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Ecstasy Through Self-Destruction

Danelle Gallo compares the ecstacies of Georges Bataille and Yves Klein.

French philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962) and French artist Yves Klein (1928-1962) were passionately
fascinated with death, eroticism, the sacred, and sacrifice. Bataille, a fluent and often controversially graphic
philosopher, related the erotic to the sacred through the imminence of death. Yves Klein, the so-called
‘minimalist’ performance artist and monochromatic painter was equally controversial, and eloquently
communicated his ideas about the connection between eroticism and the sanctified. In this essay, I propose that
they had similarly poignant views regarding the numinous, or experience of the sacred, focusing on specific
ideas pertaining to sacrifice, death, and eroticism. Although they frequently portrayed their viewpoints in unique
and novel ways, their underlying philosophies were substantially similar. Both thinkers investigated the concept
of ‘the void’, and were devoted to the notion of self-destruction as a psychological quest toward the realization
of the purest experience. To Bataille and Klein, pure experience is the void, and the void is utter freedom;
through transformative sacrificial practices we are able to experience a continuity comparable only to that of
death, and for a moment become unrestricted: limitless, and without reservation.

Georges Bataille

Bataille defines ‘eroticism’ as “assenting to life up to the point of death” (Eroticism: Death & Sensuality, 1957,
p.1). Unlike regular sex, eroticism is a ‘psychological quest’ independent of the natural goal of reproduction.
Paradoxically, though, the “fundamental meaning of reproduction is … the key to eroticism,” since reproduction
implies the existence of “discontinuous beings” (p.2).

To Bataille, discontinuity is part of our experience of normal, everyday life. There is a void, a gulf, a
discontinuity, between people. According to Bataille, our sense of individuality stems from our use of tools –
the literal separation of us from objects. On the other hand, Bataille equates death to “continuity of being” (p.2),
because death “jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being” (p.4).
When Bataille talks of death here, he is primarily alluding not to bodily death, but to death of the ego, and the
death of prohibitions. Here death is associated with intimacy, since intimacy is the “absence of individuality”.
(Theory of Religion,1973, p.50).

This naturally brings us to Bataille’s concept of sacrifice. Sacrifice involves destruction, but it is not
annihilation. Instead sacrifice “destroys an object’s real ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the
world of utility and restores it to that of unintelligible caprice” (ibid, p.43). This to Bataille is ultimate freedom –
which brings us back to eroticism, since the “whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained
character of the participators as they are in their normal lives” (Eroticism, p.4). Eroticism abolishes our
established human confines and transports us to an entirely other realm. Moreover, Bataille defines the sacred as
the “prodigious effervescence of life that, for the sake of duration, the order of things holds in check, and that
this holding changes into a breaking loose, that is, into violence.” (Theory of Religion, p.52). Thus an experience
of the sacred occurs through a violent rupture of boundaries that releases one into a state of simultaneous ecstasy
and anguish. (Violence, in this case, is synonymous with ferocious passion.) For Bataille, an experience of the
sacred is simultaneously “divine ecstasy and extreme horror” (Ecce Monostrum, Jeremy Biles, 2007, p.8). Since
according to Bataille, we yearn for our ‘lost continuity’, we are naturally interested in religion, eroticism, and
sacrificial practices, as they are all gateways to ecstatic experience that reveal and confirm our fundamental
continuity by temporarily transporting our attention away from our awareness of discontinuity.

water and wind to make marks. this “space … [which] opens up to pure color will tend to abolish the limits of painting” (ibid). The only way to achieve intimacy is to willingly sacrifice our routine selves. and yet the horror of the fall is imminent. Everything would become . water. Klein’s piece entitled Leap into the Void brilliantly captures Bataille’s definition of sacred experience. air and earth. they act as a gateway to an altered. ecstatic state of being. intimacy would take on a new meaning and become so inherent in our culture that it would “disappear” (p. Klein’s creations reach beyond life. Yves Klein examined the concept of freedom through death of the individual self as a foundational principle of experiencing the sacred in life. His facial expression is pure bliss. although paradoxically. of ‘things’. but his monochromes provided a “perception … of continuity. In this. intimacy associated with everyday life was “not good. his monochrome paintings were instruments of destruction: they were the “ashes of [his] art. Klein devised a utopian plan where all architecture is formed from the natural elements – fire. So Klein sought to destroy individualism by freeing art (and therefore life) from the limitations of corporeality. much as the obliteration of the ‘thingness’ of objects was sanctified for Bataille. of an enclosed space… Thus the sensation of the void is born.91). and often displayed them in their powder states. in an interesting reversal of Bataille’s philosophy. whom he dubbed ‘living brushes’. leaping off a building. Klein believed intimacy was a psychological incongruence in everyday life. Klein alleged. Furthermore. beyond art. into the void.91). Klein believed individualism destroys our true natures. He envisioned a world in which humans perpetually live in a state of ecstatic harmony with nature. paint-drenched young women. This element of danger is akin to Bataille’s necessary component of ecstasy: horror.” representing the effect of the death of forms. In fact. not beautiful” because it means we have “something to hide” (Air Architecture. Transformation of Experience Klein’s monochromatic paintings directly relate to Bataille’s notion of the sacred. once exclaiming. To Klein the immaterial is total freedom. Klein wrote that the material world was distinctively represented through line.14).Yves Klein Like Bataille. for Klein. Klein set out to sacrifice pictorial representations of the world without doing away with the physical world entirely. In his series. However. this ‘destruction’ of the physical still required a material presence in the form of a canvas or other surface. But not unlike Bataille. and an array of colors. Klein wrote fervently about materiality versus immateriality. 2004. He invented his own colors. like Bataille’s notion of sacrifice (to destroy but not annihilate). Klein refused to use tools such as paintbrushes on his other works because they were “too excessively psychological. getting them to press their bodies against paper. So. Monochrome was one of Klein’s primary manifestations of the immaterial void in a world of physicality. He was attempting to transform our mundane.” (Air Architecture. Klein felt monochromatic paintings severed ties to the world of utility. false experiences into a more continuous. He yearned for his colors to have depth. Rather than merely being lifeless objects. and so is linked with self-imprisonment. value. p. his arms outstretched and face forward.” Instead he manipulated forces such as fire. Here Klein’s ideas were similar to Bataille’s views concerning continuity versus discontinuity. Besides his monochromes. is associated with confinement. ‘Air Architecture’. “Long live the immaterial!” Materiality. harmonious reality. But in the new world. He also employed nude. their purest forms. It is a photomontage of Klein in midair. because of the ecstatic feeling they are intended to evoke in those who experience them. p. Bataille would disagree with Klein’s philosophy: Bataille thought that a universal property of ecstatic states is that they are transitory. He produced single colors so pure in pigment that they (ideally) evoked rapturous emotion in the minds of perceivers. His feet look as if they’ve just left the platform. Peter Noever and François Perrin. and akin to death. For instance.

To Klein. of some greater design. and so psychological self-destruction is necessary for total transformation to occur. An element of violence – of violation – is integrally present in this transition: the “abrupt wrench out of discontinuity” (p. and to produce meaningful art. This tension creates a unique duality in our experience. the sacrifice of one’s mundane self is necessary to achieve a pure experience of all-consuming ecstasy. he also writes.16) is a fierce blow against normality. Bataille writes. Klein and Bataille attempted to reconcile that ambiguity through their works. A religious connotation is inherent in the ideas of both thinkers. a biographical novel about Michelangelo.” We “cannot imagine the transition from one state to another one basically unlike it without picturing the violence done to the being called into existence through discontinuity” (p. We are limited by our unique individuality – immersed in the mundane world – yet we yearn for absolute truth. and effecting the necessary transformation of the self – a violent and inherently dangerous process. “We believe that art is religious because it is one of man’s highest aspirations. author Irving Stone noted. only violence and the nameless disquiet bound up with it. So both thinkers attempted to mediate the void between life and death through the destruction of prohibitions. it is analogous to torment” (p. “It is necessary for me to die (in my own eyes). for Bataille. According to Bataille. “To face the impossible – exorbitant. “Only violence can bring everything to a state of flux in this way.” Perhaps our passion to formulate great ideas. Klein’s utopian (and perhaps unrealistic) world would be closer to death than to life. total and without reservation – a state akin to sensations experienced through erotic or religious activities. . within limited human trappings forever seeking to comprehend a grandeur of which we have only partial knowledge. capturing the infinite character of death.1). our existences would be ‘continuous’. Klein and Bataille both claimed that the immaterial terrain represents unbounded creative possibility – yet the journey there is physically and mentally torturous. p.intimacy: although still based in physicality. and seek oneness with a universal reality we glimpse only occasionally. yet unmistakable. to use Bataille’s concept. indubitable – when nothing is possible any longer is in my eyes to have an experience of the divine. perception of spiritual grandeur. The potential for ecstasy justifies embarking on an agonizing journey.3).2). One thing is certain: we are nothing if we do not try. 1943. represents an eternal quest to understand the human condition in the light of our fleeting. to transport them to a state of utter openness. Similarly. Klein used art to evoke a ‘state of ecstasy’ in his viewers – that is. Thus we live in a kind of divine misery. the ecstatic religious experience is fulfilled through sacrificial violence. Our experience is paradoxical. However. to give birth to myself” (Inner Experience. Transformation of the Self According to both Klein and Bataille. “the quest for continuity of existence systematically pursued beyond the immediate world signifies an essentially religious intention” (p. true art meant the ecstasy of pure experience. pure experience is the void. As true artists they had no other choice.17). Both Klein and Bataille were deeply interested in the transformation of the self as a psychological quest – a transformation that is essentially religious in nature. For Bataille. For Bataille. Conclusion In The Agony and the Ecstasy. In his passionate narrative Inner Experience.

like kids trying to find a gap in a fence. and also as the most divine expression of the cruelty of art. We work the earth. O e u v r e s C o m p l è t e s . we eat bread and wine. This paradox of the carnival — which in the most general sense is the paradox of emotion. try to look through the cracks in the world.) When horror is subject to the transfiguration of an authentic art. we make endless use of it. hang on to our really childish reactions. w e build houses. It is true that sacrifice is no longer a living institution. a joke whose secret we will one day know. As children. sacrifice is not only this repeated image to which European civilization has given a sovereign value. an intense pleasure. does not attempt to reform us. wood. we have ceased to mistrust ourselves. it becomes a pleasure. living in a world imposed on us as though it were "perfectly natural. our childish apprehensions. stone. Torture takes place for a variety of reasons. By no means can he transform a painting into an object of aversion. and the Crucifixion keeps the image of sacrifice before us like a symbol offered to the most elevated reflections. inexplicable determination. plants. as but in general that can't be considered its purpose. (It is true that in the Middle Ages religious imagery did this for hell. Actual torture can also be interesting. r e p r i n t e d i n G e o r g e s B a t a i l l e . but a pleasure all the same. in each. As children. it is offered to sight in order to repel us from the horror it puts on display. In principle its purpose differs little from that of the scarecrow: unlike art. e x e r c i s e d e l a c r u a u t e ́ " w a s o r i g i n a l l y p u b l i s h e d i n M é d i c i n e d e F r a n c e ( J u n e 1 9 4 9 ) . It does not interest us in some horror for its own sake: that is not even imaginable. X I . One of these cracks is the cruel custom of sacrifice. We have forgotten. a part has always been reserved for that which seems the very opposite of pleasure and amusement. but the most terrifying painting is there to attract visitors.G e o r g e s B a t a i l l e . that the fascinating specters of misery and pain have always lurked among the background figures in this carnival of a world. we have all suspected it: perhaps we are all. Only a few of us. It is with a sort of mute. However. It is made of earth. We want to decipher skies and paintings. it is made of intelligible and utilizable objects. but that is precisely because art was hardly separable from education. 1988. v o l . P a r i s : G a l l i m a r d . like that in dreams." quite different from the one that used to exasperate us. The painted torture. No doubt art does not have the same essential meaning as the carnival and yet. " T h e C r u e l P r a c t i c e o f A r t " ( 1 9 4 9 ) . Art may have finally liberated itself from the service of religion. It remains open to the representation of that which repulses. conversely. we did not know if we were going to laugh or cry but. victims of a trap. for the myths of sacrifice are like the themes of tragedy. In a word. animals. we "possess" this world. This reaction is certainly infantile and we turn away from it. amid the great fabrications of society. Art never takes on itself the work of the judge. The purpose of a scarecrow is to frighten birds from the field where it is planted. go behind these starry backgrounds or these painted canvases and. To see in this paradox the mere effect of a sexual vice would be vain. still wonder naively what we are doing on the earth and what sort of joke is being played on us. But it is possible for us to experience the emotion i t aroused. but in the most specific sense is the paradox of sacrifice — ought to be considered with the most critical attention. inevitable. moving strangely beneath the sky. but it maintains its servitude with regard to horror. it is the response to a . The painter is condemned to please. though it remains rather like a trace on a streaky window. " L' A r t . This translation first appeared on the CD -ROM BLAM! 1 (1993) and was revised for supervert. out of habit.

Thus what we call cruelty is always that of others. *** . I do not have the same reasons for using this word.secular obsession among all the peoples of the globe. In a sense. Generally we call cruelty that which we do not have the heart to endure. We are content to be little aware of destroying. In truth. In effect. the character of current painting — destruction. but so what? — that. I am merely anxious to show the underlying meaning. Modern painting prolongs the repeated obsession with the sacrificial image i n which the destruction of objects responds. Caught in the trap of life. Doubtless we do not see cruelty when we envision modern artworks. if there is any truth to the idea that human life is a trap. and he who admits himself to be vicious abides by stigmatizing terms of horror. but on the whole the Aztecs were not cruel either. does not seem cruel. cruelty. I use it to be clear. The fact of sexual vice does not simplify this task. it would have to ceased to be — the practice of sacrifice disappeared as men became more conscious — though all the same it would have remained a desire to destroy. As is our wont (our custom. that it is anxious to make the world "transpire" on canvas. what t he surrealist painter wishes to see on the canvas where he assembles his images does not differ fundamentally from what the Aztec crowd came to see at the base of a pyramid where a victim's heart was to be torn out. The Aztec would have denied the cruelty of sacred murders committed by the thousands. is not highlighted in the lineage of sacrifice. Conversely. since torture is "universally offered to us as the bait. vice turns common sense upside-down. and not being able to refrain from cruelty we deny it as soon as it is ours. while that which we endure easily. apocalypse of objects — is not put clearly into relief. I disapprove of nothing. Apollinaire once claimed that cubism was a great religious art. at least those that appear to us as such. Such weaknesses suppress nothing but make it a difficult task for anyone who seeks in these byways the hidden movement of the human heart. in a manner already half -conscious. we only like to destroy covertly. we perceive that modem painting has ceased to offer us indifferent or merely pretty images. which is ordinary to us. In truth. man is moved by a field of attraction determined by a flash point where solid forms are destroyed. it is only a moderate desire. to the enduring function of religions. Yet. this meaning is not cruel: had it believed itself cruel. and his dream has not been lost. the sadist delights in telling himself and repeating to himself that flagellation is cruel. Or what leads us astray is the too simple idea we have of cruelty. where the various objects that constitute the world are consumed as in a furnace of light. having passed the time when art was mere diversion or when religion alone responded to the desire to enter into the depths of things. our strength). In either case the flash of destruction is anticipated. we impugn terrible and ruinous d estructions." reflecting on its fascination may enable us to discover what we are and to discover a higher world whose perspectives exceed the trap? The image of sacrifice is imposed on our reflection so necessarily that. can we think — it's strange. Indeed.

Thus our ruin." and it is only no long er being "separate" that would give him the sense of resolution without which he founders. the consequences of his weakness? In principle this leads to a prior question. negator of its likenesses). is the very opposite of anguish. the bait which does not fail to entice us. where he recognizes how small and "separate" he is. participate in this denial of all separation. But the trap is n ot reducible to the bait. the question posed by the nature of the bait does not differ from that of the purpose of the trap. Under such conditions there emerges the most striking contradiction. this small. The child would not be surprised to wake up as God. if possible. Some object should be destroyed in this disordering (destroyed as an object and. and inexplicable existence. it goes without saying. exile.Thus far I have demonstrated that the flash of destruction is. Rather. a butt both of jokes and of the immense absurdity that is . the very thing that even has the power to evoke the more complete loss we undergo in death? That pleasure alone leads us to the point where destruction takes place is understood. what are our reasons for being seduced by the very thing that. It is to this wait that the bait of sacrifice responds. waiting for his moment of illumination. gives him the feeling of absurdity. if only for a weak moment. in the trap of life. It supposes not only the hand that places it but the end pursued. What bothers the child and suddenly changes him into a whirligig is the desire to obtain. For the disordering of the object — the destruction — is only worthwhile insofar as it disorders us. What happens to someone who takes the bait? What are. insofar as it disorders the subject at the same time. The enigma of sacrifice — the decisive enigma — is tied to our desire to find what a child seeks when seized by a sense of absurdity. of being subject to a ridiculous conspiracy. speaks of this to no one. Then he thinks wisely that perhaps he is God: this would be the resolution of the enigma. The child. which relentlessly and egotistically pursues the debits and credits of any entity resolved to persevere in its being. beyond the world of appearances. But we could imagine a priori that the bait ought to have the opposite effect. the answer to a question he would be unable to formulate. We gravitate to the negation of that limit of death. What we have been waiting for all our lives is this disordering of the order that suffocates us. He thinks that perhaps he is the son of a king. wherein we have felt like an exile. We enter the trap only of our own free will." of existence separated like an object. In truth. who for a time would put himself to the test. He would feel ridiculous in a world where every object reinforces the image of his own limits. It does not suffice to observe that we are generally fascinated by any destruction which does not present too grave a danger. in a fundamental fashion. But he thirsts precisely for no longer being "separate. signifies damage to us. But we can. if we lift the obstacle that separates the object (the victim of the sacrifice). Henceforth the child. On one hand. wherein lies the essence of my research. as someth ing "separate"). when the trap is opened (the ruin at least of our separate existence. that it ought to have nothing that terrifies. What attracts us in the destroyed object (in the very moment of destruction) is its power to call into question — and to undermine — the solidity of the subject. The narrow prison of being "separate. We cannot ourselves (the subject) directly lift the obstacle that "separates" us. interior to each person. of this isolated entity. so that the imposture of his small position would be suddenly revealed. but the son of a king is nothing. remains with his forehead pressed to the window. which fascinates like light. for the individual who gives into fascination. limited. Thus the purpose of the trap is to destroy us as an object (insofar as we remain enclosed — and fooled — in our enigmatic isolation).

and horror. But in this inexplicable impasse where we move in vain. these irruptions — which are only seemingly promises of resolution. a trap is waiting for us. is not restricted to the representation of horror. the cry of emotion rises out of disorder. this ravishment could be the most inescapable trap — if we manage to attain it. Consequently. this call is the trap itself. exiled from truth (insofar as the word refers not to a narrow horizon but to the absence of limits). But the endle ss carnival of artworks is there to show that a triumph — in spite of a firm resolve to value nothing but that which endures — is promised to anyone who leaps out of the irresolution of the instant. art at least has the virtue of putting a moment of our happiness on a plane equal to death. In a sense. if not necessary — on remaining a victim. Art. Emotion that is not tied to the opening of a horizon but to some nearby object. everything remains in ambiguity. the painting of horror reveals the opening onto all possibility. on the other hand. although strictly speaking it escapes us at the very instant that we attain it. the various objects of this world offer themselves to anguish as the bait. And if it is destroyed the ambiguity is re solved. which puts us on the path of complete destruction and suspends us there for a time. but its movement puts art without harm at the height of the worst and. it does not invite us to die in ravishment. offers us ravishment without death. but only in a nothingness that abolishes everything. which in the end promise us nothing but to be caught in the trap — contain all the truth of emotion in the instant of ravishment. we enter into death or return to our little worlds. This is not an apology for horrible things. If the subject is not truly destroyed. but only insofar as the victim of the joke insists — as is common. Of course. Thus the paradox of emotion is that it wants to have much more sense than it does have. in each case. what makes the situation difficult to clarify is that. emotio n. such as it might be imagined by the child contrasting the window of his bedroom to the depths of the night. torture. cruel. no doubt. cannot resolve to give up the game. reciprocally.) On one hand. (The trap. for the destruction rendered unto the object has no sense other than the menace that it has for the subject. is double. which penetrates the opacity of the world with those gratuitously cruel flashes in which seduction is tied to massacre. if the sense of life is inscribed therein. emotion within the limits of reason only offers us a compressed life. . On the other hand. Here or there. Burdened by our lost truth. That is why we must linger in the shadows which art acquires in the vicinity of death. sacrific e promises us the trap of death. cannot be subordinated to any useful end. it heeds the urgent call to forget its limits. Yet it is from this double bind that the very meaning of art emerges — for art. That is. in other words. but in a sense contrary to that of sacrifice: here we are caught in the trap of a small and separate reality. This is why it is impossible to pay too much interest in excessive drunkenness.the world. If. It is not a call for their return.