Reading the Wikipedia entry on Georges Bataille, you would get a distinct impression that he was a pivotal figure in the history of Continental philosophy in particular, and Western civilization in general. He is purported to be a key intellectual influence on Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and several others. None of these claims is substantiated with evidence—the exact influence of Bataille on Madness and Civilization, say, is unexplained, and no explanation is given as to how exactly Bataille’s work “has gradually matured to reveal . . . considerable philosophical and emotional depth.” However, for you indie music fans, Georges Bataille is featured in that Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”:
I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met
Who could appreciate Georges Bataille;
Standing at a Swedish festival, discussing Story of the Eye.
Since Of Montreal is a good band, and they seem like a smart group of people, this allusion to Georges Bataille would appear to reflect favourably on the quality of his work, right?
In fact, the opposite is true. Kevin Barnes, Of Montreal’s frontman, may be good at music making, but his taste in literature is evidently bottom of the barrel. Story of the Eye, in fact, is probably one of the worst things ever written that is still referred to as “literature.” It’s hard to believe, upon reading it, that what you’re reading is the same thing that was referred to by Barnes, because why would anyone want anything to do with a person who didn’t recognize right off the bat that Story of the Eye was a piece of garbage?
I will concede that a big part of the problem with Story of the Eye may be the translation, as I could imagine certain turns of phrase, like “she huddled against me with a beating heart and gaped at the huge phantom raging in the night as though dementia itself had hoisted its colors on this lugubrious chateau,” could actually read much better in French, and in English with a stronger translation. Surely reading another of his works would give us a better indication of whether it’s a translation problem or a Bataille problem, right? Reading through The Solar Anus, however, it’s hard to be convinced that he’s not just a bad writer:
The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.
As far as Story of the Eye is concerned, this opinion is shared by a lot of the people at Good Reads (at least the ones on the front page). Anita describes it as “an enormous turd polished to a sheen by specious intellectualism.” According to Nathan, “the best part of this tedious wankstain is that it is short.” Chris, a reviewer with a keen eye for the written word, remarks that “in Story of the Eye the scenes aren’t particularly moving, interesting, or even necessary. Come to think of it, Story of the Eye pretty much sucked.” Patrick described my experience exactly: “This book was unabashedly, humiliatingly retarded. It’s the kind of book that’s so famous and then you read it and wonder if someone is pulling a practical joke on you.” John notes that “This book is just plain bad. No real characterization, plot, description, . . . nothing really.” “It reads like a dishwasher manual,” says Jaga. According to Blake, “it begins badly and then gets worse. The narrative is too brisk and lacks subtlety; the images are crudely sketched when they ought to be sharply drawn and vice versa and the transitions are blurred. It was just not pleasing.”
Strangely, the average review of Story of the Eye on Good Reads is 3.77 out of 5, which is unexpectedly charitable. This appears to be a result of a surfeit of readers who revel in pornography, as long as they have an excuse to parade it around as a showpiece of intellectualism. Take Beverly, for example: “Bataille’s masterpiece, a genius of eloquent pornographic imagery, so that one’s disgust is coupled with desire. I never read anything so appalling and enthralling at the same time.” Or Mr.: “a mordantly brilliant dip into the post-Nietzschen world modernity . . . . A seminal piece of 20th century literature.” Or Forrest: “It served as mirror to observe my own reaction to the transgressive.”
Of all the reviews I read, positive and negative, Doug’s is my favourite. It consists only of a quote from Nabokov, apparently as an authority on pornography, but also as an authority on good writing:
In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated . . . . Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in) and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.
Not surprisingly, this describes Story of the Eye quite accurately. Nabokov disliked pornography and considered it somewhat antithetical to literature, because in pornography “every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation.” There is certainly no aesthetic enjoyment to be had from Story of the Eye, as even many of the favourable reviewers admitted (e.g., Melissa, who gave a four-star review, suggested that “if you read for narrative pleasure you should run in the other direction”). Thus it appears most likely that people who think highly of Story of the Eye either aren’t very well read, or their reluctance to admit that they like the story because it’s pornography compels them to gussy up their opinions with intellectualism.
This idea of gussying shallow things up with intellectualism may be familiar to some people in the context of other Continental writers like Derrida, and certain manifestations of academic postmodernism that emerged after these writers–at least, certain writers in the humanities took a lot of criticism for gussying up their weak ideas with fancy words (and between some and much of this criticism was warranted). Andrew Bulhak, a fan of Alan Sokal, created a script using the Dada Engine that generates complete academic papers with titles like “Deconstructing Social realism: The postcapitalist paradigm of narrative and neocapitalist modernist theory,” which are total nonsense but which are designed to sound like typical unintelligible humanities papers. After having read The Solar Anus, I think Bataille’s work would be a good candidate for one of these text generators. It would produce statements like this:
The Epididymis of the Moon
Each of the moon’s phases represents a step in the transition from flaccidity to erection. As the crescent reflects a building of lunar passion, the full moon results from an ejaculation of gibbousness. Each lunar orgasm is constituted from particles of thought, and as the lunar erection thrusts into the dripping shadows, the light of the sun is reflected in a torrent of blood. Thus menstruation is a flushing of the bodily consciousness through the plumbing of fear and loneliness. Within the woman, impregnated by the gibbous moon, the fetal goddess becomes restless. It plucks the legs from a hornet and watches it writhe, electrified by the erotic pain of dismemberment. Like a fly caught in flowing sap, the fetal goddess is drowned, at birth, in a cascade of semen, and her body corrodes into the fluid of moonlight. But because the craters of the moon tolerate only love and hate, they drink the saliva of the bourgeoisie. In the struggle for power, only love caresses the shafts of moonlight penetrating the clouds, making them shudder with thunder and delight. And like rain the shaft of moonlight pours onto the oceanic sea a torrent of waves, and those waves lap against the shore like a tongue, making the rocks wet with pleasure. In the warm cavity of a shadow lurks the anus, and within the anus, the written word trembles sordidly.