Bataille on Baudelaire

I belong to a turbulent generation, born to literary life in the tumult of surrealism. In the years after the Great War there was a feeling which was about to overflow. Literature was stifling within its limitations and seemed pregnant with revolution.

So begins the preface to Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil. In the section on Baudelaire—the part of the book I want to discuss—Bataille devotes a page to describing “the society in which Les Fleurs du Mal was written.” Bataille writes:

Yet between the great lakes of Versailles and the dams of the industrial age, a decision was taken…. [that] opposed the increase of productive forces for unproductive pleasure. In the middle of the nineteenth century, bourgeois society chose the dams: it introduced a radical alteration into the world. Between the day of Charles Baudelaire’s birth and the moment of his death, Europe was covered by a network of railways. Production opened the prospect of an indefinite increase…. as its goal. The process which had been prepared some time earlier started a swift metamorphosis of the civilized world based on the primacy of the future—capitalist accumulation. [page 55.]*

The opposition, as Bataille tells us, came from two primary areas: the workers movements and Romanticism. The former had to oppose capitalist accumulation “in so far as it was limited to the increase of the capitalists’ personal profit”. Baudelaire belonged to the latter and, we might add, defined modernism for the generations to come.

In some respects our world today is as different from Bataille’s 1957 world as his was from Baudelaire’s. Literature no longer seems pregnant with revolution. We live in a time when the memory of revolutions linger on as tropes, techniques or mere echoes, too often ossified, clichéd. We in the United States live with the sense that the great revolutions have already taken place, here and elsewhere, and our poets have either asked what significance that has or have set the question aside for personal poetics or a poetry of social engagement often based on identity politics. It’s not unusual to see American writers greet the very idea of a contemporary revolutionary literature with derision. The Great Play of the avant-garde movements is done.

Yet in other respects we clearly live not only in Bataille’s world, but in Baudelaire’s as well. It is still (and ever more so) essentially the bourgeois world of capitalist accumulation. And we still see violent eruptions as more parts of the world encounter the shock of what used to be called modernism. We are still in thrall to a war of accumulation and opposition, but the problem is now cast in terms of a clash between cultures and political systems, soon to be disrupted and complicated in many ways by the effects of human-directed climate change.

We too are a turbulent generation, yet we are skeptical of revolution. Our American turbulence is in part the result of an unwillingness among some to let go of old cultural habits that have long outlived any usefulness they may have had, and a building sense of frustration among others that new necessary habits are being prevented as if by an invisible wall from taking effect. The polarization of Right and Left, from the inability of the Right to let go of what is in effect already gone, to the failure of the Left to engage fully and meaningfully in revolutionary dialectics—these, and more, are sending seismic cracks throughout all the cities and towns of America. A great shaking is going on, a great trembling. We don’t know what is going to happen, but we feel it won’t be good. If only the Right could let go a little more, and the Left could believe a little more. But we are what we are. Nothing, with the possible exception of an unsuspected and currently invisible rising mass of support for Bernie Sanders, would seem to prevent our maintaining the status quo until it breaks (in my view, a Republican administration in 2016 will only hasten the break faster than a Clinton administration). Our inability to act is complicated by the feeling that we are rushing at great speeds into the future; incredible speed and relative stasis, like a ball spinning in place, is our current temper. Not to be simplistic, but the war between accumulation and opposition is, in a fundamental way, the continuation of Baudelaire’s world. Turbulence connects us to Bataille’s. Missing is our willingness to engage in the dialectics of revolution, either in terms of political action or of poetry.

Let’s take a closer look at Baudelaire’s “opposition”. First of all it’s important to see that Bataille is careful to point out

Though poetry may trample verbally on the established order, it is no substitute for it. [38]

Poetry is not political action. Poetry is a form of disorder, a disruption of the rational order of the world. It offers the order of a poetic form (the poem-object), obviously not in place of the world (which is always “restored” beyond the disorder of the poem), but in tandem with or parallel to the world. The temporary disorder of poetry serves several purposes, which are easy to see, but let’s continue with Bataille’s view of Baudelaire. Romantic poetry, he tells us, was a “response to utilitarian calculation” [57]. In the essays of Literature and Evil Bataille extends into literature the ideas elaborated in his great books The Accursed Share and Erotism. Poetry addresses the need of the human being not to be reduced to a thing. The world of work (and the capitalist world especially) reduces all human activity to useful ends—to the extreme point of making the human being merely servile and, ultimately, also a thing. This is what poetry opposes, inasmuch as it is a useless expenditure of energy.

Bataille explains that Baudelaire did not simply want the impossible, but that he desired the impossible:

the synthesis of the unchangeable and the perishable, of the being and existence, of the object and the subject, which poetry seeks, is an ultimate definition of poetry. It limits it and transposes it into the realm of the impossible and the unsatisfiable…. Poetry is the means by which…. [one] can escape from being reduced to the reflection of things. It is true that poetry, in its quest for the identity of reflected things and the consciousness which reflects them, wants the impossible. But surely the very means of avoiding reduction to the reflection of things constitute a desire for the impossible. [ 44-45]

The distinction is important. Bataille’s analysis goes further:

In a first impulse poetry destroys the objects which it seizes. By destroying them it returns them to the elusive fluidity of the poet’s existence and it is at this point that it hopes to regain the identity of the world and man. But at the same time as it releases the objects, it tries to seize this release. All it can do is substitute the release for what it has seized from reduced life: it can never allow the release to take the place of the objects it once seized…. It is therefore misleading to maintain that Baudelaire wanted the impossible statue or that he could not exist, unless we immediately add that he wanted the impossible far more than he wanted the statue. [45 and 47]

According to Bataille, the desire for the impossible that Baudelaire felt, in conjunction with the agony of a state of being perpetually unsatisfied constituted the very “authenticity” of Baudelaire’s poetry. In life Baudelaire was full of good intentions—to work, to make money, to be a productive citizen. Yet he always allowed his will to the Good to be subordinated to the impossible and Evil (evil because unproductive, because open to useless expenditure, because in full recognition of death in life and life in death) task of poetry.

We might add that the authenticity Bataille attributes to Baudelaire the poet is that of Romanticism itself: it seeks its integrity in suffering. Today we know that capitalism endeavors to use everything to further its own ends, even opposition, even poetry, as we know that suffering is not the only form of authenticity in poetry. And in Bataille’s day he could acknowledge the possibility of “ris[ing] above Baudelaire’s humiliating—and accursed—attitude” [58]. However, Bataille adds that even if we do rise above it,

we cannot come to rest…. The contradiction between a rejection of Good (of a value imposed by the will for survival) and the creation of a work which will survive, places poetry on that path of rapid decomposition where it was conceived, increasingly negatively, as a perfect silence of the will. [59]

Here we are well into the second decade of a new millennium, and I would argue that, to a degree at least, the poetry of social engagement makes of poetry a servile thing, while the poetry of identity politics still, in one sense at least, seeks its authenticity in the suffering of the tribe. On the other hand it seems to me that a degree of emotional movement is possible within the spectrum of possibility Bataille outlines that he, for whatever reason, does not write about. And I don’t think it’s insignificant. One’s attitude toward poetry might be, in the end, more important than the field of possibilities and limitations of poetry.

I would like to state briefly why I think John Ashbery’s poetry is so instructive in the context outlined above. Certainly it is a poetry of disorder that leaves the order of the world intact, releasing the world’s terms to an “elusive fluidity” based on the poet’s existence (still based on the individualism of modernism). Indeed one can say, in the light of books from The Double Dream of Spring to Hotel Lautréamont, that the release of poetry is in a sense a substitute (but not a replacement) “for what it has seized” and that some of the poems in those books can be said in addition to try and “seize” the release itself in a hyperconscious demonstration of the poetic act. One might even detect in a poem like Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror a certain anguish as one of the signs of its authenticity. All of these things run like roots from Ashbery’s poetry back to Baudelaire. But at the same time there is a movement flowing out and forward from these books to those that came afterward based on an attitude diverging sharply from Baudelaire’s. Increasingly Ashbery’s poetry has left behind any trace of seizure. One could say that fluidity is embraced for its own sake and therefore the poetry has become as closely aligned to Evil as possible. But now a difference in attitude becomes a difference in kind. The term “Evil” no longer feels appropriate. To be sure the more fluid, the more open Ashbery’s poetry becomes the more elusive it becomes, and the more it is tied to the fluidic connections between the poet and his world the more that poetry runs the risk of catching up with the “path of rapid decomposition” threatening a premature silence. We know that the power of flowers is directly related to their mortality. But unless poems become flowers only time will tell if Ashbery’s late poetry can retain the vitality it has today. One thing is for sure: the boldness of such a move from a poet in his later years is nothing short of breathtaking.


* All quotations from Literature and Evil by Georges Bataille, Marion Boyars Publishers Inc., 1985, translated by Alastair Hamilton.

For those interested, the following video is indispensable for an understanding of Bataille’s use of the word “Evil”. If the link should go dead, simply search, “Bataille literature and evil” in the Youtube searchbox and someone will have been sure to upload it.


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6 Responses to Bataille on Baudelaire

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    One takeaway for me is this: “Poetry is not political action. Poetry is a form of disorder, a disruption of the rational order of the world.” Though I don’t keep my finger on the pulse of trends in poetry (to say the least), I have noticed comments here and there welcoming the move from Goldsmith-type conceptualism toward “socially engaged” poetry. While I endorsed the former in one comment I saw, I realized, on reflection, that “socially engaged,” as well as “identity politics” poetry likely offer another kind of pitfall. I tend to think that poetry written out of the desire to serve an external agenda, however laudable, has a greater chance of failing as a poem. It’s not to say that poetry may not “speak to” social engagement or identity politics out of expressions embedded in the fabric of the poem (I haven’t expressed this well, but Soonest Mended is an example of what I mean), but that is a different matter from poetry that is written, with intent, for either purpose.

    • The phrase “social engagement” (in poetry) is deceptive the way the phrase “pro-life” is deceptive. Of course one is in favor of life; of course one wants to be socially engaged. But right now a poetry of social engagement is tied to a moralizing attitude that says a poetry that does not engage with certain issues is guilty, that a poet has a moral obligation to address certain issues–in poetry–and that a poet’s silence on these issues–in their poetry–is immoral. I could go on and on about how wrong I think this attitude is and about how poetry, for me, does not serve a cause, however important. Over the past year this issue has often been raised as a choice between conceptual poetry (because of Goldsmith’s terribly ill-considered Michael Brown autopsy report reading) and socially engaged poetry, as if there are only two choices.

  2. angela says:

    Mark, what a feast for my tired brain tonight, thank you for this post. As I stated before, I miss your, and Susan’s, postings for their are like an enjoyable dinner conversation with guests whom have so much knowledge one simply is full from their discourse.

    My head still spins regarding the above commentary on poetry – I find oft those discussions remain in the ivory tower and are cyclical regarding what is ‘vogue’. I’d just like to start writing poetry again (or have the desire to just write ‘evil’) – to me, if it comes from the place of the ‘child’ it is of worth.

    That is what resonated with me and prompted me to write here – the video clarifying what was meant by evil. How it made me think that to indulge in literature as writer or reader is to embrace one’s child mind, Bataille’s notion of evil (or at least as I’ve interrupted it). While I understand his bullet points on Kafka and Baudelaire – I played with the concept of evil on a God level. When one creates (writes) to their truest nature, are they not defying the confines of their station? Does one not cross the line to become their own version of God by drifting into a universe that they wholly create. It is child’s play, for one must allow in a freedom that becomes so stifled in the toil of today’s demands of being a productive person of society. Or, perhaps I am projecting my excuse for why I cannot hear that inner voice that echoes through the worm hole because I am too busy being busy.

    Anyhoo, sorry to ramble on here but I just had to write after being inspired by your writing. Your dialogue had, for a brief moment, allowed me to touch evil and remember what it is to think without ‘purpose’.

    P.S. A revolution, indeed. My state once again proved the evil of politics and that there can be no revolution when there is so much money greasing the machine (yes, I mean us robots.) That said in reference to Hillary’s ‘win’…

    • Surely the adult notions of “Good” don’t apply to the child mind. Young children are capable of pure acts of love and also, from the adult’s perspective, acts of extreme selfish cruelty. The place that Bataille talks about under the banner of “Evil” is profoundly disturbing according to normal standards because it seems to suggest a loss of control. But no one was more lucid than Bataille….

      For whatever reason, Bataille in his writings focuses on anguish, but a whole range of emotions and a range of attitudes are available, which is why I brought Ashbery into the discussion. But Baudelaire too remains for me personally a primary example. His poem “At One O’Clock in the Morning” describes my own attitude toward poetry on many a day:

  3. angela says:

    Thank you for the reply and link, Mark. I should have clarified about ‘child’s mind’ for I used it not as a mind of innocence, but one without societal boundaries. Since I only had the video as reference, I didn’t take Bataille’s use of “Evil” as disturbing, but more as an interesting commentary on the creative mind. It seems I need to read “Literature and Evil” to really formulate a proper understanding of his concept. Oh, and that poem is brilliant…

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