Incandescence and Horror Porn: An ode to my hairdresser

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 2:35pm

Verity Sturm

Verity Sturm Buy this photo
Verity Sturm

Nola’s Underground Salon is a feel-good sort of place in its own right. It’s demurely tucked in the basement beneath that random food court on North U., requiring patrons to deliver themselves from the commercial madness above when they descend the otherwise overlooked staircase between Mezes and Silvio’s. The studio itself is much like a womb, wrapped in velvet fleur-de-lis wallpaper and perpetually bumping some sort of warm, spacy noise. My hairdresser Nick owns the only bald head I have ever considered gorgeous and is always garnished in harem pants that emphasize his alarmingly clear eyes. Going to Nola’s has evidently become a spiritual experience for me, and I was really searching for some relief when I crawled down there last Friday, feeling utterly shackled by social anxiety and Brett Kavanagh.

Nick, being the mythical creature he is, picked up on my funk and steered our conversation into some revitalizing book talk. Somewhere along that path, we got into “weird little books,” and his entire demeanor seemed shot with lightning as he recalled Georges Bataille’s novella “Story of the Eye.” He needed me to read it.

“It’s written by this crazy fucking French librarian,” he explained, “but I really shouldn’t tell you any more.  I used to hand it out to my students at the end of the semester with an album I find rather complementary.” That was unique. I asked what artist. He replied, “Have you listened to of Montreal?” and something in my brain exploded. Too many wonderful things were intersecting right when I needed them to. I ordered the book right then and there.

“Story of the Eye” is porn. And it’s no standard porn — it’s sensationally messy, impressively constant, poetically visual, overwhelmingly excessive, often demonic porn that is constantly, constantly flirting with death (if not fucking it outright). In its mere 80 wild pages, the unnamed narrator and his main squeeze, Simone, manage to write some Kama Sutra from hell as a secondary byproduct of the relentless pursuit of their most unrefined desire. Simone and Bataille-through-narrator boast unfathomable stamina and ambition, managing to throw an almost satirically obscene orgy and execute a full-on asylum break, naked, on bikes, in the first few chapters. Someone almost dies, someone definitely dies and a host of others continue to die as Simone and the Narrator Boi somehow take their lethal debauchery abroad, where it is simultaneously nourished by and unleashed upon the headiest of landscapes: bullfights during the day, cathedrals at night. The repeated demonstration of this relationship between physical and/or material destruction and raw sexual energy is some literary Ouroboros — create and destroy, nourish and damage, turn on and turn off, but above all cycle, cycle, cycle because, for Simone and Narrator Boi, at least, it all seems to average out to infinity anyway.

“The goal of my sexual licentiousness,” explains Narrator Boi, “(is) a geometric incandescence (among other things, the coinciding point of life and death, being and nothingness), perfectly fulgurating.”

Holy shit. The last thing I’ve read that presented “incandescence” as a character goal was Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” Beneath its indisputably singular delivery, there’s some kernel of fiery nirvana in “Story of the Eye” that it shares with literature-at-large. These kids are trying to transcend. Forget good — they want incandescent. Perfectly fulgurating. This is how they do it.

This canonically routine theme can certainly get lost in the genre sauce. Pornography is seldom considered “literature” at all, let alone fertile field for transcendence stories. Bataille’s novella, with its innumerable perversions and taboos, takes it a step further in terms of accessibility. In a particularly keen moment of reflection, Bataille’s narrator seems to anticipate this exact interpretive hurdle, explaining with some encouraging judgment that, “to others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness … In general, people savor the ‘pleasures of the flesh’ only on condition that they be insipid.”

Luckily, there exists a trove of amazingly helpful theory on pornographic literature to dissolve some of these insidious barriers of convention, and perhaps embolden us to embrace some new flavor. In her essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” which references and is often included in critical editions of “Story of the Eye,” Susan Sontag taps into the unique power of porn: “the physical sensations involuntarily produced in someone reading the book carry with them something that touches upon the reader’s whole experience of humanity — and his limits as a personality and a body.”

The thrill of pushing it. We do this all the time: It’s the arguably masochistic euphoria of writing a thesis, fighting through a long run, giving or getting an awesome hickey. Corpse pose at the end of the specific agony that is hot yoga. Overwhelming the senses tends to shock them into a brand new sense of their own, and this style of writing captures that. It would be hypocritical if that were not “literature.”

“Story of the Eye,” without a doubt, is a whole different sort of “pushing it.” Writing a thesis and necrophilia aren’t exactly comparable. To this, I say poetry: Bataille is pushing our literary senses, rousing us with so many scandals that they seem to molt their literal meaning, instead operating as vector-like stimuli that culminate in destroying our idea of what we can possibly feel while reading something. Sontag, expectedly, is a little more cerebral about horror-porn, explaining that:

“Human beings … live only through excess. And pleasure depends on ‘perspective,’ or giving oneself to a state of ‘open being,’ open to death as well as to joy. Most people try to outwit their own feelings; they want to be receptive to pleasure but keep ‘horror’ at a distance. That’s foolish, according to Bataille, since horror reinforces ‘attraction’ and excites desire.”

Pleasure and horror — Ouroboros 2.0. Per my hairdresser’s recommendation, I began to listen for this exciting, excessive relationship in the music of of Montreal and was pleasantly surprised to find its undercurrent pulsing beneath wide swaths of their discography. The group’s frontman, Kevin Barnes, seems to have mastered the art of accepting and exploring the wit between his own feelings in whatever form, image or taboo they may naturally assume. Furthermore, he pays direct homage to Bataille in his work: Barnes opens “The Past is a Grotesque Animal, ” the intense, ever-building 12-minute volta of his most critically acclaimed album to date, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, with the statement-confession that, “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / Who could appreciate Georges Bataille / Standing at a Swedish festival / Discussing ‘Story of the Eye’.”

Skeletal Lamping, the album that Nick would pair with “Story of the Eye,” is Barnes’s self-proclaimed project to “bring all (his) puzzling, contradicting, humorous … fantasies, ruminations and observations to the surface” in an effect that comes off as quintessentially Bataille. In particular, the bouncing disco “Gallery Piece” achieves that poetically overwhelming volley of scandals, shooting off triplet after triplet of schizophrenic, verb-based desires: “I wanna make you scream / I wanna braid your hair / I wanna kiss your friends.” It’s churning, obsessive, funky and infectious; in fact, one might call it incandescent.