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Inner Experience was one of three books written by Georges Bataille during World War II in an attempt to express his philosophy of the sacred in human life. The other two volumes were Le Coupable (1944; Guilty, 1988) and Sur Nietzsche (1945; On Nietzsche, 1992). After the war, Bataille reworked these books somewhat and named them La Somme athéologique (summa atheologica). This general title was intended to recall the Summa theologiaea (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921) of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the principal statement of Catholic religious philosophy during the Middle Ages. Bataille envisioned his work, in contrast to that of Aquinas, as an atheistic religious philosophy.
In style, Inner Experience and the other two books have little in common with the systematic, logical exposition of Aquinas. Instead, they are chiefly aphoristic, consisting of fragmented exclamations and images. This is consistent with Bataille’s intent in offering an alternative to the thinking represented by Aquinas. Although traditional philosophy is held together by a supreme being from whom all reason is derived and toward whom all reason proceeds, Bataille’s philosophy has no supreme being or center to maintain a systematic logic.
Although Bataille was an original thinker, Inner Experience shows the influence of a number of currents of thought. These include religious mysticism, Dada and Surrealism, and the vitalist tradition that gave rise to modern existentialism. Although the general title La Somme athéologique echoes Saint Thomas Aquinas, the rapturous tone of Inner Experience recalls the writings of Christian mystics such as Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. In his youth, Bataille was a devout Catholic and briefly planned to become a monk. Even after losing his faith, the premodern Christian religious heritage remained a part of Bataille’s background because he was educated as a medieval librarian.
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Religious mysticism was a premodern influence on Bataille, and other influences were distinctly antimodern. The scientific, rational, and progressive attitudes characteristic of the modern perspective emerged with the development of industrial civilization. During World War I, many Europeans began to feel disillusioned with modern society. Among intellectuals, the disillusionment gave rise to the Dada movement, an artistic and philosophical rebellion against progress and rationality. Surrealism followed Dada, replacing Dada’s pure rebellion with an exaltation of the irrational, the unconscious, and the life of dreams. Bataille had close personal connections with many members of the French Surrealist movement and his writing often shows the spontaneity and startling, hallucinatory imagery associated with Surrealism.
The vitalist reaction against modernism opposed the logic and science of the modern worldview with intuition, instinct, and personal experience. In the nineteenth century, thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche asserted the primacy of flowing existence over abstract logic. The early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, whose teachings inspired the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, helped to make the vitalist approach a central part of French intellectual life by presenting a vital impulse, approachable only by intuition, as the fundamental reality. Bataille’s own views of inner experience as intuitive and irrational in character owe a great deal to this vitalist trend in French thinking.
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Inner Experience is an unusual philosophical work. Both the style of the book and the ideas in it are difficult for most readers. It does not present a systematic argument or relate a narrative. Instead, it consists of loosely organized fragments. Its style often seems to have more in common with poetry than with traditional philosophical prose, and the author’s intent in writing is as much to induce a rapturous, hypnotic state of mind in himself and in the reader as it is to give voice to ideas. In part, the book consists of a commentary on the mystical experience that unfolds as the author tries to evoke such an experience through his writing. In part, it consists of autobiographical pieces that describe Bataille’s own mystical experiences.
The 1954 edition, which is the edition that was translated into English, consists of five parts. The first part, entitled “Sketch of an Introduction to Inner Experience,” comes closest to traditional philosophical exposition. In this section, Bataille defines his concept of inner experience and describes his method for achieving this state. Inner experience is similar to religious mysticism insofar as both involve rapture and ecstasy, or the surpassing of the limitations of the usual self. Loss of self in Bataille’s state, though, does not lead to any ultimate union with God. Rapture, or the surpassing of the self, has no goal beyond itself.
According to Bataille, one reaches rapture through “dramatization.” Although his use of this term is obscure, dramatization apparently involves breaking the boundary between oneself and the supposedly external world by investing the world with emotional intensity and then allowing the words or images used to achieve that intensity to dissolve into nothingness. From this perspective, religious rituals would be a means of dramatizing existence, of bestowing a special intensity on objects and actions. This type of intensity is, according to Bataille, experience at the extreme limit of the possible. At the end of the first part of this work, Bataille slips into a series of observations on how Hindus, Christian mystics, and the philosopher Nietzsche have attempted to surpass the limits of ordinary existence.
The second part, entitled “The Torment,” resembles the inspired writings of the Christian mystics. It is a poetic evocation of the anguish entailed in the urge to ecstasy and of the release from anguish when one reaches the ecstatic state. Giving his own ecstasy at a French monastery on the Isle of Wight as an example, Bataille proclaims that ecstasy is not achieved by knowledge but by the realization of “non-knowledge.” Knowledge is a relationship between a subject and an object. Ecstasy is a matter of erasing the distinction between the subject and the object.
The first two parts, then, basically involve setting up something like a reasoned argument for the necessity of going beyond reason and then plunging into a state beyond reason. The third part, “Antecedents to the Torment (or the Comedy),” is a collection of Bataille’s writings from the 1930’s. These are chiefly aphorisms on the flow of life and on gaining access to the universal.
The fourth part, “Post Scriptum to the Torment (Or the New Mystical Theology),” returns to something like a philosophical argument. It is a series of meditations on God, René Descartes, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, ecstasy, and fortune. Despite the references to the philosophers, these are not logical analyses or refutations, but reflections on the nature of knowledge and activity. Bataille refers to both knowledge and activity as “projects,” or the pursuit of goals. Bataille rejects “projects,” or goal-oriented activities, because these involve postponing existence while pursuing a goal outside present existence. Following Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, Bataille announces that there are no ultimate standards and no goals to be achieved. The only projects that are acceptable are those projects, like this book, whose ultimate purpose is to lead beyond themselves and then destroy themselves, to become purposeless.
God, Bataille indicates in his meditation on the supreme being, is beyond all things and therefore is nothingness and has knowledge of his own nothingness. God is thus an atheist. Observations such as these make it clear that Bataille’s “atheism” differs radically from that of the scientific materialist. In fact, Bataille points out in his meditation on the sixteenth century philosopher Descartes, modern science is based on rational discourse, which is founded on an intuition of an ultimate reality. If the ultimate reality is groundless, though, rational discourse becomes an illusion.
The dialectical reasoning of nineteenth century philosopher Hegel, Bataille maintains, is also ultimately illusory and unsatisfying. Hegel argued that consciousness creates reality when the known confronts the unknown and the confrontation results in a new and higher form of the known. However, for Bataille, non-knowledge is the source of all knowledge, and the movement of knowledge is toward its own empty, illusory character.
Having established his “new theology” as an antitheology, an argument for the nonexistence of God and for mysticism as movement toward emptiness, Bataille finally moves beyond even fragmentary prose. In the fifth part, “Manibus Date Lilia Plenis” (“Give Lilies by the Handful”), he breaks into rapturous poetry on the glories of union with the ultimate, which is the final mystical self-annihilation.
Inner Experience was controversial from the time it was first published. The celebrated philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published an article entitled “Un Noveau Mystique” (“A New Mysticism”) in 1947, objecting to the book’s obscure language, its emotionalism, and its mystical elitism. While claiming to destroy the sovereign self, Sartre maintained, Bataille was actually creating a myth of a higher, mystical self, a false and antidemocratic ideal. Further, Sartre felt that the book reached no conclusions, led nowhere, and was therefore ultimately pointless.
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The ideas on the sacred that Bataille developed in Inner Experience and the other books of the war years did, however, lead to a further progression in Bataille’s own thinking. Bataille contrasted “projects,” work and other goal-oriented activities, with the sacred; he maintained that projects were illusory and the emptiness of the sacred was the true origin of action. These views led Bataille, in the three-volume La Part maudite (1949; The Accursed Share, 1988, volume 1; 1991, volumes 2-3), to develop a theory of political economy. Bataille maintained that economic systems, like organisms, grow because they accumulate energy as they seek to surpass their own limitations and to become what they are not. When they reach the limits of growth, they can only become what they are not by squandering their energy and by self-destruction. Thus, whether one agrees with Bataille’s political economy or not, one may see his mystical views as premises for some intriguing and original conclusions about the irrational basis of human social and economic relations.
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Although the obscurity and apparent nihilism of works such as Inner Experience have repelled some readers, others have been drawn to Bataille by precisely those qualities. The philosopher Michel Foucault praised Bataille for his violation of boundaries and for his destruction of the philosophical subject. Other philosophers of the French poststructuralist trend, such as Jacques Derrida, have admired Bataille for his playful self-contradictions and self-refutations, which they see as the refusal to accept an ultimate truth.
Bataille began to attract a following (or a cult, some critics might say) among American academics during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The English translation of Inner Experience appeared at approximately the same time that translations of many other works of this author became available, and it was widely discussed in academic circles concerned with modern European thinking.
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Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. A collection of Bataille’s early writings, with a helpful introduction by the editor that can provide general readers with some insight into the development of Bataille’s thinking.
Drury, Shadia B. Alexandre Kojève: The Roots of Postmodern Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Examines the influence of the ideas of Alexandre Kojève, a Russian thinker who introduced the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to many French thinkers, including Georges Bataille. Chapter 8 looks specifically at how Kojève’s Hegelian teachings affected Bataille’s philosophical views.
Hollier, Denis, ed. The College of Sociology, 1937-1939. Translated by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. A collection of writings by Bataille and his colleagues, during the period of the College of Sociology, on their attempts to develop a sacred sociology. In addition to writings by Bataille, it includes lectures by other participants such as Michel Leiris and Roger Caillois. The editor is one of the foremost French authorities on Bataille and his circle. Hollier’s discussion of the College of Sociology in the foreword will provide useful background for readers seeking to learn about Bataille and French intellectual circles on the eve of World War II.
Land, Nick. The Taste for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (An Essay in Atheistic Religion). New York: Routledge, 1992. A philosophical essay on Bataille’s ideas on the sacred. The writing is difficult and the book is probably best suited for readers who already have some familiarity with Bataille’s work.
Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Macmillan, 1965. The authoritative history of the Surrealist movement, written by one who participated in it. This work explains the intellectual climate that shaped Bataille’s thoughts and writing.
Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. London: Bloomsbury, 1995. This biography of the leader of the Surrealist movement offers readers a view of the radical intellectual and artistic circles that surrounded Bataille in Paris. It also gives a history of the difficult relations between Breton and Bataille and discusses Bataille’s criticisms of the Surrealists.
Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille. New York: Routledge, 1994. The most thoroughly researched and dependable biography of Bataille available in English. It also offers a readable introduction to Bataille’s thinking.
Stoekl, Allan. Politics, Writing, Mutilation: The Cases of Bataille, Blanchot, Roussel, Leiris, and Ponge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. An examination of the use of language in the writings of Bataille and his colleagues. Stoekl sees Bataille and the others as precursors of deconstructionist philosophers and literary critiques, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who look at writing and other forms of expression as reflections of political and social relations.