Irony/humor in the Fast Lane: The Route to Desire in 'L'Abbe C.'

Article excerpt

The title of Bataille's intriguing and complex story strikes the reader almost immediately as one which operates on two levels: L'Abbe C. is a title which refers not only to one of the story's principal characters, but also to the alphabet--the graphemes of language itself. On the level of its narrative, L'Abbe C. is the story of a priest's eventual surrender to desire; on the level of its language, a meta-narrative level, L'Abbe C. provides a gloss on the difficulty of using language to narrate the voyage of desire leading to the extreme limit of experience. In this paper, I argue that Bataille's L'Abbe C. follows a dual itinerary: it embarks on the narration of the priest's desire and his ultimate experience of the impossible, while at the same time leaving in its trail a commentary on language's capacity (or incapacity) to accomplish this narration.(1)

Such a duality of intention suggests the presence of a certain "irony" (or "humor" as shall become clear), for it implies that, on the narrative level, the apparent sincerity of the priest's descriptions of his experience will no doubt be underpinned (and undermined) by the awareness, on the meta-narrative level, of language's ambiguous role in this very narration of the priest's desire and experience. It is the tension between, on the one hand, the apparently earnest and painful narration of the priest's surrender to impossible excess, and, on the other, the more distanced, playful commentary on the narration of this surrender which is played out, in ironical (and humorous fashion) in L'Abbe C.

In order to make my use of these two terms, "irony" and "humor" clear, and in order to situate Bataille's profound and idiosyncratic use of irony (and humor) in the context of existing studies of the phenomenon, I will draw from Candace Lang's analysis of examples of irony in literature, for her book, Irony/Humor, takes account of a postmodern view of the phenomenon.(2) After having established the ways in which the terms "irony" and "humor" will be used in this paper, I will examine the ways in which Bataille's text operates in a humorous and/or ironical fashion on both its narrative and meta-narrative level.

Lang bases much of her discussion on Kierkegaard's distinction between "irony as a figure of speech" marked by a disparity between the word and its essence or meaning, and "irony as a mode of existence" characterized by a discrepancy between the ironist's behaviour and his true, internal self. Drawing from this difference in the use of the term "irony," Lang points to Kierkegaard's distinction between the traditional Platonic concept of irony which may be termed "vertical" because it designates a concealment of meaning under the surface of language, and a "horizontal" Socratic form of irony which cannot be reduced to a clear and simple disparity between a true hidden content and a false surface appearance. Lang writes that for Kierkegaard, this second concept of irony "concealed no positive content; an incessant questioning, a perpetual mise-en-cause, a nondialectical negation of existing modes of thought, it would yield no concrete result..." (Irony, 3).

In Irony/Humor, Lang develops further her discussion of Kierkegaard's "horizontal" concept of irony. Unlike its "vertical" counterpart, "horizontal" irony does not valorize the signified over the signifier; rather, meaning arises from the interplay of signifiers. Lang labels as "humor" this second concept of irony, which she comes to identify with "...ecriture or writing in the Derridean sense" (Irony, 14).

Another difference between "vertical" and "horizontal" irony arises from the respective uses to which the ironic language in question is put. Lang views the ironic text as a modern rather than a postmodern phenomenon, for it strives essentially to communicate a message, idea, or feeling. Like the "nonironic sincere text," the ironic text uses language to convey a message, and, although this is done in a less than straightforward fashion, the ironist's word ". …