Bataille, Story of the Eye, “Marcelle’s Smell,” or farewell, totemism!

This is how I feel about sex.

What it’s come down to is that I’ve lost all interest in the World of Sex, except from a purely critical perspective. If you can’t reach me by phone, find me in the backyard digging my own grave.

So, yeah, the “Sex Books” designation is gone, because let’s just say I’ve given up on trying to recast Little Stevie Wonder as the mature recording artist we know he’d later become.

I’ve already discussed what I think is a most important element of this book: the inability to distinguish between negative (criminal) and positive (sexual) excitement, or, rather, mistaking similar effects as resulting from similar causes; i.e., the excitement of sex as compared to the excitement of accidentally decapitating a girl.

Bataille comes back to this immediately in Chapter 3, in which the narrator is escaping down the coast with stolen money and a gun, threatening to kill anyone who comes after him, and kill himself. But what is in his mind is “phantasms of Simone and Marcelle. . . with gruesome expressions,” which in any other case would be a nightmare, but in this case, is likely his memories of Simone’s convulsions on the floor panting “piss on me” and Marcelle’s desperate need to jerk off in the wardrobe. The narrator states his goal, ultimately as wanting a “compromise that would link my most disconcerting moves to theirs”–which is the most elegant way of stating all the ink spilled above.

But two new elements are presented: first, the role of language: “I finally accepted  being so extraordinarily haunted by the names Simone and Marcelle.” The emphasis is on their names, not on their persons. In an age still dripping with Freud and contemporary pseudoscientific craniofacial anthropometry, we can’t ignore the role of magic here, for as much as these great intellectuals wrote about “primitive man,” they were writing about modern man. This is an age when words are not mere symbols representing things–words are things themselves, words are dangerous and powerful, with simple grace words control the minds of everyone around you, summon spirits and demons; as Sir James Frazer puts it (The Golden Bough, published ~1906),

Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person.

And Freud (Totem and Taboo, published ~1913),

In the view of primitive man, one of the most important parts of a person is his name. So that if one knows the name of a man or of a spirit, one has obtained a certain amount of power I over the owner of the name.

Rudolf Steiner, in discussing Buddhism (Metamorphosis of the Soul, published ~1909), goes into greater depth as to why a name is powerful:

Nagasena could then return to his parable of the chariot and might say, speaking now in a Christian sense: “True, the axle is not the chariot, for with the axle alone you cannot drive. True, the wheels are not the chariot, for with the wheels alone you cannot drive. True, the yoke is not the chariot, for with the yoke alone you cannot drive. True, the seat is not the chariot, for with the seat alone you cannot drive. And although the chariot is only a name for the assembly of parts, you do not drive with the parts but with something that is not the parts. So the ‘name’ does stand for something specific! It leads us to something that is not in any of the parts.

And he later goes on to show the parallel to ourselves, particularly as relates to consciousness, and if you’re chuckling at those silly barbarians’ concepts of magic, Steiner brings it on home to show that we ourselves are just as superstitious:

A third member of the human organism can now be distinguished: the vehicle of pleasure and pain, of urges, desires and passions — of everything we associate with the emotional activities of the soul. Man has this vehicle in common with all beings who possess a certain form of consciousness: with the animals. Astral body, or body of consciousness, is the name we give to this third member of the human organism.

This completes what we may call the bodily nature of man, with its three components: physical body, etheric body or life-body, astral or consciousness-body.

Within these three members we recognise something else; something unique to man, through which he has risen to the summit of creation. It has often been remarked that our language has one little word which guides us directly to man’s inner being, whereby he ranks as the crown of earthly creation. These flowers here, the desk, the clock — anyone can name these objects; but there is one word we can never hear spoken by another with reference to ourselves; it must spring from our own inner being. This is the little name ‘I’. If you are to call yourself ‘I’, this ‘I’ must sound forth from within yourself and must designate your inmost being. Hence the great religions and philosophies have always regarded this name as the ‘unspeakable name’ of that which cannot be designated from outside. Indeed, with this designation ‘I’, we stand before that innermost being of man which can be called the divine element in him. We do not thereby make man a god. If we say that a drop of water from the sea is of like substance with the ocean, we are not making the drop into a sea. Similarly, we are not making the ‘I’ a god when we say it is of like substance with the divine being that permeates and pulses through the world.

So, back to Story of the Eye, the narrator is obsessing over these names. And furthermore, he’s obsessing over his own uncertainty over suicide. What he determines as his reason to live then gives structure to the rest of the book: “in my weariness, I realized that my life had to have some meaning all the same, and would have one, if only certain events, defined as desirable, were to occur.” In short: if things I desire occur, my life will have meaning; if things I do not desire do not occur, my life will not have meaning; therefore, I must live in order to enact things I desire so that my life will have had meaning. How often have we felt this precise notion, from the moment of our births, screaming and crying, until now? Near constantly. If I don’t have this thing that I want, I must die, I will die.

He goes to Simone, and when he goes in to “grab her cunt”–he says “it didn’t make me come–quite the opposite.” Which means what? It made her come? Or it turned him off? Regardless, he begins crying. And when she playfully kicks him, his gun goes off in his pocket, which frightens them both, and they spend the whole night kissing each others’ mouths for the first time. When his sexual actions don’t lead to an orgasm, her playful, non-violent, non-sexual actions lead to a mechanical orgasm, the gun going off. Which moves them to their first display of obvious, common affection.

Much can be said on this: a) the extreme fear from the gun’s explosion leads them to the anxiety of kissing; b) that beautiful affection is completely separate from one’s sexuality; c) that in the absence of something disconcerting, one’s desires turn away from the disconcerting.

But…not for long. After trying to have sex with Simone, and her turning him down (she doesn’t want sex in a bed, like a housewife), she pisses on him, and then he pisses inside “her cunt,” jizzes on her face, and she masturbates with her face under his “wet ass.” Ah, familiarity.

Returning to the concept of taboo names, Simone won’t have sex with the narrator unless Marcelle, who’s now locked up in an asylum, is present. “Her cunt would not open to me unless Marcelle’s ghost” can be summoned. So we return to the power of names, the dead’s names as taboo, documented excessively in the texts referenced above, and the idea that one’s imagination, that is, the phantasm one produces, is powerful enough to serve as placeholder for an actual person or thing.

We leave off now with one of the most amazing collections of imagery I’ve ever read:

At any rate, the swampy regions of the cunt (nothing resembles them more than the days of flood and storm or even the suffocating gaseous eruptions of volcanoes, and they never turn active except, like storms or volcanoes, with something of catastrophe or disaster)–those heartbreaking regions, like  Simone, in an abandon presaging only violence, allowed me to stare hypnotically, were nothing for me now but the profound, subterranean empire of a Marcelle who was tormented in prison and at the mercy of nightmares.

I particularly like the “stare hypnotically” bit. In any case, what we can be sure of is that the characters are about to rescue Marcelle, in short, abandoning pre-great-war psychoanalytic and spiritual concepts of Freud, Frazer, Steiner, etc., abandoning that synecdoche supposedly informing our most basic instincts of consciousness (I exist, and anything that defies understanding can be explained by magic), and substituting a post-war totemism, or, rather, totemism as anti-totemism.


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