My name is Hélène: Bataille's transgressive eros
Swans of the Father: A Difficult Loyalty
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My name is Hélène: Bataille's transgressive eros
Georges Bataille (1897-1962), the French novelist, essayist, philosopher and poet, has been undergoing a parade of recognitions, delayed claims and intellectual parentings for nearly three decades now. The American discovery of this enigmatic and painfully difficult author has culminated in book-length analyses and publishing events, bringing to print long unavailable texts and an impressive corpus of exegetical work.
Bataille stands alone at an elevation point in literature where what is visible has the attractiveness, the beauty and vertigo of nothingness, of an ecstatic violation of life. His is a literature of abjection, horror, always invoking what is divinely obscene, sacredly profligate, poetically pornographic. The savagery of his negativity demands we inscribe him in the ranks of what the French call les écrivains maudits, along with the likes of the Marquis de Sade, comte de Lautréamont and Charles Baudelaire.
Je fais peur. --G. Bataille
In order to measure the phenomenal dissolutions and suspensions of being, in order to gauge the effervescence of the sexual violence encountered in Georges Bataille's oeuvre, one needs to have recourse to the dionysian excesses, the orgiastic rituals of ancient cultures, human sacrifice, the potlatch rites of Native Americans, to the self-inflicted mortifications and penances of real-life saints (such as Santa Rosa of Lima or Sainte Colette of Gand). And finally, one would have to import the notions of crime and murder as known to us through the ages by the extraordinary chronicles of faits divers which mark our societies. Figuring the impossible, the unspeakable, tangling with the formidable taboos of our culture is what animates Bataille's writing.
Written under the pseudonym of Pierre Angélique, Ma Mère, published posthumously as a novella in 1966, constitutes an unfinished manuscript, generically difficult to classify, though it could be said to parody a Bildungsroman in its diegetic movement. The sentimental education reserved for Pierre, the young protagonist, is an infernal descent into libertinage and incest.
The fantastic (and phantasmatic) transgression documented in this text can be measured against the distance the mother, Hélène, travels from her culturally enforced place as nurturer and reproducer to that of seducer and corrupting agent. From her maternal role, Hélène retains nothing but "the affectionate sweetness" of the word, maman. The rest is a bittersweet rhetoric of defilement, terror and, overall, the "shrine of mad laughter."
Hélène, the infinitely bad mother, violates maternal logic with an abandon rarely encountered in contemporary culture. For feminist theorists, what seduces in Bataille's text is the solid fact that here is a maternal subject apprehended as a site of knowledge in contrast to the habitual representations, wherein mothers function as mere relay posts of information necessary to the good transmission of the system: Say hello to the nice lady. or On ne parle pas la bouche pleine. This self-imposed policing of our children is never valorized as knowledge but seen rather as a small-minded currency, a resented obsession with the unimportant, or worse, complicity with patriarchy's repressive ideology.
"I want to know what you want," Pierre says to his mother. More than her youthful beauty, more than her sins, it is Hélène's carnal knowledge (the knowledge of a maternal jouissance) that acts as a fil aimanté, a magnetic thread, luring the son into the awesome machinery of incestuous desire.
Child Picking a Fruit
1893, Oil on canvas
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
A death is needed to generate Pierre's quest. The father's eviction from the scene of writing will provide the necessary narrative lever. In fact, Pierre's vile father is not only chased from the novella, he is vilified and erased with punitive brutality.
Pierre, you are not his son, but the fruit of the torment that would possess me in the wild. You came from the terror I mated with when I was naked in the woods, naked like the beasts that live there; terror was my joy. (73)
For Denis Hollier, a superb reader of Bataille, it is this very thrashing of the Name-of-the-father which comes to stall the reign of patriarchy.
Alexander J. Cassatt and His Son, Robert Kelso Cassatt
1884-85, Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Having dephallicized and banished the father, Bataille's text sets the mother as an all-powerful (phallic) figure who orders and directs (i.e. met en scène) Pierre's rites of passage. It is the mother who demands to be seen and recognized and who insists on correcting the son's misreading of her. In effect, she says, what he has seen of her is not she.
I am tired of falsehoods: I am worse than he.
By throwing down her maternal mask, Hélène disavows the official versions of bourgeois motherhood and tramples their patriarchal lies and ruses with shameless glee.
Refusing to separate sexual pleasure from knowledge, Bataille denudes "la blessure du savoir." To know is to reveal, to unveil the ob/scene. For the author of Erotisme, sexual experience is a privileged topos for a practice of transgression because the amorous subject detours "normal" sexual economy in favor of a perverse, abject, libidinal economy marked by loss, instability and deperditions of self, life and, ultimately, meaning.
Whether one attempts to read Bataille's sentimental education as a variant of the pre-symbolic family romance or perhaps as a contradictory model of maternal subjectivity which problematizes the mother-child dyad by displaying the deadly law and its transgression, one finds oneself under its spell because it disengages the maternal figure from the forever goody-gooey-mommy object, insipid and unknowing.
But how do we read Hélène's suicide? This violently independent mistress of her desires will nonetheless be forced to do away with herself. The sacrificial eroticism of Ma Mère is not admitted without raising hackles for feminists. Her suicide does not sit well with feminist discourse. Seen as yet another scansion of the maternal victim, her suicide can only reinforce patriarchy's sanctions against anyone mad enough to defy the phallic law. Read against Bataille's notion of dépense (libidinal potlatch), Hélène's death, following the only embrace authorized by the text, becomes a legacy, an unbarterable commodity for Pierre, who survives.
The mother's transgressive expenditure inscribes a debt which will haunt the Bataillean subject in his very obligation to writing. If suicide is a coded message addressed to the other, then Pierre, the receiver of this murderous maternal gift, will have to return it with interest. Writing, for Bataille, like the translation of an original, will keep alive, without quite replacing it, the unbearable mark of the mother's desire.
(Paris-born, Chris Tysh's publications include Continuity Girl, Coat of Arms and In the Name, this last a collection of poetic plays, two of which were staged: Vice Versa, directed by Lynn Crawford at La Mama in New York; Car Men, a play in d, directed by Carla Harryman at The Detroit Institute of Arts. She teaches Creative Writing and Women's Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.)
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by Michael Graves
Sapphire read with Franz Wright at Makor (35 West 67th St.) on Thursday, April 5. Since her performance has recently been discussed in this publication [See Archive, April 2001, Series Review. Ed.], my focus is Franz Wright, the son of the major American poet James Wright. I have at least two important things in common with him.
First, like him, I was encouraged by James Wright to write poetry, and second, my father was alcoholic. There are other similarities, but I choose not to disclose them here.
I did not look forward to writing this review. It seemed a task fraught with difficulty. There was the possibility that I might not like the work of my old teacher's son. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Mr. Wright's soul lives on, I had/have no wish to utter anything that might give discomfort to even the memory of my old mentor or to his relatives.
It is obvious that the days of the medieval craft unions when generations of the same families worked expertly at the same trades or arts are gone. We live in a world which, by and large, expects its children to pursue careers other than those their parents have pursued. It should be noted, however, that the rarity of a son or daughter practicing the same art his or her parent has is not cause for certainty the child will fail. And the ineluctable human need children have to be loyal to their parents in whatever ways they possibly can makes it perhaps surprising that there aren't more children who strive to make significant contributions to the arts their parents have succeeded in. Nonetheless, such attempts when the parent is a major figure, as James Wright continues to be even in death, must entail struggle and significant risk.
It follows then that any such attempt is worthy of respect, and I respect Franz Wright's accomplishment, especially since some of his poems invite specific comparisons to his father's work.
I will illustrate by comparing a passage in Franz Wright's "Thanks Prayer at the Cove," the longest poem he read at Makor, and a passage in "With This Love" to lines in his father's "Three Sentences for a Dead Swan" and "To the Muse." In the first, Franz Wright uses a traditional emblem of the poet, the swan, an image out of Yeats (see "The Tower," "The Wild Swans at Coole," etc.)--by way of his father. Whether or not the influence is conscious is irrelevant, though it would probably be more to the younger poet's credit if he knew what he was evoking. I assume he did. Here are his lines:
... the single
It seems an image of a persona frightened that he may be powerless to prevent a regression into oblivion, (Franz Wright's poems make no secret of his stays in rehabilitation centers and mental institutions) and it is economical and effective--emblematic of struggle. It occurs in a poem that then re-presents a psychotic experience and the persona's gratitude that he survived it.
"Three Sentences for a Dead Swan" is not one of his father's best poems, but it is, nonetheless, a powerful elegy. As in the swan image in "Thanks Prayer at the Cove," the color black figures prominently: The dead swan is transformed into 'My black Ohioan swan.' And in the concluding stanza, the persona, like a priest conducting a funeral, says:
Here, carry his splintered bones
A passage in "Cloudless Snowfall," which appears to be another prayer poem, (not having the text at hand, I must approximate the enjambments)
. . .--thank You for
reminds the reader of the conclusion of his father's moving poem "Speak," which is also a prayer:
I have gone forward with
Competing with poetry of this power is no small thing. In addition, in fairness, it must be said that stylistically, Franz Wright is a minimalist. Within his current limits and intentions, Franz Wright exhibits an ability to cope with the anxiety of influence and sense of belatedness it seems natural to assume his father's accomplishment must inspire.
In order to move to a summary of Franz Wright's achievement, I need to say a little more about the elder Wright. I consider James Wright's Shall We Gather At The River (1967) a great book, greater than the more praised, The Branch Will Not Break (1963). It was misread, he said, because it had been so "carefully dreamed" (Interview: Paris Review, 1972). It is the volume that makes possible the upward ascent, the spiritual progress of the rest of his career. Its poems had to be written.
In that book, his persona, a tormented modern Orpheus, invokes a latter-day Eurydice, Jenny the suicide. Everything in the collection moves to the last poem, the invocation "To the Muse," which attempts the rescue of Jenny, who has whored herself, abandoned their newborn child and drowned herself. Based on his reading at Makor and on what I have read in The Beforelife, I believe Franz Wright (b. 1953) has not yet attempted so large a theme, but his work, like that of his father, is concerned with the depiction of the movement from states of despair to states of grace. In that respect he is his father's son and rival, ineluctably. I hope he continues his endeavor with increasing lyricism.
(Michael Graves is the co-author, with Vic Schermer, of "The Abandoned Male Persona and the Mysterious Feminine in the Poetry of James Wright: A Study in the Transformation of the Self." The Psychoanalytic Review 85/6, Dec. 99, pp. 849-870. [See Archive for, "The Struggle with the Holy in the Poetry of Michael Graves", an interview by Schermer which appeared in the April 2001 issue. Ed.]
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J'entends venir un autre chant,
I hear another song approach.
In April, 1997, the New York Philharmonic performed Débussy's Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911) at Avery Fisher Hall. That experience alone might have been enough to convert a T.S. Eliot--maybe even an Ezra Pound. Since Luther, generations of Sunday schoolchildren have been spared the bewildering series of iconographic torture scenes, none bearing the name 'Jesus.' Certainly among the most intriguing of those depictions (and usually a fairly bloodless one) for a kid brought up on tales of Robin Hood, the archer-bandit of Sherwood Forest, is that of Saint Sebastian.
The many renderings of the young man's arrow-pierced body convey a pious submission of mortal flesh, but it is Gabriele d'Annunzio's poetry that conveys the resistance of spirit, and what's more, the active solicitation of assailant by martyr: "Remember. I am the Target!" Not arrogance, but righteousness assures the other's frustration, reinforced as victim attempts a reversal of torment, one that will linger after his inevitable death: "Remember that terrible Hope."
Because the trial of religious fervor withstood invites comparison to body-transcending erotic delirium, some have inferred a homoerotic cast to the portrayal: Violence--albeit elegant--is inflicted upon manly beauty by manly means. Whatever the relevance, if any, of this inquiry, the narrow interstices between the spiritual and the erotic have drawn to the larger inquiry the imaginations of some of our finest writers: Georges Bataille for one, whose work Chris Tysh in her accompanying essay calls "sacredly profligate", and Kathryn Harrison.
Harrison's unique treatment of two women casualties of the Spanish Inquisition, one noble, one not, was present in the air of collective consciousness around the same time as the Philharmonic's performance, and remains quite nearly as memorable. Her "musky eroticism" reminded one reviewer of Flaubert's remark that the smell of arsenic haunted him long after writing Madame Bovary's death scene.
Excerpt from Poison:
Burning. But not the sting of a coal, not the sizzle of nettles or the shriek of scalding water spilled upon you. No earthly burning, this, but how light might feel were it to enter you, were flesh to become literate in senses other than touch.
"Oh, please, I beg you. Please." Arching toward them like a bow, trying to divorce my spine from the rack to which they make me fast. "Please. Further. Go further. Kill me. Split my heart, please. I am begging you."
(Kathryn Harrison, Poison, (Avon Books, 1995) pp. 32-34)
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. . . In the year of my mother's blood, when I was born,
. . . Womanly, a shadow combed
The red position of her heart, nor the subtle order
Lovingly, lovingly, I wept for her absent eyes,
Upon a stone, seeing she did not recognize
(From "Poem", Stanley Kunitz)
Had their authorship been concealed and these lines offered as a translation from Pierre Emmanuel, perhaps even from Georges Bataille himself (see Chris Tysh's essay), the American reader would have assented to the attribution, so foreign yet nightmare-familiar, so deeply do they retrieve and reconvey man's primal vulnerability to the mother present, the mother absent--or self-hid.
. . . At the water's edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
(From "Father and Son", Stanley Kunitz)
Here, the poet appears to draw on a psychic space at once more English in feel, damp, but with a faintly Greek sharpness, to swipe away the smothering (mother) ferns and seize on a kinship with a kind nearer his own, lost or never known, recalled from death in death's form.
Even in excerpt, these two poems expose the feebleness of a vast, continuing production of the Dad-at-the-deep-end-of-the-pool, Mom-stirring-the-oatmeal mode of American parental tribute and hallmark personal revelation.
Slush pile aside, some of our most respected American writers seem content to laze through a mild reverie on challenging, archetypal material. Critics can be had no doubt who will parse through to discoveries of great depth in plainspoken understatement or catharsis in restraint, but it may take a large mother to suffer through this third poem's cell-phone discourse and one-side-of-the-conversation digressions to a sympathetic sigh.
I am standing on a disused iron bridge
But here I am leaning on the rusted railing
. . .
and the more I look at the water,
which is like a talking picture,
the more I think of 1902
when workmen in shirts and caps
riveted this iron bridge together
. . .
1902—my mother was so tiny
she could have fit into one of those oval
baskets for holding apples,
. . . my tiny mother,
who disappeared last year,
flying somewhere with your strange wings,
your wide eyes, and your heavy wet dress,
kicking deeper down into a lake
with no end or name, some boundless province of water.
(From "The Iron Bridge", Billy Collins*)
If a poet/reader is hardly stirred, it is little surprise that the casual reader has long since written off contemporary verse in favor of the more compelling lyrics of "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" or "My Mama Done Tole Me".