How to be treasonable
February 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
Youth is forgiven. It is more than an excuse.
Youth is usually the closest age to genius in any private life for we view it as an illness common to all (one, although most pretend otherwise, which is hereditary). Puberty especially continues to be considered as years of mental deficiency, a conscription into irrationality.
Youth is often accused of running. It is true that their bodies, the nimblest they will know them to be, are suitably prepared, pre-disposed even, for escape. The frequency of the phenomenon serves to flatten the courageous brashness of youth. But the young make their own accusations against their inquisitors: they see their fleeing, metaphorical or literal, is from a resignation into life without an alternative to the one being led. Imagine, with me, Simone riding nude beside the narrator of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928), “fleeing like animals through the hostile darkness, our imaginations haunted by the despondency that was bound to take hold of Marcelle again, making the wretched inmate almost an embodiment of the fury & terror that kept driving our bodies to endless debauchery” (29).
A few points on the narrative: united by a desire — the precise description of which will shortly be made subject — the three protagonists, along with some friends, are discovered to have turned a tea-party into “a debauche of tumbling bodies, lofty legs & arses, wet skirts & come” (17). Simone & the narrator are “exulted” (18) at seeing their parents bursting in; Marcelle hasn’t the same security in her will to make a schism from & submits to barbiturates in a nearby sanatorium. The naked cycling “in the rainless tempest” (29) follows the first attempt to reclaim their troika.
The asylum is represented as a meeting-ground for the two worlds (for the sake of convenience, let’s call them the worlds of “reason” & “treason”, although “progressive” & “debauched” or “adult” & “youthful” are likewise suitable), each one fighting for its own view of transcendence, of transgression. Marcelle hangs herself & it drives her friends to assert even more powerfully their choice in treason.
To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness… In general, people savour the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid… My kind of debauchery soils not only my body & my thoughts, but also anything I may conceive in its course, that is to say, the vast starry universe, which merely serves as a backdrop. (42)
This is the common equation of treason, often dismissed for the common & altogether uninteresting youthful traits of folly & angst. Such is the strategy of undermining: renaming. The true pleasure that is the book’s interest is subversion, not perversion.
The pleasure that is derived from the sexual act, almost always abnormative, is not on a sexual topos, but as disruption, as “violation of a limit to the signifying space. It makes possible, at the very level of speech, a counter-division of objects, usages, meanings, spaces, & properties that is eroticism itself” (“The Metaphor of the Eye” 126, emphasis mine), to quote Roland Barthes in what may be the most famous essay on Bataille’s masterwork. Barthes’ argument hinges on Story of the Eye‘s attempt at “reproduc[ing] the random character of associative fields, as established so forcefully by Saussure” (122—23): a chain of images are developed around the idea of the eye: an egg, a bowl of milk, testicles, the sun.
Barthes suggests a musical interpretation, by calling it “a metaphorical composition” (120) of variations on a theme (the eye) which endures throughout — & is the subject of — the whole. [Narrative does not drive the work, nor the characters, but this circular metaphor.] This theme’s “essential form subsists through the movement of a nomenclature like that of a physical space, because here each inflexion is a new noun, speaking a new usage” (121). The traitor’s have learnt from their oppression & are able to use nomenclature to destabilise. The question has now become one of language, of the possibilities of perverting language (not people).
Subversion is not the purpose of the text, an impossibility for the “language arts” for the very reason that they employ — & must employ — an established system. Instead, the focus is on the pleasure of subverting: dramatised in the novella by Simone’s scene at the confessional, “The worst sin of all is very simply that I’m tossing off while talking to you” (60). Just as her fantasy with the priest is to be satisfied “with a well-nigh filthy ecstasy” (62) in the climax, we can look for satisfaction in the linguistic ingenuity of Bataille.
Like Catholic confessionals, there is an immediacy & a divide at once: “all these associations [the eye, the egg, &c] are at the same time identical & other. For the metaphor that varies them exhibits a controlled difference between them that the metonymy that interchanges them immediately sets about abolishing.* The world becomes blurred” (Barthes 125). Objectivity is forfeited for subjectivity, or the subjective mythologizing of a single idea. Ambiguity, the interchangeability of symbols & meanings defines the tale, called “partly imaginary” (“Part 2. Coincidences” 69) by its author, the truth lying in the connections between the images — a wholly subjective truth &, arguably, the only accessible truth.
This is being treasonable. This is turning one’s back on truth for truth’s sake. What does the traitor gain? Doubt? A trust in herself in spite of her (necessary) absurdity?
* Joshua Landy develops this idea in Philosophy as Fiction (2004) by means of the metonyphor, a trope in which “two impressions that (quite by chance) come to strike the mind at the same time, such as the sound of waves crashing on the shore & the sight of a young girl pushing a bicycle, use into a stable synthesis” (70). More on this at a later point.