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.