Signaling Through Flames

Lucas van Leyden, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1520

I’ve been reading the new Atlas edition of the internal papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale with lectures to the College of Sociology. The lectures and the articles from the Acéphale journal have been published before. The internal papers are published in English for the first time. The commentaries are thoroughly, and I would say lovingly done.

At the same time for no particular reason I pulled my copy of Artaud’s The Theater and its Double off the shelf to read over lunch one day. I noticed that the book was published in the late 1930’s, same as the texts in the Atlas anthology. I noticed further a certain correspondence between the two.

Here’s the last paragraph of Artaud’s Preface: The Theater and Culture:

…. when we speak the word “life,” it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach. And if there is still one Hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames. [Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double, Grove Press, 1958, p 13]

And here is Bataille in the first text of the first issue of Acéphale:

Life has always proceeded in a tumult with no apparent sense of cohesion, but finds its splendor and its reality only in ecstasy and in ecstatic love. Whoever tries to ignore or disregard ecstasy is an incomplete individual whose thinking is thereby reduced to mere analytical processing. Existence is not only a restless void—it is a dance that compels us to dance like fanatics. Thought that does not revolve around dead fragments may have an inner existence in the same way as flames do. [p 124]*

Certainly, with the passion, desperation and ecstasy in Artaud and Bataille we are not quite on the same ground as Ponge, who is far more transparent about the intellectual work he is doing (not to mention his pleasure in it) but we find the same mistrust of artistic forms. All three mistrusted artistic form. With Artaud, indeed, it resulted in an ecstatic mode of “formless” writing. With Bataille it was not a matter of what today is called hybrid writing, but something far more profound: hybrid consciousness, a philosophical writing that refused to justify itself scientifically, preferring to wear the garb of poetry. And with Ponge it became the creation of a new kind of writing, neither scientific nor poetic but somehow both, diaristic in documenting the organic movement of a thought.

Bataille may have wanted to be the victim in a secret ceremony with the members of Acéphale, but it is far more characteristic of Artaud to assume the role, “like a victim burnt at the stake”. But what could those gestures possibly signify? Language does not work the way music does. Non-idiomatic improvisation is not necessarily noise. But writing that rejects vocabulary, grammar and syntax isn’t even writing, it’s nonsense. And unlike Bataille, Artaud’s impossibilities are more suggestive of instability than nuanced thinking. Artaud is at his best when he describes suffering—and not just his own. The most compelling part of The Theater and its Double, for me, is the section on plague.

Andre Masson, cover of the first issue of Acéphale, 1936

Bataille is at his best when he takes us inside a movement of thought that delivers us to a view so bright and so unexpected we can actually feel our brain being rewired. Taking the lead from Masson’s unforgettable image, he writes in that first text of the journal Acéphale:

In a single outburst he unites Birth and Death. He is not a man. Neither is he a God. He is not me, but he is more me than I am: his stomach is the labyrinth in which he himself has become lost, and I along with him, and there I rediscover myself as him, in other words the monster. [p 125]

And what is a monster but that which defies form?

And so with the second text from that first issue of Acéphale we have Klossowski writing about the monster as conceived by Sade, but not before a peculiar coupling of passages: first, a passage from Juliette that describes a strange “dry and scorched little plain” that Artaud would recognize, where, if one scratches the surface of the earth, fire shoots out of the ground. Second is the infamous final request of the Marquis de Sade. Here fire does not purge and purify, once and for all, but keeps coming back as an eternal return. Fire will always shoot out of that grave, as long as we have Sade’s books. However, the metaphor is about as compelling as Artaud’s victim signaling at the stake. (I have suggested another interpretation of Sade’s final wish.)

Moreover, I could not help thinking, when reading of Artaud’s wish for a future theater that it restore a lost and forgotten primal magic, that theater too is artifice, and it brought to mind Alexandre Kojève’s objection that Bataille could not gain access to the sacred through the ceremonies of the secret society of Acéphale any more than a magician could be convinced of the reality of magic through his own tricks [p 78]. But the society was secret and theater is public. And Bataille had more realistic hopes for his public involvements. He hoped that Contre-Attaque, for example, would “see whether it is possible to make people aware of their existence and prevent them, if possible, from sleepwalking through it”. [p 100]

I think Bataille is the most relevant voice here, in terms of the contemporary American situation (for I am not drawn to these materials purely for their historical interest), as he concludes that we are like “seers swept away by an overwhelming dream that can never belong to [us]”. [p 126]

What good is it to signal through the flames if no one is paying attention? Besides, who can ignore the baleful suggestion that the victim has been put there—by whom?

Acéphale—its public face and the secret society—was born out of rage and despair. Bataille and the others felt that art was not enough and that politics had failed. The left could not cohere and build momentum against the rising right. And the rising right was like a boil on the face of society that had to run its course. Soon Hitler would consolidate power after murdering his enemies.

Are we in America racing toward a similar crossroads? Art is ineffectual and the machinery of politics is sputtering out poisonous fumes. We have online mobs of the left and of the right, racing first one way and then another in attempt to take the knife to the other’s throat. America is like a drunken sailor on the midnight deck of a rusted ship on rough seas. Trump is quite adept at consolidating the support of his base. The left is deeply fractured. What’s next—rule by violence? Around the time of the inauguration Žižek said something to the effect that the USA would not devolve into a fascist state—its institutions were too strong. But maybe, in this instance, an insider’s view is closer to reality. I do not have his confidence.

Once upon a time in an interview Kurt Vonnegut was asked what we could do to avoid approaching disaster. He said, “Join a gang.” The interviewer didn’t think he was being serious. But he was. That’s what the secret society of Acéphale was in the late 1930’s. It didn’t last long.


*Georges Bataille, The Sacred Conspiracy, Atlas Press, 2017. All quotes from this book, unless otherwise noted.

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