Georges Bataille Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Bataille developed a philosophy of excess and exuberance. His claim that human beings need to break rules and pass boundaries in order to realize a sense of the sacred influenced many later thinkers generally identified with postmodern trends in philosophy.

Early Life

Many of the details of Georges Bataille’s early life come from his own writings. It is difficult to know, then, to what extent a painful childhood produced his fascination with the bizarre and to what extent his fevered imagination shaped his presentation of his own background. According to Bataille, his father suffered from blindness and general paralysis brought on by syphilis. The disease gradually drove his father insane, and madness apparently intensified the older Bataille’s dislike of the Catholic religion, because he refused to have a priest present when he died and expired ranting against the Roman Catholic Church. Georges Bataille’s youthful Catholic piety and lifelong attraction to religious feeling may have stemmed from rebellion against this anticlerical father.

In 1900, the family moved from Bataille’s birthplace to the nearby city of Reims. Bataille dropped out of school temporarily in 1913 and became a devout Catholic in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I. The Germans advanced on the city, and Bataille and his mother evacuated, abandoning his father, who could not be moved because his syphilis was in an advanced state.

Young Bataille entered the seminary of Saint-Fleur in 1917, intending to become a monk. The following year, he produced his first-known published work, a six-page pamphlet on Notre Dame de Reims, a cathedral that had been nearly destroyed by German shelling. Bataille foretold the restoration of the cathedral and the restoration of the medieval Catholic spirit of its original builders. However, Bataille lost his faith in 1920, apparently as a result of a romantic involvement with a woman.

Bataille did not lose his interest in things medieval along with his faith. At the famous École de Chartres, he trained to be a librarian specializing in medieval texts. He also obtained a fellowship to study at the School of Advanced Hispanic Studies in Madrid. While traveling in Spain, he witnessed the gory death of a bullfighter, a scene that left a deep impression on him. In 1922, he submitted his thesis on a medieval romance to the École de Chartres, then obtained a position as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he would remain until poor health forced him to resign in 1942.

Life’s Work

During the 1920’s, Bataille published a number of scholarly articles on numismatics, the study of old coins. He also began to lead a second life, one that moved him into the French intellectual and artistic avant-garde. During World War I, disillusionment with the values of European society had led a number of young intellectuals to take up the movement known as Dada, a rebellion against all artistic and social standards. Under the leadership of poet and theorist André Breton, some of the Dadaists formed the Surrealist movement. While Dada was largely dedicated to pure revolt and ridicule, the adherents of Surrealism proposed to create new values out of the unconscious and the irrational.

In 1924, Bataille became friends with Michel Leiris, who was to become involved with Surrealism. Although Bataille had difficult relations with the Surrealists and was often regarded as an enemy by Breton, Bataille and the Surrealists became part of the same Parisian intellectual milieu. Bataille’s fictions and philosophical writings display the hallucinatory, dreamlike quality and exotic, incongruous images associated with Surrealism.

Leiris was one of the few readers of Bataille’s first book, W. C., written in 1926 and later burned unpublished by the author. According to Leiris, W. C. displayed Bataille’s characteristic obsessions with sexuality, excrement, violence, and death. The following year, 1927, Bataille wrote the essay “L’Anus solaire” (published 1931; “The Solar Anus,” 1985), in which he proclaims the sacred connection of all things through parody and sex. Although the essay does not take the form of an argument, it essentially maintains that the verb “to be” (the copula) unifying objects is the same as copulation unifying bodies. With the death of God, there is nothing to maintain the stability of this unification; therefore, all things can become parodies of all other things, and unstable copulation becomes the melting of bodies into bodies in perverse sexuality.

One doctor, a Dr. Dausse, who read W. C. and “The Solar Anus” was so shocked by the obsessive character of the writing that he arranged for Bataille to begin treatment with the psychotherapist Adrien Borel. Familiarity with psychotherapy intensified Bataille’s interest in the role of unconscious drives in human experience. The therapy also helped him to continue to write by clarifying his own emotional complexities. While in therapy, he entered into a brief marriage with the actress Sylvia Makles, later the wife of psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, and had a child.

Bataille’s first published book was the novel L’Histoire de l’oeil (1928; The Story of the Eye, 1977), which appeared under the pseudonym Lord Auch. The novel is an erotic fantasy, influenced by the Marquis de Sade, marked by bizarre, perverse imagery. In 1929, Bataille and a group of associates from the Surrealist movement founded the journal Documents, in which Bataille published a series of essays. These essays, based on things such as photographs of toes and the genitals of plants, dealt with the constantly shifting boundaries of ideas and objects in a godless world.

While editing Documents, Bataille began to read Marxist literature and...

(The entire section is 2429 words.)