Eroticism in Georges Bataille and Henry Miller

By Gilles Mayné

If the adjective ‘erotic’ points to a quality, ‘eroticism’ seems to put into play a constellation of qualities whose unstoppable movement suddenly tears us away from the quiet ordering of our day-to-day reality. The erotic experience brutally confronts us with the following choice: either live such an experience fully, ‘now,’ or altogether miss (the intensity of) such an experience. In pornography we do not experience the urgency of a choice which does not really present itself as one since, in order to get excited, we have decided to rely on a medium that guarantees such a sexual excitement. In Webster’s dictionary, pornography is defined as ‘the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or in writings) intended to cause sexual excitement.’

If pornography is generally considered to be the calculated arousal of sexual desire, eroticism disconcerts us so much that the arousal of our desire seems to exist prior to and against calculation. Eroticism defies calculation and we sense that conversely, calculation might mark its very end. In the erotic experience, there is always an unknown, whether in the other person (the lover) or in ourselves (in the way we are going to react to what the lover does). Such an uncertainty is at the source of our growing desire: we can never tell what will happen next, and it is precisely to the extent that we cannot, that we get increasingly excited.

By contrast, pornography is the domain of certainty. Under our initially fascinated eyes, beautiful bodies make love and we know they are going to make love again. The fascination, however, recedes as we realize that such bodies almost always do so according to the same mechanical scenarii but with different partners. The show becomes more and more monotonous as the partners, more often than not, have to demonstrate the whole gamut of sexual positions, as if they were trying to establish some kind of record. To make a long story short, in pornography the act of love is repeatedly carried out, performed, consummated, and never fails to culminate in the—real or fake—ecstatic cries of the performers. Pornography has its rules. Pornography, as any other business, must sell, and for want of quality it must be able to at least grant a certain ‘quantity.’

Definitions of obscenity are so tinted by moral overtones that for the most part they leave us in a state of perplexity. Declared obscene is that which is ‘disgusting,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘grossly repugnant,’ ‘shocking,’ ‘offensive,’ ‘revolting,’ ‘lewd,’ ‘lustful,’ ‘provocative,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘coarse,’ etc. (The list of such adjectives could become monotonous.)

Karoly Patko, Adam and Eve, 1920

Jacopo de Barbari, Room with Lovers

As one can see, what all these definitions have in common is not to inquire further about, precisely, what is ‘obscene’ (examples of obscene objects or situations are conspicuously lacking) nor to whom. They all seem to ignore that whatever is declared obscene in one country is not necessarily declared so in another. We have to go, in this respect, far beyond national boundaries to consider not only states (in the U.S., laws on obscenity vary from one state to another) but also societies of various sizes, and even tribes—that is, potentially any human community—not only geographically, but also historically, for obviously what is obscene in one period is not necessarily so in another.

Furthermore, these definitions do not draw a clear line between pornography and obscenity inasmuch as they declare obscene, for instance, that which is ‘designed to incite to lust, depravity, indecency.’ Such a sentence stresses in obscenity, as in pornography, the intentionality to shock. But if obscenity equals pornography, why bother using two different words to designate the same notion? Is obscenity always intentional? If it is not (as it does not seem to be), what is the ‘non-intentional’ obscene, the obscene per se that these definitions seem to repeatedly ignore (repress)? We should obviously recognize that some objects, animals, situations disgust us for what they are (as they initially appear to us) and not, necessarily, for having been ‘designed to disgust us.’

The French dictionary, Robert, dissipates somewhat the confusion surrounding the notion by declaring obscene ‘that which offends decency directly and presents a very shocking character while displaying without alleviation, with cynicism, the object of a social prohibition, especially one of a sexual nature.

This definition has the advantage of stressing, in order for something to be declared ‘obscene,’ the necessity of the transgression of a social prohibition. Every social community has its own taboos, and in particular, its sexual taboos. This allows us to look at the three notions: eroticism, pornography, and obscenity from a different perspective.

Animals do not know prohibitions. In pornography, the actors are not animals, but in just performing the sexual act, they reduce it to a state of mere animality. Nowhere do we find any indication at all that the performers might encounter problems transgressing a social taboo. On the contrary, everything conspires to create the impression that, indeed, there is no prohibition involved and that, consequently, no violation of such a prohibition ever occurs. Sexual taboos are being violated right before us, immediately—without the mediation of consciousness—and so casually that, if we are ever shocked by such a transgression, its effect slowly recedes and leads almost invariably to boredom.

The obscene confronts our consciousness more directly than pornography and forces on us a more violent reaction of disgust. But whether the display of the transgression of a social prohibition is intentional or not, the initial profound shock we experience, as with pornography, abates as we are allowed to contemplate such a display at length (‘with cynicism’ and ‘without alleviation,’ that is to say without restriction).

What characterizes eroticism, in sharp contrast to pornography and obscenity, is the fact that in an erotic experience, the prohibition arrests us and suspends our consciousness: we keep telling ourselves that we cannot transgress a prohibition until the very moment when we realize that we must transgress it, that we are indeed already transgressing it and, what is more, that we are enjoying such a transgression to the utmost. In other words, we are enjoying the transgression of the impossibility to transgress the social prohibition. Clearly, between awareness of the impossibility to transgress this taboo and the actual experienced transgression of such a taboo, we have entered a phase in which we do not know what is happening to us (this passive mode is here unavoidable); a phase of supreme(ly enjoyable) hesitation which, as the transgression goes on, forces us to distort our own social, religious, and, above all, linguistic preconceptions.

The fact that it is our very language that eroticism ‘threatens’ is confirmed by the way society ‘deals’ with pornography. Every society has its prostitutes, its pornographic shows, films, magazines, and books. Pornography has always been, and still is, a business protected by society (maybe more so now than ever, during the AIDS years: let us just think of the highly sanitized German ‘Eros Centers,’ or the hard-core pornography shown on the French TV channel Canal +). But, paradoxically, it is not these brothels, sex-shops, magazines, or movies that society censures as ‘pornographic,’ but its Stendhals, Flauberts, D. H. Lawrences, Joyces, Henry Millers, not to mention its Sades … such a list would be too long to enumerate—a list, by the way, still growing …. In what constitutes more than a little hypocrisy, while society condones the diffusion of pornographic materials, it censures as pornographic serious literature (let us understand by this the literature of people who really have something to say and say it well: Literature with a capital ‘L’). Thus, society accuses Literature of being obsessed with openly prurient sex—all the while tolerating its expression in other media. But, in so doing, what it actually censors is clearly not the pornographic character of such a Literature, but its eroticism. This allows us to conclude that eroticism is socially dangerous not as a private practice (eroticism lived ‘privately’ within the couple is even considered a factor of social homogeneity), but whenever it is made sensitive through artistic symbols and particularly through words and word-arrangements—that is to say, as soon as it is represented. The representation of eroticism—that is the language of such representation—disturbs society much more severely than its mere practice.

The two authors I shall compare, Henry Miller (1891-1980) and Georges Bataille (1897-1962), were both well aware of that fact. Both were particularly sensitive to the necessity to question and break away from the linguistic canons of literature in order to express their revolt. Henry Miller, a great admirer of European literature, once declared, ‘When (the Europeans) are shocked, it is because of the language itself, what has been done to it and with it by the author, not by the moral or immoral implications of this language’.

Both perceived their revolt against society as a necessary revolt against the language of that society and strongly felt that they had to wallow in obscenity in order to force the reader to experience the strong chaotic reactions characteristic of eroticism. According to Miller, obscenity functions as a privileged ‘technical device’ not in the least pornographic, which has to be used in order to disclose a greater realism, as the following quotation [from Henry Miller on Writing, New Directions, 1964, p. 186] attests: ‘When obscenity crops out in art, in literature more particularly, it usually functions as a technical device: the element of the deliberate which is there has nothing to do with sexual excitation, as in pornography. If there is an ulterior motive at work it is one which goes far beyond sex. Its purpose is to awaken, to usher in a sense of reality.’

In order to ‘usher in’ such a ‘sense of reality’ Henry Miller displays in his fiction one of the most violent movements of revolt in twentieth-century literature. On the opening page of his first book, Tropic of Cancer, Miller writes: ‘This then? This is not a book. This is a libel, slander, defamation of character…. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will.’


According to Georges Bataille, whom La Grande Encyclopedie Larousse consecrated in 1976 as ‘the greatest philosopher of eroticism’, the part that obscenity plays in eroticism is central. In L’érotisme, a major work which Bataille wrote near the end of his life (1957) and in which he condenses, regroups, and sometimes clarifies concepts and analyses spread over more than thirty years of writing, Bataille declares: ‘I see a close relation between my repulsion for things that are rotting and the feeling I have for obscenity. I can say to myself that repugnance, that disgust is the principle of my desire.

In the early thirties, Bataille’s ‘obscenity’ outraged Breton and inspired in him a quasi-visceral movement of rejection of Bataille. Soon afterwards, in an article on Sade, Bataille pushed his investigations on the obscene so far as to form the apparently insane project of establishing what he called a ‘heterology’ or, more suggestively, a ‘scatology’ and defined as the ‘science of excrement’. A philosophy, a science? These are disciplines that we do not usually associate with eroticism—although it does not escape our memory that the same Sade once wrote a book called La Philosophie dans le boudoir. Obviously in life, the practice of eroticism seems to have very little to do with, and even seems poles apart from, the practice of philosophy. However, if one wants to represent in writing the great intensity of the erotic experience without losing anything of such an intensity, one faces unfathomable—and indeed epistemological—problems.

Georges Bataille is the first writer in the history of Western thought to have become aware of such epistemological problems with relation to eroticism; the first to have seen clearly that the erotic experience is impossible to represent—simply because language takes us so forcibly and relentlessly away from it—and to have squarely faced the consequences. This doesn’t mean, however, that the writer should quit trying to write about such an experience. Far from it, the writer, being aware of such an impossibility, faces an enhanced challenge: the necessity to reach, through words, what Bataille calls, in many instances, ‘the absence of poetry’, and in so doing, to give access to an experience equivalent in intensity to that of the erotic experience.


From Gilles Mayné, Eroticism in Georges Bataille and Henry Miller (Birmingham, Alabama: Summa Publications, 1993) | Posted by kind permission of Gilles Mayné

Rembrandt, Adam and Eve, 1638