Thursday, October 20, 2016

How Obscenity Gave Me Comfort

By Annabeth Leong

I told you the short version of this story before, by way of introducing myself. I told you about the erotica that really matters to me, the stuff I keep on my shelves and have carried with me for years. Among that collection is Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, an obscene little novella that’s one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read.

I bought it during a trip to San Francisco, at the historic bookstore City Lights, which incidentally happens to be the publisher of the edition as well. The back promised “a legendary shocker that uncovers the dark side of the erotic by means of forbidden, obsessive fantasies of excess and sexual extremes.” I binged and purged sexual desire at the time, going on sprees of reading the darkest stuff I could find and then repenting and getting rid of all of it. I bought the book and brought it back to the hotel room I was sharing.

One of the early scenes is of the beautiful Simone, in a black pinafore and black silk stockings and no apparent underwear, sitting in a saucer of milk for the narrator’s titillation (“Milk is for the pussy, isn’t it?” she asks).

Bataille writes:

I lay down at her feet without her stirring, and for the first time, I saw her “pink and dark” flesh cooling in the white milk. We remained motionless, on and on, both of us equally overwhelmed… Suddenly, she got up, and I saw the milk dripping down her thighs to the stockings.

Okay, that’s hot. I’m pretty sure I masturbated the first time I read those words. Pretty much every time my roommate was gone that weekend, I was sneaking pages from Story of the Eye and touching myself.

Back then, I’d been poisoned by those Victorian style narratives, the ones that suggested sex was a slippery slope of depravity. First you lost your virginity, then you got in with the wrong crowd, then you started trying perverse things like homosexuality and sadomasochism, and before you knew it, you’d plunged yourself into an unfathomable sea of madness and debauchery, never to return to respectability again.

A little always led to a lot. One depraved thing would soon lead to something more depraved. Greater sensation replaced lesser sensation. Did it give you a thrill to have your wrists tied with silken cords? Well, guess what, sweetie: soon you’ll be letting someone choke you to death while fucking you in the ass, and how’s that going to look in the papers the next morning, hmmm?

I’d had some experiences that seemed to corroborate this viewpoint. There is a trembling thrill to a first time of any sort, and as long as I was chasing those, there did seem to be no limit.

I’d had a relationship that scared me, one in which I kept getting talked into more and more things I didn’t feel sure about, one that made me feel like a toy this person was intent on breaking. Because I kept having orgasms, he told me I must like what was happening. Because, even years later, I kept having orgasms thinking about it, I thought something essential had been corrupted in me and I was forever in danger of running dark and wild to eventual ruin if I ever let myself out of my self-imposed cage.

I expected that sort of thrill from Story of the Eye. I figured it would all hit me with the dark desire to actually do all the stuff I was reading about. And things certainly escalate from that initial relative innocence, to what I can only call extreme depravity.

By the end of the book, Simone and two of her lovers are kidnapping a priest out of a confessional and raping him while strangling him to death. Simone, who appears to be completely amoral, decides she wants his eye, and she has one of her lovers run it over her body while she’s fucking the other, and eventually inserts it into herself.

I’m going to be completely honest here and say there are things about that scene that turn me on. There are also things about it that horrify me to the core. I am and always have been a hundred percent clear that I would never want to do that in real life. But I’m pretty sure I masturbated to it as well.

This is important for anyone involved with erotica, or indeed sexuality, to know: thinking and doing are different things. In the Bible, Jesus warns, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Maybe so, but I think it’s vital to distinguish between whatever that is and actually taking the action.

Story of the Eye was what showed me I did have limits. There are and were mechanisms inside myself that would stop me naturally from going forward with certain sorts of sexual depravity. For example: I don’t actually want to hurt anyone else (non-consensually). What’s more, I discovered limits in my mind (thoughts that make me uncomfortable rather than turning me on). While they go farther than the limits of my behavior, they still represent a horizon.

All that made me feel safer. It gave me comfort, and made me feel less helpless.

I think a lot of people try to shut off obscenity, as if it will necessarily have a corrupting influence. But I think it can be good to see that there is a horizon beyond which one will not sail.

I can’t tell you how good it felt to know that at least one person, Georges Bataille, could go farther in thought than I ever would. It’s a grandiose thing to think one’s own debaucheries are the most monstrous possible, but at dark times, before I knew enough about the world, I believed it.

In an afterword to Story of the Eye, Bataille has some interesting things to say about obscenity. He refers to “a profound region of my mind, where certain images coincide, the elementary ones, the completely obscene ones, i.e., the most scandalous, precisely those on which the conscious floats indefinitely, unable to endure them without an explosion or aberration.” Later he calls this the “breaking point of the conscious or, if you will, the favorite place of sexual deviation.”

It really interests me to think of obscenity as the “breaking point of the conscious.” That explains why we all have different definitions of what it is, and it also describes its value. I think, if one can bear to, it’s a good thing to find one’s own breaking points and probe their nature. It helps to know what it’s like at the edges of oneself, to feel defined by those spots, exhilarated by them if that’s what happens, and ultimately less vulnerable from the knowing.


  1. To me "obscene" does indicate going beyond some societally determined boundaries, and while those boundaries often seem unreasonably restrictive, you make a good point about finding one's own boundaries even when those are pretty far outside the ones professed (often hypocritically) by society.

    1. Thanks, Sacchi! I think if people never went beyond boundaries, it would make the pool of "acceptable" light ever smaller.

  2. I've never read The Story of the Eye, but I have encountered a few erotic books that engendered the same weird combination of arousal and extreme discomfort, almost disgust, that you describe. And I have to say, I don't understand the appeal, but I can't deny it.

    The brief excerpt you quote is unbearably erotic, by the way. Despite hesitation about the later scenes you describe -- serious violence definitely turns me off -- I think I'll have to get a copy of this book.

    1. Good luck. Bataille writes beautifully, for sure, but I definitely feel uncomfortable as the story progresses. I really agree with you about the milk scene, though.

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Annabeth. I've always been taken aback by the implication in novels, movies, plays, operas, that sex is a slippery slope and that once you lose your virginity, you won't stop until you've killed someone and wallowed in the blood. This is not how other appetites work. (I like certain foods, so I eat them until I'm satisfied, then I stop.) Attacks on Catholic clergy (as in the Marquis de Sade's work) seem to carry a specific frisson for people raised in that faith -- I simply think of the murder of a priest or the rape of a nun (which happened here, years ago) as a vicious attack on a human being. If one wants to challenge religious orthodoxy, there are more effective ways to do it! In a sex-fearing culture, though, we all have to find out how to have sex lives without feeling crazy or damned.

    1. "once you lose your virginity, you won't stop until you've killed someone and wallowed in the blood"

      Ha! What a hilarious way to put that. And you're so right that this isn't how appetites generally work. It was only a few years ago that I started to realize that more fully and trust myself, rather than spend a lot of needless energy resisting things I didn't need to resist.

      I'm in the category of people with a lot of weird feelings around Catholicism, and I think you're right on both counts: there's a certain sexualized and violent energy around things related to the church, and it's also quite wrong to act violently toward other humans. I think blasphemy creates a special category of trespass that can have the erotic charge of all sorts of trespass.


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