I – Historical Introduction
The various roles played by French writers during the German occupation in the Second World War and its aftermath, whether as members of the Resistance, as collaborators, or as exiles (abroad or at home), brought the imbrication of literature and politics to the forefront of literary polemics. Scarcely had France been liberated by the Allies in 1944 than the Comité Nationale des Ecrivains (Céné), founded in 1941 by Jean Paulhan, began to blacklist fascist collaborators in the literary community. Paulhan swiftly denounced this practice (and eventually published a polemic against the excessive zeal of the Céné entitled Of Chaff and Wheat (Paris: Gallimard, 1948)), yet the rise of the U.S.S.R. and of Communist orthodoxy produced an atmosphere of suspicion in the French literary community. Literature that was not committed to a determinate political position stood accused of obsolescence or of complicity with the atrocities of (then) recent history; and few, if any, were more committed to commitment – that is to say, to an explicit affirmation of a (Communist) political position by a writer and his literary production – than Jean-Paul Sartre. One must, however, raise the question as to whether the relationship between literature and politics could ever be so direct and simple. No literary movement in French literary history problematized this relationship more than surrealism and its dissidents. Indeed, while on the level of praxis, the anti-fascist commitment of the surrealists can hardly be doubted, particularly in light of the formation and early success of Contra-Attaque,1 the case is less clear on the level of theory, in
1 Contra-Attaque was formed in 1936 by André Breton and Georges Bataille to oppose right-wing nationalist and fascist elements and to support the social democrat coalition led by Léon Blum in that year's elections. In the manifesto written by Bataille for Contra-Attaque it is evident that the group (whose members and associates included Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, Pierrre Klossowski, Maurice Heine and even Walter Benjamin) was Marxist but it was, however, opposed to official party Communism. The manifesto's conclusion should suffice to demonstrate: “distraction reaches the point at which this character is seen as the "master" able to take charge of events; the crowd sees a "master" in the weakest of "slaves," the slave of the capitalist system, the slave of a mode of production which condemns men to gigantic effort ending only in exhaustion, hunger, or war! We declare that the time has come to act as MASTERS. The masses have nothing to gain from the impotence of single individuals. Only the coming REVOLUTION has the power to take charge of things,to impose peace, to organize production and abundance.” Georges Bataille, “Counter-Attack: Call to Action,” Translated by Annette
light of the hyperbolic position of the Second Manifesto: “the simplest surrealist act consists in descending to the street with revolver in hand and shooting at random, as fast as one can, into the crowd. Whoever has not... had such a desire to make an end of the trivial system of debasement and cretinization in place has his own place marked out in the crowd, belly in line with the barrel...”2 What is implied of the political position of surrealism by such a statement, particularly in contrast with the political praxis of the surrealists in the nineteen-thirties? It is telling that Contra-Attaque was short-lived, splintering shortly after the successful election of the socialist coalition led by Léon Blum3 – it would appear that surrealism was above all a movement fundamentally marked by a certain heterodoxy. It is thus natural that surrealism and André Breton, in particular, served as a flashpoint in numerous post-war polemical exchanges. Surrealism was thus at the center of the dispute that occasioned the writing and publication of the following open letter from Georges Bataille to Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the June 24th 1947 issue of the review Combat (formerly a clandestine publication of the Resistance, and one of the few reviews legally permitted to be published in the immediate post-war period), which was then under the directorship of Albert Camus and which is here presented for the first time in full English translation. The preceding month had seen the publication of a hostile essay on surrealism by Sartre in his journal Les Temps Modernes, to which Bataille had been asked to contribute an article for a later issue. Sartre's attack on Breton and surrealism prompted Bataille to retract his contribution and to publish this open letter in Combat, after privately discussing the matter with Merleau-Ponty.4 Bataille had long since broken formal ties with surrealism (as early as 1925), and yet he remained
Michelson, in October, Vol. 36, Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing. (Spring, 1986), pp. 27. 2 André Breton, Slections, Edited by mark Polizzoti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) pg. 164 3 It should be noted en passant that Sartre failed to vote in this very election! “...he was sympathetic to the republican cause in Span be did little to support it; and while sympathetic to the Popular Front had never even voted in the elections.” David Drake, French Intellectuals and Politics from the Dreyfus Affair to the Occupation (Gordonsville, VA: Palgave Macmillan, 2005), pg. 166. 4 Both Bataille and Merleau-Ponty had attended Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit during the 1930's and presumably met there for the first time. Despite their political and philosophical differences, Bataille and Merleau-Ponty maintained a long friendship, and Bataille exhibited much interest in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception; in 1950 Bataille wrote of his efforts to obtain a copy of Merleau-Ponty's book for use in writing his Histoire de l'Érotisme (published posthumously as the second volume of La Part Maudite). (Georges Bataille, Choix de Lettres, 407).
sympathetic, for he had been introduced to Breton some twenty-two years earlier by Michel Leiris5, and, while it would be perhaps an understatement to characterize their friendship as stormy, Breton wrote in 1947 that Bataille was “one of the few men in my life I have found worth taking the trouble of getting to know.”6 Moreover, Sartre had published an essay entitled Un nouveau mystique nearly four years earlier in Cahiers du Sud. In this essay, a review of Inner Experience, Sartre charged Bataille with proposing “a new mysticism” with this book – a negative pantheism, as it were. And yet, this essay did not result in open hostility! It was thus that Sartre's political (in contradistinction to his previous theoretical, literary and philosophical argument with Bataille) condemnation of Breton provoked Bataille's hostility.7 While it is reasonable to take Bataille at his word that his intention in publishing this letter was to articulate the reasons for his retraction, in addition to explaining his specific points of contention with Sartre, it is also notable that the review in which it was published, Combat, formerly a nationalist publication during the thirties, was then under the directorship of Albert Camus. Moreover, it was at Bataille's request that this letter was published, according to this brief prefatory note: Georges Bataille requested that we publish the letter below, sent to the editor in chief of Temps Modernes. There one sees that, invited to contribute to that journal, Georges Bataille recused himself on account of a recent article by Jean-Paul Sartre on André Breton and surrealism. There was no presentiment of the aggression with which our literary essayist would give his opinion (even here, Breton speaks quite courteously of Sartre and of existentialism). We therefore publish this letter... and note another vigorous response to Sartre by Max-Pol Fouchet in the latest number of the Gazette des Lettres.8
5 Bataille, “Surrealism from Day to Day,” in The Absence of Myth, pg. 37-41. 6 Ibid. pg. 41. 7 Bataille's noted collegiality and willingness to see past past disputes is evidenced by his on-and-off friendship with Breton. 8 Georges Bataille, Oeuvres Complètes tome XI (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), pg. 570. Translation by R.G.T/ “Georges Bataille nous prie de publier la lettre ci-dessous envoyée au rédacteur en chief des Temps Modernes. On y verra qu'invité à collaborer à cette revue, Georges Bataille se récuse en raison du récent article de Jean-Paul Sartre sur André Breton et le surréalisme. Notre chroniquer littéraire a pris position à propos de cette agression que rien ne laissait pressentir (Breton, ici même, parlait fort courtoisement de Sartre et de l'existentialisme). Nous publions donc cette lettre... et signalons une autre réponse à Sartre, vigoureuse elle aussi, de Max-Pol Fouchet dans le dernier numéro de la Gazette des Lettres.”
For what reason then did Sartre lambaste Breton and surrealism? It appears to have been motivated neither by personal animosity nor by a purely philosophical difference. Moreover, what in Sartre's essay was so infuriating in Bataille's view? It is hardly coincidental that the preface in Combat “note[s] another vigorous response to Sartre by Max-Pol Fouchet,” for we find a brief note in the September 1947 issue of the literary review Fontaine, directed by Fouchet, calling attention to Sartre's essay and the responses of Bataille and Maurice Nadeau, under the provocative title “That which is literature”: “All – (André Breton, Paul Morand, Drieu la Rochelle, Charles Maurras) – have been victims of the disaster of 1940... One killed himself, the others are in exile; those who have returned are in exile amongst us. They had been the heralds of the catastrophe, to times of plenty and to times of need, they have nothing more to say...” This glib obituary is signed by M. Jean-Paul Sartre (Temps Modernes, may 1947). It provoked immediate responses, in particular from M. Maurice Nadeau “In the swamp where we parted ways, Breton held himself to be not behind but ahead of us.” (Combat, 20 June), - and from M. Georges Bataille: “J.-P. Sartre has given a summary analysis of surrealism which does no justice to its methods of work... These sound arguments, employed while turning short, have their place in politics: they are out of place coming from Sartre. What would you think of me if I were to argue in fact that between the literary parasites of the bourgeoisie it is deeper than I had known? I speak thus to display the vanity of such short sightedness.”9
9 In Fontaine (VIII Anée, no. 61) (September 1947), Max-Pol Fouchet Director, pg. 502. Translation by RGT. Note is unsigned. Presumably written by Fouchet, or by one or several of the following: Jacques Crépet, G.-E. Lancier, Henri Guillemin, Henri Hell, E. Noulet, Joseph Rovan Ce que c'est la littérature. - “Tous – (André Breton, Paul Morand, Drieu la Rochelle, Chares Maurras) – ont été victimes du désatre de 1940... Les uns se sont tués, d'autres sont en exil; ceux qui sont revenus sont en exil parmi nous. Ils ont été les annociateurs de la catastrophe, au temps des vaches grasses au temps des vaches maigres, ils n'ont plus rien à dire... “ Ce volubile avis décès est signé de M. Jean-Paul Sartre (Temps Modernes, mai 1947). Il provoque d'immédiates réponses. En particulier de M. Maurice Nadeau: “Dans les marais où où nous partaugeons, Breton se tient, non pas en arrière, mais en avant de nous.” (Combat, 20 juin), - et de M. Georges Bataille: “J.-P. Sartre a donné du surréalisme une analyse sommaire qui ne fait pas honneur à ses méthodes de travail... Des arguments justes, employés en tournant court, ont leur place en politique: ils sont déplacés venant de Sartre. Que penseriez-vous de moi si j'arguias du fait qu'entre les littératures-parasites de la bourgeoisie il est plus gras que j'aie connu? J'en parle pour montrer la vanité des courtes vues.” (Combat, 24 juin).
We can now clearly see that which was so offensive about Sartre's essay: he associates Breton and thereby surrealism with collaborators when, in fact, Breton served in the French army prior to going into exile and had, with Bataille, led Contra-Attaque in 1936-7! It is patently absurd for Sartre to associate Breton with Maurrias, the founder of the right-wing paramilitary Action Française; likewise, it is equally absurd to liken Breton, whose writings had been banned by the Vichy government, to Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, wartime editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française supported by the regime.10 Likewise, it is clear that there is a conflation of politics and literature at play – and it is clear that Bataille would agree on this point – and moreover, in this light we can see the significance of Bataille's principal philosophical objection to Sartre's philosophy, as he writes in his letter, that is: “the fact that men of action are at pains to consider rather quickly and excitably, the interests in accordance with which they act, but which thwart them in action...”11 Such decisive action is short-sighted and counterproductive – it is that very inanity of politics which gave birth to fascism and collaboration.
10 In fairness to Drieu, it must be noted that he later became significantly disillusioned with the Nazi cause, while remaining a fascist. More to the point, it is said (but not definitely confirmed) that Sartre's release from the POW camp came by way of Drieu's intervention at the behest of Simone de Beauvoir, while Drieu had also saved Jean Paulhan from persecution and possible execution by the Gestapo, not once but twice! 11 Georges Bataille, “Letter to M. Merleau-Ponty,” Translated by J.M. & R.G.T. In Oeuvres Complètes tome XI (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), pp. 251-2.
II – The Letter Within the Oeuvre of Georges Bataille
This letter is situated at a crucial juncture in Bataille's literary and philosophical trajectory. The unsigned note is contained in the same issue of Fontaine in which Bataille published the Dianus12, the final panel of the triptych that constitutes La Haine de la Poésie (The Hatred of Poetry, a second edition of which was to be published fifteen years later with a new preface as The Impossible, less than three months prior to his death on July 8th 196213). This eminently literary text, completed by two pieces already published in extremely limited print runs, The Orestiea (1945) and Story of Rats (1947), would be the first time that Bataille would publish a work of fiction under his own name.14 He would publish three further fictional pieces in the subsequent decade – Eponine (1949), L'Abbé C. (1950)15 and Blue of Noon (1957, written in 1935). Furthermore, in 1946, Bataille founded Critique, a journal which would become extraordinarily influential and which continues to be published by Éditions de Minuit to this day (the latest issue, no. 735-736 was published on September 4th 2008). It is most important, however, to note that it was at this time that Bataille was at work upon the manuscript for the first volume of The Accused Share (published in 1949),16 a book which takes up explicitly economic and political problems, in terms of a theory of a constitutive excess. Bataille's theoretical standpoint and basic principles had been developed earlier in his pre-war essays, lectures at the Collège de Sociologie, and also in the three volumes of La Somme Athéologique. Furthermore, this standpoint can also be found expressed in various guises in his
12 Dianus is the pseudonym under which L'Amitié (“Friendship,” published in Parallax, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2001, Translated by Hager Weslati), an early version of the first part of Guilty, was published in Mesures (Vol. 4, No. 2, April 15th 1940), one of the many literary reviews edited by Jean Paulhan. An adequate discussion of the history and significance of this pseudonym is beyond the scope of the present essay. 13 Completed in February of 1962, the preface to The Impossible (published April 12th 1962) is evidently the last of Bataille's writings. In a letter to Jérôme Lindon dated January 5th 1962, Bataille writes of this final project “For a certain time, I occupy myself with nothing other. And I'll eliminate in any case all that which risks a delay in publishing the book.” Choix de Lettres, pg. 580. We may thus safely infer the extreme importance of this publication, for Bataille had struggled for three years to complete Tears of Eros which was published the preceding year (and which is widely mistaken to constitute his last work). 14 He had earlier published Story of the Eye (1928) under the pseudonym Lord Auch, Madame Edwarda (1941) under the pseudonym Pierre Angélique, and Le Petit (1943) under the pseudonym Louis Trente. 15 Bataille would face similar accusations to those leveled at Breton by Sartre in reviews of this book. 16 Written between 1945 and September 1948. Georges Bataille, Oeuvres Complètes tome VII (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), pg. 470.
fictional writings. In The Accursed Share Volume I, as well as in the posthumously published second and third volumes and Theory of Religion, we can see a rigorous explication of a distinctly heterodox economic and political theory, one which transposes Marxian economic principles from an economy of scarcity to an economy of excess. It is thus that we might conceive of this vast project (in the two volumes of Bataille's Oeuvres Complètes, these works occupy nearly one thousand pages) as an inversion of that of which he accuses Sartre: “these sound arguments, employed while turning short, have their place in politics: they are out of place.” This is to say that, contra Sartre, Bataille transposes arguments derived in literary, sociological or anthropological milieus into the domain of the political and, above all, never stopping short of the ineluctable conclusions latent in the historical data. In order that we might at last situate the following letter not only within the historical and political milieu, but rather also within the trajectory plotted by the work of Georges Bataille, we must note that while war raged throughout Europe, Bataille had refused to write explicitly of the political situation about him. Apropos of Bataille's conspicuous refusal (which ran counter to his frenzied political activism and deluge of political writings during the 1930's), Jean Paulahn notes in a letter to their mutual friend Roger Caillois that “Bataille is somber and exalted: but has renounced (so it seems to him) to write about the war.”17 Nevertheless, when one reads his wartime writings, it is indisputable that the war at very least serves more purpose than as a backdrop, although Bataille's claim may be literally true – presuming the caveat that rather than write of war, he writes of experience during war time. Following the war, Bataille commenced work on the three volume project of The Accused Share, a work primarily concerned with the problems of economics and political economy – one which can easily be read as posing the problems of Marxism after its triumph, from the perspective of the (then) present. He will come to ask the fundamental question: what is communism? A question either deferred in favor of activity (the thoughtless activity decried in his letter) or in favor of the post-revolutionary future. Having begun initial work on the Accursed Share project as early
17 Jean Paulhan, Choix de Lettres II (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), pp. 172-3. Trans. RGT
as 1945, and posing the aforementioned question which was itself a provocation among orthodox Marxist circles, set the stage for the conflict with Sartre (begun four years prior) which provoked the conflict which spawned this unusually open and combative communique.
Letter to Merleau-Ponty
Combat Paris, June 24, 1947 My dear Merleau-Ponty, You have proposed that I reply in Les Temps Modernes to certain dubious accusations with regard to Nietzsche. Indeed I accepted with pleasure, but I am obliged today to give you the reasons that prevented me from continuing this project. The latest issue of Temps Modernes takes up the issue of Surrealism. As it happens, Surrealism itself is attacked and the fact these are from Sartre changes nothing: these attacks appear to me no less dubious than those of which Nietzche is the victim. I hold to the phrase with which I have opened my letter. We would be in agreement, I suppose, to admit that action – revolutionary action – has the obligation and right to question all values, to be reconcilable with them, while they are no less bound to inaction, or at least to a certain provisional suspension of action. These values are, generally, those which make the world beautiful: luxury in this respect is the more fragile. In other words, in everyday life they pose the same dilemma to each one of us: constantly we must neglect, or deny, those interests which temporarily divert our activity. But beyond an inevitable contestation in the name of action, it is, of course, necessary to maintain the principle that binds such interests to the leisure which masters us (while remaining valid) in the same moment in which action is neglected. Such are in particular, inasmuch as they designate the acute possibilities of sensuous excitement – poetry, passion – the interests that Surrealism represents: they are not contrary to action (they have the same end), but their suspension is necessary for action. It is clear that a danger results from the fact that men of action are at pains to consider rather quickly and excitably, the interests in accordance with which they act, but which thwart them in action. It is therefore a pity that my sense that a writer who does not act, who himself is confined to reflection (Sartre speaks of action: is this sufficient? the same, or even worse?), is opposed to those who act in their ultimate interest, has come to aggravate this inevitable misunderstanding. This consideration is not the least bit theoretical. The opposition is in the end much more difficult to resolve; whether Surrealism is precisely the movement that denudes ‘ultimate interest,’ free from compromise, or in fact is resolutely the same caprice and, very honestly, gives the appearance of being futile and indefensible. To the neglect this synthetic meaning, Jean-Paul Sartre gives a desultory analysis of Surrealism which does not in fact honor its own methodology. One speaks quickly of the dishonesty of his master Heidegger. In any case I can’t imagine these sorts of quick judgments that command a superficial scorn coming from Heidegger's pen, philosophy intervening in these problems would open one's eyes to suffering. But nothing surpasses the present case of vain polemics, of self-satisfaction, of facile speech. (By means of conclusion, you report, in the dazzling words opening the chapter: Breton, who did everything to rip out the literary thing with the sprecherei, deserves this poor mélange?) The lucidity of certain views changes nothing: they offer brilliant developments whose only truth arises as the author muddles and fools himself. These sound arguments, employed while coming up short, have their place in politics: they are out of place coming from Sartre. What would you think of me if I now argue that, in fact, between the literary
parasites of the bourgeoisie, their arguments are more vulgar than I had realized? I speak in this manner to display the vanity of such short sightedness. Elsewhere I will return to my reasons, but I am today compelled to tell you the essence of them. I hope, of course, that you have not found anything herein which touches upon the esteem and sympathy that I have for you.