disagreement with mainline Marxist-Leninism is its emphasis on North Korean independence and national identity. It’s an isolationist cover of a familiar tune. The very first line of the book is “WORKING PEOPLE OF THE WHOLE WORLD, UNITE!”, but Juche socialism was not based on any sort of global class unity. So far as Kim Jong Il was concerned, the working people of the world could go pound sand, jump in the sea, and throw a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Juche was about improving the standing of North Korea. One family in North Korea in particular.

This speech was made in 1991, when North Korea was clearly rotten to the core. Half a decade later, wracked by famine and stripped of Soviet aid, it had become possibly the worst place in the world. Kim Jong-Il would later refer to these years of starvation as “arduous march”; a hiking trip to some glorious destination that some citizens (perhaps three million) were regrettably not fit enough to survive. He still found ways to enrich himself. A slogan I remember from this book is “When the Party is determined, we can do anything!” He should have said “I can do anything”.

But again, you have to give Kim Jong Il his due. This is not a book, it’s a speech, printed and sold as a book for some reason. What can you expect? And it’s not like the audience had to be convinced. They were already “pre-sold”: maybe at bayonet point, that the Juche system kicked ass. Even though there may not have been a Juche system at all, just a blank unwritten idea that allowed the Kim dynasty—Sung Il, Jong Il, and now Jong Un—to impose their real ideas on their people.

You can either read this book or avoid it. There’s not much to it, either. It’s just 54 pages, and that’s with the lines of text ludicrously double-spaced, like a padded college essay. Those empty spaces should be funny, but they’re not. I gaze into them and unpleasant images flood out. Each seems to have starved and rotting bodies inside it.