When Librarians Turn Bad

Georges Bataille is one of those extraordinary people whose bizarre life and times almost defies plausibility. Born to a suicidal mother and a paralysed, syphilitic father, he trained as a priest before losing his faith, and an academic before opting for the quieter life of a librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. His evenings he spent down the brothel, which did nothing for his tuberculosis, or his reputation at work, but could actually have been justified in the name of metaphysical research. Not that Bataille would ever have felt the need to justify himself; he was fascinated with sex, death, degradation and the power of the obscene and these issues lie at the heart of his philosophical and literary oeuvre. Sharing this privileged spot is also, and surprisingly, the concept of the sacred, for Bataille saw in sex, death and religious ecstasy the same basic human need to transcend our frustrating imprisonment in one body and one mind. For Bataille the tragedy of human existence is the fact of our individual isolation, or what he called discontinuity. In his vision of the world we long to transcend our limits in a violent, destructive act of communion with the other, be that God, the material world or another person, thus achieving the continuity we so desire.

Bataille wasn’t daft though; he realised just how necessary those limits were to our own sense of transcendence. The kind of intense pleasure Bataille is interested in only comes at the cost of secret, sometimes shameful transgression. In fact he suggests that taboos were created just so that we could have the pleasure of transgressing them; laws are made to be broken, to his mind, because it’s like an itch that can only be scratched by doing something bad, something forbidden. So Bataille’s writings can be quite hard to swallow because he concentrates upon, and magnifies, the part of the human soul that civilisation strictly represses; the excessive, aggressive, law-breaking, violent, downright ugly impulses that are absolutely part and parcel of the human condition but for which we don’t like to feel responsible. The part that outrages nice-thinking, law-abiding, well-brought-up folk who wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Except of course the very fact of being human means we cannot whitewash our souls, cannot eradicate the unpleasant drives in order just to polish up the jolly, socially acceptable ones. It’s better, Bataille says, to get the darkness out from time to time and have a good look at it. Well, actually no, that’s entirely my take on the situation, what Bataille would really say is: Abandon restraint and revel in it.

So Bataille is interested in the lost art of carnival, for instance, in its old medieval format of unconstrained feasting, revelling and rampaging. He’s interested in what used to happen when, say, a King died, and his funeral was followed by a few days of complete lawlessness for the population. During this period the people indulged bigtime; in food, drink, orgies, rioting, whatever took their fancy really. And then at the end of the designated period the new King took over and order was accepted and restored. Bataille approved wholeheartedly of such an arrangement, because law and disorder are necessary to one another in his mind, essential counterparts, not warring factions. I kind of see his point. I do think our contemporary world has got itself into a bit of fix in its well-intentioned liberality. Nowadays we try to tell ourselves that our human rights mean it can be carnival all the time if we like, and yet simultaneously we are all supposed to agree to want world peace, economic success, equal rights for every individual fly, and so on. Bataille would have said that humans just aren’t made that way, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

If you think this makes Bataille into a rioting, violent bully boy, think again. I’m particularly fond of the anecdote about the secret society Bataille began in order to found a new religion. It was called Acephale (or the headless one) and was supposed to be inaugurated by a ritual sacrifice. Every single member agreed to be the victim, and every single member refused outright to be the executioner. Eventually it was disbanded. And for me, Bataille’s most interesting work concerns his fascination with mysticism, whose structure he attempted to apply to a more human scale. For instance, he became particularly entranced by the photographic image of a Chinese man undergoing torture. By concentrating on this photo to the point of being almost hypnotised by it (much as a mystic would concentrate on biblical scripture), Bataille felt he could actually share this man’s pain, and such an act of communion he termed ‘inner experience’. Bataille wanted to claim a political dimension to this act, an ethical form of engagement that I think reveals to some extent his awful guilt at not being able to fight in two world wars because of ill-health. But it’s also part of the French understanding of politics as comprising an extremely important conceptual dimension; revolution only comes about by changing how people think, not just how people act. But let’s turn this around once again: Bataille’s act, however compassionate and politically motivated it may be, can do nothing for the man who actually suffered, in fact, it could seem almost parasitic upon his pain. There’s a complicated web of interpretations to be spun around this kind of mental engagement, and at the heart of it a difficult, unwieldy truth that Bataille wants us to acknowledge. Inner experience of this nature – intense, excessive, debilitating, overwhelming, is completely resistant for Bataille to significance. We can’t make it mean anything (the usual human route to reassurance in all its forms), it just is, and that is that. Because the experience of death, or sexuality or pain is so intense, we long to bubblewrap it up in layers of lovely, distancing meaning, but the unpalatable truth, according to Bataille, is that the drama of experience cannot be mitigated this way.

So I would advise any reader to approach the works of Bataille with caution. I read The Story of the Eye on a train, innocently unaware of its content, and I didn’t know where to put myself. On the one hand I wanted to hold the book at arm’s length, on the other I did not wish to share it with any travelling companions. It’s certainly not for the fainthearted. However, and equally, I would advise any open-minded and adventurous reader to try something by Bataille, Inner Experience or Guilty, or The Trial of Gilles de Rais being interesting places to start. Treat it as a kind of reading carnival – a non-judgemental plunge into the tumultuous side of existence, free from the usual restraints of good taste and organised meaning.

18 thoughts on “When Librarians Turn Bad

  1. I feel like I’ve had a mini history lesson this morning! Great job with the review of a book/person that I’ve never heard of. Sounds quite fascinating. Was having a really similar conversation, on a much smaller level, with a guy last night which I was reminded of while reading this.

  2. Carl, I’ve just been signing up for your R.I.P challenge, and here indeed is an author who is capable of making your hair stand on end. Not quite in the Gothic sense, however!

  3. Do you think Bataille would say his chosen path — the sex/death/mysticism exploration — is the only right one to transcendence of the body? Or does he allow that other paths (say, religion, or the search for extraterrestrial life or literary criticism [all of these to my mind are attempts to commune with something beyond, to “know God”]) are valid and effective for different individuals? Or would those people necessarily be in denial, too caught up by the trappings of society?

    Because while whatever the path, “We can’t make it mean anything (the usual human route to reassurance in all it’s forms), it just is, and that is that.” — we DO make it mean something, or try to make it mean something, delude ourselves that it might mean something. That’s pretty essential to the human experience, the quest for meaning. So is Bataille a nihilist? But if there’s a poitical dimension, is it about self-awareness then? Is it individual or communal?

    I’m fascinated by this carnival aspect. In one of the only literature courses I ever took, early 20th c Polish lit, we ran through its influences, the artistic and political movements of the time, and the idea of the spirit of the fin de siècle really interested me — that the 90s of every century are tumultuous, full of abandon and revelry. Strikes me as similar to the period between kings you describe. I do wonder how necessary such periods are as catalysts of change, to inspire progress. Only, the end-of-century carnival is anticipation of something, rather than a response to a break in the order of things. Our government/society has evolved such that we longer experience these breaks; meanwhile the speed of progress imbues the 20th c with a sense of ‘the end is near’ (is that feeling stronger now than ever before in history?); so carnival spills out more regularly and intensely, so as to be almost normalized.

    Sorry for rambling here. I’ve only come across mentions of Bataille in passing and will definitely be looking him up.

    Oh, by the way, I looked him up on Wikipedia and followed some links. If you’re ever inspired (hint) to post about “literature of transgression” or “decadence,” I’m all ears.

  4. Isabella – interesting and complex nuances that you bring up here. I think that sex/death/mysticism are Bataille’s privileged routes to transgression. I don’t think he denies there may be others; it’s just these are the ones he’s interested in. As to the question of meaning, I don’t think Bataille’s a nihilist – his own metaphysical writings are imbued with the spirit of meaning creation. I read on a website somewhere (unfortunately can’t remember where) that ‘his work insists dramatically on the priority of experience’, which seems to me like an excellent formulation. So the experience comes first, and that particularly intense experience doesn’t signify beyond it’s own power and impact. BUT we may and do hasten after it with meaning, and we may also do something with it in the political arena. Bataille’s philosophy accompanies the experience, contextualising and historicising it, examining its structures and it’s place in the scheme of existence, drawing unexpected links to similar events and generally stirring around in the very murky depths at the bottom of subjectivity. Well, academics argue endlessly over this kind of thing, but that’s my own understanding of it. I think what you have to say about carnival is very interesting indeed – we are in such drastic need of a debate about the prevalent atmosphere of apocalypse and unrest. And I am fond of both transgression and decadence in literature and will gladly post on them in the future!

  5. Litlove, thank you for this wonderfully interesting post. I had no idea this is what Bataille is all about — he’s just a name I’ve come across and thought, hmm. French philosopher or something. This idea of the exploration and experience of all that we repress as getting us closer to a transcendence we long for is disturbing and provocative. And, best of all, you’ve ended with a few suggestions for what to dip into to get a taste of this — I wouldn’t have had any idea of where to go to do that. (By the way, that description of how you felt on the train is terrific!) Thanks for waking me up this morning!

  6. If you feel like trying something, Bloglily, do start with The Trial of Gilles de Rais – it’s an analysis of a real historical figure – a monstrous man – and Bataille excels at the creepy details and the clever deconstruction. Waking up with Bataille isn’t something I’d regularly recommend, but I’m very glad it worked today!

  7. Litlove,
    Stellar piece. It had me hooked from the beginning. I have to say the chap sounds pretty awful in one sense but intriguing in another.

    I think I may have to add a book to my TBR pile though it may be some time before Bataille’s turn comes around!

  8. Pingback: Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 01/09/06 « Eoin Purcell’s Blog

  9. Thanks for this. My second-hand impression was that he was just sex and violence but you’ve placed it in a context that makes it more than that. I will definitely give him a try sometime.

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  11. Good, it seems wordpress takes care of everything. First of all, I truly enjoyed this post – you don’t come around to people who can actually appreciate what Bataille is all about and are ready to openly discuss his ideas too often. Or, really, at all.

    I also don’t think Bataille was a nihilist. There’s an essay, the exact title of which I cannot remember, that discuesses at length the principles of a heterogenism. Bataille’s heterogenism expressed a belief that all consisted of two parts – the first being ‘appropriation’ and the second – ‘expulsion’ (the exact words may not be exact translations of Bataille’s words, as I’ve the essay in Bulgarian). Therefore, he attempted to somehow give a sense of order to the world. Had he been a nihilist, he wouldn’t even dream of doing this. In his philosophic writings, he was heavily influenced by the works of Hegel and Nietzche, while at the same time maintaining a codex of his own that bordered on mysticism.

    It is only natural to dub him, philosophy’s bad boy and devil incarnate, a nihilist. Nevertheless, he was far from being one – his philosophy appears devious and wicked not because it goes against the foundations of our world, but because it takes a look at the foundations we are usually taught to ignore, the ones on the other side of the moral spectre, that is, the ones of ‘expulsion’.

    I tend to believe that Bataille was a non-religious, or atheistic, mystic. He discussed transgression as a way to ‘hypnotize’ oneself and actually stated that he thought the tortured Chinese man was enjoying what had been happening to him. He, of course, praised eroticism as ‘assenting to life in death’. His relationship with surrealism, a movement he was never a participant in, yet he revolved around, unveils another view of his, this time on the modern myth – ‘The modern myth is the belief that a modern myth does not exist’ (translation might once again be horribly, horribly incorrect). And, had he been a nihilist and not a mystic, he would have probably slain the belief in myths altogether, instead of providing us with a verbal gem that, having been decoded, reveals that Bataille thought that the modern lie was that one did not exist, i.e. that a modern lie, or modern myth, actually does exist.

  12. I agree with all that you say, orlinator. If you ever remember the title of that essay you mention, I’d be very grateful to know what it is. I hadn’t come across that opposition between expulsion and appropriation before and would be glad to read more about it.

  13. Pingback: Georges Bataille’s ‘inner experience’ « Jahsonic

  14. The Story of the Eye is one of the really great books of C20 in my view; it is one of those especially rare books that treats sex (in all its amazing and appalling aspects) really seriously and he writes so very well (I only read an English translation I hasten to add). He is indeed as far away from “just sex and violence” asTolstoy is from being just a military historian.

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