Pornography as Paradox: The Joint Project of Hans Bellmer and Georges Bataille

By Vanskike, Elliott | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1998 | Go to article overview
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Pornography as Paradox: The Joint Project of Hans Bellmer and Georges Bataille


Vanskike, Elliott, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Elaine Showalter has noted in her book, Sexual Anarchy, that ends of centuries are often marked by an increased fascination with sexual scandals; 19th-century England had the Woman Question, the Oscar Wilde homosexuality trial, and public health scares over syphilis and prostitution (2-4). The 20th century is no different. Our fin-de-siecle scandals have often entered public discourse as debates about what distinguishes pornography from art, or more accurately, at what point the putative pornographic content of a photograph or a movie outweighs its salutary effect on the public. In 1989 the work of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano was decried as obscene on the floor of the United States Senate in a flap over whether their work should be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1997 Oklahoma police removed copies of Volker Schlondorff's film The Tin Drum from the shelves of libraries and video stores after a district court judge determined that it was obscene under the state's child pornography laws.

Clearly, the place of sexuality in art is being contested by the conservative cultural right. But this, too, is nothing new. Those who would defend pornography often draw fire themselves. Critics such as Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag have defended the aesthetic legitimacy of pornographic works - not, however, in spite of the works' offensiveness, but because of it. Beauvoir points out in her 1952 essay, "Must We Burn Sade?" that his writings are indefensible from almost any other stance. The philosophy is banal, the prose is ham-handed, the sexual escapades are unoriginal "The fact is that it is neither as author nor as sexual pervert that Sade compels our attention: it is by virtue of the relationship which he created between these two aspects of himself" (12). Sade's achievement is that he shows us his own struggle to justify the unjustifiable. It is this tension that compels us when we read Sade; without the pornographic pull, we are left merely with the ham-handedness and banality. Sontag makes a similar argument for the power of pornographic fiction, what she calls "one of the extreme forms of consciousness" (46). Cleverly using the brush that is usually used to tar pornographic fiction - that it is designed to produce physical arousal in its readers - she paints an all-the-more compelling portrait of its power: "The physical sensations involuntarily produced in someone reading the book carry with them something that touches upon the reader's whole experience of his humanity - and his limits as a personality and a body." Pornographic literature, as she sees it, is not rendered ineffectual because it produces arousal; instead, this most visceral of reader's responses renders it more cogent in that it aims at "disorientation, at psychic dislocation" (47).

The visual art of Hans Bellmer (1902-78) and the pornographic fiction of Georges Bataille (1897-1962) both exhibit this aim to attack philosophical systems through depictions of sexuality. Moreover, in their case it is a concerted project: Bellmer provided a series of engravings to illustrate two pornographic novels by Bataille, Story of the Eye and Madame Edwarda. Bellmer was a German artist who first came to the attention of Andre Breton and his Surrealist circle when Bellmer created a mannequin-type sculpture that he called Die puppe (the Doll), which he photographed in a variety of frankly sexual positions. These photographs were hand-tinted and published in France in two art books: La Poupee (1936) and Les Jeux de la poupee (1949). Bataille - primarily known today as a critic who wrote on a wide variety of topics, including economics (The Accursed Share), literature (Literature and Evil), philosophy (Erotism and Inner Experience) - was known during his lifetime, as Allan Stoekl notes, "mainly as the editor of Critique. . .and as an author of 'erotic' or 'pornographic' literature. . ." ("Preface" 1). According to Stoekl, it is misleading to treat these two Batailles, scholar and pornographer, as distinct, for Bataille's philosophical writings and his fiction share a single purpose: to confront the reader with what he called "heterogeneous matter" and what Stoekl characterizes as "matter so repulsive that it resisted not only the idealism of Christians, Hegelians, and surrealists, but even the conceptual edifice-building of traditional materialists" ("Introduction" xi).

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