A little while back I wrote about Georges Bataille, the highly controversial French theorist. Today I’m tackling a bit more of his thought; in particular a concept that he termed ‘inner experience’, which describes the process of empathizing with another’s pain to the point where one almost loses sight of oneself. You may well be wondering why on earth anyone would want to do this, but Bataille had very clear and decided ideas about humanity. He proposed that we were all ‘discontinuous’, that’s to say irrevocably separated from each other, when what we really want is to be continuous, joined, united. So we might choose to enter into another’s pain for the simple solidarity of shared humanity, except of course in Bataille’s concept of the world it really isn’t that simple: it’s earth-shattering, excruciating, ludicrously dangerous and a kind of blind, intransigent compulsion. But he has another reason, too, entirely bound up with the time in which he was writing. For his experiments into inner experience, Bataille used a series of photographs of a Chinese man being hideously tortured. He knew that this had happened ‘in my lifetime’, and given that he was writing in 1952, the images are quite likely to date from the Second World War in which Bataille could not participate due to his ill health. These details matter, because Bataille, stung by Sartre’s criticism of his work as evading both politics and responsibility, wanted to prove that his theories of isolation were motivated by a fiercely beating heart.
So, Bataille took as a model for inner experience the writings of the medieval mystics, who read sacred texts until they began to hallucinate. This has to be the most extreme form of reader response that anyone has yet come up with, and Bataille wanted to appropriate it, but without the dimension of God in whom he most certainly did not believe. Bataille’s favourite mystic was Saint Angela of Foligno who had intensely dramatic visions in which she experienced Christ’s passion and described it terms of an abyss of darkness and suffering. Bataille thought that what Angela actually saw was her own internal implosion as she hovered on the brink of consciousness. This fits in rather well with Bataille’s theories that we will do absolutely anything to overcome our sense of isolation, even though in practice this is impossible. Angela thought she had bonded with God but Bataille wasn’t so sure: he felt that Angela’s visions showed how close you could get to the very edges of our sense of being, and this suggested to him a form of experience – inner experience – that was the very last station stop on the bus to individual oblivion. So, substituting pictures of a Chinese man being tortured for sacred manuscripts, Bataille contemplated his images until he, too, began to go cross-eyed, and in this painful, ecstatic (literally – ‘ex-stasis’: outside of oneself), shattered condition, Bataille felt that his own experience communed with that of the poor torture victim, and he could share something of an experience he had never been unfortunate enough to undergo.
I can still hear you all calling out ‘WHY?’ Well, just because. Because it’s too easy, when we listen to a story about history, to gloss over the uncomfortable and disquieting reality of it. Because what mankind is capable of doing to itself is something we’d all rather not think about. Because the horrific truth of such events is hard to actually hold in our minds. It’s difficult to understand another person’s pain, difficult and uncomfortable and so we often don’t go there. But the less we understand the pain of others, the more we risk losing touch with our compassion for humanity, and the easier it becomes to damage and maim. Bataille didn’t want to tell this man’s story and translate something gut-wrenchingly visceral into neat and tidy little antiseptic sentences. He thought he could do better than that by entering into the experience with him, feeling it for himself, even at an uncertain historical and geographical remove. Bataille’s thinking mirrors a subtle cultural shift in our understanding of right and wrong, from a focus on morals to a tentative embrace of ethics. I don’t want to get too deeply into the distinction here, but we might think of it as the difference between obeying a set of rules and recognizing that whatever we do, there are other people implicated in our behaviour, people who are not us, not necessarily like us, but whose common individuality must be taken into account. It’s only a small shift in emphasis, but quite a big leap in terms of responsibility. You see, wars mess with our morals. It might be considered morally right to do all you can for your country in times of conflict, but viewed in the light of ethics, the enemy is just another person, who probably wants to be there no more than you do. Bataille’s inner experience was intended to be an act of ethical reparation to victims like his Chinese man who suffered excruciatingly, indescribably in his small and misbegotten moment in time for being on what was nominally the wrong side.
I understand what Bataille is trying to do, and I’m intrigued by it. This is a part of his theories I’ve returned to time and again in my work because it shifts restlessly in dark corners of my mind. I couldn’t do what Bataille did, however. I say this not to undermine him but to mark out a difference of perspective. I find it very difficult at times to look at someone suffering because I’m a porous kind of person who has trouble keeping the pain of other’s out. I couldn’t look at that photograph because it would be intolerable not to be able to do anything for that man, it would be a statement of my ultimate impotence as a human being who might want to help. I couldn’t change the course of history, or prevent him from suffering, or ease his pain in any way. I don’t need to hypnotize myself with images of torture to be able to imagine how torture feels, and I’m not sure what value to assign even the most vivid of my imaginings. But don’t get me wrong, Bataille has had his critics over the concept of inner experience but I am not one of them. Whatever the outcome of Bataille’s experiments in inner experience, they were intended not to evade the darkest moments of history, but to courageously and intimately confront them.