Georges Bataille's recognition as a seminal figure of the twentieth-century avant-garde came belatedly. But when, shortly after his death in 1962, acknowledgment did at long last arrive, it came in torrents. In 1963 the journal Critique published a special commemorative issue in honor of its late founder. (Bataille had established the prestigious review shortly after the war.) The list of contributors reads like a who's who of poststructuralist potentates: Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. A few years later, Bataille was "discovered" by the Tel Quel groupóPhilippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, and company. In 1972, they devoted a landmark conference to his work. There could be no doubt that the process of canonization had reached high gear. Seven years later the Bataille legend received fresh impetus when Denis Hollier rescued from oblivion a series of dispersed and forgotten texts related to the activities of the Collège de Sociologieóa group of self-described sorcerer's apprentices that included Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Michel Leiris, who worked their "magic" (to be sure, a type of "black magic") during the late 1930s.
By now, it would be too modest to speak of Bataille's "rediscovery." In the heady world of French intellectual politics, he has been elevated to the status of a literary-cultural icon. As anecdotal evidence, one might cite the fact that his Oeuvres complètes (1970ñ88), which run to twelve volumes, have been published by the celebrated house of Gallimard.
Bataille's English-language reception suffered from a more acute belatedness. The first representative anthology of his prose writings, Allan Stoekl's pioneering Visions of Excess, consisting primarily of texts from the 1930s, did not appear until 1985. Since then, however, Anglo-American readers can't seem to get enough of Bataille: At least eighteen translations of his work have followed, not to mention a gaggle of fawning critical studies. It would not be much of an exaggeration to claim that, within a period of ten years, Bataille went from being a virtual unknown in English-speaking countries to one of the most read and cited twentieth-century French authors.
To be sure, Bataille's status as a marginal figure was partly self-imposed. During the 1920s and '30s, the self-professed disciple of the Marquis de Sade wrote two stunning sadomasochistic classics: The Story of the Eye and Blue of Noon. And there can be no doubt that, in Bataille, the divine Marquis found a worthy heir. Yet, to avoid jeopardizing his "day job" as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale (as incongruous as this vocation may seem given what we now know about his notorious nocturnal debauches on rue Pigalle and elsewhere), Bataille felt obligated to publish The Story of the Eye pseudonymously, and Blue of Noon was not issued until 1957. Only posthumously would he reap the literary acclaim he so justly deserved.
During the mid-'20s, at a relatively young age, Bataille befriended a number of "dissident Surrealists"óAntonin Artaud, André Masson, and Leiris. Had he decided then and there to board the Surrealist juggernaut, a measure of literary renown would no doubt have soon followed. But André Breton (who, born in 1896, was Bataille's senior by only a year) embodied everything Bataille detested about the vocation of literature. Appropriately, the legendary enmity between Breton and Bataille constitutes the red thread of author Michel Surya's stimulating and informative Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. (Yet the scales are tipped so far in Bataille's favor in Surya's biographyóthe book could aptly be described as an anti-Surrealist machine de guerreóthat many of the author's conclusions and insights seem predictable and foregone.)
What accounts for Bataille's fabled animosity toward the man who, because of his hauteur and penchant for excommunicating onetime associates, became known disparagingly as le pape? In a nutshell, Bataille despised Breton insofar as the poet-artist and his followers remained committed to the values of "literature." One could certainly imagine greater sins. Yet in Bataille's view it was this aspect of the Surrealist credo that remained singularly inexcusable. For all their fashionable talk about the imperative of fusing life and art (in the 1924 "Manifesto of Surrealism," Breton famously declared, "il faut pratiquer la poésie"), the Surrealists never abandoned the affirmative ideals of bourgeois aestheticism. Despite their vaunted and prodigious bohemianismótheir fascination with ruins and shock effects, with the forlorn and abandoned quarters of modern cities; their celebration of the unconscious and the spontaneity of "automatic writing"óthe Surrealists never renounced the conformist ideal of the presentable, well-wrought work of art. Turning their backs on the Dadaist notion of "anti-art," the Surrealists, under Breton's austere tutelage, committed the unpardonable: They squandered their initial avant-garde élan in order to become merely another "art movement."
It was this accommodation to the values of aestheticism that Batailleówho pointedly bestowed the title Hatred of Poetry on one of his later textsóimplacably opposed. In his view, art for art's sake had become little more than the deceitful window dressingóthe glossy, ideological veneeróof a moribund and decrepit bourgeois civilization. Works of art provided the "ideal" or "aesthetic" precipitate of experiences whose real-world content was perpetually withheld or deniedóhence their deceitful "idealism." The sooner these works could be immolated en masse on the grandiose funeral pyre of violent revolution, the better. The French subtitle of Surya's work, which has not survived the translation into English, captures this studied aversion via a felicitous double entendre: La Mort à l'oeuvre, which glosses both as "death to the work" and as "death at work"óa phrase that conveys something of Bataille's own abiding obsession with mortality and putrefaction.
Thus, in Bataille's eyes Breton remained an incorrigible "idealist"óa distinctly naive and retrograde standpoint. Here, one should recall that during the '30s Bataille's "literary" activities centered on developing a theory of "base matter," items and effluvia that remained impervious to assimilation by the all-consuming maw of bourgeois cultural respectability: feces, menstrual blood, cadavers, the baboon's brightly colored anus, and so forth. Little wonder that Bretonówho could certainly give as good as he gotófamously dismissed his misanthropic alter ego as an "excremental philosopher": a neurasthenic personality in desperate need of a cure.
Bataille, conversely, displayed a quasi-religious veneration toward objects and acts that, according to the mores of bourgeois convention, were targets of abjection or opprobrium. In his lexicon, such objects qualified as the "accursed share" (la part maudite). In his view civilization had reached a crisis pointóan entropic one- dimensionalityóderiving from its elevation of utilitarian concerns to the be-all and end-all of life. Modern society knew how to produce and to consume. But it had forgotten the importance of loss. It phobically repressed the phenomenon of "waste" or "excess" (la dépense), the value of what Bataille termed "nonproductive consumption." Under the influence of Marcel Mauss's anthropological classic The Gift, Bataille claimed that society has "an interest in considerable losses, in catastrophes that . . . provoke tumultuous depressions, crises of dread, and . . . a certain orgiastic state." Modern society's fatal shortcoming was that it neglected "the satisfaction of disarmingly savage needs [that seem] to subsist only at the limits of horror." Thus, Bataille's essays and novels of the '30s and '40s are preoccupied with conceptualizing imaginative techniques of loss: "luxury, mourning . . . cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts," andónot leastó"perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality)."
Herein lie the affinities between Bataille's worldview and the discourse of "negative theology" or redemption through sin. As the writer and kindred spirit Pierre Klossowski astutely observed, Bataille's avant-garde projects during the '30s (the Collège de Sociologie and Acéphale, which possessed a double incarnation as both a "secret society" and an exoteric review) sought "to create a religion without god." The duality between the "sacred" and the "profane" obsessed him, but the habitual signs were reversed. He elevated acts of profanation or desecration to the status of epiphanies: singular mystical moments of Oneness with the All. Archaic societies established taboos in order to maintain the divide between the sacred and profane orders of life. For Bataille, conversely, the act of willfully violating taboos offered privileged access to the holy.
Fellow Collegian Roger Caillois felicitously described Bataille as an "atheistic mystic." During the '40s Sartre penned an unforgiving review of Bataille's book Inner Experience, lambasting the author for being a modern mystic ("Un Nouveau Mystique"). Peter Connor's book Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin does a commendable job of demonstrating the extent to which Bataille's Sadean corpus remains indebted to Christian mystics such as Meister Eckert and Jakob Boehmeóto an extent, in fact, that might dismay Bataille's secular followers. Deprived of a direct political outlet for his unorthodox cultural views during the war, Bataille sublimated his convictions in his two-volume, pseudoscholarly La somme athéologiqueóthe ultimate anti-Thomist screed.
It was also during the '30s that Bataille, riding the crest of the anthropological vogue initiated by Durkheim and Mauss, developed his theory of "transgression": lascivious or disruptive acts that would unsettle the harmonious workings of modern, "homogeneous" society. Foucault celebrated this concept in a 1963 essay, "A Preface to Transgression." His later doctrine of transgressive sexuality (e.g., The History of Sexuality's concluding appeal for "a different economy of bodies and pleasures") is inconceivable apart from the influence of Bataille qua doppelgänger and precursor. Here, for example, is the opening passage of Bataille's Sadean masterwork, The Story of the Eye:
I grew up very much alone, and as far back as I can recall, I was frightened of anything sexual. I was nearly sixteen when I met Simone, a girl my own age, at the beach in X. Our families being distantly related, we quickly grew intimate. . . . Now in the corner of the hallway there was a saucer of milk for the cat. "Milk is for the pussy, isn't it?" said Simone. "Do you dare me to sit in the saucer?" "I dare you," I answered, almost breathless. The day was extremely hot. Simone put the saucer on a small bench, planted herself before me, and, with eyes fixed on me, she sat down without my being able to see her burning buttocks under the skirt, dipping into the cool milk. The blood shot to my head, and I stood . . . trembling, as she eyed my stiff cock bulging in my pants. Then I lay down at her feet without her stirring, and for the first time, I saw her "pink and dark" flesh cooling in the white milk. We remained motionless, on and on, both of us equally overwhelmed.
Within the opening paragraphs of his narrative, Bataille has violated the incest taboo (Simone, moreover, is sporting a nun's habit) and reaffirmed his predilection for "perverse sexual activity . . . deflected from genital finality." As the acts of orgiastic cruelty reach their apocalyptic crescendo, the missionary position is the only sexual posture to remain unexplored.
The Bataille-Breton antagonism is additionally instructive insofar as it leads us directly to the rationale behind Bataille's post-1960s "beatification," in contrast to Surrealism's comparative eclipse. Breton, for all his avant-garde posturing, has been perceived as canonical modernistóhence, as material for the art-history dustbin. Bataille, conversely, with his trademark revulsion of "works," has been viewed as a postmodernist avant la lettreóas someone whose unconventional oeuvre represents an inexhaustible repository of nonconformist ideas and tropes. Thus, despite the fact that the two literary antagonists were generational cohorts, the prevailing conventional wisdom views Bataille as a contemporary and Breton, the unbending guardian of Surrealist orthodoxy, as quaintly passé. After all, at this point Surrealism's arsenal of scandalous gestures has been copied and repeated ad nauseam. Bataille, on the other hand, through his theories and deeds engaged in a lifelong campaign to ensure that his writings would not be mistaken for "art"óthe facile adornments of a decaying civilization. Whether Bataille's rejection of "art," like so much of the postmodernist anti-aesthetic, was in the end rashly nihilisticówhether it turned its back prematurely on the concepts of sincerity, truth, and meaningóis another question entirely.
Biography is a species of genealogy. And genealogy, as we know from reading Nietzsche and Foucault, is an inherently dangerous genre. When one sets out to investigate origins, there is no guaranteeing the results. Believers have yet to fully recover from Darwin's discovery that, although according to scripture mankind was fabricated in God's image, not long ago on the evolutionary scale we pranced about on all fours and sported tails.
The dangers are especially keen in the case of a figure like Bataille whose persona was often veiled behind the ruse of pseudonymity. Surya has made some unsettling discoveries about his subject. And to his credit, he relates them unflinchingly. Nevertheless, his narrative is beset by a fundamental paradox: He has written a hagiography about someone who was repulsed by pretensions to saintliness. Although, unlike his Surrealist brethren, Bataille was devoid of literary aspirations and fancied himself as a type of "anti-Gide," Surya apotheosizes his protagonist, thereby ironically transforming his life into material for canonization.
Among the surprising facts Surya has unearthed, several concern the young Bataille's profound attachment to Catholicism, to which he converted at the age of seventeen, since his parents were nonbelievers. (Undoubtedly, this attachment was profoundly affected by Bataille's upbringing in the majestic cathedral city of Rheims.) That a provincial Frenchman of Bataille's generation and background was a practicing Catholic is hardly newsworthy. That for a year he trained as a seminarian, as Surya informs us, is another matter entirely. It illustrates Bataille's "passion": the depth of his commitment to spiritual concerns, an enthusiasm he transposed later in life, via the alchemy of negative theology, to the pursuit of profanation. Boyhood friend Georges Delteil characterizes the twenty- year-old Bataille as "[living] a saintly life, imposing on himself a discipline of work and meditation."
We also learn that Bataille's first published book was not, as had been long assumed, The Story of the Eye (1928) but a conventional devotional work, Notre-Dame de Rheimsóas Surya describes it, "a book as pious as he was." (Tellingly, the editors of Bataille's twelve-volume collected works decided to omit this devout Jugendschrift. However, it has been included in Denis Hollier's 1989 study, Against Architecture.) At the age of twenty, the author-to-be of depraved classics such as Madame Edwarda and L'Abbé C. proclaimed with unbending piety: "I see [the Rheims cathedral] as the highest and most marvelous consolation left with us by God, and I think that, whether it lasts or is in ruins, it would remain a mother for whom to die." According to the testimony of painter and intimate Andr&ecute; Masson, Bataille's bedside reading during this period was Rémy de Gourmont's anthology Le Latin mystiqueóa graphic and delirious portrayal of the evils of carnality.
Were there, then, two Batailles? Hardly. Surya provides us with an insightful account of the continuities that pervaded both phases of this remarkable "double life":
If Bataille only retained one thing from the long years of his belief . . . it would have been this: he never loved the flesh, at least never in the sense that he could imagine it without repugnance; in any case never in such a way that he could not see the kind of death to which it, and whoever was wedded to it, was consigned. As freely, as indulgently as (in his debauchery) he gave himself over to his desires, it was in the knowledge that the terror it inspires is at least as great as its beauty. [italics mine]
Unsurprisingly, in his personal library of inspirational texts, Bataille reserved a place of honor for William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." After all, it is there that the poet famously proclaims: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"óan adage that Bataille might have adopted as his motto.
There is no doubt that Bataille was an immensely troubled spirit. We know that during the 1920s he entered into psychoanalysis with Adrien Borel in search of the "cure" that Breton, half-mockingly, would later encourage him to undergo. In retrospect it is clear that one of the keys to understanding his character lies with his father, Joseph-Aristide: a blind syphilitic who, not long after Bataille's birth in 1897, completely lost the use of his limbs.
Bataille's avowal in a later interview that his childhood produced a "turmoil that lasted for life [and that] still causes me to tremble" poignantly refers to this situation. Between the two, roles were often reversed: The child was often required to care for his invalid fatheróa practice that left a permanent and disturbing imprint on the impressionable youth. The young Bataille was intimately involved in assisting his father with all manner of abhorrent bodily functions. As the author of The Story of the Eye reminisces: "He had huge, ever-gaping eyes that flanked an eagle nose, and those huge eyes went almost entirely blank when he pissed, with a completely stupefying expression of abandon and aberration."
Later in life, Bataille raised allegations of pedophilia, even "rape," commenting: "This memory seemed to me the most terrible of all." Surya observes that, understandably, the young Bataille came to view his father as more an animal than a man. In 1911, the terminal, tertiary phase of the disease set in: Young Georges and his mother were frequently awakened in the middle of the night by Joseph-Aristide's preternatural shrieks and howls. Can there by any doubt that the inimitable amalgam of love and revulsion that this situation engendered goes far toward explaining the trademark mixture of Eros and dread that are the defining preoccupations of Bataille qua littérateur?
With the onset of the Great War the cathedral city of Rheims lay directly in harm's way. In 1914 the advancing German army subjected this gothic architectural marvel to a merciless artillery barrage, leaving both city and church in ruins. Fortunately, the ambulant population had been instructed to evacuate in advance of the massive German assault. Bataille and his mother were among the evacuees. But because of his condition it proved impossible to remove P&eagrave;re Bataille, who, tragically, was left behind to die. Surya glosses these developments as follows: "Abandoned to his fate by his own family, a man who was doubly excluded from the outside world, his feet bound and his eyes staring into space, with no one to help him but a housekeeper, was left alone to confront the terror of his own end in a city that, as if in sympathy, was mutilated in its turn."
Mother and son were overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. Predictably, Bataille's recollections are suffused with self-reproach: "I abandoned my father, alone, blind, paralytic, mad, screaming and twitching with pain, transfixed in a worn-out armchair." Georges sought atonement and purification via the rituals of religious piety; it was shortly after this episode that his career as a seminarian began. Marie-Antoinette Bataille never recovered from the calamity. Now, she, too, descended into madness. There were suicide attempts. For nine years (191928), she and Georges shared an apartment. Finally, in 1930, Marie-Antoinette died. In various contextsó autobiographical as well as fictionalóBataille has unflinchingly described what happened next: "I cried and cried, shouting all the time. . . . In front of the corpse I kept quiveringóI was frightened and aroused. Aroused to the limit." He removes his pajamas; "then Ióyou understand . . ." According to Surya, necrophilia was Bataille's way of paying "homage" to his beloved and departed mother.
It is difficult to understand why Surya's biography, which first appeared in translation two years ago, seems to have fallen beneath the radar scope of reviewers. Perhaps it is a sign that the North American Bataille-mania has crested; or that the graphic depiction of Bataille's multifarious obsessions and foibles is a side that his disciples would prefer not to confront.
Surya's study originally appeared in French in 1987 with a minor publisher, Séguier. In 1992, a second edition appeared with the prestigious firm of Gallimard. One of the factors that spurred the author's revisions was a flurry of insinuations that during the 1930s Batailleólike many European intellectuals who, following the crash of '29, believed that both liberal democracy and Stalin-era communism were a dead letteróflirted with fascism.
Concerning Bataille's attraction to the "fascist drift," Surya is adamant and unyielding: "Not only was Bataille one of the first people to denounce fascism, but he had also started to think about it before anyone else." Here, Surya is alluding to Bataille's pathbreaking 1933 article, "The Psychological Structure of Fascism," which deserves credit, along with contemporaneous writings by Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, as one of the first bona fide attempts to account for fascism's remarkable mass psychological appeal.
Yet ultimately the haste with which Surya seeks to put this issue to rest betrays him. For although it would certainly be misleading simply to label Bataille a fascist, Surya sweeps under the rug the dissident surrealist's undeniable and profound attraction to elements of the fascist worldview. Given what we know about Bataille's predisposition to violence and sadomasochism, is it really that surprising that he may have been seduced by a movement that openly flaunted its indebtedness to an aesthetics of shock and horror?
This ambivalence is already palpable in "The Psychological Structure of Fascism," the article that Surya ironically trots out as "exhibit A" in Bataille's defense. There Bataille openly lauds the fascist dictators as heterogeneous for having mobilized forces and energies that remain unassimilable to the utilitarian orientation of bourgeois society: "Mussolini and Hitler immediately stand out as something other," claims Bataille, insofar as they are "opposed to democratic politicians, who represent . . . the platitude inherent to homogeneous society." "Heterogeneous fascist action belongs to the entire set of higher forms," he continues. "It makes an appeal to sentiments traditionally defined as exalted and noble and tends to constitute authority as an unconditional principle, situated above any utilitarian judgment."
While visiting Rome in 1934, Bataille viewed Mussolini's "Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution." Seduced by fascism's powerful aesthetic appeal, he wrote to Raymond Queneau effusively praising the regime's morbid iconography: black pennants, mortuary symbols, and death's-heads. In "French Fascism," a text inspired by the February 6, 1934, right-wing coup attempt staged at the Place de la Concorde, he concluded that only fascism offered a political model capable of "reabsorbing" the antagonisms endemic to crisis-ridden bourgeois society. Noting that the working-class movement's reform efforts had repeatedly ended in failure, Bataille engaged in an astute yet disturbing act of political prophecy: "There is no longer room for anything else on the earth other than societies transformed along the lines of monarchy, unified as much as the will of one man can beóthat is, room for great fascist societies." In his view the youthful and vibrant fascist dictatorships offered a model for the restoration of "sovereignty," a Bataille key word. They were capable of reinstating the values of "lordship" and "mastery" in an era when "monarchy"óthe traditional repository of such idealsóhad been superseded by the patent mediocrity of bourgeois egalitarianism.
In 1936, Contre-Attaque, a short-lived tactical alliance with archenemy Breton, came to grief over Bataille's blunt advocacy of politically dubious concepts. The falling-out occurred over Bataille's promotion of "surfascism" (a coinage analogous to Nietzsche's superman, or surhomme): the problematic idea of utilizing avowedly fascist means to achieve nonfascist ends. As Bataille and his allies unabashedly declared (to Breton's chagrin and dismay): "We intend, in our turn, to use for our benefit the weapons created by fascism, which has been able to use humanity's fundamental aspirations for affective exaltation and fanaticism." Ironically, Bataille showed a keen capacity for retrospective political self-awareness, thereby flatly contradicting Surya's simplistic portrayal of him as a stalwart antifascist. Years later, he readily confessed to having succumbed during the '30s to a "paradoxical fascist tendency."
An interest in unleashing "dangerous movements" conducive to "affective exaltation and fanaticism" was the raison d'être of the Collège de Sociologieóthe avant-garde grouping that explored ways of restoring the "heterogeneous" elements of sovereignty, violence, and loss amid the disenchanted landscape of a prosaic modern "society" (the short-lived anthropological review Documents, which Bataille edited from 1929 to 1930, stands as an important precursor). In a 1970 interview Caillois, one of Bataille's coconspirators, provided a fitting epitaph for such grandiosely misguided efforts and plans. Attempting to account for the Collège's sudden demise with the onset of war, Caillois explains that, abruptly, the program of a "return of the primitive" that the Collegians had theorizedóa revival of sacrifice, myth, cruelty, and violence inspired by the newly spawned fascist "ecstatic communities"óhad become a reality, and there could be no doubt that the result was an unmitigated disaster. As Caillois observes: "The war had shown us just how inane the College of Sociology's endeavor had been. The dark forces we had dreamed of setting off had unleashed themselves entirely of their own accord, with results quite different from what we had expected." An understatement, to say the least.
Herein lies a cautionary tale concerning postmodernism's by-now jaded revolutionary expectations. Although postmodernism, in a Bataillesque spirit, sought to bid an unsentimental adieu to its fraternal enemy, modernism/modernity, the obsequies now seem to have been distinctly premature. After all, a discourse that proclaims the "end of metanarratives" is itself a metanarrative. A "negative" philosophy of history such as Foucault'sóone that equates "progress" with enhanced dominationóis merely the inverted image of the more traditional, positive approaches it sought to surpass. Having succumbed to the lures of "anthropological romanticism," Bataille and his fellow shamans systematically downplayed the cruel and repressive aspects of premodern rituals such as sacrifice and potlatch. As the preceding remarks by Caillois imply: Don't the conventional legal and political safeguards of bourgeois society (civil liberties, parliamentarism, and so forth) gain in appeal considerably when they are viewed against the background of the neo-pagan Armageddon that Hitler, Mussolini, and company unleashed between 1939 and 1945? The basic error lies in trying to translate what was originally an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) program into a general and redemptive cultural-political prescription.
Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of the forthcoming Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism.