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Peter Brooks_(Georges Bataille the)_Philosopher of the Forbidden

Peter Brooks_(Georges Bataille the)_Philosopher of the Forbidden

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Published by Yavuz Odabasi
“Philosopher of the Forbidden”

“Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939”, by Georges Bataille (University of Minnesota Press)

Reviewed by Peter Brooks

“The New Republic”, Apr 7, 1986, pp. 34-37.
“Philosopher of the Forbidden”

“Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939”, by Georges Bataille (University of Minnesota Press)

Reviewed by Peter Brooks

“The New Republic”, Apr 7, 1986, pp. 34-37.

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Philosopher of the forbidden
Brooks, Peter
The New Republic (pre-1988);
Apr 7, 1986; 194, 014; ProQuest Research Librarypg. 34
ernment-army,
militia, police, firingsquad, hangman. Such was their positionand the position of their mentor
Luigi
GaJleani, a silver-tongued prophet of revolt who showered praise on every rebellious deed and glorified the perpetrators
as
heroes and martyrs sacrificingtheir lives for tht'
oppreSSl'd.
Sacco and Vanzetti, gentle in their daily lives, lofty in their ideals, maythemselves have been involved in suchactivities, though there
is
no reliable evidence to confirm this. Their explanatio:lsfor being armed at the time
of
their arrest
(Sacco
occasionally worked
as
anight watchman, Vanzeui carried moneywhen selling fish) are unconvincing.More likely, they carried guns becausethey were militants who believed in retaliatory action and who rejected docilesubmission to the state. At any rate, theimage of
"a
good shoem:tker and a poorfish peddler," which came to define thecharacter
of
the two men, calls tor revision. (Interestingly, as Robert D'Attiliohas shown, the phrase itself, attributedto Vanzetti before his execution, was infact invented by the reporter who interviewed him in his cell.)Radical activity is one thing, but robbery and murder are quite another. WereSacco and Vanzetti guilty
of
the crimes
fOI
which they were condemned? Didthey receive a fair trial? Were theycriminals or martyrs? The case
of
Saccoand Vanzetti still awaits definitivetreatment.
PAULAVRICH
Paul Avrich is Distinguished Professor
of
History at Queens College and the Graduate School, the City University
of
NewYork. His latest book,
The
Haymarket
Tragedy,
has been reissued in paperbackby Princeton University Press.
PHILOSOPHER
OF
THE
FORBIDDEN
Visions of
Excess:
Selected Writings,
1927-1939
by
Georges
Batailleedited
by
Allan Stoekltranslated
by
Allan Stoekl with Carl
R.
Lovitt and Donald
M. Leslie,
Jr.
(University of Minnesota Press,
271
pp.,
$29.50, $14.95
paper)
Ger.>rges
BataiIle impresses one
as
a peculiarly French phenomenon: a kind ofunderground intellectu
aI,
a shadowy
maitre
d
penser
whose influence, despitethe fragmentary and often exasperatingcharacter of his work, has not ceased
to
grow since his death in
1962.
Bataille'swork adds up
to
a profound dissent from
opti~istic
views of culture
as
"sweetnessand light," to use the definition by Matthew Arnold that set the tone for manymoderns who saw culture
as
the secularsubstitute for religion. Bataille is closerto the Freud of
Civi/izllHon
and
Its
Dis
(ontents,
but insisting,
as
one of the discontents, that
men
and societies cannotbe governed by rational utilitarian principles, that they long for an experienceof transcendence that depends on transgression, excess, and sacrifice.Until now, Bataille has been known tothe Frenchiess reader mainly
as
the author of somewhat mystifying porno-
34
THE
NEW
REPUBLIC
graphic novels (notably
Story
of
the
Eye,
hisfirst book, published pseudonymously in
1928).
Visions
of
aces;
collects a number
of
essays and polemics from the thirties thatare important in part because they announce (and often give in essence) themajor works that Bataille would publishduring and after the Second World
War;
L
Explrience
intlrieurc,La
Part
maudile,
L
fro
Hsme,
La
liffemfure
ef
Ie
mal.
The presenttranslation may be a sign that Americanattention to sllch contemporary Frenchthinkers
as
Michel Foucault, JacquesDerrida, and Julia Kristeva-all
of
whomowe much to Bataille-has now preparedthe way for a serious interest in Bataille'sradically unsettling message, and in hislacerating practice
of
writing.At the start of the thirties, Bataille wasdose to Andre Breton and Surrealist circles, but it was not long before he separated from them with a fracas. (Bretonexcommunicated him with particularvirulence in the Second Surrealist Manifesto.) Bataille found Surrealism to beguilty
of
an excessive idealism, attempting to ennoble sexuality and the products
of
the unconscious, to raise them topoetic dignity. He wanted, on the contrary, to "ruin" thought and literature
by
way
of
excess, by what he called theheterogeneous and the incongruous,
byexcrement-that
is to say,
by
a philosophy that based itself on the waste products of society and thought, on what society and thought cannot assimilate.Throughout the turbulent thirties,while
«
':Ilpying a position
as
librarian atthe Bibliotheque Nationale, Bataille cofounded various small reviews andephemeral groups. He was briefly a communist, then a Trotskyite, and later hecreated a group called
Contre-Alfaque,
which was devoted to revolutionarystruggle and to. antifascism. Bataille'santifascism, however, based
as
it
was ona view
of
society regenerated through violence, sacrifice, and myth, came perilously close to confirming the views
or
itsadversaries.
For
a brief time Bataille carried forward his thinking in
Adphalt--a
review represented,
in
Andre
Masson'G
cover drawing,
by
a headless man holding a dagger and a burning heart, andwith a skull between his loins, symbolizing a society that had freed itself fromrational utilitarianism and from God thefather. Just before the war, with RogerCaillois and Michel Leiris, he foundedthe "College de Sociologie," which had
as
its goal the creation
of
a sociology
of
thesacred. Following the war, finally, Bataille created the review
CriHque,
whichestablished itself as one
of
France's mostrespected journals
of
literature, philosophy, and the "sciences
of
man."
B
ATAILLE'S
first published piece,just following World War
I,
was arather unctuous' devotional meditationon the Cathedral
of
Reims; soon thereafter he spent some time in a Benedictinemonastery on the Isle
of
Wight. Hequickly abandoned his religious commitment, however, and discovered Nietzsche (who gave him the feeling that"nothing more needed to be said"), thenFreud, then Hegel. But
all
of
his thinkingremained marked precisely by what hehad
rejected-by
the absence born
of
thefailure
of
religious belief.
If
Bataillesometimes sounds like a particularly aggravated case
of
Satanism, a celebrator
of
black masses and inverted credos,
it
maybe because
he
must prove ever and againthat there are no spirits to be summoned
ernment-army,
militia, police, firingsquad, hangman. Such was their positionand the position of their mentor
Luigi
GaJleani, a silver-tongued prophet of revolt who showered praise on every rebellious deed and glorified the perpetrators
as
heroes and martyrs sacrificingtheir lives for tht'
oppreSSl'd.
Sacco and Vanzetti, gentle in their daily lives, lofty in their ideals, maythemselves have been involved in suchactivities, though there
is
no reliable evidence to confirm this. Their explanatio:lsfor being armed at the time
of
their arrest
(Sacco
occasionally worked
as
anight watchman, Vanzeui carried moneywhen selling fish) are unconvincing.More likely, they carried guns becausethey were militants who believed in retaliatory action and who rejected docilesubmission to the state. At any rate, theimage of
"a
good shoem:tker and a poorfish peddler," which came to define thecharacter
of
the two men, calls tor revision. (Interestingly, as Robert D'Attiliohas shown, the phrase itself, attributedto Vanzetti before his execution, was infact invented by the reporter who interviewed him in his cell.)Radical activity is one thing, but robbery and murder are quite another. WereSacco and Vanzetti guilty
of
the crimes
fOI
which they were condemned? Didthey receive a fair trial? Were theycriminals or martyrs? The case
of
Saccoand Vanzetti still awaits definitivetreatment.
PAULAVRICH
Paul Avrich is Distinguished Professor
of
History at Queens College and the Graduate School, the City University
of
NewYork. His latest book,
The
Haymarket
Tragedy,
has been reissued in paperbackby Princeton University Press.
PHILOSOPHER
OF
THE
FORBIDDEN
Visions of
Excess:
Selected Writings,
1927-1939
by
Georges
Batailleedited
by
Allan Stoekltranslated
by
Allan Stoekl with Carl
R.
Lovitt and Donald
M.Leslie,
Jr.
(University of Minnesota Press,
271
pp.,
$29.50, $14.95
paper)
Ger.>rges
BataiIle impresses one
as
a peculiarly French phenomenon: a kind ofunderground intellectu
aI,
a shadowy
maitre
d
penser
whose influence, despitethe fragmentary and often exasperatingcharacter of his work, has not ceased
to
grow since his death in
1962.
Bataille'swork adds up
to
a profound dissent from
opti~istic
views of culture
as
"sweetnessand light," to use the definition by Matthew Arnold that set the tone for manymoderns who saw culture
as
the secularsubstitute for religion. Bataille is closerto the Freud of
Civi/izllHon
and
Its
Dis
(ontents,
but insisting,
as
one of the discontents, that
men
and societies cannotbe governed by rational utilitarian principles, that they long for an experienceof transcendence that depends on transgression, excess, and sacrifice.Until now, Bataille has been known tothe Frenchiess reader mainly
as
the author of somewhat mystifying porno-
34
THE
NEW
REPUBLIC
graphic novels (notably
Story
of
the
Eye,
hisfirst book, published pseudonymously in
1928).
Visions
of
aces;
collects a number
of
essays and polemics from the thirties thatare important in part because they announce (and often give in essence) themajor works that Bataille would publishduring and after the Second World
War;
L
Explrience
intlrieurc,La
Part
maudile,
L
fro
Hsme,
La
liffemfure
ef
Ie
mal.
The presenttranslation may be a sign that Americanattention to sllch contemporary Frenchthinkers
as
Michel Foucault, JacquesDerrida, and Julia Kristeva-all
of
whomowe much to Bataille-has now preparedthe way for a serious interest in Bataille'sradically unsettling message, and in hislacerating practice
of
writing.At the start of the thirties, Bataille wasdose to Andre Breton and Surrealist circles, but it was not long before he separated from them with a fracas. (Bretonexcommunicated him with particularvirulence in the Second Surrealist Manifesto.) Bataille found Surrealism to beguilty
of
an excessive idealism, attempting to ennoble sexuality and the products
of
the unconscious, to raise them topoetic dignity. He wanted, on the contrary, to "ruin" thought and literature
by
way
of
excess, by what he called theheterogeneous and the incongruous,
byexcrement-that
is to say,
by
a philosophy that based itself on the waste products of society and thought, on what society and thought cannot assimilate.Throughout the turbulent thirties,while
«
':Ilpying a position
as
librarian atthe Bibliotheque Nationale, Bataille cofounded various small reviews andephemeral groups. He was briefly a communist, then a Trotskyite, and later hecreated a group called
Contre-Alfaque,
which was devoted to revolutionarystruggle and to. antifascism. Bataille'santifascism, however, based
as
it
was ona view
of
society regenerated through violence, sacrifice, and myth, came perilously close to confirming the views
or
itsadversaries.
For
a brief time Bataille carried forward his thinking in
Adphalt--a
review represented,
in
Andre
Masson'G
cover drawing,
by
a headless man holding a dagger and a burning heart, andwith a skull between his loins, symbolizing a society that had freed itself fromrational utilitarianism and from God thefather. Just before the war, with RogerCaillois and Michel Leiris, he foundedthe "College de Sociologie," which had
as
its goal the creation
of
a sociology
of
thesacred. Following the war, finally, Bataille created the review
CriHque,
whichestablished itself as one
of
France's mostrespected journals
of
literature, philosophy, and the "sciences
of
man."
B
ATAILLE'S
first published piece,just following World War
I,
was arather unctuous' devotional meditationon the Cathedral
of
Reims; soon thereafter he spent some time in a Benedictinemonastery on the Isle
of
Wight. Hequickly abandoned his religious commitment, however, and discovered Nietzsche (who gave him the feeling that"nothing more needed to be said"), thenFreud, then Hegel. But
all
of
his thinkingremained marked precisely by what hehad
rejected-by
the absence born
of
thefailure
of
religious belief.
If
Bataillesometimes sounds like a particularly aggravated case
of
Satanism, a celebrator
of
black masses and inverted credos,
it
maybe because
he
must prove ever and againthat there are no spirits to be summoned
 
from the vasty deep. Characteristically,he grouped some of his most hnportantwritings under the general heading of
La
Somme
alhicrlogique:
a
SummaAlheologica
that would study the
place
of the spiritin a context of absence--absence of adeity, absence of all possibility of salvation, absence of any answer at
all.
Still, what concerned
him
constantly,and what animates most of his writing,was the effort
to
rediscover a sense ofthe sacred
in
human and
social
experi
ence:
the sacred
as
that which
is
incommensurable, wholly other. Bataille refers
us
to the double meaning of the Latin
sa(~r,
evoking both the pure and hallowed, and the untouchable and taboo.
In
a world void of transcendence,
Ba
taille chose to find the
sacred in
whatutilitarian society has expelled and repressed:
in
dread,
in
sacrifice,
in
theerotic, in blood, sperm, and
fece~.
Bataille called his theory of the expelledand repressed "heterology," which
he
defined
as
"the science of the wholly other,"
or-in
a term
he
sometimes
uses as
provocation-"scatology," the "science of excrement." What interests Bataille
is
thatwhich a society and a culture devoted
to
appropriation cannot assimilate, and thusexpel
as
foreign matter, which includes
the waste
products
of
the
human
body
and
certain
analogous
matter
(trash, vermin,etc.);the
parts
of
the
body; persons,words,
or
acts
having
a
suggestiveerotic
value;
the
various unconscious
processes
such
as
dreams
or
neuroses; the numerous elements
or
social forms
that
hom~gt'ltoUS
society
is
powerless to assimilate:
mobs,
the
warrior,
aristocratic
and impoverished
classes,
dif
ferent
types of
violent
individuals
...
Religious thought,
in
its creation of a radically separate
realm
of the sacred,
is
originally concerned, according to Bataille,with the power of the heterogeneous. Butreligion then betrays the needs
it
was
supposed to satisfy by reassimilating thesacred into an idealistic system and call
ing
it the divine--making it part of appropriative, homogeneous society, refusing
to
deal with the impure and the taboo.Religion
is
thus a failed instance of themore general experience of separationand expulsion that must preside at anycreation of the sacred "otherness" thatmen and societies need to be fully vital.
Science,
based on the homogeneity ofphenomena, their obedience to laws, alsorepresses the heterogeneous. But if oneresolutely takes the side of the unassimilable, of all that causes
us
dread, horror,revulsion-in the manner of the Marql!isde Sade, a very important thinker
for
Ba-
taille--one
can
create a
tru.'!
heterology,defined
as
"the complete reversal of thephilosophical process, which
ceases
to be
the instrument of appropriation, and nowserves excretion; it introduces the demand for the violent gratifications implied
by
social life."
In
his appeal to a renewed view of thesacred, Bataille vigorously rejected the la
bel
of mystic, applied
to
him
by Sartre,among others. The ecstatic experience ofthe mystic implies a kind of divine guarantee of its transcendence, whereas
Ba
taille insists that transcendence
be
simplya product of the
humall
capacity
for
theexperience of separation and waste and
excess.
Bataille at his most compelling
is
an extraordinarily powerful analyst ofextreme human conditions: of sacrifice,of violence, of expenditure, of the erotic.The "notion of expenditure"(dipmse)
is
one of the
key
terms
in
Bataille'sthought, first set
fort~
in
an essay included
in
this volume, then given its fulldevelopment in
La
ParI
miludile
("TheCursed Share"), a treatise of universaleconomy, really a treatise on the uses ofenergy
in
human life, and a remarkabledissent from the concepts of utility, productivity, and rationalization that havedominated Western society and life itselffor several centuries.BataiIle's critique of traditional politi
cal
economy-the tradition of
Adam
Smith and
allhis
progeny-rests
on
thestartling premise that usefulness andproductivity
are
radically insufficient
bases
for sociopolitical theory,
as
for
theconstitution of society itself. Societycannot
be
rationalized on utilitariangrounds alone. Rather, it
has"
an
;lIlcrest
in
considerable
losses, in
catastrophesthat,
while
(ollform;lIg
10
well-de
illed
Ileeds,
provoke tumultuous depressions, crisesof dread, and,
in
the final analysis, a certain orgiastic state." Societies have aneed to divest,
as
men
and women divestthemselves of their clothes, and of theirprivate, discrete selves,
in
erotic acts.
It
is
worth quoting some of Bataille's meditation on the "principle of loss":
Human
activity
is
not entirely
reducible
to
processes
of
prcduction
and
conservation,
andconsumption must
be
divided
into
two
distinct
parts.
The
first,reducible
part
is
represented
by
the
use
ofthe
minimumnecessary
for
the
conservation of
life
and
the
continuation of individuals' productiveactivity
in
a
given
society; it
is
therefore
a
question
simply
of
the
fundamental condi
ti"n
of
productive
activity.The second
part
is
represented
by
so-called
unproductiveexpenditures: luxury,
mourning,
war,
cults,
the
construction of sumptuary
monuments,
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APRil
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1986 35
from the vasty deep. Characteristically,he grouped some of his most hnportantwritings under the general heading of
La
Somme
alhicrlogique:
a
SummaAlheologica
that would study the
place
of the spiritin a context of absence--absence of adeity, absence of all possibility of salvation, absence of any answer at
all.
Still, what concerned
him
constantly,and what animates most of his writing,was the effort
to
rediscover a sense ofthe sacred
in
human and
social
experi
ence:
the sacred
as
that which
is
incommensurable, wholly other. Bataille refers
us
to the double meaning of the Latin
sa(~r,
evoking both the pure and hallowed, and the untouchable and taboo.
In
a world void of transcendence,
Ba
taille chose to find the
sacred in
whatutilitarian society has expelled and repressed:
in
dread,
in
sacrifice,
in
theerotic, in blood, sperm, and
fece~.
Bataille called his theory of the expelledand repressed "heterology," which
he
defined
as
"the science of the wholly other,"
or-in
a term
he
sometimes
uses as
provocation-"scatology," the "science of excrement." What interests Bataille
is
thatwhich a society and a culture devoted
to
appropriation cannot assimilate, and thusexpel
as
foreign matter, which includes
the waste
products
of
the
human
body
and
certain
analogous
matter
(trash, vermin,etc.);the
parts
of
the
body; persons,words,
or
acts
having
a
suggestiveerotic
value;
the
various unconscious
processes
such
as
dreams
or
neuroses; the numerous elements
or
social forms
that
hom~gt'ltoUS
society
is
powerless to assimilate:
mobs,
the
warrior,
aristocratic
and impoverished
classes,
dif
ferent
types of
violent
individuals
...
Religious thought,
in
its creation of a radically separate
realm
of the sacred,
is
originally concerned, according to Bataille,with the power of the heterogeneous. Butreligion then betrays the needs
it
was
supposed to satisfy by reassimilating thesacred into an idealistic system and call
ing
it the divine--making it part of appropriative, homogeneous society, refusing
to
deal with the impure and the taboo.Religion
is
thus a failed instance of themore general experience of separationand expulsion that must preside at anycreation of the sacred "otherness" thatmen and societies need to be fully vital.
Science,
based on the homogeneity ofphenomena, their obedience to laws, alsorepresses the heterogeneous. But if oneresolutely takes the side of the unassimilable, of all that causes
us
dread, horror,revulsion-in the manner of the Marql!isde Sade, a very important thinker
for
Ba-
taille--one
can
create a
tru.'!
heterology,defined
as
"the complete reversal of thephilosophical process, which
ceases
to be
the instrument of appropriation, and nowserves excretion; it introduces the demand for the violent gratifications implied
by
social life."
In
his appeal to a renewed view of thesacred, Bataille vigorously rejected the la
bel
of mystic, applied
to
him
by Sartre,among others. The ecstatic experience ofthe mystic implies a kind of divine guarantee of its transcendence, whereas
Ba
taille insists that transcendence
be
simplya product of the
humall
capacity
for
theexperience of separation and waste and
excess.
Bataille at his most compelling
is
an extraordinarily powerful analyst ofextreme human conditions: of sacrifice,of violence, of expenditure, of the erotic.The "notion of expenditure"(dipmse)
is
one of the
key
terms
in
Bataille'sthought, first set
fort~
in
an essay included
in
this volume, then given its fulldevelopment in
La
ParI
miludile
("TheCursed Share"), a treatise of universaleconomy, really a treatise on the uses ofenergy
in
human life, and a remarkabledissent from the concepts of utility, productivity, and rationalization that havedominated Western society and life itselffor several centuries.BataiIle's critique of traditional politi
cal
economy-the tradition of
Adam
Smith and
allhis
progeny-rests
on
thestartling premise that usefulness andproductivity
are
radically insufficient
bases
for sociopolitical theory,
as
for
theconstitution of society itself. Societycannot
be
rationalized on utilitariangrounds alone. Rather, it
has"
an
;lIlcrest
in
considerable
losses, in
catastrophesthat,
while
(ollform;lIg
10
well-de
illed
Ileeds,
provoke tumultuous depressions, crisesof dread, and,
in
the final analysis, a certain orgiastic state." Societies have aneed to divest,
as
men
and women divestthemselves of their clothes, and of theirprivate, discrete selves,
in
erotic acts.
It
is
worth quoting some of Bataille's meditation on the "principle of loss":
Human
activity
is
not entirely
reducible
to
processes
of
prcduction
and
conservation,
andconsumption must
be
divided
into
two
distinct
parts.
The
first,reducible
part
is
represented
by
the
use
ofthe
minimumnecessary
for
the
conservation of
life
and
the
continuation of individuals' productiveactivity
in
a
given
society; it
is
therefore
a
question
simply
of
the
fundamental condi
ti"n
of
productive
activity.The second
part
is
represented
by
so-called
unproductiveexpenditures: luxury,
mourning,
war,
cults,
the
construction of sumptuary
monuments,
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APRil
7,
1986 35
 
games,
spectacles,
arts,
perverse sexual
ac-
tivity
(i.e.,
deflected
from
genital
finali-
tyj-all
these represent activities
which,
at
least
in
primitive circumstances, have
no
end
beyond
themselves
....
[These
activi-
ties)
constitute
a
group
characterized
by
the
fact
that
in
each
case
the
accent
is
placedon
loss
that
must
be
as
great
as
possible
in
order
for
that
activity
to
take
on its
true
meaning.
How are we to rationalize, for instance,people's excessive t?xpenditures on "pre_cious" jewelry? Cheap look-alikes cannot substitute for real jewels since theywould not
~\,IVe
the same excrementalvalue, the same fildical discontinuity with the ordinary,the same proof of loss anddepletion and sacrifice. Religion, too,
is
built
on
an "operation of loss":
sacrifice
including the Christian sacri
fice
of the Son of
God·-is
theproduction of sacred things.
All
societies, moreover, showinstances of excessive expenditures
011
competitivegames.
As
for the arts, Bataille defines poetry as "creation by means
of
loss, , . thepursuit of inconsistent shadows that provide nothing butvertigo and rage. The poetfrequently can use wordsonly for his own loss
....
"penditul'e, sacrifice, transgression, orgy.Bataille would never cease to developand enrich these ideas, and in manyways the evolution of European societyfrom the thirties through the war andinto the postwar period only confirmed,in chilling ways, his perception that autilitarian-based political economy never
will
satisfy man's profound needs.Following the Nazi orgy of destruction,we live in a landscape littered with examples of frenzied and bloody sacrifice.Bataille was himself a genuine antifascistwho could not abide totalitarianism
of
any sort: his whole message is predicated(which has been translated under thesomewhat purple title
of
DealhandSen-
suality)
may well be his most successful
boo'~
(though really all Bataille's writingsare fragments
of
one uninterruptedwhole). The importance
of
eroticism, asself-reflexive, conscious sexuality, unhamessed to reproduction and in excess
of
the mere satisfaction
of
instinct, is thatit provides the most common and immediate experience
of
excess, expenditure,and loss. Eroticism
is
consubstantial withtransgression, with the choice to go beyond limits, to enter a domain where onerisks oneself entirely. "It is possible tosay
of
eroticism that it isthe affirmation
of
life all theway into death," wIites Bataille. The erotic is linked todeath not only in the sensethat sexual reproduction implies the death
of
the individual, but also because orgasmicpleasure ruptures the selfpreservative instincts
of
theroutine and the everyday.Bataille's thinking here ismuch influenced
by
the an
thropoloF~st
Marcel Mauss'sseminal essay, "The Gift,"which studies the processesof exchange and obligation inprimitive societies, and callsattention to the importance
of
the American Indian pot
ANDRE
MA~SON'S
SYMBOL FOR BATAILLE'S
II
ctPHIlLE
Eroticism has
as
its "principle" the "destruction
of
theclosed being." Bataille thusinsiots upon the "decisive"importance of the moment
of
making naked in the eroticact, since "nudity is opposedto the closed condition, that
is
to say, to the condition
of
discontinuous existence."
We
live
as
discrete, closed beings.
To
enter fully the erotic is to
opl~n
oneself to other bodiesand existences, to experiencea
I,;,ss
of
si!lf
in a larger contillilum that ends in a figuration
of
death (what theFrench call "Ia petite mort").latch. The potlatch can either take theform of excessive gifts
of
riches, presented with the intention of humiliating,defying, and obligating a rival, orthe even more dramatic form
of
thespectacular destruction
of
riches. Thepotlatch forms the basis of aristocracy,sovereignty, honor.
In
modern bourgeois60ciety, dedicated to utilitarian principles, these ha\'e ceased to exist:"Everything that was generous, orgiastic,and excessive has disappeared."
Yet
theutilitarian conception of man
as
hamo
econom;cus
clearly
is
unsatisfactory as atotal system for human life, And
111
of
Bataille's thought is trained on those experiences and moments that exceed thesystem, that show its "deficit," thatprove man's need for unproductive ex-
36
THENEW
REPUBLIC
on breaking restraints and transgressinglimits.
Yet
he
is
undeniably fascinatedby monsters-Sade, for instance, andGilles de Rais, the original
of
"BlneBeard" who merrily butchered womenand children and frenetically spent hiswealth. "Sacrifice is the remedy to aworld devoid
of
transcendence," Bataillewrites:
"the
impossible
is
liberatedthrough a crime, its locus
MW
unveiled." Roger Caillois, a longl;ime friendand associate
of
Bataille, would eventually express his uneasy sem,e that Bataille, too, wished to "re.:reate a virulentand devastating version
of
the sacred."Controlling the social consequences
of
Bataille's thought is no easy matter.Bataille
is
at his most persuasive
as
aphilosopher of the erotic, and
L
ro/isme
EroticiGm
is thus
"a
state
of
communication which reveals the search for a possible continuity of being beyond closure onthe self." Hence Bataille's fascinationwith bodily openings, and with experiences
of
infraction, soiling, profanation,with all that negates the restrictions andtaboos that define and restrict "norm
.
I"existence.Writing itself
is
for Bataille an experience
of
transgression and excess inseparably linked to the erotic. Writing thathas fully accl!pted its own radical
nanue
is incommenliurable with the utilitariilIl:it is not accumulation, the product
of
work, but pure expenditure, loss. Thewriters whom he discusses
in
the werkthat is most nearly a piece
of
"literarycriticism,"
La
Lilltralure
elle
mal
(LilerahlTl!
games,
spectacles,
arts,
perverse sexual
ac-
tivity
(i.e.,
deflected
from
genital
finali-
tyj-all
these represent activities
which,
at
least
in
primitive circumstances, have
no
end
beyond
themselves
....
[These
activi-
ties)
constitute
a
group
characterized
by
the
fact
that
in
each
case
the
accent
is
placedon
loss
that
must
be
as
great
as
possible
in
order
for
that
activity
to
take
on its
true
meaning.
How are we to rationalize, for instance,people's excessive t?xpenditures on "pre_cious" jewelry? Cheap look-alikes cannot substitute for real jewels since theywould not
~\,IVe
the same excrementalvalue, the same fildical discontinuity with the ordinary,the same proof of loss anddepletion and sacrifice. Religion, too,
is
built
on
an "operation of loss":
sacrifice
including the Christian sacri
fice
of the Son of
God·-is
theproduction of sacred things.
All
societies, moreover, showinstances of excessive expenditures
011
competitivegames.
As
for the arts, Bataille defines poetry as "creation by means
of
loss, , . thepursuit of inconsistent shadows that provide nothing butvertigo and rage. The poetfrequently can use wordsonly for his own loss
....
"penditul'e, sacrifice, transgression, orgy.Bataille would never cease to developand enrich these ideas, and in manyways the evolution of European societyfrom the thirties through the war andinto the postwar period only confirmed,in chilling ways, his perception that autilitarian-based political economy never
will
satisfy man's profound needs.Following the Nazi orgy of destruction,we live in a landscape littered with examples of frenzied and bloody sacrifice.Bataille was himself a genuine antifascistwho could not abide totalitarianism
of
any sort: his whole message is predicated(which has been translated under thesomewhat purple title
of
DealhandSen-
suality)
may well be his most successful
boo'~
(though really all Bataille's writingsare fragments
of
one uninterruptedwhole). The importance
of
eroticism, asself-reflexive, conscious sexuality, unhamessed to reproduction and in excess
of
the mere satisfaction
of
instinct, is thatit provides the most common and immediate experience
of
excess, expenditure,and loss. Eroticism
is
consubstantial withtransgression, with the choice to go beyond limits, to enter a domain where onerisks oneself entirely. "It is possible tosay
of
eroticism that it isthe affirmation
of
life all theway into death," wIites Bataille. The erotic is linked todeath not only in the sensethat sexual reproduction implies the death
of
the individual, but also because orgasmicpleasure ruptures the selfpreservative instincts
of
theroutine and the everyday.Bataille's thinking here ismuch influenced
by
the an
thropoloF~st
Marcel Mauss'sseminal essay, "The Gift,"which studies the processesof exchange and obligation inprimitive societies, and callsattention to the importance
of
the American Indian pot
ANDRE
MA~SON'S
SYMBOL FOR BATAILLE'S
II
ctPHIlLE
Eroticism has
as
its "principle" the "destruction
of
theclosed being." Bataille thusinsiots upon the "decisive"importance of the moment
of
making naked in the eroticact, since "nudity is opposedto the closed condition, that
is
to say, to the condition
of
discontinuous existence."
We
live
as
discrete, closed beings.
To
enter fully the erotic is to
opl~n
oneself to other bodiesand existences, to experiencea
I,;,ss
of
si!lf
in a larger contillilum that ends in a figuration
of
death (what theFrench call "Ia petite mort").latch. The potlatch can either take theform of excessive gifts
of
riches, presented with the intention of humiliating,defying, and obligating a rival, orthe even more dramatic form
of
thespectacular destruction
of
riches. Thepotlatch forms the basis of aristocracy,sovereignty, honor.
In
modern bourgeois60ciety, dedicated to utilitarian principles, these ha\'e ceased to exist:"Everything that was generous, orgiastic,and excessive has disappeared."
Yet
theutilitarian conception of man
as
hamo
econom;cus
clearly
is
unsatisfactory as atotal system for human life, And
111
of
Bataille's thought is trained on those experiences and moments that exceed thesystem, that show its "deficit," thatprove man's need for unproductive ex-
36
THENEW
REPUBLIC
on breaking restraints and transgressinglimits.
Yet
he
is
undeniably fascinatedby monsters-Sade, for instance, andGilles de Rais, the original
of
"BlneBeard" who merrily butchered womenand children and frenetically spent hiswealth. "Sacrifice is the remedy to aworld devoid
of
transcendence," Bataillewrites:
"the
impossible
is
liberatedthrough a crime, its locus
MW
unveiled." Roger Caillois, a longl;ime friendand associate
of
Bataille, would eventually express his uneasy sem,e that Bataille, too, wished to "re.:reate a virulentand devastating version
of
the sacred."Controlling the social consequences
of
Bataille's thought is no easy matter.Bataille
is
at his most persuasive
as
aphilosopher of the erotic, and
L
ro/isme
EroticiGm
is thus
"a
state
of
communication which reveals the search for a possible continuity of being beyond closure onthe self." Hence Bataille's fascinationwith bodily openings, and with experiences
of
infraction, soiling, profanation,with all that negates the restrictions andtaboos that define and restrict "norm
.
I"existence.Writing itself
is
for Bataille an experience
of
transgression and excess inseparably linked to the erotic. Writing thathas fully accl!pted its own radical
nanue
is incommenliurable with the utilitariilIl:it is not accumulation, the product
of
work, but pure expenditure, loss. Thewriters whom he discusses
in
the werkthat is most nearly a piece
of
"literarycriticism,"
La
Lilltralure
elle
mal
(LilerahlTl!

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