Sex Books, Day 3: Bataille, Story of the Eye, “The Antique Wardrobe”

…in which I argue that the use of shocking acts of sex within an otherwise normal domestic setting is analogous to the concept of “the sublime” for a post-romantic, cynical modern audience. 

At some point in all good erotica, one needs to sit down with a few sheets of paper, a pencil, a ruler, and a deep understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes and start from scratch. Without these tools, it’s simply impossible to visualize what the hell is going on. In fact, in the first chapter of The Story of the Eye, I spent a good ten minutes trying to work out what position the characters were in, and I completely failed. This time, I came up with this:

Story of the Eye, Figure 2.1

Indeed, I use an asterisk for assholes, and a coffeebean for vaginas. The first thing one realizes is that this is a very difficult section of the body to draw. The geography is simply confounding. But, as the chapter begins, “that was the period when Simone developed a mania for breaking eggs with her ass,” we’re pretty much forced to come to terms with precisely how she pulls this off (particularly if we’ve read the book before). So, there you have it. Also, a list of things that go on in this chapter: eggs broke with ass, piss on mother (accident), piss on tablecloth (on purpose), begging to be pissed on (during seizure), sex with a wardrobe (inside is locked another girl, masturbating), and an orgy of teens with broken glass and puking.

The scene at the end is one of the most memorable in the book, reminiscent of the ending of Hamlet, actually, the essential tragicomedy. As Hamlet closes, pretty much everyone you’ve met over the past three hours is piled up dead on stage, an ending I always look forward to: it never fails to please.

Here, a bunch of teens go to a tea party, get drunk, have an orgy that includes much pissing, bleeding, and puking, and they’re all strewn about the floor at the end…when their parents show up to take them home.

And one girl, the one who’s kinda raped in the first chapter, she’s been locked in a wardrobe and pretty much stuck there the whole afternoon, so when she emerges, this is the scene she encounters, runs to her mother…whom she begins biting. End scene.

What are we supposed to get from this? I think the big question is: are we supposed to laugh? or be horrified? or be aroused? Let’s focus on the slightly surreal qualities.

The surrealists, IMHO, prided themselves on works being completely disconnected from life, which is the reason why they failed and bickered so much–because it’s pretty much impossible to achieve their ends. There’s a “willing suspension of disbelief” required simply to absorb an exquisite corpse, or running from theatre to theatre while drunk–the difficulty isn’t the creative disconnect–anyone can create an exquisite corpse–the difficulty is for the audience, who must accept the art without question, without interpretation, without seeking meaning or moral or even identity. We’ve all channel-surfed while drunk, I’m sure–but our immediate instinct is to seek disconnect and renewed narratives, rather than seek an incoherent whole. In short, I think surrealism is meant to be a vehicle for achieving what one might achieve without surrealism anyway, and I think it’s unnatural.

Anyway, looking at work by Dali, there’s always something you can latch onto, whether a table, a hand, or a timepiece; of course, a painter of his calibre would think too highly of himself to throw all his talent into abstract expressionism when he could create new realities based on a classical education. And it’s here, the “latch,” so to speak, where I find the great parallel: Chapter 1 takes us to a cliff in the middle of a storm, which leads us naturally to Byron’s Manfred:

Ye toppling crags of ice!
Ye avalanches, whom a breath draws down
In mountainous o’erwhelming, come and crush me!         80
I hear ye momently above, beneath,
Crash with a frequent conflict; but ye pass,
And only fall on things that still would live;
On the young flourishing forest, or the hut
And hamlet of the harmless villager.

And to King Lear, 

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

 And lastly, back to Bataille, in which the first chapter ends with the three kids on the top of a cliff during a thunderstorm, Simone rubbing her face in a mud puddle, masturbating with mud, and forcing Marcelle’s legs open.

What’s familiar to us is this motif: humanity encounters the sublime and is thereby induced to madness. In Byron, the growing mist and potential avalanches lead Manfred to a dramatic plea for assisted suicide, as observed by a hunter; in Shakespeare, Lear’s madness is encouraged by his perception and dialogue with the storm, the balance provided by the Fool and others; in Bataille, the kids are moved from the simple pleasures of one pissing on the other’s sex to a mad rape in the mud–and it isn’t the narrator who is the collected observer, it’s Marcelle, in her continual horror at the narrator’s actions.

Manfred: cliffs -> avalanches -> hunter
Lear: wilderness -> thunderstorm -> the fool
Eye: cliffs -> thunderstorm -> Marcelle

This weakness at the point of possible transcendence isn’t a modern notion either, it’s present at least as far back as Leviticus 16:2, as (let’s take the KJV for the sake of ease) “and the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat,” i.e., encounter that which transcends normal human experience, and you will die.

Moving this all forward by one degree, to actual modernity, by the time of Bataille, there is no longer anything sublime in the world. There are still popular artistic rubber stamps of the sublime, but we’re now dealing with a world in which every man went off to risk his life under clouds, not of thunderstorms, but of mustard gas. What is natural has been harnessed and destroyed. What is reality is domesticity and war, and we are doomed to civilization, now under the rule not of monarchs, but of republicans, not of the church, but of science, for it was indeed science that bombed out so many great cathedrals, and from a great multitude of tongues, now unification under a few flags, nationalities, a great simplistic one-ness. What in life is shocking anymore?

So, we are moved to the sitting-room for a tea party (watch this, I’ve mentioned “republicans” and “tea party” in a single post, so I’m going to get a shitload of confused ideologues trying to figure out what’s going on here. no, seriously–do you know how many people find my blog because they’re trying to get information about hens?)…and what is sublime is no longer the “ye crags, upon whose extreme edge / I stand” (Byron), but “the deep crack of [Simone’s] buttocks” (Bataille); what is sublime is no longer the “cataracts and hurricanoes,” of Shakespeare, but rather Simone, “jerking off with the earth and coming violently, whipped by the downpour,” her madness now “piss on me…Piss on my cunt” finalized by Marcelle’s “jeremiad of howls that grew more and more inhuman,” even causing terror to the narrator himself.

Essentially, when the sublime is no longer awesome in our eyes, what is there left to which we can retreat? Each other. I think the lesson here is that if we cannot find the sublime in each others’ eyes, in each others’ bodies, in each others’ hearts, in this modern world we’re left with nothing else, our cathedrals destroyed by bombs, our mountains destroyed by poets and painters, and we, somehow still virginal and unexplored, await that moment when we might lead each other to transcendence.

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Sex Books, Day 1: The Story of the Eye & The Story of O

And so we begin by speaking of love. The tamest, most secret longings our hearts felt in grade school. We stray at some point, a million stories left untold. But, we reach today, when our fresh stories are more interesting to us than our stale ones. And then what? You get involved in stories of love that are so painfully hilarious so as to lead one to the grocery store determined to find this or that to correct potential vitamin deficiencies and swearing not to resort to prayer and absolutely not to read one’s horoscope.

In short, I turn to the one genre my bookshelves hold the most of…determined to approach the books with the same aesthetic eye as I do everything else. When I read Shakespeare, I do so with one question: what turns me on? And that’s in that electrical aesthetic sense that makes Walter Pater still a glorious read despite the knowledge that he’s no longer a trustworthy source…he writes beautifully. But, as with anyone else, it is not simply beautiful sentences, elegant concepts, and poignant stories that turn me on…it’s also all the basest, most animal horrors of the boudoir that I approach with the same delicacy as when deciding which apples, in all their bruised, cloudy-skinned, fingernail-marked pageantry I’ll take home with me. Usually to forget and let rot in the fridge. What can I say?

So, assuming my potassium intake is sufficient, out comes the books! Let’s take a look at two of their intros and rate their efficacy:

The Story of the Eye and The Story of O.

The Story of the Eye

For the record, everything romantic that’s ever emerged from France was thanks to native-English speakers.

Eye begins with the author’s origin-tale, explaining quickly that things are about to get fucked up for reasons that can be explained away in psychoanalysis: from a young age, both he and his gal have felt a nervousness about all things sexual. What I didn’t understand the first time I read this book was that this nervousness is indistinguishable from other things that make one nervous, insofar as their manifestations go. Without that understanding, the book won’t make sense. Before a first date you feel much the same as before a job interview. This may include nausea. Nausea is also the feeling they get after decapitating a girl accidentally. The point being that while we can say “dates cause anxiety” and “job interviews cause anxiety,” the nausea and dry mouth and shakiness, we don’t tend to associate the two with each other beyond that. Much more so if we consider “dates cause anxiety” and “near car-accidents cause anxiety.” The two in this story do treat the anxieties as one and the same. So it sounds like fiction because…well, who does that?

There’s one key detail that it hinges on, though: the anxiety never dissipates. And that’s why I don’t think this story could have been written before The Great War, because it was there that we first learned on a mass scale what constant anxiety does to people. What if the anxiety remains, through the first date, through the second, through the hundredth, through a million orgasms? At that point anxiety is resolutely tied to love, to sex. And if even looking at a girl’s knees gives you anxiety, then how do you possibly handle the things in life that would give anyone else anxiety? How do you handle pain and fear and death?

And that’s the only way I can make sense of this book…I refuse to allow it to be a story of two creepy kids doing creepy things with each other. I had a friend whose sex life was extremely violent. I mean, by mutual consent. So, when the woman told him she wanted the relationship taken to the next level, i.e., he move in and be like a father to her son, my friend said “no way” and the woman clocked him right in the face. Out of anger. And my friend, (this is actually a friend of mine, not a story about me, I swear, I think the story is just as fucked up as you do), my friend was confused because he wasn’t sure if she just wanted a nice romp…or if she was actually angry.

And that’s why I don’t read in bed–because the last thing I want to do is associate reading with sleepiness. How does chapter one score? Like, 2 out of 10, like, trying to hang an electric blanket on a flagpole on a breezy day. But…that 2 of 10 is enough to bring me back to the next chapter.

The Story of O

The Story of O. Here’s where my logic entirely breaks down. If Eye could only come post-WWI, then O could only come post-WWII because I just don’t get it. It’s like, okay, so people’s faces melted to their chests in Hiroshima, I get it, but I don’t really, really get it. I mean, that’s crazy shit. The most remarkable thing in this chapter is the author’s endless descriptions of all things cloth, whether as clothing or upholstery. How it moves, feels, appears in the light, its drape, its emotional value. It’s that sort of thing that leads one to say “ah! this was written by a woman” and which leads me to say “ah! this was maybe written by Somerset Maugham.”

Secondly, I remark upon the narrator, who takes it upon him/herself to describe, midway through a somewhat sexual sequence taking place indoors that “the rain had stopped and the trees were swaying in the wind while the moon raced high among the clouds.” Fascinating. For a number of reasons. Firstly, the moon does not race anywhere ever. It’s about as well-regulated as anything possibly can be. It’s the clouds that were racing due to the wind that swayed the trees. Also, the moon was not anywhere “among” the clouds–it was in the same moony realm in which it’s always resided. This calls to mind the thin streak of cloud moving across the moon in that horrid Bunuel/Dali film, immediately followed by the razor slicing the eyeball in much the same fashion. And, so this relatively tranquil scene is followed immediately by the heroine tied up, whipped, gang-raped, confessing “I love you” while a man is gagging her with his dick, and being turned into a slave.

Let’s pause here to mention that one of my favorite films is Secretary. I understand the concept of wanting to do anything for love–that is, of absolutely needing to define oneself through another’s projected image of you. That’s the desire to be loved. Project who you think I am on me, I’ll play along if you’ll possess me, and hopefully by the time you realize the truth you’ll be in so deep that you’re stuck for life. Love!

And I’m not horrified in reading this. But I’m not turned on in any way whatsoever. I don’t care. I don’t feel titillation or excitement or a fetid desire to turn the page. I just don’t care. I’m achingly bored. This gets a 0 out of 10 in my opinion. That’s like turning the flagpole into aluminum cans.

So, if you had to guess, it’d be that I’m more turned on by stories that involve anxiety disorders than stories that involve BDSM. But not by much. And…overall this experiment is, so far, failing.

Lorca: “Deep Song” (1922)

In a lecture in 1922, Lorca discusses the Oriental and European origins of “deep song” and how it has affected contemporary music. He then goes on to discuss its poetry. I originally picked this book up because of his role in surrealism, as he is the “Andalusian Dog” referenced by the film’s title, he was hated by Dali  and Bunuel, as they thought he was a hack. Honestly, I don’t enjoy his poetry. But I do enjoy his lectures and his inspirations. He’s another example of that last generation of poets and artists who actually had educations to speak of, before the horrors of WWII led to the horrors of widespread undergrad degrees.

I remember where I was sitting when I began reading this. At the bar at Amherst Coffee, by the window. Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s only where I met Marta. I was reading, though, that’s true. I’d been to the Moan and Dove the night before, speaking to the bartender, and when I wound up sitting next to him at  Amherst Coffee the next night, I asked Marisa for whatever he was having. A glass of scotch. We continued talking, I continued pretending to sip mine. And as soon as he left I gasped that I couldn’t drink anymore of this horrid stuff. She said “of course not! you need ice in there!” And from across the bar, Marta leaned over and asked if I wanted to taste her drink. I’d never met her before, but that embodies my entire experience with her, I suppose. That’s how she lives her life. And fortunately, I’d been reading Lorca and had fallen in love with the anonymous verses he includes in his lecture. I was interested in Spanish now, and here, before me, a girl, a poet from Asturias. It was winter and where I lived we had no heat, so she brought me back to her room at the top floor of one of Amherst’s mansions, dimly lit with string lights, where she had a space heater she’d borrowed from someone, and she put it in a paper bag, and with that I went home and would secretly plug it in at night and hide it under my bed (my bed was actually a table) during the day because my landlords didn’t allow space heaters. Anyway, as this poetry taught me how to mourn, so Marta taught me how to rejoice, how to live, and I can only conclude that my emotions were all born in Spain.

The poetry, even in translation, crushed me. I’d never read anything that affected me so deeply upon a first reading.

The moon has a halo;
my love has died.

Its focus is continually on unrequited love, and lost love, and death. But, I encourage you to read on through the rest of these fragments given by Lorca. And then consider the difference between the Andalusian deep song’s treatment of the subjects, and its treatment by Byron in his first volume of poetry and its stylized flowery mush, or Petrarch, both before and after Laura’s death, which, even as sonnets, seem painfully bent on avoiding any truth.

The difference is of personality, perhaps. The deep song verses are universal, they speak of the heart’s greatest longing, that which Byron and Petrach sought to expose or imply, but which for them, as for most, translation is feeble at best, or perhaps impossible at best, as it should never be attempted after years of translating Latin verse. The beauty and greatness is that it exposes the truth of life so elegantly because it does so concisely.

Cry, keep crying, eyes,
cry if you have cause.
It shouldn’t shame a man
to cry over a woman.

And how does Byron treat such pain over a woman? Like so:

When I dream that you love me, you’ll surely forgive;
Extend not your anger to sleep;
For in visions alone your affection can live,–
I rise, and it leaves me to weep.

Okay, well, I can read it, but I don’t feel it. And here’s another, from Petrarch, (who I really hope is burning in hell right now.)

Shouldn’t a fire reasonably be quenched
by all the water that my eyes pour forth?

Love–and I clearly should have sensed this sooner–
wants me distempered by a paradox, 
and uses snares of such variety
that when I most believe my heart is free
he most entraps it with that lovely face.

How am I supposed to give a fuck, Petrarch?! Onward, as I can only rail on for so long about him. Tu Fu. Let’s consider what the orient can teach us, and see how it makes us feel:

Wavers. No word from those I love. Old.
Sick. Nothing but a lone boat. And
North of frontier passes–Tibetan horses. . . .
I lean on the railing, and tears come.

So, not the sorrow of heartbreak by a woman, but sorrow expressed concisely, in a way that we can understand even if we are not old, sick men. In the deep song examples, one of how it feels to be alone:

Only to the Earth
do I tell my troubles,
for nowhere in the world
do I find anyone to trust.

Finally, before moving on to the real treats, let’s look at a snippet by Tagore, from a land that Lorca says sent away the Gypsies in the first place, and which I’ve read was populated first by Persians, which will lead us back to verses from the Middle East in a moment:

There seem to be people all around me,
I can’t speak my heart in case they hear me.

Weeping is wasted here, it is stopped by walls,
My weeping always comes back to me.

Oh. Simply. We’ve been there. This is something felt. And now compare this to the anonymous deep song:

You will knock at my door.
Will will never get up to answer,
and you must hear me cry.

Both touch me, both treat the experience of anguish in such a way that we’ve lived, in a way that, in a sense, we live every day to some extent.

It doesn’t matter to me
if a bird in the poplar grove
skips from tree to tree.

Ah, I have lost the road
on this sad mountain.
Ah, I have lost the road.
Let me bring the sheep
for God’s sake into your cabin.

In the dense fog
I have lost the road.
Let me spent the night
in the cabin with you.
I lost the road
in the mountain mist.
Ah, I have lost the road!

Out in the sea
was a stone.
My girl sat down
to tell it her pains.

Every morning I go
to ask the rosemary
if love’s ills can be cured,
for I am dying.

I climbed up the wall.
The wind answered me:
“Why so many little sighs
if it is already too late?”

The wind cried
to see how big the wounds were
in my heart.

I fell in love with the air,
the air of a woman,
and since a woman is air,
in the air I stayed.

I’m jealous of the breeze
that blows on your face.
If the breeze were a man,
I would kill him.

I’m not afraid of the galleys.
If I had to row, I’d do it.
I’m only afraid the wind
that blows out of your bay.

At night I go to the courtyard
and cry my heart out,
to see I love you so much
and you love me not at all.

When you see me cry,
don’t take away my handkerchief,
for I am in deep pain,
and crying I feel better.

If my heart
had windowpanes of glass,
you’d look inside and see it
crying drops of blood.

Siraj-al-Warak:

The turtledove that with her complaints
keeps me from sleep
has a breast that burns like mine,
with living fire.

Ibn Sa’id:

To console me my friends say
visit your mistress’s tomb.
Has she a tomb, I ask,
other than in my breast?

Hafiz:

Even if she did not love me,
I would trade
the whole globe of the earth
for one hair from her tress.

Hafiz:

My heart has been ensnared
in your black tresses since childhood.
Not until death
will a bond so wonderful be undone.

If I should happen to die,
I order you,
tie up my hands
with your black tresses.

Hafiz:

I weep endlessly: you are gone.
But what use is all my longing
if the wind will not carry my sighs
to your ears

I sigh into the wind,
Ay, poor me!
But nobody catches my sighs!

Hafiz:

Since you stopped listening
to the echo of my voice,
my heart has been plunged in pain.
It sends jets of burning blood
to my eyes.

Whenever I look at the place
where I used to court you,
my poor eyes begin
crying drops of blood.

It was a love
I must not remember,
for my poor heart is weeping
drops of blood.

Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

There’s a technique surely everyone’s now familiar with in suspense or horror films: humor. Often the first part of the film is lighthearted, which serves to…well, you know, make it so that everyone in the audience is really primed to be emotionally demolished.

Hitchcock’s actors in the Man Who Knew Too Much included Peter Lorre, who worked with Brecht, and Nova Pilbeam, who  married Pen Tennyson, great-grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who took over the post of Poet Laureate from Wordsworth, who’d assumed it after Robert Southey, totally mocked by Lord Byron, and Tennyson’s descended from Edward III, of pseudo-Shakespeare fame, and Blake pseudo-fame. Hitchcock, who considered Bunuel the greatest director, Bunuel who worked with Dali, Hitchcock who was worshiped by Truffaut, Truffaut who called Night and Fog the greatest film ever made, which was made by Resnais, who thinks Nathalie is a sweetheart, and so do I, and tomorrow I really need to call her.

I mean, when you stop and think about it, that’s all so much more fascinating than the lies we’ve been told about the good intentions of George Washington.

Hitchcock remade this film in 1956, my comments here, and the film is fairly dense both structurally and in terms of character development. It’s a gorgeous example of the director knowing more about the characters than he lets on, and because there are no explanations, we’re left believing these people are real. Is it necessary? No. Does it make the film more forceful? Yes. But what other differences are there?

Well, to start with, I’ll remind you that this is a story about a child being kidnapped and how his parents go about saving him. The 1956 version has a weaker female lead whose strength is in her musical ability, weakness in her mental fortitude, and the film is just as much about the saving of a child as the saving of a marriage. The 1934 version has a couple with a delightfully sense of love and humor, a British version of Nick and Nora Charles, though The Thin Man‘s earliest European release date is from the same month as this film’s release! So much for Nick and Nora Charles being essentially American. The mother in this story also happens to be a sharpshooter who saves the day not by singing, but by sniping the baddie off the fucking roof. Yeah. Imagine Doris Day with a rifle.

It always gives me a little chill when Brits show anything that look like real emotions. Maybe that’s why I like Lily Allen.

In the 1934 version the child is played by the 15 year old Nova Pilbeam, who’s made to seem much younger, but who, in actuality, was a total hottie, and one of the only starlets of that era with whom I still have a chance to, you know, get with. Even if she is 90. I’ve seen some pretty vibrant nonagenarians. If you have her email address, please let her know.

Compare her with the boy in the 1956 version. Both kids are talkative and walking calamities, but Nova Pilbeam is adorable and the boy is insufferable. I hate him. The kidnappers can have him, because I hate him from the very first scene. It’s also worth noting that Nova Pilbeam’s acting stands out as superb, especially considering the differences compared to other actors of the period. The final scene, when she’s a little hysterical/shell-shocked, is stunning–it’s unlike any sound I’ve ever heard uttered on film up until that point. And her pajamas, prisoners stripes, are a sickening addition for the wardrobe. I must add, though, that anything I watch from this period is with one eye toward the trenches of the Western Front, another eye toward Dunkirk, and that awful understanding that as this film was being made, even one of its stars had already fled Nazi Germany.

We only think time goes quickly because we have the capacity to suffer so horribly during short periods.

But a hundred summers ago we had no idea that the British Empire was about to collapse. King Edward died in May 1910, which means that the film Mary Poppins begins before that date (“it’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910 / King Edward’s on the throne, it is the age of men”) — Kaiser Wilhelm, his nephew, was at his funeral, and the family name was still Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Wilhelm blamed the German disillusionment with the war, and subsequent collapse of the country, on the Jews, stating that they should be wiped out as a vermin.

“And if we spoke we’d never see her again. It’s her life against this fellow, Ropa’s. Why should we care if some foreign statesman we’ve never even heard of were assasinated?”
“Tell me, in June 1914, had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo? Of course you hadn’t. I doubt if you’d even heard of the Archduke Ferdinand. But in month’s time, because a man you’d never heard of killed another man you’d never heard of in a place you’d never heard of, this country was at war.”

And there you have it. That’s how the world works. That’s logic that every single person in the audience would have understood. Our ancient history hadn’t been written yet. Perhaps it reminds you of today. A man we’ve never heard of is supposedly going to open a building whose purpose we don’t know, on a street none of us can name and certainly can’t find on a map. And the whole country is in an uproar because the Republicans see it as evidence that our president is a terrorist sympathizer. We’re all slaves, every single one of us. Stupid fucking slaves whose lives, to our leaders, are worth less than the ink on our birth certificates. But god, we know how to suffer. We know how to take a bee-sting and feel it for an eternity. So it’s easy to think you have all the time in the world, easy to think the Great War happened before the invention of consciousness. But it was just yesterday. I’ve met and touched a man who fought there. There’s so much more to life than the petty shit you find important.

And here’s some recommended reading on Hitchcock’s 1930s films as anti-German: http://www.filminfocus.com/article/hitchcock_at_war/print

and lyrics and footnotes to “The Writing of Tipperary” http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/w/writingo.html