- Lacan, Barthes, Bataille, and the Meaning of the Eye—or Gaze
In the context of seeking a “cure” with one of the first French analysts, Adrien Borel, and critiquing the idealist uses of Freud and Sade by surrealist contemporary André Breton, the philosopher Georges Bataille published in 1928 an erotic fiction of his own titled The Story of the Eye under the pseudonym “Lord Auch,” meaning literally “Lord to the shithouse [aux chiottes]” (Bataille 2001a, 76).1 Tried in precisely this kind of fire, Bataille puts together in literary form an earliest formulation of what would later become some of his most significant pronouncements about his milieu and its proposed amelioration.2 Bataille felt our taboos had become unreflectively ossified over the course of time, meaning our erotic transgressions of such taboos today were condemned to degradation in a way that eschewed the sacred-erotic festive sites of our communal past. Such sites hitherto had been the stuff of religion, where myth and metaphorization took place—or where, as Lacan puts it, the “jouissance [enjoyment]” repressed by taboo “doesn’t hush up” but finds its Other mode to speak, for the “first effect of repression is that it speaks of something else,” which is “what constitutes the mainspring of metaphor” (1999, 61–62). And it is of interest to examine what our myths or fictions might be metaphorizing today, lest we neglect their meaning.
This article examines the meaning of the eye metaphor in Bataille’s Story of the Eye. It begins with Roland Barthes’s seminal 1963 essay on the topic, “The Metaphor of the Eye,” to offer, with [End Page 93] aid of Lacan’s similarly formal linguistic approach to analysis, a fleshing out of the metaphor and metonymy disclosed within. This first section, titled “Surface Formalism: Metonymic Interchange of Metaphoric Chains,” seeks to explain why Barthes calls the Story neither sexual nor phallic nor a matter for depth psychology, and shows why combining Barthes with Lacan can also more aptly demonstrate how the transgression of taboos matches another transgression at the level of language that surfaces what is usually excluded in the real. Then the article goes deeper into the content of Bataille’s Story, showing how the formal distance established in the first section is an optimal vantage though which to disclose a clearest picture of the desire at play through further engagement with Lacan’s psychoanalysis and Bataille’s own philosophical works on the erotic. This second section, “Depth Contents: The Violence of the Eye’s Transgression,” argues that the violence of the Story stages the battle lines of taboos that repress the drives which are consequently returned as dammed to the point of explosion. Finally, the article turns to the treatment of Sade’s “Sovereign Man” in Bataille’s definitive 1957 work, Eroticism, suggesting that the violence upon a priest’s eye in the Story’s denouement metaphorizes a crossing of the bar of resistance toward the gaze apropos of the specially ossified taboos of Christianity on the fluidity of the real. This section is titled “Sovereign Man, Normal Man: The Rape of Priest’s Eye by the Gaze.”
I argue the meaning of the eye is the gaze in the sense of the split between them articulated by Lacan and the substitution metaphor he disclosed to cross the bar of resistance separating conscious from unconscious or signifier from the signified of the sexed drive in the real. I recommend a healthier, more open relation to taboo, where the bar is not so fixed and disavowed but suitably porous, knowing, and flexible, enabling a world where violence is attenuated through more properly structured outlets for transgression. I suggest that the violence of Bataille’s Story metaphorizes a signpost along the road of a balance that remains [End Page 94] to be gotten right, both in the genealogical development of Bataille’s oeuvre and our sociohistorical world at large.
Surface Formalism: Metonymic Interchange of Metaphoric Chains
Story of the Eye is not a deep work. Everything in it is on the surface.—Barthes, “The Metaphor of the Eye”
Upon Bataille’s death in 1962, the journal Critique, which Bataille had founded, released...