Bataille, Georges (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Georges Bataille 1897-1962
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Lord Auch and Pierre Angelique) French novelist, philosopher, essayist, poet, critic, and editor.
The following entry provides criticism on Bataille's works from 1995 through 2000. For criticism prior to 1995, see CLC, Volume 29.
Bataille's reputation rests largely on his theories of eroticism and mysticism, which he set forth in his philosophical essays and made the basis of his fiction. Although overtly erotic, his works are not usually considered pornographic, for Bataille considered sexual experience to be a means to freedom of the spirit, or “sovereignty.” Bataille's writings continue to fascinate and confound readers; translated into English, his works have become an important source for the continued development of poststructuralist theory.
Bataille was born in Puy-de-Dôme, in central France, on September 10, 1897, to a troubled family. His mother suffered from severe depression and attempted suicide numerous times during Bataille's childhood. He was very close to his father, who became paralyzed and blinded by syphilis before dying in 1915. Bataille converted to Catholicism just before entering the military to serve in World War I; however, his service was cut short due to tuberculosis and was discharged in 1917. Bataille was plagued by ill health and bouts of depression for the rest of his life. He entered a seminary to join the priesthood, but a few years later he experienced a loss of faith. Many of Bataille's fictional works and essays deal with his close and problematic involvements with religion. In 1918 Bataille moved to Paris to study at the École des Chartres, and in 1922 he earned a fellowship to study at the School of Advanced Hispanic Studies in Madrid. Bataille's involvement with the Surrealists in the 1920s ended when André Breton accused him of causing a schism and expelled him from the group; the two would reunite in 1935 to form the anti-fascist group Contre-Attaque. In the late 1920s and 1930s Bataille founded and edited several journals devoted to the subjects in which he was most interested. Critique (1946), the best known of his periodicals, he edited until his death. Bataille also worked as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris from the early 1920s through the mid-1940s. But his tuberculosis and his habit of frequenting brothels in the evenings led to his resignation in 1944. He went on to work as a librarian in both Provence and Orléans. Vexed by financial troubles most of his life, Bataille experienced a serious downturn in 1961. Through an auction organized by his friends Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro, Bataille was able to purchase an apartment in Paris and have a measure of financial security before his death. Bataille died on July 9, 1962.
Bataille sought “sovereignty” through loss of self, which is achieved through transgression and excess, notably through laughter, religious ecstasy, sacrifice, eroticism, death, and poetry. Considering human sacrifice the ultimate transgression, Bataille was fascinated by religious feast days that included rites of sacrifice. This fascination led Bataille to the work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss and to a particular interest in the cultures of the Aztecs and North American Indians. In their use of human sacrifice and potlatch, respectively, Bataille saw an excessive, generous spirit which he admired. As a direct result of this, Bataille wrote an unconventional theory of economics that promoted waste and excess, rather than acquisition. Believing that transgression existed beyond mere words, Bataille constantly battled with the problem of writing the inexpressible. He often used a series of ellipsis points to signify an impasse of expression. In his literary criticism Bataille praised those authors who used language to express transgression and emotion; not surprisingly, Bataille especially admired Marquis de Sade's audaciously erotic works. Bataille was also influenced by G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and the proponents of surrealism. His work shows a remarkable mixture of these influences, while advancing his own unique views. Bataille is probably best known for his erotic novels, particularly Histoire de l'oeil (1928; The Story of the Eye), Le bleu du ciel (1945; The Blue of Noon), and Madame Edwarda (1937; The Naked Beast at Heaven's Gate). These works share a fascinating blend of horror, fantasy, and eroticism. However, Bataille's other works also bear witness to his obsession with these aspects of life. In La littérature et le mal (1957; Literature and Evil) Bataille searched for transgression in the works of Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Emily Brontë, and others. L'expérience intérieure (1943; The Inner Experience) and Méthode de méditation (1947) outline Bataille's thoughts on mysticism, his search for inner silence, and his fascination with images of unbearable pain coupled with ecstasy. In La part maudite (1949; The Accursed Share), Bataille related his belief in excess to economics. Many of Bataille's influential essays have appeared in his journal Critique. Bataille's last book, Les larmes d'Éros (1961; The Tears of Eros) is a study of the history of eroticism and violence. Containing shocking text and photographic images, the book was banned in France upon its publication.
Although Bataille's first work was published in 1928, his works were not translated into English until the 1950s. This, along with the disconcerting nature of some of his themes, led to a delayed, hesitant reception of his writings by American and British critics. Bataille's work has, however, attracted the attention of the most prominent French critics of his time, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes. Bataille is still favored by the intellectual left in France. Since his writing reflects delight in overturning doctrines and modes of classification, scholars and critics have difficulty classifying it. Nonetheless, Bataille is admired for his erudition and his provocative approach to a side of human nature rarely seen in literature.
Histoire de l'oeil [The Story of the Eye] (novel) 1928
Madame Edwarda [The Naked Beast at Heaven's Gate] (novel) 1937
L'expérience intérieure [The Inner Experience] (nonfiction) 1943
Le coupable [The Guilty] (novel) 1944
Somme athéologique (nonfiction) 1944
Le bleu du ciel [The Blue of Noon] (novel) 1945
Sur Nietzsche: Volonte de chance On Nietzsche (nonfiction) 1945
Histoire de rats (nonfiction) 1947
Méthode de méditation (nonfiction) 1947
La part maudite: Essai d'économie generale [The Accursed Share] (nonfiction) 1949
L'abbé C [Abbé C] (novel) 1950
Lascaux; ou, La Naissance de l'art [Lascaux; or, The Birth of Art: Prehistoric Painting] (nonfiction) 1955
L'érotisme [Eroticism] (nonfiction) 1957
L'érotisme; ou, La mise en question de l'être [Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo] (nonfiction) 1957
La littérature et le mal [Literature and Evil] (nonfiction) 1957
Les larmes d'Éros [The Tears of Eros] (nonfiction) 1961
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SOURCE: Besnier, Jean-Michel. “Bataille, the Emotive Intellectual.”1 In Bataille: Writing the Sacred, edited by Carolyn Bailey Gill, pp. 12-25. New York: Routledge, 1995.
[In the following essay, Besnier defends Bataille against his critics who find him to be inferior as an intellectual.]
The question of the intellectual comes back at regular intervals. I don't know if it is a French speciality, but ever since the Dreyfus affair at the beginning of the century, we on the continent have continually involved and compromised our thinkers in current political debates. Some, like Michel Serres, are beginning to show impatience and to demand a right of incompetence in political matters. I tend to think that is so much the better in some cases, but basically I prefer the attitude of someone like Maurice Blanchot, who dreams instead of keeping for himself ‘the right of the unexpected word’, that is to say, the possibility of speaking only sparingly about current affairs, and without it appearing to be a duty.2 In short, French intellectuals are probably still in mourning for Sartre.
No matter: the history of intellectuals, the history of their engagement, of their mistakes, of their slips or of their cowardice, constitutes an important chapter in the cultural and political history of the twentieth century. It is sometimes the pretext for historians of...
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SOURCE: Boldt-Irons, Leslie Anne. “Sacrifice and Violence in Bataille's Erotic Fiction: Reflections from/upon the mise en abîme.” In Bataille: Writing the Sacred, edited by Carolyn Bailey Gill, pp. 91-104. New York: Routledge, 1995.
[In the following essay, Boldt-Irons examines Bataille's notion of sacrifice as it appears in his erotic fiction, notably the element of loss as experienced by the reader and the witness.]
The sacrifice that we consummate is distinguished from others in this way: the one who sacrifices is himself affected by the blow which he strikes—he succumbs and loses himself with his victim.
In both L'expérience intérieure and L'érotisme Bataille declares that his view of sacrifice is to be distinguished from that of others: his view entails the loss of the sacrificer and witness along with the victim, whereas, traditionally, the former are not lost along with the victim, for they profit from the latter's loss and return to continuity. It is this mutual loss of witness and victim in sacrifice that Bataille hopes to realize in his erotic fiction, but to effect a loss in both reader (witness) and fictional character (victim), he must avoid transforming this loss into a gain for the reader.
At the same time,...
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SOURCE: Hollywood, Amy. “Bataille and Mysticism: A ‘Dazzling Dissolution’.” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 26, no. 2 (summer 1996): 74-85.
[In the following essay, Hollywood analyzes parallels between mysticism and the practice of writing in Bataille's works.]
Within Georges Bataille's texts of the late 1930s and 1940s, in particular those later brought together in the tripartite Atheological Summa, he repeatedly suggests that his primary models for writing and experience are the texts of the Christian and non-Western mystical traditions (often represented, in Bataille, by women's writings) and those of Friedrich Nietzsche.1Inner Experience opens with evocations of Nietzsche, and the final volume of the trilogy, On Nietzsche, is “devoted” to his work. References to mystical writings occur throughout Inner Experience and Guilty, and significant portions of both texts can be read as providing “guides” for inner experience analogous to the “itineraries” of Angela of Foligno (d. 1309) and Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) or as spiritual daybooks like those of Mechthild of Magdeburg (d. ca. 1275). These models are, I think, the key to understanding Bataille's own writing strategies in the Atheological Summa.2 Despite their apparent divergence, moreover, Bataille insists that mystical and Nietzschean texts reflect and...
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SOURCE: Noys, Benjamin. “Communicative Unreason: Bataille and Habermas.” Theory, Culture, and Society 14, no. 1 (February 1997): 59-75.
[In the following essay, Noys discusses Jürgen Habermas's criticism of Bataille as an originator of an “anti-modern neo-conservatism.”]
How much blood and cruelty lie at the bottom of all ‘good things’!
(Nietzsche, 1969: 62)
For Jürgen Habermas it is Georges Bataille who stands as the origin of French postmodern neo-conservatism:
To instrumental reason they juxtapose in Manichean fashion a principle only accessible through evocation, be it will to power or sovereignty, Being or the Dionysiac force of the poetical. In France this line leads from Georges Bataille via Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida.
(Habermas, 1985a: 14)
The result is an anti-modernism that attempts to ‘step outside the modern world’ (Habermas, 1985a: 14) and so, objectively for Habermas, finds itself allied with a neo-conservative rejection of modernity. This initial political criticism of Bataille by Habermas, as the originator of an anti-modern ‘young’ neo-conservatism, was then developed into a politico-theoretical analysis and critique of Bataille's function as the originator of the ‘French path to...
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SOURCE: Guerlac, Suzanne. “Bataille: The Fiction of Transgression.” In Literary Polemics: Bataille, Sartre, Valéry, Breton, pp. 11-37. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Guerlac explores various readings, and misreadings, of Bataille's notion of transgression.]
I write for whoever, upon entering my book, would fall into it as into a hole, and would never come out.
—Georges Bataille, in M. Surya, Georges Bataille, la mort à l'œuvre
If there is a single term poststructuralist theory could not do without, it is “transgression,” inherited from Georges Bataille. Bataille elaborated a notion of transgression most explicitly in L'Erotisme (1957), an essay that reworked material from a previously unpublished piece, “L'Histoire de l'érotisme,” and that harks back to a study of “erotic phenomenology” projected as early as 1939. But eroticism is only one modality of transgression, which refers us to an experience of the sacred, the “motive force” of Bataille's thinking.1 Bataille distinguishes the sacred from the profane in economic terms borrowed from the ethnographer Marcel Mauss, whose work impressed Bataille in the late 1920's. In “La Notion de dépense” (1933), Bataille distinguished between what he calls the restrained or utilitarian economy,...
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SOURCE: de Kessel, Marc. “A Sovereign's Anatomy: The Antique in Bataille's Modernity and its Impact on His Political Thought.” In Cogito and the Unconscious, edited by Slavoj Žižek, pp. 199-24. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, de Kessel explores Bataille's concept of sovereignty and its ramifications for geopolitical issues.]
“Man shall not live by bread alone.” Few in our rich and fickle tradition have ever rejected this evangelical proposition outright, and neither has Georges Bataille,1 who adopted it, but in his own way. Although man may live by more than bread alone, for Bataille there is nothing besides bread to live by. In his view, man coincides with the bread he eats, with the work he makes a living from, and with the economy that sustains him. But then, says Bataille, this bready, working, and economic man can also live by nothing; he can ignore the fact that he cannot live by anything else and simply enjoy this light-spirited attitude, even if he is going to pay for it with his life, or at least with everything he possesses, when he, sovereign as he is and fully aware of what he is doing, rejects it, burns it, gratuitously, without any reason, as if Nothing could hurt him, not even the nothingness he keeps. And he cannot be hurt even when he loses this nothingness.
Such an attitude of human beings toward...
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SOURCE: Itzkowitz, Kenneth. “To Witness Spectacles of Pain: The Hypermorality of Georges Bataille.” College Literature 26, no. 1 (winter 1999): 19-33.
[In the following essay, Itzkowitz discusses Bataille's thoughts on the possibility that excessive energy necessarily results in social violence and legal transgression.]
The two opposing values “good and bad,” “good and evil” have been engaged in a fearful struggle on earth for thousands of years; and though the latter value has certainly been on top for a long time, there are still places where the struggle is as yet undecided. … [T]here is perhaps no more decisive mark of a “higher nature” … than that of being a … battleground of these opposed values.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
The more ideal ethics is the better. It must not permit itself to be distracted by the babble that it is useless to require the impossible. For even to listen to such talk is unethical and is something for which ethics has neither time nor opportunity. Ethics will have nothing to do with bargaining. …
—Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
This is the point of my book. I believe that man is necessarily put up against himself and that he cannot...
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SOURCE: Hollywood, Amy. “‘Beautiful as a Wasp’: Angela of Foligno and Georges Bataille.” Harvard Theological Review 92, no. 2 (April 1999): 219-36.
[In the following essay, Hollywood finds parallels in the thought of Bataille and the thirteenth-century Umbrian mystic Angela of Foligno.]
TOWARD A NEW MYSTICAL COMMUNITY
Georges Bataille (1897-1962) was a central figure within twentieth-century French avant-garde circles, yet the importance of his work for the study of religion is only beginning to be recognized.1 Between the First and Second World Wars, he not only edited journals (Documents, Acéphale) and engaged in literary and political movements, but also organized (together with Roger Caillois and Michel Leiris) the College of Sociology, which attempted to bring the sociological methods of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss to bear on the study and pursuit of the sacred. Throughout his work of the 1930s, Bataille sought to reintroduce the sacred into modern industrial, secular societies, which, he argued, believed in God only insofar as they equated God with reason.2 For Bataille, the power of the sacred lies in its ambiguity and violence. Sacrifice and expenditure mark the antithesis of the instrumental rationality of modern bourgeois society; through sacrifice, then, new sovereign communities might be engendered. Religious questions, for...
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SOURCE: Cokal, Susann. “Wounds, Ruptures, and Sudden Spaces in the Fiction of Georges Bataille.” French Forum 25, no. 1 (January 2000): 75-96.
[In the following essay, Cokal explores the connection between eroticism, violence, and disruption in Bataille's fiction.]
When Georges Bataille died in 1962, he was perhaps best known as a librarian and, along with Denis Hollier, co-founder of the Collège de Sociologie. After his death, however, and thanks in part to the upheavals of 1968, his philosophical writings about death, eroticism, and transgression were rediscovered, and their author gradually assumed a place among a new community of avant-garde literary philosophers. Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Jean Baudrillard have all taken pen in hand to appreciate Bataille's philosophical and literary writings.1 Of particular interest have been the two essays L'Érotisme2 and Les Larmes d'Éros,3 in which he expounded controversial theories about the affinity of the erotic and the sacred, sexuality's rupturing effect on continuity of being, and the erotic power of violence (on all of which topics I will elaborate below). His influence on specialists in twentieth-century French literature and eroticism since then has been profound.
Bataille was also a writer of erotic (some would say...
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SOURCE: Connor, Peter Tracey. “Mysticism and Morality.” Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin, pp. 94-153. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Connor argues that Bataille's system of thought engendered an ethical structure despite its inherent paradoxes.]
CONSCIOUSNESS OF OTHERS
On the face of things, the idea that the writings of Georges Bataille might harbor the groundwork for a rigorous rethinking of morality seems somewhat improbable. Given the paradoxical premise of his method—that there be no premise, no uninterrogated ground, but only contestation “without rest”—his entire endeavor appears to be at antipodes to the kind of systemic and regulatory thinking that ethics presupposes. And given his objective to assert a freedom known only in ecstasy and the “inward cessation of all intellectual operations” (IE [Inner Experience], 4, 13; V, 16, 25), it is difficult to imagine how morality could figure for Bataille as anything other than an obstacle to be overcome.
Of course, it is to be expected that Bataille would reject outright all forms of what Karl Jaspers in his Philosophie calls “truth-preaching” ethics—all the prescriptive, reactive moralisms that had already suffered such a severe blow from the pen of Nietzsche, Bataille's mentor in matters of morals.1 From...
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SOURCE: Hussey, Andrew. “‘Le taureau affronté’: Georges Bataille and the Problem of Mysticism.” In The Inner Scar: The Mysticism of Georges Bataille, pp. 1-36. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
[In the following essay, Hussey discusses Bataille's interpretation of mysticism and subsequent critical reaction to it.]
Bataille, abattage d'un humain bétail
—Michel Leiris, Glossaire: j'y serre mes gloses
Since his death in 1962, Georges Bataille has acquired the status of one of the most influential thinkers of the age. It is an irony, however, that this status has been achieved despite the fact that, in his lifetime, Bataille's writings were known only to a relatively small number of people and that, in the years which immediately followed his death, much of his work remained either unpublished or, for other reasons, inaccessible. However, Bataille's current prestige is such that since the publication of the twelve volumes of his Œuvres Complètes, in the 1970s, almost all of his works have been translated into English and other major languages, whilst in France and elsewhere he has been the focus for extensive critical debate in the form of a plethora of essays, monographs and conferences.
It is a further irony that Bataille's posthumous fame, unlike that of former enemies such as André Breton or...
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SOURCE: Hussey, Andrew. “‘The Pathless Path’: Christian Influences on the Language and Process of Inner Experience.” In The Inner Scar: The Mysticism of Georges Bataille, pp. 37-53. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
[In the following essay, Hussey addresses the ways in which Bataille employed traditional elements of Western thought in his development of a theory of spiritual experience.]
I pray God that he may quit me of God
—Meister Eckhart, Sermons
The fact that the title of La Somme athéologique is borrowed from Aquinas' Summa Theologiae indicates how Bataille, although working beyond Christianity, still centres his language and thinking on the Western tradition. Similarly, although inner experience may borrow from the language of Christian mysticism, and in this sense parody it, Bataille still remains faithful to the distinction which Aquinas makes between direct experience of God and writing about this experience.1
More specifically, in the same way that Aquinas sought to construct the argument for existence of God in his Summa out of the separation of theology and philosophy, this chapter will examine the proposition that Bataille's inner experience is based on a process which offers a radical interrogation of the relationship between philosophy and atheology in religious...
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Boldt-Irons, Leslie Anne. “The Fall from and into Grace: Camus and Bataille on Happiness and Guilt.” Nottingham French Studies 36, no. 2 (autumn 1997): 45-56.
Finds that, despite their many philosophical similarities, Bataille and Camus differ fundamentally with respect to their attitudes on happiness and guilt.
———. On Bataille: Critical Essays, translated by Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, 338 p.
Collection of essays on various aspects of Bataille's work by critics including Julia Kristeva and Susan Rubin Suleiman.
Dragon, Jean. “The Work of Alterity: Bataille and Lacan.” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 26, no. 2 (summer 1996): 31-48.
Addresses questions of sexual identity in the works of Bataille and Jacques Lacan.
Johnson, Kendall. “Haunting Transcendence: The Strategy of Ghosts in Bataille and Breton.” Twentieth Century Literature 45, no. 3 (fall 1999): 347-70.
Examines the political symbolism of ghosts in Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil and André Breton's Nadja.
Robberds, Mark. “Visions of Excess: Pynchon and Bataille.” Pynchon Notes, no. 40-1 (spring-fall 1997): 17-27.
Discusses the similarities between...
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