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Human Face

Author(s): Georges Bataille and Annette Michelson


Source: October, Vol. 36, Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, UnKnowing (Spring, 1986), pp. 17-21
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/778541 .
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Human Face

data, we can cite but a single era


Owing to our presumably insufficient
withinwhich the human formstands out as a senile mockeryof everythingintenseand large conceived by man. The mere sight(in photography)ofour predecessors in the occupation of this countrynow produces, forvaryingreasons, a
burstof loud and raucous laughter; that sight,however, is nonethelesshideous.
Upon emerging(as if fromthe maternal womb) fromthe dreary chambers in
whicheverylast detail, includingtheirrank and mustyodor, had been provided
forby those vain ghosts,we seem to have spent the greaterpart of our time in
obliteratingall traces, even the smallest, of that shameful ancestry. In other
places, the souls of the dead pursue isolated country-dwellers,assuming the
wretched aspect of decomposing corpses (and if, in the cannibal isles of the
South Seas, theygo afterthe living,it is forfood). Here, however,theunhappy
youth who is consigned to mental solitude confrontsat everyunexpected momentof rapturethe images ofhis predecessorsloomingup in tiresomeabsurdity.
Upon our visions of seduction they intrude their contaminating senility,in
theircomic black mass theysubmitto exhibitionour glimpsesof paradise, with
Satan cast as stage policeman and the maniac's scream replacing the dancer's
entrechdt.
In this deeply depressing, ghostlyclash, everyfeeling,everydesire is implicated, in appearances that are somewhat misleading and with no possibility
of simplification.The veryfactthat one is haunted by ghostsso lacking in savagery trivializesthese terrorsand this anger. Those seeking a way out have,
consequently, always transposed their difficultiessomewhat. No decision on
these grounds can really suit those who persistin theirconception of an order
excluding total complicitywith all that has gone before,with its extremitiesof
absurdityand vulgarity.
of an acute perturbation
If, on the contrary,we acknowledge the presence
in, let us say, the state of the human mind representedby the sortof provincial
wedding photographedtwenty-five
years ago, then we place ourselves outside
established rules insofaras a real negation of the existence of humannatureis
hereinimplied. Beliefin theexistenceof thisnaturepresupposesthepermanence

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OCTOBER

18

....

.......

?JI
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IR
T'l

Seinne-et-Marne.
ca. 1905.
Wedding.
of certain salient qualities, and, in general, of a way of being, in relation to
which the group representedin these photographsis monstrous,not aberrant.
Were this a matterof some pathological deterioration- that is to say, an accident that could or should be mitigated- then the human principlewould be
saved. If, however, in accord withour statement,we regard this group as representingthe very principle of mental activityat its most civilized and most
violent, and the bridal pair as, let us say, the symbolicparents of a wild and
apocalypticrebellion,then a juxtaposition of monstersbreeding incompatibles
would replace the supposed continuityof ournature.
It is, furthermore,
pointlessto exaggerate the importanceof this odd decline of reality.It is no more surprisingthan any other,since the attributionof
a realcharacterto our surroundingsis, as always, a mere indicationof thatvulgar intellectualvoracityto whichwe owe both Thomist thoughtand present-day
science. We would do well to restrictthe sense ofthisnegation,whichexpresses
in particulartwo nonrelations:the disproportion,the absence of common measure among various human entitieswhichis, in a way, one aspect of thegeneral
disproportionobtaining between man and nature. This last disproportionhas
already foundsome expressionin the abstract. It is understoodthat a presence
as irreducibleas thatoftheselfhas no place in an intelligibleuniverse,and that,
conversely,this external universe has no place withinmy selfexcept through

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Human Face

19

the aid of metaphor. But we attributegreaterimportanceto concreteexpression


of thisabsence ofrelation. If, indeed, we consider a characterchosen at random
fromthe ghosts here presented, then its apparition during the discontinuous
series expressed by the notion of the scientificuniverse (or even, more simply
put, at a given point of the infinitespace and time of common sense) remains
perfectlyshocking to the mind; it is as shocking as the appearance of the self
withinthe metaphysicalwhole, or, to returnto the concrete, as that of a flyon
an orator's nose.
The concreteformsof these disproportionscan never be overstressed.It is
all too easy to reduce the abstract antinomy of the self and the nonself, the
Hegelian dialectic having been expressly conceived for this sort of sleight of
hand. It is time that we take note that rebellion at its most open has been subjected to propositionsas superficialas thatwhich claims the absence of relation
to be anotherformof relation.* This paradox, borrowedfromHegel, was aimed
at making nature enterinto the order of the rational; ifeverycontradictoryappearance were given as logically deducible, then reason would, by and large,
have nothingshockingto conceive. Disproportionswould be merelytheexpression of a logical being which proceeds, in its unfolding,by contradiction.We
must recognize the meritof contemporaryscience in this respect, when it presents the world's original state (and all successive and consequent states) as
essentiallynot subject to proof. The notion of thatwhich is not subject to proof
is irreduciblyopposed to thatof logical contradiction.It is impossible to reduce
the appearance of the flyon the orator'snose to the supposed contradictionbetween the selfand the metaphysicalwhole (forHegel thisfortuitousappearance
was simplyto be classed as an "imperfectionof nature"). If, however,we attribute general value to the undemonstrablecharacter of the universe of science,
we may proceed to an operation contraryto that of Hegel and reduce the appearance of the self to that of the fly.
*
that"theabsenceof systemis stilla system,
By 1921,whenTristanTzara acknowledged
but of themostsympathetic
sort,"thisconcessionto insignificant
objectionsstillapparentlyremainedinconsequential;
theintroduction
ofHegelianismsoonto follow,however,couldthenbe
expected.The stepfromthisadmissionto Hegel'spanlogismis an easyone, sinceit is consistent
withthe principleof the identityof contradictory
terms.We may even supposethatonce this
was committed,
therewas no way of avoidingthispanlogismand its glaringconsetreachery
in all things,a blindhypocrisy,
quences,bywhichI meanthesordidthirstforcompleteness
and,
thatis determinate.
theneed to serveanything
ultimately,
Despitethefactthatthesevulgarinclinationshave, in compromisewitha diametrically
exaceropposedimpulse,mostfelicitously
batedcertainagreed-upondifficulties,
thereis, fromthispointon, no further
reasonnotto reconsiderthefutilebetrayalexpressedby TristanTzara. It is impossible,really,to see whatcan be
in thesavageoppositionto all system,unlessa pun is involved,and thewordsystematic
systematic
is understoodin thecommonsenseof mechanicalobstination.But thisis no matterforjoking,
and thispunbetrays,foronce,a fundamental,
wretchedsenility.
Thereis reallyno difference
betweenhumility,
oftheslightest
degree,beforetheSYSTEM - whichis to say,beforetheIdea-and thefearofGod. Moreover,thislamentablestatement
seems- and withreason- literally
to
have throttled
This statement
Tzara, whohas sincedisplayeda completesluggishness.
appeared
as an epigraphin a book by Louis Aragon(Paris, Anicet,1921).

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Mademoiselle
de Rigny.

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RM

21

Human Face

Even admittingthe arbitrarycharacterof thislast move, which may pass


fora merelylogical trivializationof its converse operation, it is nonethelesstrue
that the expression given the human self toward the end of the last century
strangelyfitsthe conceptionthus advanced. This hallucinatingmeaning is subjective, no doubt- it appears thus to our eyes- but it requires only thatwe acknowledge our own interpretationas simply clearer than that of that other
time. Human beings of that time,living as Europeans have, in a way thatis, of
course, obscure, come to assume this madly improbable aspect (the physical
transformationwas obviously unrelated to conscious decision). This transformation carries with it, nonetheless,the meaning now clear to us. And it is the
specificnature, only, of this dated human aspect that is here in question. Certain people encounteredtoday can be seen in exactlythisway, but we are dealing in those cases withfactscommon to all times. It was only untilthe firstyears
of the nineteenthcenturythat the extravagance of involuntarycontradiction
and of senile paradox had freerein; since then whitemen and women have, as
we know, tenaciously persisted in theireffortsto regain, at last, a humanface.
Those wasp-waisted corsets scatteredthroughoutprovincial attics are now the
prey of mothsand flies,the huntinggrounds of spiders. As to the tinycushions
which long served to emphasize those formsof extremeplumpness, they now
haunt only the ghastlybrains of those greybeards,expiringdaily beneath their
weird greybowlers, who stilldream of flabbytorsos strangledin the obsessive
play of lace and whalebone. And within the image of the earth's globe seen
trampledunderfootby a dazzling American filmstar in a bathing suit, we may
catch the sound, muffledbut heady nonetheless, of a cock's crow.
And why blush at that sudden fascination?Why not admit that our few
remaining heady dreams are traced by the swiftbodies of young American
girls?Thus ifanythingcan stilldraw sobs forall thathas just vanished, it is no
longer a great singer'sbeauty, but mere perversity,sordid and deluded. To us,
so many strange, merelyhalf-monstrousindividuals seem to persist in empty
animation, like thejingle of the music box, in innocent vice, libidinous heat,
lyrical fumes. So that despite all antitheticalobsession, there is absolutely no
thoughtof dispensingwiththishatefulugliness, and we will yetcatch ourselves
some day, eyes suddenly dimmed and brimmingwith inadmissible tears, running absurdlytowards some provincialhaunted house, nastierthan flies,more
vicious, more rank than a hairdresser'sshop.
1929

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