(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Georges Bataille 1897–1962

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms of Lord Auch and Pierre Angelique) French novelist, philosopher, essayist, poet, critic, and editor.

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 considers sexual experience a means to freedom of the spirit, or "sovereignty." Believing that God is absent, Bataille sought "sovereignty" through loss of self, which is achieved by 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 which 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 ellipses points to signify an impasse of expression. His works, as described by Michel Beaujour, "endlessly circle around the instant when language breaks down, as it does in agony and orgasm." In his literary criticism, Bataille praised those authors who used language to express transgression and emotion; not surprisingly Bataille especially admired the 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). 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 Littérature et le mal (1957; Literature and Evil), Bataille searched for transgression in the works of Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and others. L'expérience intérieure (1943) and Méthode de méditation (1947) outline Bataille's experiences in mysticism, his search for inner silence, and his fascination with images of unbearable pain coupled with ecstasy. In La part maudite (1949) Bataille related his belief in excess to economics. Many of Bataille's influential essays have appeared in Critique, the intellectual journal he founded in 1946 and edited until his death.

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.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101, Vols. 89-92 [obituary].)

Jean-Paul Sartre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Bataille has survived God's death and is here in order to bear witness to his failure. "God is silent … everything inside me asks for God."

Modern thought has found two types of absurdity. For some, the fundamental absurdity is "factitiousness," i.e. the irreducible contingency of our "being here," of our purposeless, no-reason existence. For others it is caused by man's being an insoluble contradiction. It is this latter absurdity that Mr. Bataille feels the most vividly. He has read Hegel and agrees that reality is conflict. But for him—as for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Jaspers—there are no-solution conflicts: he has eliminated the moment of synthesis from Hegel's trinity and substituted...

(The entire section is 3968 words.)

Claude Mauriac

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Georges Bataille constantly refers to God, or rather to his eternal absence and the void that he denotes. By inner experience he means what is habitually called mystical experience: meditation, ecstasy, rapture. From the beginning of the first volume of his Somme athéologique (Summa Atheologica),… published in 1943 under the title L'Expérience intérieure (The Inner Experience), the author states that he is thinking less about the confessional experience "than about a bare experience, in no way connected with any confession whatsoever." That is why, he adds, he does not like the word mystic. The states of mind described by mystics "independent, it is true, of the...

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Roland Barthes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil includes several named characters and the narrative of their erotic adventures, he certainly does not give us the story of Simone, Marcelle, or the narrator…. Histoire de l'oeil is actually the story of an object. How can an object have a story? No doubt it can pass from hand to hand (thereby occasioning insipid fictions like The Story of My Pipe or Memoirs of an Armchair); it can also pass from image to image, so that its story is that of a migration, the cycle of the avatars it traverses far from its original being, according to the tendency of a certain imagination which distorts yet does not discard it: this is the case with Bataille's...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Eventually there will be ten volumes of Bataille's Oeuvres complètes, whose plan is chronological. What we have in the four volumes published so far] is a mass of erotica, review articles and poetry,… plus the liberal annotation of two editors…. (p. 233)

Since his death in 1962, Bataille has been hustled up into France's pantheon of sacred monsters, to stand with his seniors—Sade, Lautreamont, Artaud—in a thin black line against the literary establishment's vindictive drive for recuperation. The partisans of these rabid animals trust that they will resist vaccination by time or official criticism and will survive as tutors in subversion, ransoming literature in the eyes of...

(The entire section is 2521 words.)

Raymond Durgnat

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bataille's] variety of literary and intellectual activities are in obvious tension with his contentions in his introduction to Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom. There he argued that language, owing as much as it does to social transactions and conventions, is normally incapable of doing justice to violence which, like eroticism and mysticism, is an essentially private purpose. If this proposition isn't in itself, too surprising, to perfidious Albion, it asserted an obstinate resistance to the French drive towards omniconsciousness. And even the English begin to feel uneasy as Bataille's corollary unfolds; any society founded on communication is founded on a network of lies, which man cannot, however, cease to...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Michel Beaujour

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The essays of Georges Bataille, which identify literature with evil, must seem strangely wrongheaded. They do few of the things that criticism is supposed to do: they do not explain much and they interpret even less; they disregard the formal structure of individual works, and their own structure looks haphazard and fragmentary. Finally, their strictures resemble the most outdated forms of ethical criticism, but they praise only immoral works. Bataille's approach to the written word is perverse, his scorn for the greater part of literature, narrow and uncompromising.

A bizarre terminology borrowed from Hegel, political science, ethnology, economics, and mysticism disconcerts the reader who does not...

(The entire section is 2832 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Georges Bataille, Susan Sontag said, had a "finer and more profound sense of transgression" than Sade [see excerpt above]; and Bataille himself regarded transgression as the fundamental concept in all his thinking…. More than anyone else, Jacques Derrida said of Bataille, he wanted to be Nietzsche—meaning both that he wanted to be Nietzsche more than anyone else did and that he wanted to be Nietzsche more than he wanted to be anyone else. The remark clearly conveys Bataille's passion for Nietzsche—he wrote a book on him and constantly evokes him in his writing—and just as clearly indicates the strange, and strangely limited, nature of Bataille's intellectual enterprise…. [Bataille] often looks like a man...

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Michele H. Richman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Georges Bataille is undoubtedly one of the most elusive figures of French intellectual life to attain legendary status in this century. Variously termed a surrealist, an existentialist, a Hegelian, a Marxist, or a Nietzschean, Bataille is often first identified as the author of erotic novels. Having equated literature with evil, the librarian-philosopher thus earned the title écrivain maudit, and the implied filiations with Sade and Lautréamont are intended to contain his excesses within a literary cliché. But to pigeonhole the unwieldy diversity of this work into traditional classifications perpetrates an ideological bias by clouding the moral imperative that motivated Bataille. (p. 1)


(The entire section is 1988 words.)