Roland Barthes: ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’


Note: Since my review of Charu Nivedita’s Zero Degree, much vitriol is being generated in my comments section against the ‘sick’, ‘perverted’, ‘disgusting’ writing in the novel. Several theorists in the past have made numerous arguments for the use of pornographic imagery in literary writing, debating if pornography is literary at all. One of the essays highly relevant during its time was Roland Barthes’ essay on Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye

 In India, the pornography-literature discourse is a debate well ahead of its time. I am reproducing Barthes’ essay in its entirety here (it isn’t available in full form anywhere online – and it is long, be warned) to shed some light on the differences between writing porn and writing pornographically. 

The Metaphor of the Eye

Although Story of the Eye features a number of named characters with an account of their sex play, Bataille was by no means writing the story of Simone, Marcelle, or the narrator (as Sade, for example, wrote the stories of Justine and Juliette)[1]. Story of the Eye really is the story of an object. How can an object have a story? Well, it can pass from hand to hand, giving rise to the sort of tame fancy authors call The History of my Pipe or Memoirs of an Armchair, or alternatively it can pass from image to image, in which case its story is that of a migration, the cycle of the avatars it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it. This is the case with Bataille’s book.

What happens to the Eye (rather than to Marcelle, Simone, or the narrator) bears no comparison with any ordinary piece of fiction. The “adventures” of an object that merely changes owners are the fruit of a type of romantic imagination that confines itself to arranging reality. Its “avatars”, on the other hand, being of necessity absolutely imaginary (rather than simply “invented”), can only be imagination itself, i.e. not its -product but its substance. In describing the Eye’s migration towards other objects (and hence other usages than “seeing”), Georges Bataille is not in any way getting involved in the novel, a form that by definition makes do with a partial, derived, impure make-believe (mixed up with reality); on the contrary, he is moving within a kind of essence of make-believe. Perhaps this type of composition should be called a “poem”. It is difficult to see how else to distinguish it from the novel, and the distinction needs to be made. The novelist’s imagination is “probable“; a novel is something that might happen, all things considered. It is a diffident sort of imagination (even in its most luxuriant creations), daring to declare itself only against the security of the real. The poet’s imagination, on the other hand, is improbable; a poem is something that could never happen under any circumstances-except, that is, in the shadowy or burning realm of fantasy, which by that very token it alone can indicate. The novel proceeds by chance combinations of real elements, the poem by precise and complete exploration of virtual elements.

We recognize in this antithesis-if it is justified-the two major categories (operations, objects, or figures) that the science of linguistics has recently taught us to differentiate and name: arrangement and selection, syntagma and paradigm, metonymy and metaphor. Essentially, then, Story oj the Eye is a metaphorical composition (although metonymy comes into it later, as we shall see). In it a term, the Eye, is varied through a certain number of substitute objects standing in a strict relationship to it: they are similar (since they are all globular) and at the same time dissimilar (they are all called something different). This double property is the necessary and sufficient condition of every paradigm. The Eye’s substitutes are declined in every sense of the term: recited like flexional forms of the one word; revealed like states of the one identity; offered like propositions none of which can hold more meaning than another; filled out like successive moments in the one story. On its metaphorical journey the Eye thus both varies and endures; its 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.

So the Eye seems to be the matrix of a run of objects that are like different “stations” of the ocular metaphor. The first variation is that of the eye and the egg. It is a double variation, affecting both form (oeil and oeuf share one sound and vary in the other) and content (although absolutely distinct, the two objects are globular and white). Once posited as constants, whiteness and roundness  open the way to fresh metaphorical extensions: that of the saucer of milk, for example, used in Simone and the narrator’s first piece of sex play. And when that whiteness assumes a pearly quality (as of a dead eye turned up in its socket) it invites a further development of the metaphor-one sanctioned by current French usage, which refers to the testicles of animals as “eggs”. This completes the sphere of metaphor within which the whole of Story of the Eye moves, from the cat’s saucer of milk to the putting-out of Granero’s eye and the castration of the bull (producing “glands the size and shape of eggs, and of a pearly whiteness, faintly bloodshot, like that of the globe of the eye”).

This is the primary metaphor of the poem, but it is not the only one. A second chain springs from it, made up of all the avatars of liquid, an image linked equally with eye, egg, and balls. Nor is it simply the liquid itself that varies (tears, milk in the cat’s saucer-eye, the yolk of a soft-boiled egg, sperm or urine). It is as it were the manner of appearance of moisture. The metaphor here is much richer than in  the case of the globular: from “damp” to “streaming”, all the varieties of “making wet” complement the original metaphor of the globe. Objects apparently quite remote from the eye are thus caught up in the chain of metaphor, such as, the bowels of the gored horse  spilling “like a cataract” from its side. In fact (the power of metaphor being infinite) the presence of only one of the two chains makes it possible to summon up the other. Is there anything more “dry” than the sun? Yet, in the field of metaphor traced by Bataille almost in the manner of a haruspex, the sun need only become a disc and then a globe for its light to flow like a liquid and join up, via the idea of a “soft luminosity” or a “urinary liquefaction of the sky”, with the eye, egg, and testicle theme.

So here we have two metaphorical series, or, if you like, in line with the definition of metaphor, two chains of significants, for within each chain it is quite clear that each term is never anything but the significant of the next term. Do all the significants in this “step-ladder” refer to a stable thing signified, one all the more secret for being buried beneath a whole architecture of masks? In short, is there a bottom to the metaphor and consequently a hierarchy of its terms? The question is one of depth psychology and this is not the place to go into it. But notice one thing: if the chain does have a beginning, if the metaphor does have a generative (and thus privileged) term on the basis of which the paradigm takes shape by degrees, we should at least recognize that Story of the Eye in no way nominates the sexual as the first term in the chain. There are no grounds for saying that the metaphor sets out from the genital to end up with such apparently asexual objects as egg, eye, or sun. The imaginary world unfolded here does not have as its “secret” a sexual fantasy. If it did, the first thing requiring explanation would be why the erotic theme is never directly phallic (what we have here is a “round phallicism”). But above all Bataille himself has doomed every attempt at deciphering his poem to partial failure by giving (at the end of the book) the sources (they are biographical) of his metaphor. This leaves us with no alternative but to regard Story of the Eyeas a perfectly spherical metaphor: each of its terms is always the significant of another term (no term being a simple thing signified) without it being possible ever to break the chain. Certainly the  Eye, whose story it is, appears to predominate-the Eye we know to have been the Father himself, blind, his whitish globes turned up in their sockets as he pissed in front of the child. But in this case it is the very equivalence of the ocular and the genital that is original, not one of its terms: the paradigm begins nowhere. This indeterminacy of the metaphorical order, usually overlooked by the psychology of archetypes, in fact merely reproduces the random character of associative fields, as established so forcefully by Saussure: there is no giving pre-eminence to any of the terms of a declension. The consequences for criticism are important. Story of the Eye is not a deep work. Everything in it is on the surface; there is no hierarchy. The metaphor is laid out in its entirety; it is circular and explicit, with no secret reference behind’ it. It is a case of signification without a thing signified (or in which everything is signified), and it is not the least beauty nor the least novelty of this text that it constitutes, by virtue of the technique we are endeavouring to describe, a kind of open literature out of the reach of all interpretation, one that only formal criticism can — at a great distance — accompany.

Let us go back to our two chains of metaphor, that of the Eye (as we shall call it for simplicity’s sake) and that of tears. As a reserve of virtual signs, a pure metaphor cannot alone constitute a discourse. If one recounts its terms, i.e. if one inserts them in a narrative that cements them together, their paradigmatic nature already begins to give ground to the dimension of all spoken language, which is inevitably syntagmatic extension.[2] Story of the Eye is in fact a narrative the episodes of which nevertheless remain predetermined by the different stations of the double metaphor. The narrative is simply a kind of flow of matter enshrining the precious metaphorical substance: if we are in a park at night it is in order that the moon can emerge from the clouds to shine on the wet stain in the middle of Marcelle’s sheet as it flaps from the window; if we visit Madrid it is in order that there shall be a bullfight, with the offering of the bull’s raw balls and the putting out of Granero’s eye; if we go on to Seville it is in order that the sky shall exude the yellowish, liquid luminosity whose metaphorical nature we are familiar with from the rest of the chain. So if only within each series the narrative is very much a form, the restrictive character of which is as stimulating as the old rules of metre or tragedy, making it possible to bring out the terms of the metaphor from their essential virtuality.

Story of the Eye, however, is very much more than a narrative, even a thematic one. This is because Bataille, having established the double metaphor, introduces a fresh technique: he interchanges the two chains. This interchange is possible by nature because it is not a question of the same paradigm (of the same metaphor). Consequently the two chains are able to share relationships of contiguity. A term from the first can be coupled with a term from the second: syntagma is immediately possible. There is no resistance at the level of common sense; indeed everything works towards a discourse to the effect that “the eye weeps”, “the broken egg runs out”, or “light (the sun) pours down”. In this initial moment, which is the one everybody shares, the terms of the first metaphor and those of the second go together, nicely paired in accordance with ancestral stereotypes. Springing in an entirely conventional manner from the junction of the two chains, obviously these traditional syntagmas do not convey much information. “Breaking an egg” and “putting out an eye” are phrases conveying information of a global nature; they work with respect to their context and not with respect to their components (what is one to do with the egg if not break it; what is one to do with the eye if not put it out?).

But everything changes if we begin to tamper with the correspondence between the two chains, if instead of pairing objects and actions in accordance with the laws of traditional affinity (“break an egg”, “put out an eye”) we dislocate the association by taking each of its terms from different lines, in other words if we let ourselves “break an eye” and “put out an egg”. Compared with the two parallel metaphors (of the eye and of tears), the syntagma now becomes crossed, because the liaison it suggests takes from the two chains terms that are not complementary but distinct. This is the law of the Surrealist image as formulated by Reverdy and echoed by Breton (“the more remote and right the relations between the two realities, the more powerful will be the image”). Bataille’s image, however, is much more concerted. It is not a mad image nor even a free image, because the coincidence of its terms is not aleatory and the syntagma is limited by a constraint: that of choice, which means that the terms of the image can be taken only from two finite series. Obviously this constraint gives rise to very rich information situated halfway between the banal and the absurd, since the narrative is enclosed within the metaphorical sphere, of which it can interchange the regions (which gives it its breath) but not contravene the limits (which gives it its meaning). In accordance with the law that holds that literature is never more than its technique, the insistence and freedom of this song are the products of an exact art that has succeeded in both measuring the associative field and freeing within it the contiguities of terms.

That art is by no means gratuitous since it merges, apparently, with eroticism itself-at least Bataille’s eroticism. Of course one can imagine other definitions of eroticism than linguistic ones (as Bataille himself showed). But if we call metonymy [3] this transfer of meaning from one chain to the other at different levels of metaphor (the “eye sucked like a breast”, “drinking my left eye between her lips”) we shall probably concede that Bataille’s eroticism is essentially metonymic. Since the poetic technique employed here consists in demolishing the usual contiguities of objects and substituting fresh encounters that are nevertheless limited by the persistence of a single theme within each metaphor, the result is a kind of general contagion of qualities and actions: by virtue of their metaphorical dependence eye, sun, and egg are closely bound up with the genital; by virtue of their metonymic freedom they endlessly exchange meanings and usages in such a way that breaking eggs in a bath tub, swallowing or peeling eggs (softboiled), cutting up or putting out an eye or using one in sex play, associating a saucer of milk with a cunt or a beam of light with a jet of urine, biting the bull’s testicle like an egg or inserting it in the body-all these associations are at the same time identical and 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; properties are no longer separate; spilling, sobbing,  urinating, ejaculating form a wavy meaning, and the whole of Story of the Eyesignifies in the manner of a vibration that always gives the same sound (but what sound?). In this way the transgression of values that is the avowed principle of eroticism is matched by-if not based on-a technical transgression of the forms of language, for the metonymy is nothing but a forced syntagma, the 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, and properties that is eroticism itself. And the thing that the play of metaphor and metonymy in Story of the Eye makes it possible ultimately to transgress is sex — which is not, of course, the same as sublimating it, rather the contrary.

We are left with the question whether the rhetoric we have been describing can account for all eroticism or whether it is peculiar to Bataille. A glance at Sade’s eroticism, for example, suggests an answer here. It is true that Bataille’s narrative owes a great deal to Sade, but this is mainly because Sade laid the foundation for all erotic narrative in so far as his eroticism is essentially syntagmatic in character. Given a certain number of erotic loci, Sade deduced all the figures (or conjunctions of persons) capable of bringing them into play. The prime units are finite in number, because there is nothing more limited than erotic material. Yet they are sufficiently numerous to lend themselves’ to apparently infinite combinations (the erotic loci combining in positions and the positions in scenes) whose profusion is the beginning and end of Sadian narrative. In Sade there is no appeal to metaphorical or metonymical imagination, his eroticism being purely combinatory; but probably this very fact gives it a quite different direction from Bataille’s. Using etonymical interchange, Bataille drains a metaphor, which although double is by no means saturated in either chain. Sade on the other hand explores very thoroughly a field of combinations that are free of any kind of structural constraint; his eroticism is encyclopaedic, sharing the same accounting spirit as prompted Newton or Fourier. For Sade it is a question of tallying erotic combinations, an  undertaking that (technically) does not involve any transgression of the sexual. For Bataille it is a question of exploring the tremulous quality of a number of objects (a modern notion of which Sade knew nothing) in such a way as to interchange from one to another the functions of obscenity and those of substance (the consistency of the softboiled egg, the bloodshot, pearly colouring of the raw balls, the glassy quality of the eye). Sade’s erotic language has no connotation other than that of his century: it is writing. Bataille’s has the connotation of the man’s very being and is a style. Between the two something is born that transforms all experience into language that is askew (devoyé, to borrow another Surrealist word); this is literature.


I. “En hommage a Georges Bataille”, in Critique, nos. 195-6, August-September 1963.

2. These terms, taken from linguistics, are now common currency in French literary criticism. Syntagma means the plane of concatenation and combination of signs at the level of actual discourse (e.g. the line of words); paradigm means, for each sign of the syntagma, the fund of sister-but nevertheless dissimilar-signs from which it was selected.

3. I refer here to the antithesis established by Jakobson between metaphor as a figure of similarity and metonymy as a figure of contiguity.

[Roland Barthes (1972), ‘Critical Essays’, Trans. by Richard Howard, Northwestern University Press ]



3 responses »

  1. Pingback: e-i/ye/gg – oe-il/uf: Histoire de L’Oeil | We Celebrate

  2. Pingback: All Hallows: Story of the Eye | Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here

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