Notes on Genitoanal Obscenity
Before Georges Bataille introduces the Jesuve in “The Solar Anus” (1927), he first marks the revolting sensations of his body becoming ecstatic and entering into an unsettling mode of visibility. The force of sexual arousal disturbs his complexion, and the rush of blood to his face makes him “red and obscene” (8). The obscenity of his face derives from the newfound legibility of his morbid passions, and the violent process that renders sensible the intensities of his ecstatic body, his “bloody erection,” and “thirst for indecency and criminal debauchery” inspire Bataille to monumentalize the scandal of his abject sensations in the Jesuve. Initially figured as a volcanic, terrestrial anus that spreads “death and terror everywhere” and later as an eighteen-year-old’s “intact anus . . . to which nothing sufficiently blinding can be compared except the sun” (9), the Jesuve is “the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun.” The Jesuve’s awful eruptions terrify because they cast into view that which previously had been occluded and unknown; obscene genitoanal incandescence illuminates that which previously had been invisible. The Jesuve’s categorical eruptions transgress the boundary between decency and indecency, and they make sensible that which previously had been insensible.
In 1946, Hans Bellmer created a series of engravings for a new edition of Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928) as well as a series of photographic studies inspired by the narrative of the perverse exploits of Bataille’s teenage lovers. Many of Bellmer’s photographs for this project recall the tangled and contorted poses of his earlier series of doll photographs from the 1930s, and, within this new series, female bodies similarly often appear as uncanny, complicated assemblages of legs and arms. Set in counterpoint to Bataille’s narrative of abject ecstasy and sensual excess, Bellmer’s disconcerting photographs and drawings disclose a strikingly similar aesthetic project that explores the expressive potential of obscene volatile bodies.
The final chapter of Story of the Eye details the murder of a young priest as the unnamed narrator and his lover, Simone, have sex with him in a church in Spain. Simone requests for the priest’s eye to be cut out of his head and given to her, and, when she receives the eye, she inserts it into her vagina. The narrator finds himself overcome kissing Simone following this event, and he ejaculates on her:
Now I stood up and, while Simone lay on her side, I drew her thighs apart, and found myself facing something I imagine I had been waiting for in the same way a guillotine waits for a neck to slice. I even felt as if my eyes were bulging from my head, erectile with horror; in Simone’s hairy vagina, I saw the wan blue eye of Marcelle, gazing at me through tears of urine. Streaks of come in the streaming hair helped give that dreamy vision a disastrous sadness. I held the thighs open while Simone was convulsed by a urinary spasm, and the burning urine streamed out from under the eye down to the thighs below . . . (84)
As the narrator feels his eye bulge from his head, he sees a twin of his eye bulge from Simone’s genitals, and he experiences a vertiginous moment of recognition, a revolting sensation of identification. Although he identifies the eye as belonging to Marcelle (a friend of the couple who commits suicide earlier in the narrative), he also horrifically gazes upon himself. In the fragmentizing process of contorting Simone’s body and pressing it to expose itself more thoroughly to his vision, the narrator slips into a mise-en-abyme and he unexpectedly regards himself transfixed in fascination. The object of desire is subjectivized and in consciousness regards him, erupting in urinary excess as it considers him, as he considers himself.
Bellmer references this unsettling, ecstatic scene of recognition in his tinted photograph Sexe rouge (1946), which depicts a female figure spreading her labia with her two hands. The woman sits on the floor and against the wall in an indeterminate space, and, because she wears black, her torso becomes indistinguishable from a dark background. Her dismembered body consists only of two legs cropped above the knee that spread to reveal her tinted red genitals and two splayed hands that frame her sexe. The posed body in the closely cropped image evokes an uncanny butterfly and resonates with the abject transformation that Bataille’s narrator details. The tinted genitals appear as a quasi-bull’s-eye, and this eye boldly gazes forward in full delectable and decadent exposure to the camera, the photographer, and the viewer. The gestures of the mangled body emphasize that it is not passive object for the artist or spectator’s consideration; the body pulls itself apart to display its interiority and, flushed or adorned, the bull’s-eye genitals strike the viewer with a confrontational gaze. The self-recognition that incites the arousal and horror of Bataille’s narrator initially may appear indistinct if not imperceptible in this photograph, but Bellmer’s presence seems to exceed beyond the line of his signature. In a later series self-portraits, Bellmer evokes the tableau of Sexe rouge, and he emphatically worries the boundaries between himself and his ostensible desired object.
In the pencil on paper drawing Autoportrait avec Unica (1961), Unica diagonally reclines nude across the picture’s plane. She pulls her legs up to her chest, reaches her left hand over her left thigh, and draws apart her labia. Bellmer’s left eye remains closed, seemingly pressed shut by Unica’s thighs, but, because he superimposes his face over her genitals, as Unica spreads her labia, she simultaneously seems to pry open Bellmer’s right eye, which he faintly has colored red. This unexpected spot of red evokes the striking color of Sexe rouge. Within this self-portrait, Bellmer appears only as a dismembered head, however, because his body fuses with the space of Unica’s interior flesh, Unica’s body seems to exist as a mere projection of Bellmer’s own sexual body. The contours of their bodies blend into one another, and, as these barriers break down, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern where Bellmer ends and where Unica begins. The lines of her legs, feet, thighs, and head all evoke the phallic and penile shapes that recur throughout Bellmer’s drawings, and even the part in her hair resembles the meatus of the glans penis.
Bellmer emphasizes a vertiginous sense of self in his pencil and gouache drawing Auto-oeil (1963). Here, Bellmer more clearly defines the eponymous eye, which he places slightly off-center in the picture plane. Over a faintly drawn and incomplete grid, the eye rolls to the left in its fleshy socket at the genital intersection of several legs. Whereas in Autoportrait avec Unica Bellmer’s face and eye clearly emerge from a female body, the sex of the body from which the self-eye emerges in Auto-oeil is indeterminate, and Bellmer reduces the figure of himself from a full head to a mere eye. Although the stylized shape and curves of the multiple legs (one of which may be wearing stockings) might initially suggest female figures, there is no clear indication that this is the case, particularly as the legs double into phallic shapes. Two white liquid drops slide across the flesh near the right corner of the eye, and the drops simultaneously evoke tears, semen, and milk. The secreting body can read as masculine, and here the self-eye emerges from an anus. The drawing’s numerous meatuses alternately read as penises leaking semen, lactating nipples, and oozing anuses. Within the space of the drawing, the body loses its contours and definition, and it becomes a disquieting mass of unbound and uncontrollable flesh. Bellmer’s unsettling portrait disorders the precise lineaments of the gridded background. The self-eye cannot be held in the grid, and it bursts out of its boundaries. The self appears in disorienting ecstasy in its vibrating fleshy forms as it expels liquid traces of pleasure.
Bellmer and Bataille present bodies of disorder that cannot be easily contained and that seemingly seek to disturb normative expressions of identity and desire. Their unsettling tableaux detail a politics of abject ecstasy as both artists explore the explosive potential of genitoanal obscenity to (perhaps) effect a re-distribution of the sensible. As the title my post suggests, this is but a brief series of notes on genitoanal obscenity, and at the moment I cannot explore two pressing points that require further analysis. First, the fact that the violent moment of horror and arousal in Bataille and Bellmer’s works is mediated through the female body needs to be carefully discussed. Second, I must consider how the explosive horrors and pleasures of obscenity may change when the subjects of recognition are not female genitals but male anuses. Particularly when situated within the rhetoric of contagious or lethal bodies of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s, how can one experience works like Robert Mapplethorpe’s rimming and fisting photographs or Keith Boadwee’s intertextual anal portraits, such as Butthole Target Yellow?
Bataille, Georges. “The Jesuve.” Visions of Excess. Ed. Allan Stoekel. Trans. Allan Stoekel, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985. 73 – 78.
---. “The Solar Anus.” Visions of Excess. Ed. Allan Stoekel. Trans. Allan Stoekel, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985. 5 – 9.
---. Story of the Eye by Lord Auch. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. San Francisco: City Lights, 1987.
Bellmer, Hans, Michael Semff, and Anthony Spira. Hans Bellmer. Ostfildern: Hantje Cantz, 2006.