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.