I remembered my desire for scandal − or rather, that it would be necessary, at all costs, to be scandalous that night. I could hear laughter over the tumult of voices, reaching me through the lights and the smoke. But nothing mattered anymore. I took Madame Edwarda in my arms, and she smiled at me. Transfixed, I experienced a new shock as a sort of silence fell on me from above, freezing me to the spot. I seemed to be borne aloft in a flight of angels with neither bodies nor heads, but shaped from something like the gliding of wings through the air − only more simply. Suddenly I grew unhappy and felt myself forsaken, as one is in the presence of GOD. It was far worse and more crazy than simple drunkenness. At first I even felt sad that the grandeur descending upon me was robbing me of the pleasures I had counted on tasting with Madame Edwarda.
I told myself I was being ridiculous: Madame Edwarda and I hadn’t exchanged two words yet. I experienced a moment of doubt. I could say nothing about the state I was in, only that in the midst of that tumult of lights, the night descended upon me! I wanted to turn the table over, smash everything − but it was fixed to the floor and wouldn’t budge. Has any man faced a more farcical situation? Then everything began to dissolve, the room and Madame Edwarda. Only the night remained . . .
An all-too-human voice dragged me out of my stupor. Madame Edwarda’s voice, like her slender body, was obscene:
‘I suppose you want to see my rags’, she said. Gripping the table with both hands, I turned to face her. Still sitting, she lifted one leg high and wide above her head, and to open her gash still further, used the fingers of both hands to draw the folds of skin apart. Thus, Madame Edwarda’s ‘rags’ looked at me, hairy and pink, and as full of life as some revolting squid. I stammered softly:
‘Why are you doing that?’
‘You can see,’ she said, ‘I am GOD’.
‘I’m going crazy.’ ‘Oh no you’re not, you’ve got to see: look!’
Her harsh voice sweetened, becoming almost childlike as she said with such weariness, with the infinite smile of abandon:
‘Darling, the fun I’ve had . . .’
Holding her provocative position, her leg still raised in the air, she spoke to me with an air of command:
‘Kiss me!’ ‘But . . . ,’
I protested, ‘in front of all these people?’
I trembled. I stared at her, motionless, and she smiled back so sweetly that I trembled again. At last, staggering forward, I got down on my knees and pressed my lips to that living wound. Her naked thigh caressed my ear and I thought I heard the sound of a sea swell, the same sound you hear when you put your ear to a large conch shell. In the absurdity and confusion of the brothel (I felt I was choking, flushed and sweating with the heat) I remained strangely suspended, as if Madame Edwarda and I were losing ourselves on a night of wind, alone together at the edge of the ocean.
I heard another voice, coming from a strong and beautiful woman dressed in respectable clothes.
‘Come my children,’ she said in a masculine voice, ‘it’s time you went upstairs’.
The sous-madame took my money and I rose and followed Madame Edwarda, whose tranquil nudity guided me across the room.
Yet this simple passage between densely packed tables of girls and clients, this vulgar rite of ‘The Lady Ascending’ followed by the man who will make love to her, took on for me, at that moment, nothing less than a hallucinatory solemnity. The click of Madame Edwarda’s spiked heels on the tiled floor; the swaying of her long, obscene body; the acrid odour of an aroused woman in my nostrils, issuing from that pale body . . .
Madame Edwarda went ahead of me . . . rising into the clouds. The room’s noisy indifference to her happiness, to the measured gravity of her step, was both a royal consecration and a flowering festival: death itself was present at the feast in the guise of what is called, in the nakedness of the brothel, ‘the butcher’s cut’. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the mirrors that covered the walls of our room from floor to ceiling, and from which the ceiling itself was made, multiplied the image of our animal coupling, and at the slightest movement our pounding hearts were opened to the void into which we disappeared in the infinity of our reflections.
Pleasure, finally, shattered us. Rising from the bed, we looked at each other gravely. Madame Edwarda held me spellbound: I had never seen a prettier girl − nor one more naked. Without taking her eyes off me, she took a pair of white silk stockings out of a bottom drawer, sat on the edge of the bed and slowly pulled them on. But the delight at being naked took hold of her again: she parted her legs and offered herself to me, and the acrid nudity of our bodies pushed us to the same exhaustion of hearts. She put on a white bolero and concealed her nakedness beneath a domino; pulled the hood of the domino over her head, and hid her face behind a black mask lined with a beard of lace. Thus arrayed, she sprang away from me:
NOTE Madame Edwarda was written by Georges Bataille in September 1941, during the darkest days of the Occupation of Paris, and appeared at the end of that year, under the pseudonym of Pierre Angélique, in an underground edition published by Éditions Solitaire. As a precautionary measure it was back-dated to 1937. Following the Liberation a second edition was issued by the same publisher in 1945, again backdated to 1942, and illustrated with thirty-one engravings attributed to Jean Perdu, a pseudonym for Jean Fautrier. A third edition, published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, appeared in 1956 under the same pseudonym, to which Bataille appended a preface in his own name. In 1966, four years after his death, a fourth edition, also published by Pauvert, and accompanied by twelve engravings by Hans Bellmer, finally appeared under Bataille’s own name. On its first publication the book was reviewed by Maurice Blanchot, who called it ‘the most beautiful narrative of our time’. Bataille himself called Madame Edwarda the ‘lubricious key’ to his war writings, and his return to it late in his life suggests the importance he accorded it in his oeuvre.
It is possible to see in the character of Madame Edwarda a composite figure in which Bataille brought together several women dear to him: Violette, a young prostitute with whom he had fallen in love in 1931, and whose release from her brothel he had tried, in vain, to purchase; Laure, the dark sovereign who had reigned over his pre-war years, and who had died of tuberculosis in 1938; Angela of Foligno, the thirteenth-century Italian mystic whose ecstatic account of the theopathic state informed so much of Bataille’s vocabulary here; and Madeleine, an ecstatic at the Salpêtrière to whom the psychologist Pierre Janet, Bataille’s one-time collaborator before the war, had dedicated his most famous study, De l’angoisse à l’extase. When Bataille came to write a preface to his narrative, however, some fifteen years after its first publication, it was to a famous passage in the preface to Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes that he turned for his epigraph. Beyond the particularity of its human elements, the shared language of its textual antecedents, it is the figure of consciousness Hegel describes in this passage that Bataille sought to embody in the character of Madame Edwarda: a figure which, in Hegel’s words, ‘attains its truth only when it finds itself in absolute laceration’, when the life of the spirit ‘contemplates the negativity of death face to face and dwells with it’.
The six erotic drawings — among them a trench-coated man walking into a cartoonishly oversized vagina, and a flying penis with wings — were done in 1946 to accompany the short story Madame Edward byFrench philosopher and abject-art theorist Georges Bataille. The tale revolves around a man who becomes obsessed with a prostitute he thinks is God.