My Verdict on Bataille

After having read Bataille extensively over decades, lived with his philosophy as an active factor in my life at various times, and written a great deal about him–Sovereign Disregard (2020), Evil Compassion (2017), General Energy (2015), Midnight Strike (2014), Intimate Dark (2013), Death, Resurrected (2012)–I share here a brief “verdict.”

The core of Bataille’s philosophy is insubordination. The virtue he extolled was uselessness–useless expenditure, dépense inutile. To his mind, man was only “free” when his action had no “goal” or “end” to it–except to assert a freedom-from which dissolves in sovereign laughter, for it “cancels” out everything, renders the universe an absence. Bataille sought to keep thought alive at that sovereign or comic moment when thought reaches its end and only “NOTHING” is there.

Henri De Lubac says that monism is the temptation of all mysticism, and I believe Bataille fell for it. He saw the “separate self” to be a lie, a product of social labor. The self that has past, present, future, he argued, is subordinate to maintaining its own being. Survival inherently alienates us, for it enslaves us to our own identity and makes us work to preserve it in time. Bataille wanted, instead, for the self to risk itself to death. By death the separate self is ripped outside and beyond itself. It is restored to what he called “continuity of Being” (which, philosophically, proves interchangeable with “NOTHING,” the monist trap: emptiness and fullness oscillate at the edge of possible and actual).

But Bataille wanted more than an Eastern-style dissolution of self. He was not content with meditation or self-inquiry (vichara), a safe and peaceable withdraw from risk. He believed about the opposite: it is through torture, sex, ecstasy, violence, poetry, that we communicate most intensely with the “continuity of Being.” His is still working on this in his late text, “Method of Meditation” collected in The Unfinished Science of Non-Knowledge. He wanted to restore us to continuity through experiences of discontinuity, rupture, risk, exposure, chance.

I believe Bataille was fascinated by the function of suffering (he called it “laceration”) in our approach to the divine. For him the Divine is intense communication with the borderless/boundless All–of such an intensity that the boundaries of the isolated being are torn beyond reconstitution (though the “decline” from the “summit” is inevitable, much to Bataille’s annoyance; see On Nietzsche). “Being is communication,” he thought, and communication never leaves its participants whole and intact. It is in this “laceration” that he places sin, and valorizes it for its violation of individual integrity (as well as its insubordinate, morality-overturning quality). Thus Bataille was unable to think an “unwanted” laceration or theorize communication of a caring type, and so he got stuck with a very lonely, ‘no one understands me’ sort of inquiry. It is Bataille’s void-self against an uncomprehending and opaque world–a darkness into which he jumps for his singular salvation. Likewise, his focus on the vital aspect of “mystical” pleasure blinded him to its stabler, less violent forms. This is all in line with the “fascination with death” in French thinking at the time (see Betty Rojtman’s work by that title).

In Indian terms, I believe Bataille may have realized the cosmic Self (Atman), but he did so at the level of the pranamaya-kosha, the force/energy body or “vital sheath.” I believe this a plausible cause for his love-hate relationship with discursive thought, systematic thinking, and language in general. In the Indian system, above the pranamya-kosha is the manomaya-kosha, the “mind sheath.” As he aged, he warmed to rational analysis, if only because he wanted his ideas to be preserved, well-presented and understood; but he never lost his drive to descend lower. He idealized the animal’s being like water in water (Theory of Religion) similar to how he idealized the juvenile in literature (Literature and Evil).

In Western terms, Bataille lacked an adequate meditation on the Cross. He was never able to incorporate Christ into his thought, and I do not recall any direct confrontation with Jesus himself. He only wrestled with forms of Christianity he detested (a conversation with Fr Marechal is typical: Bataille is not interested in dialogue but in stressing his contrary definition of terms), or those that leaned in the direction of “mystic excess.” He had a strong taste for the dramatic (witness the tone of the whole Summa Atheologica), and was easily taken in by ecstatic supports. He had a very butchered idea of God, thinking that God “had” to maintain the universe and was thus not free to not maintain it (hence God is subordinate to his own creation, “not allowed to sin,” as Nietzsche put it). All this betrays an underlying assumption that it is better to take than to give; and that in the cosmic scheme it is one’s own suffering that matters most (opposite to Christ, who dies for his friend’s sake). When The Accursed Share vol. III ends with the alternative: Nietzsche or Communism–and Bataille chooses Nietzsche simply because the communist has to give up his sovereignty for the sake of the party–what is so striking (and naive) is his exclusion of Christ as an option. This is doubly strange as in that work he is obsessed with death, freedom, eternity, and Kingship.

Bataille remains within an apathetic and Sadean paradigm. He is unable to commit to worldly improvement, yet instead he finds a ‘heavenly abyss’ he called “going to the limits of the possible” or “humanity is divine when experiencing its limits”—all of which let down and return to the starting point: a void in a void seeking to void itself. Bataille should be situated in a line of ‘anti-Christs’ who sought to redefine being by lawlessness—or at least taught that man, to break his fetters, must say No to actuality and necessity of every sort, accepting only the lacerating leap beyond whatever is–even if it means man’s annihilation. (As a representative of all that’s off with modern voluntarism and possibilism, few bring home the lesson better.)

Had Bataille encountered Christ, he might have come to understand that suffering out of obedience is freer than suffering for liberation; and that “mystical experience” points not to an impersonal One-Moment that negates personhood (monism), but to a Person who creates and loves persons, who invites us to be divinized in and by God’s eternity, for the salvation of all mankind (collaboration). The positive aspects of Bataille’s work–poetic communication, loyalty to the other’s consciousness, witness to the “miracle of the impossible” as provoking both joy and tears–might have taken on a whole new coloring, had he accepted his priestly vocation. To my mind, Bataille leaves us with a lesson:

It is futile and redundant to try to dissolve yourself by taking your self as your own ground, for you will never overtake the contradiction in a stance you hate. No amount of sin or disruption or insubordination will ever win the war within the soul, because sin annihilates the soul’s true image and replaces it, over and over again, with yet more devastated imagery. Accept instead to take your ground in God, even if you do not yet comprehend the image he will make of you. The name you are to carry is his decision, not that of your passion or your intelligence. Obedient to God, you will find your way to the Mystery you craved from the beginning–an infinity without abyssal nothingness, a joy without any shade of violation, pride, or possessiveness (unending mutiny). God will show himself to you there where you take his life to be the only fullness. There you will be carried away, through and beyond sadness, in a way the self could never have imagined.

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