A mixture of happiness and sorrow; a beautiful blending of light and dark. Human existence is comprised of an interweaving web of joy and despair; a web from which we cannot escape. Many of the works that we have read in class reflect on this “fusion” that we call “life.”
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Maurice Blanchot adequately summarizes the essence of human existence as quoted from “The Infinite Conversation:”
“The man of the world lives in nuance and by degrees, he lives in a mixture of light and shadow, in confused enchantment or irresolute mediocrity: in the middle. Tragic man lives in the extreme tension between contraries, going from a yes and no confusedly merged back to a yes and a no that are clear and clearly preserved in their opposition. He does not see man as a passable mixture of middling qualities and honest failings, but as an endurable meeting of extreme grandeur and extreme destitution, an incongruous nothingness in which the two infinities collide.”1
Essentially, ambivalence defines our life: the tragic world. Humans are unique in the fact that we can be wounded, not merely in the physical sense, but in the reality that someone or something can shatter our integrity. Georges Bataille states that “man differs from animal in that he is able to experience certain sensations that wound him and melt him to the core.” 2 This undeniable reality is what makes us susceptible to the ambivalence of life; the certainty that emotional suffering can be inflicted onto us by others.
In “Madame Edwarda,” Georges Bataille ironically refers to the prostitutes’ vagina as a wound; 3 inferring the fusion of pleasure and pain for the narrator. At first glance, one might think that her wound should bring nothing but sexual pleasure to the narrator, however her wound ultimately causes him emotional distress in many ways. Madame Edwarda identifies herself as God, drawing the narrator further into her seductive hypnotism. By presenting the concept of God in the form of an attractive, yet tainted prostitute, Bataille addresses the sacred’s irresistible nature, with her mixture of attraction and terror.
As Madame Edwarda is standing under the Porte Saint-Denis, the narrator is watching from a distance (as she is losing her mind.) He soon accepts the fact that “She had not lied, that She was GOD.” 4 This scene could also be viewed as Madame Edwarda playing the role of God and guarding the gates of heaven. The narrators clear apprehension when approaching her hints at his fear of entering into Purgatory and receiving his “Final Judgment.” Underneath the arch, he is consumed with emptiness and accepts any suffering that he might endure. The narrator “lusts for her secret” 5 so much that he would tolerate any amount of pain to receive answers and obtain the truth. These frightened, yet hopeful emotions that the narrator experiences are caused by Madame Edwarda and her “wound;” the same character who had previously provided him with incredible sexual pleasure. It can therefore be said that Madame Edwarda symbolizes our ambivalent life: an opposing balance of pain and pleasure.
Sigmund Freud also explores the idea of human life as a fusion of happiness and sorrow in his essay called “The Uncanny.” Uncanny is the English translation of the German word unheimlich, which is the main focus of this essay. Freud provides the definition of unheimlich in 8 different languages, thoroughly demonstrating the contradictory meaning of the word. He summarizes these descriptions stating:
“the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas…on one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight [..uncomfortable].” 6
Investigating this definition further, it is simple to see how an uncanny experience can evoke both pleasure and pain. A pleasant experience is one that is “familiar and agreeable,” and humans strive to keep painful experience “out of sight” and out of mind [a function of the pleasure principle]. Since the uncanny is that which is unfamiliar on the grounds that it is too familiar, it is fair to say that an uncanny experience evokes both pain [in the eeriness of the given situation] and pleasure [feelings of familiarity and homeyness] to whoever is experiencing it.
Freud believed that the ego employs defense mechanisms when threatened, including the repression of painful memories deep into the unconscious mind. The uncanny is basically a defense mechanism that unconsciously reminds us of our own id, our forbidden and thus repressed impulses that are kept “out of sight” because our super-ego perceives them to be threatening. 7 The reemergence of these repressed memories are those experiences which we deem as uncanny. Freud further describes the idea of the uncanny as a defense mechanism by stating:
“..[the] uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” 8
As suggested by this quote, the uncanny is an example of a situation in which the pleasure principle cannot adequately cope because it is fails to keep repressed impulses out of our conscious. This quote also relates back to Freud’s theory of human drives which were discussed in another Freudian work that we studied called “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” In this essay, Freud reevaluates his prior theoretical beliefs regarding his theory of human drives. Previously, he had proposed that the human psyche could be divided into three parts: the id, the superego, and the ego. He defined the id as the impulsive portion that operates on the “pleasure principle;” the superego as the moral component; and the ego as the rational balance between the superego and the id.
Freud suggests that the pleasure principle is deficient because of the general compulsion to repeat. This compulsion to repeat un-pleasurable experiences explains why traumatic nightmares occur in dreams.9 He argues that the unconscious repeats undesirable experiences in order to desensitize the body.
Using this thought process, Freud proposed his new theory, stating that humans are driven by two conflicting central desires: the life drive and the death drive. The life drive is concerned with preserving life by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Contrastingly, the death drive is the instinctual desire in all living things to return to a lower state that existed before we were born. Freud reasons that all living organisms want to be dead because theoretically we were all dead before we were alive. He explains how human drives consist of a balance between pleasure [life drive] and pain [death drive] when he states:
“It is plain that most of what is revived by the repetition-compulsion cannot but bring discomfort to the ego, for it promotes the bringing to light of the activities of repressed impulses; but that is a discomfort we have already taken into account and without subversion of the pleasure-principle, since it is ‘pain’ in respect of one system and at the same time satisfaction for the other.” 10
As summarized by this quote, every experience or stimulus that we encounter is providing satisfaction for one drive while simultaneously inducing discomfort on the other. Thus reiterating the belief that our life consists of an intricate blending of pain and pleasure. On page 24 of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud states further comments on this theory by saying that “the repetition-compulsion [death drive] and direct pleasurable satisfaction [life drive] seem to be inextricably intertwined.” As indicated by this quote, it is impossible to have one impulse without the other because they exist concurrently. Freud firmly believed that the life and death drives of our mind are locked in an eternal battle; thereby insinuating that our human existence is comprised of a mixture of pain and pleasure.
In his preface to “Madame Edwarda,” Georges Bataille nicely sums up this common theme seen throughout various works we have studied:
“A combination of both conditions [pleasure and pain] leads us to entertain a picture of mankind as is ought to be, and in that picture man appears at no less great a remove from extreme pleasure as from extreme pain..” 11
It is easy to recognize the ambivalent nature of our existence. Pain and pleasure intertwine in unpredictable relations throughout the discourse of this human lifetime. One could not exist without the presence of the other. This fusion of pleasure and pain is referred to as life.
1. Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 99
2. Georges Bataille, Madame Edwarda. (New York: Marion Boyars, 2003),140
3. Bataille, 150
4. Bataille, 152
5. Bataille, 153
6. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny. 224-25
7. Wikipedia. “The Uncanny.” Last modified October 21, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny
8. Freud, 241
9. Wikipedia. “Sigmund Freud.” Last modified October 23, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud
10. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2010), 20
11. Bataille, 137