‘Almost fifty years have passed since the publication of this remarkable book (Editions de Minuit, 1957). Mary Dalwood’s translation appeared rather quickly by the standards of academic publishing (Calder and Boyars, 1962); but still, outside of a small circle of intellectual Francophiles, Bataille was and remained largely unknown. Even in Vincent Descombes’ Modern French Philosophy, which many of the UK’s leading ‘Continental’ philosophers of the present day were devouring as undergraduates in the 1980’s, Bataille is only mentioned in passing. Why read the relatively obscure Bataille now? And why read Bataille’s Eroticism now? Besides the practical considerations that it is two pounds cheaper, the illustrations are noticeably crisper, and it is easier to fit in one’s pocket than the 1987 edition?
‘Perhaps the speed at which a thinker becomes canonical is an index of how little their thought changes anything. Even if that were so, it by no means implies the counter-principle that a thinker’s profundity can be measured by the degree of ignorance afforded to them by the kingmakers who write histories of French thought. Sartre’s swiftly popular philosophy of freedom and responsibility, for all its avowed atheism, made perfect ontological and moral sense to anybody who had enjoyed a short term with the Jesuits. God was dead for many Twentieth century intellectuals, but all His values remained in place in the ‘human soul’, the unique being-for-itself. The anti-humanism of Bataille was then and is now beyond the pale for many readers. Despite the profound relevance of Bataille’s work to fields as diverse as theology, psychology, literature, anthropology, economics, sociology, and philosophy, there was never the slightest chance of Bataille joining the popular lists of the great and the good. It is not that Bataille is a second- or third-rate thinker. Rather his thought was simply too disruptive, and even when he was alive his mixed and virulent output had something of the character of an unburied corpse. Eroticism is amongst the most important works of one of the most stimulating and neglected French thinkers of the Twentieth century. Anyone who has laboured through the endlessly qualified and deferred prose of late-phenomenology would do well to look at Bataille’s Eroticism as soon as possible. Much contemporary French thought is as difficult but ultimately harmless to assimilate as a ten course tofu banquet. After such fare, the encounter with Bataille’s late works – particularly Eroticism, Literature and Evil, or The Tears of Eros – should be satisfyingly dense, bloody, and rich. Earlier texts such as Guilty, Inner Experience and On Nietzsche are to say the least challenging, even to the most sympathetic readers. Eroticism is not an easy text for reasons we shall come to presently, but it is arguably the easiest and most rewarding portal into Bataille’s disturbing world.
‘Broadly speaking, Bataille is a programmatic (though not a systematic) thinker. But his programme is self-avowedly impossible. This impossible project involves examining those blindingly over-lit or twilight points at which theorization collapses or dissolves into seizure, sobbing, fugue, orgasm, or the scream of anguish. Eroticism is not an object of enquiry, simply because the erotic is precisely that ‘sacred’ materiality which abrades and ruptures the categories of subject and object, self and world, inside and outside, human and animal. Unlike Hegelian reflections upon the logical constitution of the limit, Bataille is primarily concerned with the somatic limits of experience and theorizations thereof. It is not our habits or their disruptions which make us human, Bataille contends, for animals seem to exhibit as much: “animal sexuality does make for disequilibrium and this disequilibrium is a threat to life, but the animal does not know that […] Eroticism is the sexual activity of man to the extent that it differs from the sexual activity of animals. Human sexual activity is not necessarily erotic but erotic it is whenever it is not rudimentary and purely animal…”.
‘Such a bludgeoning division between the human and the animal (especially via the dubious privilege of ‘knowledge’) might suggest that Bataille is proposing a partially-atheistic humanism similar to Sartre’s. But that is merely the surface: the entire notion of separability (logical, ontological, moral or biological) is rapidly abraded in Bataille’s world. Indeed, only the relative ‘discontinuity’ of conscious ‘beings’ absurdly raising themselves above the blind ‘becomings’ of a world of material continuity can configure this set of problems as a set of problems. It is the habitually desired balances and equally habitually desired transgressions of those habits that makes human embodiment so uncanny.
‘The impurity of this book will no doubt offend the sensibilities of many academics, whatever their stance on the value of interdisciplinarity. Bataille’s twisted and tangled reflections on incest, art, mysticism, pre-history, cell division, philosophy, menstruation, economics and murder form not so much a rich tapestry of argumentation as a catastrophe. ‘Catastrophe’ in two senses, one positive, the other negative: firstly, if one expects from Bataille an ‘argument’ in the classical mode, a careful connecting of evidential propositions to safe conclusions, one can only see this kind of work as confusion and abomination. This is the positive catastrophe of Eroticism (and indeed, of eroticism). Like the common or garden variety of misogynist bore pointing to the child-molester, the purportedly abject failure of an other’s behaviour to measure up to decent standards is seized upon as evidence of the positive value of ‘respectable’ theoretical work. The ‘straight’ anthropologist, sociologist, theologian or philosopher will be much reassured by the untenability of Bataille’s corpus on their terms. From the inside of any hygienically constituted discipline, Bataille is a transgression which shores up the norm. This is the ‘positive’ or utile value of his catastrophic work.
‘The negative catastrophe of Bataille’s Eroticism is concerned with the work of the writer as something impossible and paradoxical. It amounts to nothing less than an incitement to the pursuit of non-utile work. The production of a book which is literally good-for-nothing (except perhaps the de-commodification of knowledge) is about as heretical an idea as could be fielded in the free democracies of latecapitalism. Yet Bataille’s project, if it can be thus described, is precisely geared towards a theorization of the conditions under which everything is wasted for the sake of a sacred, impossible contact with the ‘outside’ of the human world of work and utility. It is for this reason that Bataille’s book, for some, remains as enigmatic, compelling and sordid as the transmission of an impossible truth: as if a close relative with a good career and a great marriage had been arrested in a public lavatory for a practice so unusual that the Crown Prosecution Service were having difficulty deciding whether or not it was covered by existing laws.
‘The greatest difficulty that a philosophical reader might encounter in Bataille’s Eroticism may well be the uneasy relationships Bataille courts with two large figures in the history of Continental thought. Throughout Eroticism one senses the suppressed and distant noises of a titanic battle between Nietzsche and Hegel. Both are mentioned, the former more or less in passing and the latter as a means of pointing up the failures of a selfsatisfied, stabilized and systemic notion of philosophy. Hence my claim that Eroticism is a difficult text despite its deceptively straightforward and conversational tone. The path by which one reaches a thinker will always to a certain extent colour the reading; but with Bataille’s work there seems to be a particularly chronic inbuilt problem concerning hermeneutics and personal histories. Readers from a broadly Hegelian background will probably find Bataille’s reflections upon unmediated ‘base’ materiality naively pre-critical, whilst readers approaching the work from the domain of a ‘Nietzschean’ critical materialism will scent something suspiciously dialectical about many of Bataille’s formal argumentative moves. Bataille does indeed suffer from all manner of faults at the level of methodology, often crushing together statistical studies, myth, dialectics, genealogy, poetry and appeals to biological ‘fact’.
‘Yet in a way this failure (or, refusal) to make explicit any kind of harmonic synthesis between his approaches to the impossible (non-)object of his enquiry is entirely appropriate for an attempt at understanding the nature of radical disruption. The extent to which one considers his bricolage enlightening may ultimately be undecidable on theoretical principles alone. For some, the ragged urgency of Bataille’s mission may lead them to excuse him on similar grounds to Malcolm X’s “…by any means possible”. For others, it may provoke something closer to bewildered horror, as when Colonel Kurtz asks “Do you think my methods are unsound?” and Captain Willard answers “I don’t see any methods, Sir.” Throughout Eroticism Bataille is keenly aware of the difficulties involved in the attempt to communicate and justify one’s journey into radical alterity, given the paradox of language as method for communicating only the commonest experiences (see particularly his chapters on DeSade in Part II).
‘Anybody interested in the darker side of the arts, social sciences and humanities, or who is interested in destroying their lives as utile subjects should read this book.’ — Mark Price
‘Erotism’ @ goodreads
Cogent thoughts of a sick mind
off the shelf: Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality
Eroticism, violence, and sacrifice: A postmodern theory of religion and ritual
Sexuality in organizations: An approach based on Georges Bataille’s theory of eroticism
Consumption, Transgression, Eroticism: Watching Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day with Georges Bataille
Fetishism: Georges Bataille and Sexual-Textual Transgression
“As-Far-as-The-Eye-Can-See (At the Limit of Vision)”
Interview de Georges Bataille sur l’art et l’angoisse.
Georges Bataille : la mort à l’oeuvre par Michel Surya
Débat entre Georges Bataille & André Maurois: Où en est la critique littéraire? (1948)
‘In [the interview], Bataille appeared relaxed and handsome, and scandalous (for the times) beneath an absolutely serene exterior (his way of saying the worst of things with an air of innocence was all his own). He talked about literature and what was ‘essentially childish’ and infantile about it. It is a childishness that literature has in common with eroticism: ‘It seems to me to be very important to perceive the infantile nature of eroticism.’ Evidently Bataille was little concerned about demonstrating that eroticism was innocent in the sense that morality would like to understand it. It has the cruel, black innocence of childhood. To understand it, we must reflect on what Bataille said of Gilles de Rais: ‘We could not deny the monstrosity of childhood. How often would children, if they could, be a Gilles de Rais.’ It is a monstrously happy childhood that Bataille was thinking of, a childhood that has no limits except those imposed by law (by authority). And literature is dangerous because it is linked to childhood; because it is the element within us that is open to childhood that it is essential for us to ‘confront the danger’ in it, and that it is essential, through it, to ‘perceive the worst’.
‘It was Bataille’s first and last television appearance. He was too tired to remember what he had found to say (though in fact he had been clear to a fault); leaving the studio, he only recalled having talked about polygamy, and this was enough to send him into raptures.’ — Surya
Interviewer: First I want to ask you about the name of this book. What evil are you talking about?
Bataille: I think there are two opposite kinds of evil. The first one is related to the necessity of human activity going well and having the desired results, and the other consists of deliberately violating some fundamental taboos like, for example, the taboo against murder or against some sexual possibilities.
Interviewer: As in do evil and act evil.
Interviewer: Does the name of this book indicate that evil and literature are inseparable?
Bataille: Yes, I think so. Maybe it’s not very clear at first, but to me it seems that if literature stays away from evil, it rapidly becomes boring. This might seem surprising. Nevertheless, I think that soon it becomes clear that literature has to deal with anguish and that anguish is based on something that is going the wrong way, something that no doubt will turn into something very evil. When you make the reader see this or, at least, put him in front of the possibility of a story with an evil ending for the characters he’s concerned about (now I’m simplifying what novels are about), when the reader is in that unpleasant situation the result is a tension which makes literature non boring.
Interviewer: So the writers, any good writer, is guilty of something when writing?
Bataille: Most writers are not aware of that, but I think there is a profound culpability. Writing is the opposite of working. This may not sound logical, but still, all the amusing books are efforts that went against real work.
Interviewer: Could you name one or two writers who felt guilty of writing, who thought they were criminals because they were writers?
Bataille: There are two whom I wrote about in my book who are exemplary in that regard. They are Baudelaire and Kafka. Both of them knew that they were on the side of evil, and consequently that they were guilty. With Baudelaire, it’s clear by the fact that he chose the title “Flowers of Evil” for his most intimate writings, and with Kafka, it’s even more clear. He thought that when writing he went against the wishes of his family and therefore he put himself in a guilty position. It’s a fact that his family let him know that it was evil to spend his time writing, that the right thing to do in life was to devote himself to commercial activities, and if you did something else you were doing something evil.
Interviewer: But if being a writer is being guilty of something then for Kafka or Baudelaire, being a writer is also not being very responsible. That was the opinion of their families. This feeling of guilt is for them something childish. Do you think that Baudelaire and Kafka felt guilty of being childish when writing?
Bataille: I think it’s very clear, they even say so. They felt that they were in the same situation as a child before his parents: A child who’s been naughty and who consequently has a guilty conscience because he thinks of his beloved parents who are always telling him what not to do, that it was an evil thing to do in the strongest sense of the word.
Interviewer: But if literature is childish, if writers are guilty of childishness when writing, does that also mean that literature is childishness?
Bataille: I think there is something essentially infantile in literature. It may seem incompatible with the admiration that one has for literature and which I share. But I believe it’s a profound and fundamental truth that you can’t really understand what literature means if you don’t approach it from the child’s point of view, which is not to say from a lower perspective.
Interviewer: You wrote a book on eroticism. Do you think that eroticism in literature is infantile?
Bataille: I’m not sure if literature differs from eroticism in that respect, but I think it’s very important to realize the infantile character of eroticism in general. To feel eroticism is to be fascinated like a child who wants to take part in a forbidden game, and a man fascinated by eroticism is like a child before his parents. He’s afraid of what might happen to him, and he never stops until he has a reason to be afraid. It’s not enough for him to only do what normal adults content themselves with. He has to become scared. He has to find himself in the same situation as when he was a child and constantly afraid of being scolded and even punished in an unbearable way.
Interviewer: Maybe you and I have given the impression that you were condemning this childishness. But in fact, it’s time to go back to the title of your book: “Literature and Evil”. You are not condemning neither literature nor evil. Could you tell us more about the ideas in the book?
Bataille: It certainly is a warning. It says there is danger, but, maybe, once you realize the danger, you have good reasons for confronting that danger. I think it’s important for us to confront the danger that is literature. I think it is a very great and real danger, but that you are not a man if you do not confront that danger. I think that in literature we can see the human perspective in its entirety, because literature doesn’t permit us to live without seeing human nature under its most violent aspect. You only have to think of the tragedies, Shakespeare – there are lots of examples of the same genre. And finally, it’s literature that makes it possible for us to perceive the worst and learn how to confront it, how to overcome it. In short, a player finds in the game the force to overcome what the game contains of horror.
Georges Bataille Erotism: Death and Sensuality
City Lights Books
‘A philosopher, essayist, novelist, pornographer and fervent Catholic who came to regard the brothels of Paris as his true ‘churches’, Georges Bataille ranks among the boldest and most disturbing of twentieth-century thinkers. In this influential study he links the underlying sexual basis of religion to death, offering a dazzling array of insights into incest, prostitution, marriage, murder, sadism, sacrifice and violence, as well as including comments on Freud, Sade and Saint Theresa. Everywhere, Eroticism argues, sex is surrounded by taboos, which we must continually transgress in order to overcome the sense of isolation that faces us all.’
p.s.Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, That’s what I’ll look for, thanks. Apparently they’ve discovered that people who drink coffee every day live longer, yay! ** Jack Skelley, JammingJack! Oh, man, it was rough. It was like Death Valley was vacationing in Paris. Now it’s raining and far more than decent outdoors, at least for the next 24. Thanks about the grab bag, bud. So, I’m assuming we’re watching ‘The White Ribbon’ for Saturday, right? Lurve, me. ** Dominik, Hi!!! It was fucking unearthly. The heat. But good old rain came along and murdered it this morning, at least for the time being. Nice that your bro is around. I’m going to indulge in some seaweed something or other maybe even today since the outdoors is beckoning again. Your love knows me so well! Love floating a spring of mistletoe over the head of every Emo boy in Budapest, G. ** Robert, Hi. Ha ha, right? The heat got murdered in the middle of the night, and it’s honestly kind of sirenic outside my windows this morning. But it was murderous yesterday. ‘The Turin Horse’, excellent. He’s pretty consistently great. Hm, yeah, going to readings seems like a logical ‘in’. I feel like there must be interesting writers in Chicago, but I cant think of any because I rarely know where writers live for some reason. I’ll have a think, and if there’s someone(s) who seem cool who I know at all, I’ll try to hook you folks up. In the meantime writing a bunch seems like a pretty happy solution from my outside perspective. What’re are you working on? ** Steve Erickson, It’s particularly weird here because, unlike NYC, Paris has never had extreme heat before, or not in forever at least, so there’s this heavy wrongness about it that makes it quite scary in addition to being annoying. But the heat is gone as of about 3 am today for the time being. No, I don’t know the Romance album. Hm, worth at a least a dip, it sounds like. So, thanks. If there are (such videos), I didn’t find them when I made that post. In fact, there were a lot more Hades videos in the original, but they got killed by youtube since then, so I suspect there’s less chance of finding that kind of booty now. ** Happy Prince, Hi. Ha, well, you’ve read my work, so that interest of mine can’t be hugest surprise. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever written a friendly, sex-positive sex scene, not because I don’t think real sex isn’t positive, of course, but I sure do think it’s boring and dumb to write and read about. i did not melt, seemingly, although I haven’t looked in the mirror with my glasses on yet. I’m definitely not an expert whatsoever on Mishima and his inner workings and motivations, but I do think the ‘fascist’ tag is extremely simplistic in his case and just lazy thinking. I’ll never understand why people want everything to be resolved and identifiable. It seems delusional and arrogant or something. So, not huge thoughts on my part, and I need more coffee, but there you go. What are your thoughts/analyses? ** Bill, Thanks, Bill. I’m sure we’ll get at least one more of those brutal onslaughts before the summer is over, but hopefully not for a restful few weeks. I don’t know ‘The Projector and Elephant’ or those guys’ work whatsoever. You’re so good at winnowing really good stuff. Anyway, needless to say, I’ll initiate getting them under my belt (or wherever). Bon midweek! ** Okay. I realised the other day that I haven’t done a Bataille post in a long time, and so I did an eeny-miney-mo thing, and the winner was ‘Erotism’. See you tomorrow.