Musings on Transgression, Limits and “Madame Edwarda”
by, Sultan Jahan Begum
In his introduction to Madame Edwarda, Georges Bataille conflates (or collapses the distance) between two interrelated sets of extremes, which in turn reveal the intimate interdependence between transgression and its limits. In the beginning of the introduction, Bataille presents two extremes that define a realistic picture of mankind: extreme pleasure and extreme pain/death. Bataille argues, “the most ordinary social restrictions and prohibitions are, with equal force, aimed some against sexual life, some against death, with the result that each has come to comprise a sanctified domain, a sacred area which lies under religious jurisdiction.” Bataille’s protagonist sees God in the form of a prostitute when he is in the throes of extreme pleasure, which also brings him to death’s doorstep. Through this narrative, Bataille also collapses the sacred-profane binary.
The God-prostitute character simultaneously represents extreme pleasure and extreme pain. She is in one moment the most naked, alluring figure and the next, a cloaked, masked character who runs out of the brothel into the night. The prostitute’s black domino cloaks her almost entirely, transforming her into a grim reaper-type character, who is able to move through the night with stealth. This is yet another way Bataille characterized Edwarda as both sexual and emblematic of death. Rather than represent that state of nature, the prostitute’s mask, which turns her into an “animal,” represents the ubiquity of metaphorical masks among ‘ordinary society.’ Almost ironically, the mask makes the prostitute a part of ordinary society.
Transgression, then, would be to take these extremes “seriously,” with gravity, and perhaps even tragically. Bataille notes, “when eroticism is considered with gravity, considered tragically, this represents a complete reversal of the ordinary situation.” Bataille’s ordinary situation is exemplified by laughter, which, “launches us along the path that leads to the transforming of a prohibition’s principle, of necessary and mandatory decencies, into an iron-clad hypocrisy, into a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to understand what is involved.” Laughter, therefore, is the limit of consciousness. (Foucault, 30) Foucault argues sexuality is a fissure that “designates us as the limit.” Now that objects, beings and spaces have all been desecrated, the human body is the last sacred body, space and/or object. Thus the sacred-profane division present in Bataille’s prostitute-as-God connection comes full circle to Nietzsche, who famously proclaimed that God is dead. In the story, just as a cloaked Edwarda runs from the protagonist, he stops to note, “…when she had run off I had known that, no matter what, she had had to run, to dash under the arch, and when she had stopped, that she had been hung in a sort of trance, an absence, far out of range and beyond the possibility of any laughter.” Here, the prostitute has transgressed the limits of consciousness and entered a space beyond laughter. Edwarda, simultaneously God and a prostitute, was compelled to enter the trance, “death’s kingdom,” a void where another set of extremes, pleasure and pain/death, also meet.
Transgression can only be understood by its intimate and interdependent relationship to limits. In order to transgress binaries, such as sacred-profane or pleasure-pain, there must be limits to transgress. As Foucault points out, transgressing binaries pushes us into a zone that we have no words to describe, a “zone to existence” where transgression is not necessarily beholden to binaries or oppositions. (Foucault, 35-36) Thus, we are not only transgressing the boundaries of consciousness and law, but also language. The point that Bataille makes about laughter – that it represents a limit – is the same argument Foucault is making about language.
Laughter and language as limiting concepts make themselves known in Bataille’s story. The first instance is the aforementioned, when Edwarda enters a trance-like state, described as “beyond the possibility of any laughter.” The second element that represents the limit of language is the idea of tearing apart, or breaking into two, that which is essentially whole. This idea is expressed twice throughout the story. The first instance is when the protagonist first ejaculates: “My hands were holding Madame Edwarda’s buttocks and I felt her break into two at the same instant…” The second instance is when the protagonist describes himself as “torn apart”: “When I saw Madame Edwarda writhing on the pavement, I entered a similar state of absorption… the horizon before which Edwarda’s sickness place me was a fugitive one, fleeing like the object anguish seeks to attain.” Bataille’s move to conflate and thus reveal the interdependence of binaries experiences the obverse, the breaking or tearing apart of prostitute-God and pleasure-pain. Bataille can never fully express what a conflation of extremes actually is or what it means. The obverse of conflation and interdependence, breaking apart that which is perceived to be whole, accomplishes the same ends. These two opposing processes occur in the same story in order to describe the same event, feeling and/or space. This theoretical move occurs at the absolute limits of human language, or in, “the place where language discovers its being in the crossing of limits.” (Foucault, 48)
Thus, the complex questions surrounding transgression, limits, binaries and extremes are never easily expressed yet are, as Bataille and Foucault have noted, inherent to our beings. These questions make up a new type of philosophy that takes transgression “seriously” (in Bataille’s words) and “questions itself upon the existence of the limit.” (Foucault, 37)