Story of the Eye is an short erotic anomalysm from the 1920s. I say erotic, but the emotions it stirred in me were disgust and disquiet. I read it in an hour, and when I put it down, I felt like my hands had been touching hospital waste.
It’s about an unnamed man and a not-unnamed woman (Simone), who engage in relations vaguely resembling sex. Much what they do is unnatural and illegal. Other characters include the mentally retarded Marcelle, a bullfighter, and a priest. People die in this story. Bataille juxtaposes these deaths with more fucking so that copulation and expiration seem like two sides of the selfsame coin. Some of what happens serves a symbolic purpose, although often it’s not clear what the purpose is.
Backstory helped me understand Story of the Eye. Bataille’s father was blind, and it seems his father’s huge, sightless eyes were a formative experience for the young man. Eyes (and eyelike objects, such as eggs and testicles) are everywhere in this story…even in its title. Bataille’s father also liked to piss himself, and thus Story of the Eye contains enough urine to hydrate Bear Grylls on a triple Ironman. Bataille also uses the book to get in some shots at social mores like mental institutions and organised religion. All the protagonist and his amorata want are sexual gratification. Priests and gaolers want to fix people.
I believe CS Lewis wrote something about how dangerous “fixers” are. If you just want to satisfy your lust you will reach a moment of consummation and then stop, but if you have a lofty and righteous goal then you’ll continue on forever until the world is a charnel house and a crematorium. In this way, Baitalle absolves his perverted main characters of their sins…or at least renders them venal.
The book’s final pages see Simone strangling a Catholic priest as part of a goetic sex ritual, and we are clearly not meant to feel sympathy for the priest. It seemed like a parody of a archetypal Western ending. Batman punching out a bank robber, John Wayne delivering frontier justice from a .45, something like that. Good guys win, bad guys lose.
But when all is done and said, Story of the Eye doesn’t seem to be about anything. Bataille presents us with a series of gross and disturbing sequences, and they’re mostly (and deliberately) meaningless, either that or they are so clouded in metaphor that only Bataille understood them. Likewise, if you’re expecting a story that builds to a conclusion – any conclusion – then the joke’s on you, my friend. Story of the Eye was written to transgress boundaries, never mind what it finds when it crosses them.
Story of the Eye is rightly legendary. Reading it is an experience that can’t be forgotten. However, I feel it’s only a partial experience. Story of the Eye’s secrets could likely only be decoded in full by the author: a man who is fifty years dead.