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Le gros orteil. A lesson on idealism: Gerrit Wetter

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Documents was a journal of art, published from ’29 to ’30 in France. Pictures were part of the project in order to show what the erudite discourse tried to analyze. Georges Bataille’s influence on the journal (officially, he was the secrétaire général) can be seen as a change in the relation between words and images. A scientific article on art needs the image to show its point of departure, the object. For Bataille’s articles, on the contrary, the purpose of the image was not to simply show its object, but to illustrate in a vivid impression what words failed to convey:  the image became a means of short-circuiting the intellectual appropriation of the object. The rubric Dictionnaire was a conceptualized way of making this dependency of words visible, satisfying words’  needs itself, as Bataille stated in his interpretation of the Informe: “Un dictionnaire commencerait du moment où il ne donnerait plus le sens mais les besognes des mots.” (I[1]: 217)a Words are not exclusively neutral tools, as a mirror of reality and as man’s principal means of expression, they are themselves drenched in what constitutes his reality: they have desire, they have needs. Of course the scope of these needs (as enigmatic and obscure an idea this might be) is larger than what some visual illustration can procure, but they are nonetheless one way to exemplify a way of communication that is not centered on discursive intellect; they are capable of shocking and thus suspending the established order of reason, allowing for a more differentiated way of understanding.

Images fail us, but the article Le gros orteil, published in Documents Nr. 6, was accompanied by several black and white pictures made by Jacques-André Boiffard: somber close-ups of human toes, almost reptilian-like in their creeping appearance against a black background, a protrusive lobe of humanity rising from the dark. If these pictures established one thing, it was that the big toe is, apart genitalia, the most repulsive part of the human body, a rampart against aesthetic idealization. Yet, this ugly chunk turns out to be the most human of man’s body parts: “Le gros orteil est la partie la plus humaine du corps humain, en ce sens qu’aucun autre élément de ce corps n’est aussi différencié de l’élément correspondant du singe anthropoïde.”b

This is the beginning of the article: the big toe has allowed man to erect himself, but the role of the big toe is problematic: “Mais quel que soit le rôle joué dans l’érection par son pied, l’homme, qui a la tête légère, c’est-à-dire élevée vers le ciel et les choses du ciel, le regarde comme un crachat sous prétexte qu’il a ce pied dans la boue.” (I :  200)c Man is not happy with what has allowed him to become himself, his cultural evolution is one long strive to hide his origin.

Bataille gives examples of this zeal to cover up the “secrète épouvante causée à l’homme par son pied”d whose main tendency is to “dissimuler autant que possible sa longeur et sa forme.”e The heels are the basic and most common feature of shoes that “enlèvent au pied une partie de son caractère bas et plat.”f Interestingly, this zeal to cover up goes along with a growing sexual fascination of the hidden object. The most notorious example is that of Chinese women’s feet deformed by too-tight shoes that prevent the natural growth of the feet, actually breaking their bones and resulting in a hoof-like appearance, which, seen naked and thus exposing the brutality inflicted upon them, should be a horror to the eye aesthetically and ethically.[2] Yet, these feet, hidden in delicate satin shoes, arouse sexual desire, making it at the same time “incorrect et immoral de regarder les pieds de ces femmes” (I: 201).g Paradoxically, man forbids himself to enjoy the sight of his own victory on nature objectified in the female body, fearing he might still succumb to its appeal.

Bataille gives other examples to complete the picture. The Turcs in central Asia also deem improper to show their feet, they even sleep with their stockings on, while there was no sense of shame concerning the feet in Antiquity when even the most decent women showed their toes freely. In modern times, this shame slowly implemented itself and came to such an intensity that the “simple fait de voir le pied chaussé dépassant la jupe était regardé comme indécent.” (I: 202)h According to Bataille, the reason for this is that “la partie est prise pour ce qui s’élève et la vie humaine erronément regardée comme une élévation.” (I: 200)i

If one sticks to this conviction and is truly convinced of it, it should not really matter that man’s feet prove his origin as an animalistic creature: they are what links him to that origin, but as such they are also what lifted him out of it in the first place. By simply acknowledging this fact one can easily cling to idealistic ideas about this special nature of man, whose purpose it is to move away from that origin. But why is it so difficult then to see the big toe as just another feature of the human body and to have the idea of a beautiful toe the way we have (often contradictory) ideas of what beautiful legs, buttocks, hands etc. should look like? And where, on the other hand, does that capacity of the feet come from to arouse desire and provoke disciplinary action at the same time?

Idealistic conceptions are based on the supremacy of the mind as the center in control of everything that happens. But is it really so simple?

There are at least three symbolic centers to the human being: traditionally, man is reason and his head is what distinguishes him. Everybody knows, however, that it is difficult to motivate people by appealing to their intellectual capacities, they have to feel moved to take action, there is a second center, men have emotions, they have a heart. Ultimately, somewhere deep down (not as deep as the big toe, however), human beings have their genitalia, whose drive has been considered the only true source of all of man’s achievements.

It gets tricky with three centers but not impossible to maintain an hierarchical order in which the mind controls the other centers, like in Plato’s image of the charioteer driving a charriot that is being pulled by two winged horses (Phaedrus, 246a), i. e. reason (logisticon) the courageous (thumos) and the desiring (epitumia) part of the body. (Vide : Plato, Republic, 436-441.) What matters is that the hierarchical order is retained so that life eventually is a constant elevation. So there are abject desires that divert man’s attention, so he is subject to emotional fits that trouble his reasoning, it’s part of the game for the elevation to overcome resistance - Hegel’s dialectics are the most influential model to give account of this endless strife.

Man cannot walk without his big toe, its usefulness is out of question. Man can regret this low reminder of his own baseness and simply go on with his life - there is nothing so enormous as to halt the process of idealist dialectics, which are supposed to reconcile us with unpleasant facts by turning them into steps within a wider development.

Bataille was very fond of Hegel, one of his few philosophical sources and of fundamental importance for the evolution of his thinking. It is obvious, however, that Bataille, abhorring any kind of idealistic purification of the world, could not think that eventually everything would be understood and in its place under the benign reign of reason. Dialectics as an unstoppable success story were as silly to him as definite, unshakeable oppositions. What he tried to understand was precisely how certain elements resisted the dialectic movement, making its efforts and the belief in them vain.

The big toe cannot be vilified for what it does; its functionality cannot be disputed. It is the appearance that is scandalous; aesthetic judgments distance the big toe: “L’aspect hideusement cadavérique et en même temps criard et orgueilleux du gros orteil”;j yet “[l]a forme du gros orteil n’est cependant pas spécifiquement monstrueuse.”k Thus, the aesthetic judgment on the big toe cannot be explained but psychologically, “en raison d’une ignominie, explicable par la boue où les pieds sont situés.” (I: 203)l Despite their irreplaceable usefulness, feet and toes are ugly, the mind cannot help but denigrate them. If the big toe is the most human of body parts, allowing us to stand erect, the mind should have a measure to see its beauty. There is no way to explain this contradiction in terms of reason, the cause lies elsewhere.

Every human being has a heart. There are certainly objects that are more likely to stir up emotions, but the foot is not generally excluded. As far as the internal cause is concerned, feelings cannot be considered an exclusively psychological phenomenon: they are the phenomenal side of a physiological process as these processes are the physiological side of emotional activity.

The heart is a pump, and Bataille speaks of blood: “[A] l’intérieur du corps le sang ruisselle en égale quantité de haut en bas et de bas en haut.” (I: 200)m Thus emotions, like the blood they are dependent on, have no preference or aversion with regard to the body. It is true that the blood runs to our head when we blush and that all emotions are visualized in the upper body part, but if just the same amount of the same blood will recede from the face again and return to the heart and eventually reach the big toe, then there is no hierarchy between the parts. The human heart and human emotions are not biased against what is down.

A third centre remains - we already had that: Bataille says there is an “ élément séduisant” (I: 203) in the big toe, and what is generally seen as unaesthetic, if not repulsive, in a strange way, to some people, is endowed with an irresistible sexual attraction. There are so many seductive elements in the world that there is no use in classifying them. What is possible to classify, however, are the disturbing seductive elements, signified by the general term fetish. Of all fetishes, what a surprise, those pertaining to feet and footwear are the most common.

As fetish qualify any objects, behaviors and situations that provoke sexual desire in an individual but cannot be assimilated to the complex of objects, behaviors and situations that are commonly considered to provoke, more or less exclusively, sexual desire, Bataille: “Qu’il y ait dans un gros orteil un élément séduisant; il est évident qu’il ne s’agit pas de satisfaire une aspiration élevée.” (I: 203)n Even if the feet and toes are well-kept, what is exciting about them is that they are by definition excluded from any serious or poetic sexuality: “Dans le cas du gros orteil, le fétichisme classique du pied aboutissant au lèchement des doigts indique catégoriquement qu’il s’agit de basse séduction.” (I: 204)o

But why is there no sublimation? How is it possible that something is going on down there out of the mind’s reach, subverting its central position and mocking its attempts to regain control?

One of Bataille’s key concepts is heterology. A sheet, entitled La polarité humaine, gives an overview of its subject: “La polarité humaine ne se présente pas comme un fait nouveau en ce sens que rien n’est plus commun dans les jugements de valeur que la classification des faits en hauts et bas, sacrés et profanes. Mais la tendance a prévalu d’identifier haut à sacré, bas à profane, et il en est résulté un tableau inintelligible. En effet l’élément sacré est lui-même polarisé, le mot ayant à l’origine le double sens de pur et impur.” (II[3]: 167)p

Traditionally, value judgments depended on the opposition of what is up and down. The trouble is that the reality of the phenomena this opposition had been taken from did not comply with this simple spatial differentiation. While it was true that all religious ceremonies were based on the separation of a sacred space and time from the profane space and time, the sacred was not only a higher form of reality. While it was true that the sacred was ordinary life’s higher vocation, the manifestation of the pure and the divine, it also included everything that was anathema to the common understanding of righteousness, let alone moral purity: the sacred realm was that of effervescent life and its counterpart - death. Rape and manslaughter, strictly forbidden in the profane sphere, were accepted and celebrated in their sacred staging. Thus, the sacred sphere included the most abominable and threatening of men’s actions next to and inextricably entangled with their awe-inspiring ideals, and the sacred was the result of a polarity the profane sphere tried to suppress at all costs.

The dossier on heterology contains 25 tableaux, which interpret various cultural phenomena in a heterologic model. Number 16 deals with an example of the hétérogène social. The left-hand side is attributed to the sacred with the formes pures at the top, and the formes impures at the bottom. An arrow goes one step down from the pure forms to indicate the formes sociales, whence another arrow goes to the right, makes one step down and indicates the profane at its left-hand side, defined by its principe de l’utilité, i. e. order and productivity. Though in vertical opposition to the sacred, the profane is horizontally placed in the middle of the tableau, i. e. neither pure nor impure. An arrow to the left indicates its relation to the sacred, defined as réaction contre, i. e. against polarity. This could be a stable image with the profane sphere being influenced by the pure forms, based on the opposition to the polarized sphere of the sacred, whose impure forms are disconnected from the rest. There is another arrow, however, that goes down from the profane and then to the left. It is supposed to signify the waste of the profane, which is excreted and leads to neuroses. Thus a link is established between the profane sphere and the impure forms of the sacred. (It is indeed a psychoanalytical explanation of fetishes to be the symptom of a neurosis.) The whole tableau visualizes that the ideals, which the pure forms of the sacred constitute for the profane sphere, cannot be effective without leading to the exclusion profane elements that fuel the impure forms. Any believe in progressive dialectics and a possible advancement of profane reality to the pure forms turns out to be naive if not vain since the idealistic motivations cannot but intensify the productivity of the impure forms. Their polarity cannot be resolved, for everything that gets in touch with them slips from the profane sphere.

Tableaux 18 is on sexualité (non pathologique). Pure love is the highest form, which becomes diluted to married love, which in its turn becomes parental love. This parental love is freed from the extreme desires and needs pure love inspires, which contradict society’s need for order and productivity.  As always, the homogenous form of human sexuality has to exclude many tendencies the ideal itself inspires (jealousy, self-denial) which turn into neuroses (arrow down, then to left) and lead directly to the impure forms of non-pathologic sexuality, called obscenité. The more one is inspired by the ideals of pure love, which are extremely polarized and consequently polarizing, the more pressure is put on “economic” love relations, which are a réaction contre (long arrow through the whole tableau) sexuality, based fundamentally on respect and distance; ever more desires are suppressed, leading to the completely heterogeneous effectiveness of obscenity.

The mind is the controlling centre of man, heads that can be so beautiful. The foot, farthest away from this centre, the articulation that links his extremity to the lowlands of plants and animals is his extreme, the counter pole to this idealistic self-image, a bad reminder of his low origin, crowned by an ugly big toe.

Bataille didn’t have practical solutions to the contradictions he exposed; exposing them was an end in itself: “Le sens de cet article repose dans une insistance à mettre en cause directement et explicitement ce qui séduit.”q Although opposed to idealistic conceptions, consciousness was a key term for Bataille, not as a means of resolving the contradictions, but as a way of facing them and bearing their weight. Quite dramatic in its hopelessness, “cela veut dire qu’on est séduit bassement, sans transposition et jusqu’à en crier,”r if the truth wasn’t so comical after all: “en écarquillant les yeux, les écarquillant devant un gros orteil.”s(I : 204)



Překlady francouzských citací:

a Slovník začíná tehdy, když místo významu slov začne ukazovat jejich práci.

b Palec u nohy je nejlidštější částí lidského těla v tom smyslu, že žádný jiný prvek tohoto těla se do té míry neodlišuje od odpovídajícího prvku antropoidního znaku. 

c Ale ať už byla role, kterou v procesu jeho napřimování sehrála noha, jakákoli, člověk s lehkou hlavou, tedy hlavou namířenou k nebi a nebeským věcem, na ni shlíží jako na plivanec, prý kvůli tomu, že se vláčí bahnem. 

d ...tajnou hrůzu, kterou v člověku vyvolává jeho noha... 

e ...skrýt, nakolik je to možné, její délku a tvar. 

f ...zčásti zbavují nohu jejího nízkého a opovrženíhodného charakteru. 

g ...nezpůsobným a nemravným hledět na nohy těchto žen. 

h ...pouhý pohled na nohu, která je sice obutá, ale vyčnívá zpod sukně, byl chápán jako něco nepatřičného. 

i ...tato část těla je chápána jako něco, co se klene vzhůru, a lidský život mylně nahlížen jako povznesenost. 

j Odpudivě mrtvolný, a zároveň vyzývavý a pyšný zjev palce u nohy. 

k [p]řitom však není tvar palce u nohy nijak zvlášť odpudivý. 

l ...na základě hanby, kterou vysvětluje bahno, v němž nohy spočívají. 

m Krev crčí uvnitř těla stále ve stejných dávkách odshora dolů a zespoda nahoru. 

n Palec u nohy má v sobě něco svůdného. Je zřejmé, že se zde nejedná o uspokojování žádné povznesené touhy. 

o V případě palce dává klasický fetišismus nohy, který začíná s olizováním prstů, kategoricky na srozuměnou, že se jedná o nízký způsob svádění. 

p Polarita lidského těla není vůbec ničím novým, neboť v rámci hodnotových soudů není nic obvyklejšího než posuzovat fakta jako vysoká a nízká, posvátná a profánní. Převážil však sklon ztotožňovat vysoké s posvátným a nízké s profánním, z čehož vyplynulo naprosto nesrozumitelné schéma. Ve skutečnosti je totiž posvátný prvek sám polarizovaný a toto slovo (sacré) má původně dvojí smysl čistého i nečistého. 

q Smysl tohoto článku spočívá v tvrdohlavosti, se kterou přímo a explicitně problematizuje to, co nás svádí. 

r ...to znamená, že se rádi necháme nízkým způsobem svádět, bez úhybů stranou, až se nám z toho chce křičet... 

s ...a při tom valíme oči, poulíme je při pohledu na palec u nohy. 



[1] G. Bataille, Œuvres Complètes I: Premiers Écrits 1922 – 1940, Gallimard, Paris 1970. 

[2] These women’s feet had to be taken care of and regularly be rebandaged to avoid infections that would have eventually killed the woman. 

[3] G. Bataille, Œuvres complètes II: Écrits posthumes 1922 – 1940, Gallimard, Paris 1970. 

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