Thursday, 21 June 2012

Grotesque Femininities: Sexual Adventuresses/ Heroines of Excess

In this exploration of sexual excesses that characterises the work of George Bataille's Story of the Eye and the Marquis de Sade's mammoth-sized novel Juliette, I will examine how the books' female protagonists function as examples of a form of feminine grotesque, and whether their sexual excess and violence possess subversive potential or merely conforms to negative stereotypes of aberrant and dangerous female sexuality, such as the siren and the femme fatale.

The Story of the Eye

Simone, the teenage heroine of Bataille's Story of the Eye, is a corrupter and instigator of degradation and humiliation, a fetishist of eggs and eyeballs with a penchant for pissing on everything in sight: a grotesque of sexual excess par excellence. Her physical appearance conforms neatly with conventional standards of feminine beauty; she is "tall and lovely. She was usually very natural", so it is her sexual deviancy exclusively that makes her a grotesque. Her peculiar eroticism incites as much terror and dread as it does pleasure and arousal in the story's narrator. The story is broken up into surreal vignettes of a nightmarish hallucinatory tone (the theme of madness pervades the text): each section contains sudden frenzied violence, sexual excess and perversion summoning the threat of death, ending in fright and flight as Simone and the narrator escape the scene, ready to start over in the following passage. The pitch of frenzy increases with the extremity of each taboo being broken.

The book is not meant for titillation, despite being in the mode of pornography, There is reason, metaphor and allegory in each act of perversion: it is "about fucking as existential affirmation", as Angela Carter exclaims in her 1979 New Society review of Story of the Eye. Carter also points out the book's deliberate lewdness, as well as its subversive meanings, commenting that: "Bataille puts pornography squarely in the service of blasphemy. Transgression, outrage, sacrilege, liberation of the senses through erotic frenzy, and the symbolic murder of god".

Despite the queasy atmosphere evoked in Story of the Eye, there is the impression that Bataille is amping up the obscenity for comic effect; the incongruity of a beautiful young Catholic girl taking pleasure in pissing is comically lewd in its mixing of the sacred with the base. The emphasis on Simone's bodily functions and excretions within the sphere of sex goes back to the Bahktinian grotesque body, and the pleasures of the lower stratum: "copulation for Bakhtin is inseparable from defecation, and urination and other semicomic reminders of the body's delectable grotesquery". For Simone there is pleasure at trespassing the limits enforced by taboo: her repetition of urination before, during and after sexual activity expresses her refusal to contain herself and keep her boundaries in check.

As Kristin Mey states in her book Art and Obscenity: "Losing control over one's bodily functions and putting the body on display as incontinent, infringes one of the strictly guarded taboos in contemporary sanitised western society, particularly where it concerns women". In breaking free of her inhibitions, Simone asserts the reality of bodily functions that are viewed as filthy, the existence of which is often repressed and denied, going against the ideal image of the feminine body as a sealed unit. Mey contemplates the way that the grotesque "traditionally aimed at tearing down established boundaries and hierarchies from the perspective of the disempowered". This is evident in the sacrilege of Simone's sexually and socially abhorrent behaviours: as Bataille states of the phenomenon, "sacrilege has a social nature. It is committed at the expense of...hierarchy and the established powers".

Simone's displays of abjection (urination) also conform to Julia Kristeva's theory that fascination with the abject helps one to establish oneself in relation to what one is not, i.e. filth and waste, thus gaining a sense of boundaries that define the self against the other. So Simone's actions rejecting the sanctified version of femininity can be said to give her a truer sense of herself. There is also an impression of masochistic enjoyment in self-debasement: Simone is clearly taking pleasure in her anarchic, degrading activities. The analogy between physical and moral impurity is made explicit in this passage, which clearly links sex and filth: "Simone had found a mud puddle, and was smearing herself wildly: she was jerking off with the earth and coming violently".

Writing on the function of masochism, Theodor Reik proposes that "when the body is consciously felt as ugly, and the phantasy of the display as disgusting, this feeling itself becomes characteristic of the masochistic pleasure and contributes essentially to sexual excitement". Leo Bersani describes this joy in abasement as "the self-shattering mechanism of masochistic jouissance", which subversively shatters the disempowering conception of female sexuality as defined by passivity, purity and innocence. The often violent sexuality of the narrator and Simone is especially directed at figures of establishment and power. The orgy that ends in a scene of utter abjection, of which the narrator says that "the resulting stench of blood, sperm, urine and vomit made me almost recoil in horror", provides an opportunity to scandalise and outrage their parents, the neighbourhood and the police who are called. At the end of the story, violent sexual frenzy is directed at a priest, the ultimate object of patriarchal dominance and oppression for the narrator and Simone, as for Bataille himself. Here, grotesque sexual violence is a very deliberate act of defiance against the institutions of organised religion and against a repressive society.

Juliette and Simone: "Sexuality as Terrorism"

The work of the Marquis de Sade clearly influenced Bataille: Simone so resembles Juliette that she could be the template for the deviancy of the later Simone. Both Story of the Eye and Juliette have strong anti-establishment attitudes towards religion. Simone and Juliette use their sexuality to attack that which they feel is repressive to them as women; most staunchly, their objection is to virtue. Sade was most contemptuous of virtue, feeling that it was worn as a hypocritical mask by the sanctimonious and the holy. Sade illustrates this view in his two books about the lives of two sisters, Justine and Juliette. The sisters' characters are binary opposites (mirroring the sexual stereotypes, "virgin and whore"): Justine is virtuous, punished throughout the novel for her "goodness", while Juliette, the bad sister, is rewarded with wealth and power for her active sexual depravity. It is clear who Sade himself favoured; what is interesting is that out of both novels, it is Justine that is the more popular book. This surely reveals that the female victim is more palatable to a contemporary readership than the sexually-empowered female deviant.

Here however, I am much more interested in the deviant. Juliette is a grotesque not just because she enjoys her sexuality, but because she uses it for her own selfish ends. Juliette manipulates men and women to better herself financially, often selling her sex for money (for example, offering her anus to a bishop - doubly blasphemous), but also as a way of gaining power over those she exploits. When she has got what she needs from her latest partner, she drops them and her adventures continue. The idea of a woman in the 1700s taking charge over her own future in order to be responsible for herself is pretty radical, but for the fact that Juliette's body is her commodity of exchange: she in some ways still in servitude to men and it is predominately rich males she exploits. Juliette is a sexual careerist, whose body is her livelihood. As Angela Carter observes, Juliette: "is the woman who acts according to the precepts and also the practice of a man's world and so does not suffer. Instead, she causes suffering".

Like Simone, Juliette shows a penchant for taboo sexual activities, yet rather than the excessive lack of control Simone displays with her gushing bodily fluids, Juliette's taboo of choice – sodomy - is one that allows for an assertion of control over her body's reproductive ability. Carter notes that "anal intercourse was, at that time, a capital crime in France because it robbed sexuality of its reproductive aspect; therefore Juliette's enthusiasm for buggery is a subversive use of her own reproductive organs". Juliette's pleasure in this act is an attack on the morals of the church that banned such an activity, but it is also an act of defiance against her own fertility. In choosing non-vaginal intercourse, Juliette privileges pleasure for its own sake without the risk of pregnancy. To reject the role of motherhood is seen as grotesque: women without children are negatively described as barren, spinsters or even witches. Juliette's display of choice over her own body makes her quite a subversive figure.

Juliette and Simone both show contempt for innocence and virtue. In Story of the Eye, the character Marcelle, who for the narrator and Simone is "the purest and most affecting of our friends", is violated, humiliated and finally driven mad by the pair. The pleasure for them comes from destroying her virtue. The idealised image of the mother as 'the angel in the house' is also targeted for attack by Sade and Bataille. After Simone's mother has stumbled in on her sex games with the narrator, Simone accidentally pisses on her. Sade has one of his female libertines rape her mother, in an ultimate disavowal of the mother's powers. Bataille, like Sade, has a distrust of innocence and the virtuous holy mother figure, feeling them to be impositions constructed by the church to repress people's sexuality. This may be so, but it does not change the fact that what these characters are doing violence to is not just an idea, but another person such as themselves.

Going against the surrealist mantra "my liberation will not be your oppression", our heroines privilege their transgression over the consent and enjoyment of other women. Their Bersanian "self-shattering" pleasure also shatters others. As Carter observes of many libertine women, "their liberation from the limitations of femininity is a personal one, for themselves is a liberation without enlightenment and so becomes an instrument for the oppression of others, both women and men". After transgressing all limits, Juliette and Simone also break the bonds of sisterhood, without potential for a positive subversion of their grotesque images into something utopian or sublime; what is left is quite monstrous.


Max Ernst, from Une semaine de bonté, 1934
Raoul Urbac, Penthésilée,1937
Max Ernst, from: Une semaine de bonté, 1934
Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire, 1897
Jindřich Štyrský from: Emilie comes to me in a dream, 1931

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