Georges Bataille Bataille, Georges (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

L'impossible [The Impossible] (nonfiction) 1962

Le petit (essays) 1963

Procès de Gilles de Rais: Les Documents [Trial of Gilles de Rais] (nonfiction) 1965

Ma mère [My Mother] (novel) 1966

Le mort (short stories) 1967

Oeuvres complètes. 12 vols. (collected works) 1970-88

Théorie de la religion (nonfiction) 1974

Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (nonfiction) 1985

The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism (nonfiction) 1994

Collected Poetry (poetry) 1998

Jean-Michel Besnier (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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Amy Hollywood (essay date summer 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Benjamin Noys (essay date February 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Suzanne Guerlac (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marc de Kessel (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Itzkowitz (essay date winter 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Amy Hollywood (essay date April 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.]


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...

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Susann Cokal (essay date January 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Tracey Connor (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.]


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...

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Andrew Hussey (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrew Hussey (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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....

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