Georges Bataille On A Life of Bullshit

I thought: “How cruel my suffering is,—no one is more talkative than I am!”
—Georges Bataille, The Tomb of Louis XXX

The Little One and The Tomb of Louis XXX—the two meditations by Georges Bataille just published by Equus Press in English translation for the first time under the title Louis XXX—were written in the early 1940’s, during which time he wrote Guilty and other works. Like Guilty they are both hybrid texts, fusing philosophical and theological speculation with memoir and poetry. They read like they could have been supplements or appendices to that work, inasmuch as they address the inevitable entanglement in project and possibility that all writing entails. The above quote, for example, sits alone on a white page of silence. But that silence implies erasure. The talkativeness is not on display at the moment the statement appears, unless we are to understand that any word is one too many—a plausible assessment given the extreme concision of these two texts, “composed” (if we can even use that word, but what other shall we use to describe a writing under pressure of erasure?) of fragments often cushioned on the white expanses of otherwise blank pages. And yet there are so many of these fragments, for they echo or recall others to be found in Guilty and other books. The statement, ostensibly appearing alone here, might also, in its aloneness, be an admission of guilt. And then too Bataille might be referring to talkativeness outside of writing. Why fire off all of these possibilities with one enigmatic question? Why say anything at all? The troubling nature of this question recalls the “disquietude” that Pessoa sets up his writerly home in as Bernardo Soares. Pessoa does not shirk his disquietude, just as Bataille is ever at pains to “patiently explain” (as translator Stuart Kendall aptly puts it on p 93 of his accompanying essay) the inevitability of instability with regard to any act of thinking or writing. This can result in a sad, disturbing or even frustrating time for the reader, but it also happens to be what we call integrity.

It begins in mid-sentence with a kind of declaration of independence:

… a festival for myself alone, at which, no longer able to maintain it, I break the tie that binds me to others.

In the Notes [p 130] Kendall provides this passage from Bataille’s The Accursed Share:

If no one had had the strength, at least while writing, to absolutely deny the link that attached him to his fellow men, we would not have the work of Sade.

Readers today have learned to look askance at such declarations. Having worked our way through Foucault and endless exercises of deconstruction, we know that the link is never broken, and denial, like blasphemy, is another form of linkage (hence, in the experience of reading Bataille, the guilt, the immense erasure, but more importantly the patient, at times intricate and at times bizarre explications through hybrid territories). Kendall has also provided in the Notes [p 134] a continuation of the manuscript of The Little One (I prefer the French title, Le Petit), in which Bataille is clear about this:

Even the omnipotence of the writer, displacing at his liking the limits of the real, is itself limited, facing the possible. This amounts to saying that desire is insatiable—Sade knew it.

It also amounts to saying that impossible discourses, by definition, are linked to the possible. And for me Bataille is most fascinating when he leaves the impossible behind and patiently explores the limits of the possible.

This is not to say that his philosophy is not continuously fed by the insatiable, but one might keep in mind that Bataille’s tastes are subjective. Thus we find in The Tomb of Louis XXX the author thrusting the Chinese torture picture at us once again. But while “nothing exceed[ed] the feeling inspired in [him] by torture more” [p 67] Bataille also tells us that, in the shattering of categories, the “depth of being” is accessible not only by vice and war, but also by laughter, poetry and devotion [pp 20, 17]. And I take the word “devotion” to be a synonym of love. However, one will not find laughter or love in these texts, and what poetry there is lacks potency. It’s unfortunate that Bataille is apt to put off readers who don’t care to have filth and evil shoved in their faces, since his ideas can be understood by other means, while those who like the filth are apt to ignore the ideas completely. It should be said at this point that readers enamored of the pornographic Bataille of The Story of the Eye might come to this new book with its Man Ray cover and triple X (which in fact refers to the number 30) looking for more of that. They will be disappointed. Likewise, lovers of the philosophical Bataille won’t find anything here that can’t be found (copiously and in depth) in Guilty, Inner Experience and other books. Moreover, the Man Ray photo is misleading in another sense. Its fine art beautiful aura is at odds with the object of Le Petit, which cannot be addressed without threatening bad taste. I find a similar misalignment in the word “arse” which, to American ears, sounds comical. I don’t have Bataille’s French to compare it to, but I can’t help but think that, depending on the context, the word “anus” or “ass” would be closer to Bataille’s spirit.

That said, anyone as obsessive as me about Georges Bataille will want this book. Here is a passage I like [p 17] in which Bataille addresses the pitfalls of writing through the terms of psychiatry:

…one eludes the insoluble enigma, a presence on the ground awaiting what? Unable to respond, one feigns having already answered, the neurosis alone opposed to the success that is certain without it! The contrary made evident: a practical joker’s success alone opposed to the feeling of the agonizing enigma—neurosis is the timorous apprehension of a depth of the impossible to which one gives some accidental cause, instead of accepting its unavoidable nature.

It seems to me Bataille is writing here about the person who comes to work joking about the dream he had the night before, oblivious to the fact he is baring his innermost soul to the world, staring in the face the rebus he is unable to recognize as his innermost self. Personally, I know of no sight sadder than a young person who has consciously chosen a life of bullshit over self-recognition. And yet it is so very common…. Here Bataille also shows his relation to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: the fool, for example, who persists in his folly to become wise. To put it in Bataille-like terms: the fool must persist in his folly (as painful and difficult as this may be) without playing the fool by taking his joke (or expecting others to take it) for reality.

Finally, this book is well worth the price for Stuart Kendall’s lengthy essay. I admire Kendall for the clarity of his language. I believe very strongly that complex thoughts do not of necessity require complex language. Kendall’s essay here is as rewarding as his introductions to other Bataille texts he has translated. For that matter, if someone desires a good introduction to Bataille I know of no better one than Kendall’s.

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7 Responses to Georges Bataille On A Life of Bullshit

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    You had me with your FB “wildly popular” remark, you know. And then I come here to encounter this: ” a festival for myself alone, at which, no longer able to maintain it, I break the tie that binds me to others.” We are a bit on tracks that may not cross as to subject matter right now, but as to ethos, I think there’s a match, for I am over my way immersed in Shostakovich, trying to write something about what I’m experiencing, yet knowing the result will (not) be either terribly intelligent or “wildly popular.” I wish I could articulate concepts in the way you are able to do. As it is, I have nothing substantive to write here–how I wish I did–but I do, do, identify with the “festival for myself alone.”

    • I appreciate your reminding me of the positive sense of a phrase like that, which might be compared to the old adage of going with what you feel or believe in regardless of what others may think or even of how difficult it may be.

      Of all of the arts, I think music is the most difficult to write about. But Shostakovich is a fascinating subject so I look forward to your words. Thanks again for making my place a little less lonely.

  2. angela says:

    “In any case, silence is the only border we can reach in the realm you and I dwell in. Even the equivocal silence of ecstasy itself isn’t attainable, if it comes to that. Or like death its’s attainable for a moment.” (Introduction via Denis Hollier, “Guilty”)

    Rather serendipitous, Mark, for I was going to blog a few lines from “Guilty” tonight until I read your post. It came to mind while reading Bhanu Kapil’s latest blog post on lunch break – she is reading Denis Hollier’s “Against Architecture”. I think I shall read a bit more of Bataille before doing anything.

    (“Guilty” was latest find at used book shop- wouldn’t even been on radar if not for you. Merci beaucoup.) ~ a

  3. Thank you for this intro to Bataille and his work, Mark.And for your suggestions about my poem.

  4. Mark, your insight and interpretation are so intense and breath-taking by themselves…. You have a wonderful sense of enlightenment,,,, Another quote from “Guilty” I found that compliments your assertion of his obvious lack of appreciation for love in this particular work: “Naturally, love’s the most distant possibility……….” When presented as thesis, what surrounding architectural text could possibly compete? Mark, your review makes it exciting to read more…

    • I think it’s important to read the full context of the passage you quote, from ‘Alleluia’ part 4 of ‘Guilty’. It seems to me that Bataille uses the word “love” here a little bit like the word “God”. It is the most distant possibility because it is always out of reach. That doesn’t mean one does not reach for it…..

      I said that one does not find laughter or love in ‘Louis XXX’ because here, as in other books of his, he approaches the depth of being through what he calls “evil”, rather than, for example poetry or love. Here is a good discussion:

  5. Pingback: Best Reads of 2013 | The Mockingbird Sings

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