What we call pornography has many guises, and it may seem a long way from the dark, patrician pleasures of the Marquis de Sade to the topless, bottomless, endless promises of Forty-Second Street. Roughly the same distance, perhaps, as there is between literary pornography like Story of the Eye and The Story of O and the flood of current films with titles like Steam Heat, Hot Honey, Love in Strange Places, and Pussycat Ranch. And yet all pornography, high and low, hard and soft, innocent and morbid, inhabits a world of fantasy. It makes dreams visible or legible. “Experiences aren’t pornographic,” Susan Sontag wrote in a remarkable essay in 1967, “only images and representations are.”

There is a very slight begging of the question here. Experiences certainly can be obscene, even if they can’t be pornographic. What exactly would we call the behavior of people who performed in fact some of the more murderous deeds found in pornographic fiction: throttling a man to death while mounted upon him, for example, as a woman does in Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye? Still, Sontag’s comment provides an essential clarification. Pornography is meant to remedy the deficiencies of reality, and no one is clearer about this than its vendors. A movie theater on Broadway claims to be screening “the hottest fantasy flick ever made.” A show on Seventh Avenue offers “the fantasy to end all fantasies.” And a recent issue of Playgirl announces “fantasies you dream of…and some you’d never dare to dream.”

The business of pornography doesn’t seem mysterious. Sexual fantasy, like almost anything else, can be made into a commodity, and it is likely that it will be marketed as long as there is anyone to buy it. The purveyors of pornography, I take it, are motivated by the respectable and entirely unfantastic wish to make as much money as possible. But we may still wonder about the needs which nourish the business.

There is a notion about that pornography is simply a reflex, the natural result of our muddled and hypocritical thinking on sexual matters. If the muddle and the hypocrisy were done away with, the argument goes, there would be no more trouble, there would simply be rampant and healthy sexuality all over the place, with a few sad folks sitting it out because they couldn’t find partners or insisted on having peculiar problems of their own. This is nonsense not because it’s utopian, or because we can’t clear the air about sex—we have cleared the air in many respects, and any escape at all from the long Victorian hangover is an achievement—but because sexuality is inextricably entangled with the rest of our lives, and because new freedoms are always caught up in new restrictions. We need quite a few of the taboos we keep breaking—we break them, in part, to make sure they are still there.

A prohibition, Georges Bataille said, glorifies whatever it denies us access to, it is an invitation as well as an obstacle. This is a partial and no doubt shallow remark, since innumerable prohibitions do nothing of the kind. But it does point to an old and substantial temptation. The apple in the garden of Eden, at least for Milton, was attractive only because it was forbidden, and the Oxford English Dictionary glosses forbidden fruit as “thing desired because not allowed.” “I say,” Charles Baudelaire once wrote with unaccustomed emphasis, “that the supreme and only pleasure of love lies in the certainty of doing evil.” Something of an exaggeration, we may feel, but only the very holy will fail to see what Baudelaire means. There is an intoxication in the thought of evil.

The sense of evil differs quite a bit from person to person—my vice may be your versa—but an indecent little thrill often lies hidden in the midst of our genuine abhorrence. Pornography peddles fantasies of sexual evil, as well as erotic fantasies of a more straightforward kind. Those we would never dare to dream, to borrow a phrase, as well as those we dream of daily. It offers things desired and allowed (but not currently available), things desired and not allowed, and things desired because not allowed. The interesting question is the mixture in each particular case. There are no grounds for public outrage here, but we can no longer believe that pornography arises simply from hypocrisy and muddle. The most emancipated minds, I would suggest, are full of limits crying out for transgression.

Georges Bataille, Susan Sontag said, had a “finer and more profound sense of transgression” than Sade; and Bataille himself regarded transgression as the fundamental concept in all his thinking. He was born in Puy de Dôme in 1897 and died in Paris in 1962. He worked at the Bibliothèque Nationale for twenty years, wrote fiction, poems, pornography, philosophy; a book on Gilles de Rais, a collection of essays entitled La Littérature et le mal; a theory of eroticism; the record of a personal attempt at a secular mysticism, called L’Expérience intérieure; and an eccentric treatise on economics called La Part maudite. More than anyone else, Jacques Derrida said of Bataille, he wanted to be Nietzsche—meaning both that he wanted to be Nietzsche more than anyone else did and that he wanted to be Nietzsche more than he wanted to be anyone else. The remark clearly conveys Bataille’s passion for Nietzsche—he wrote a book on him and constantly evokes him in his writing—and just as clearly indicates the strange, and strangely limited, nature of Bataille’s intellectual enterprise. A major lesson of Nietzsche’s work, surely, is that we should not be Nietzsche, that we should understand but not enjoy his exemplary ruin, and Bataille often looks like a man returning to the Bastille after its fall, patiently building again the walls he needs for the regular reenactment of his escape. Sartre called Bataille a survivor of the death of God, but this is true only in a rather special sense. Bataille, a confirmed unbeliever, resurrected God so that he could go on surviving him.


Sartre, reviewing L’Expérience intérieure after it was published in 1943, also compared Bataille to Pascal before descending on him for his metaphysical confusion (“La philosophie se venge,” Sartre said). Gallimard has brought out Bataille’s complete works in ten volumes; Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Sollers, and Kristeva have all written or lectured on him. A certain flightiness in his writing, a refusal to be tied down by the failures of his own logic, make him attractive to the newer criticism, and the vivid obscenity of some of his work has made him, rather belatedly, a murky romantic hero. At a conference at Cérisy in 1972, he was paired with Artaud.

Bataille was close to Surrealism, and remained faithful to what he called the tumult of those years; but he seems scarcely ever to have agreed with André Breton or the rest of the group. Philippe Sollers, irritated by a conversation which seemed to confine Bataille to his texts, to the closed realm of printed discourse, slyly said that Bataille didn’t write—with the implication that a man who kept saying the same thing in such drastically different ways had to be thought of as something other than a writer. Bataille himself made a similar comment on Sade, adding: “Nothing would be more pointless than literally taking Sade seriously.”

Nothing would be more pointless, or more disagreeable, than literally taking Bataille’s Story of the Eye seriously—although we can take it seriously in other ways. The book, now ably translated by Joachim Neugroschel, was first published pseudonymously in 1928. It belongs very much to the tumult of those years, but it is more violent and unrestrained than anything produced by Surrealism. Buñuel’s Chien andalou and L’Age d’or are idylls by comparison. Bataille’s sixteen-year-old protagonists, the book’s narrator and his girlfriend Simone, indulge in all sorts of acrobatic sexual frolics, and indeed will do almost anything except get into bed and lie down in position number one—“in a bed like this, like a housewife and mother!” Simone cries, outraged, as she refuses a suggestion of this kind. When the youngsters have their friends over for a bit of fun, the party ends in a thoroughly disreputable orgy, “blood, sperm, urine and vomit” everywhere, as Bataille says, shuddering with delight. It is important to realize that Bataille is out to shock himself more than he is out to shock us. Transgression is the name of the game; he is looking for limits to break. He was animated, he later said, “chiefly by a desire to forget, at least for the time being, the things I can be or do personally.”

Hence the particular qualities of the book. Bataille came to see it as “juvenile,” which it undoubtedly is. But he also continued to find in it a certain “fulminating joy,” and so do I. The simple misbehavior of the book—all the nakedness, masturbation, and mess—strikes me as uninteresting. And the literary ambitions of the book are fairly dull too. Bataille wants to render certain objects obscene, to eroticize eggs and eyes, for example, because of their resemblance to testicles—or rather, he wishes to pursue, by means of fiction, the life of these images in the recesses of his own mind.

Simone and the narrator wind up in Spain with an unlikely stage Englishman called Sir Edmond, and attend a bullfight where Simone is presented with the balls of a defeated bull and a matador loses an eye. Simone, obligingly pursuing Bataille’s fantasy, inserts one of the bull’s balls into her vagina just as another bull gouges the matador’s eye from its socket. “Thus,” Bataille writes, “two globes of equal size and consistency had suddenly been propelled in opposite directions at once.” This is sad and nasty stuff, laboriously imagined, a dutiful bit of obscenity. Reading it, I think of someone earnestly exposing himself in the subway for the most intellectual reasons.


But the bullfight in Madrid is followed by an extraordinary sequence in a church in Seville, impossible to describe but a liberation to read. A frequent complaint about pornography is that there are no people in it, only pieces of people. But this is what saves it from the horror it often courts. There are no people in certain forms of comedy, only functions, and the principle of slapstick, as Susan Sontag says, is crucial for pornography. The effect, in Sade as in Bataille, is that of a relentless cartoon. Except that here, at the end of Story of the Eye, the cartoon is truly funny, and the transgressions, instead of being clumsily aimed at or merely named, are briefly achieved: for a moment, with Bataille, we stand on the other side of a whole set of prohibitions.

The scene is Don Juan’s church, last home of a renowned sexual hero and a place decorated with famous paintings reminding sinners of their inevitable end. Simone confesses, adding quietly as she finishes that she has been masturbating during the confession. The priest seems to doubt her, so she shows him how she does it, and the priest is discovered sweating, the embarrassed owner of an enormous erection, which he does not withdraw from Simone’s ministrations. “Señores,” he says, clinging to his respectability, “you must think I’m a hypocrite.”

Various antics and blasphemies follow, until the priest is dead, and Simone, faithful to her optical and spherical interests, says she wishes to play with his eye. The eye, she announces, is an egg. Sir Edmond extracts it for her, and she slips it between her thighs. The narrator then looks down and finds himself “facing something I imagine I had been waiting for in the same way that a guillotine waits for a neck to slice.” Through “tears of urine” the eye gazes out from Simone’s vagina, but for the narrator it is no longer the priest’s eye but that of Marcelle, the “purest and most poignant” of the protagonists’ friends, a character who went mad and died because she could not bear the ruthlessness of an all-exclusive pursuit of sexuality; who could not live, so to speak, in the atmosphere of Bataille’s text.

The eye is a pathetic vengeance, a recall to reality. But the sequence as a whole has a pace and an invention to it which suggest an authentic pleasure; the pleasure not of buggery or cruelty or blasphemy or of anything that is represented here, but of confronting whatever we find most unthinkable, and then going on thoroughly to think it. I don’t share Bataille’s obsessions—I’m not even sure I have any obsessions worth the name—but I understand the meaning of his joy, the freedom of feeling, even erroneously, that one could think anything.

Bataille’s Blue of Noon was written in 1935, but not published until 1957. The prose is graceful in spite of Bataille’s claim that he was heavyhanded on purpose, and Harry Mathews’s translation perfectly captures its flavor. Like much of Bataille’s fiction it concerns an anguished and abject man trying to find some sort of spiritual content in his misery, and it often reads like a seedy anticipation of Sartre’s Nausée. The chief character here is interesting mainly because of his unfortunate attraction to corpses (“Was the woman still beautiful?” “No. Completely shrivelled”). He too goes to Spain, is almost caught up in a radical revolt, and moves on to Germany, where the fair-headed lads of the Hitler Youth look like “a children’s army in battle order.”

Blue of Noon has nothing like the energy of Story of the Eye, although there are some splendid, troubling sentences in it, assaults on the long tradition of French lucidity: “I had, in my despair, been happy for nearly a month”; “The atmosphere in the cafe was pleasant and disappointing.” And in one extraordinary lyrical passage the narrator satisfies his necrophilia and rescues this otherwise rather maudlin work. The narrator copulates with a sick woman on the edge of a candlelit graveyard, on the Day of the Dead in Nazi Germany. The Marquis de Sade meets Richard Wagner, or perhaps Leni Riefenstahl; Bataille adds a touch of kitsch, and the effect is curiously beautiful.

At one turning in the path, an empty space opened beneath us. Curiously, this empty space, at our feet, was no less infinite than a starry sky over our heads. Flickering in the wind, a multitude of little lights was filling the night with silent, indecipherable celebration. Those stars—those candles—were flaming by the hundred on the ground: ground where ranks of lighted graves were massed. We were fascinated by this chasm of funereal stars. Dorothea drew closer to me. She kissed me at length on the mouth…. Leaving the path across plowed earth, we took the lover’s dozen steps. We still had the graves below us…. We fell onto the shifting ground, and I sank into her moist body…. The earth beneath that body lay open like a grave.

There is no pornography here, of course, scarcely any exploration of the taste for death that lurks in love. There is only an elaborate scene, the poised and slightly febrile display of an age-old equation.

Transgression, for Bataille, was a form of recklessness, not rebellion. It was disinterested, careless of all consequences. It was a form of waste, a refusal of the plausible cost-accounting by which we order our lives. Bataille argued that rules were to be broken not in order to show off, or because they were bad rules, but because they represented calculation, a sensible measure of how far we ought to go. He thought there was something miserly in such measures, and he wanted to free us from the cautious habits of mind they induce.

But Bataille also understood that certain transgressions reveal, with terrifying clarity, the necessity of the very limits which have temporarily been broken. He felt this way, for example, about the erotic attraction not of death or of pain, but of damage. I wonder how many stomachs do not turn over at a passage like this one, from Story of the Eye:

I remember that one day…we crashed into a cyclist, an apparently very young and very pretty girl. Her head was almost totally ripped off by the wheels. For a long time, we were parked a few yards beyond without getting out, fully absorbed in the sight of the corpse. The horror and despair at so much bloody flesh, nauseating in part, and in part very beautiful, was fairly equivalent to our usual impression upon seeing one another. Simone was tall and lovely….

The horror here has nothing to do with realism (“Realism,” Bataille said in one of his magisterial moments, “gives me the impression of a mistake”), with the unfeeling behavior of imagined people in an imagined situation. It has nothing much to do with the casual appropriation of manslaughter for the expression of an emotion. It arises simply from the charm of the corpse. She was (is) a pretty girl, and her bloody flesh is still beautiful. There is no sadism here (the suffering of the girl is no part of the story), and no necrophilia (it is not her death that matters, but her mangled body and almost missing head). What is erotic is the human ruin, and the contamination of pity by a delight in destruction.

In L’Expérience intérieure, Bataille describes a series of photographs depicting the torture of a young Chinaman during the Boxer Rebellion. The victim’s chest is flayed and bleeding, his arms and legs have been cut off at the elbows and knees. His hair stands on end, his face wears an extraordinary, unmistakable expression of ecstasy. He is, Bataille says, “hideous, haggard, striped with blood, as beautiful as a wasp.” Bataille adds: “As I write beautiful, something in me escapes and slips off, fear takes over and my eyes slide and turn away, as if I had tried to stare at the sun.”

Now if we just don’t know what Bataille is talking about, if we simply cannot conceive the lure of a mutilated human body, I suppose we are in good shape. But if we share in any way the feelings intimated here, or even if we can imagine what it would be like to have them, then we must acknowledge, as Bataille says in an essay on Sade, a “final similarity” between ourselves and a whole slew of monsters. Gilles de Rais, for example; Sade in his life rather than his fiction; any number of contemporary butchers and thugs. I don’t think this final similarity should be anyone’s last word, and there are clearly grave dangers in giving too warm a welcome to our potential pathologies. There are forms of the unthinkable that need to be identified but must never be indulged. Still, the similarity is there, with its unavoidable grimace. We cannot confine it to the safe, scorned corridors of pornography.

This Issue

May 31, 1979