Modern French Philosophy
Ecstasy Through Self-Destruction
Danelle Gallo compares the ecstacies of Georges Bataille and Yves Klein.
French philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962) and French artist Yves Klein (1928-1962) were passionately fascinated with death, eroticism, the sacred, and sacrifice. Bataille, a fluent and often controversially graphic philosopher, related the erotic to the sacred through the imminence of death. Yves Klein, the so-called ‘minimalist’ performance artist and monochromatic painter was equally controversial, and eloquently communicated his ideas about the connection between eroticism and the sanctified. In this essay, I propose that they had similarly poignant views regarding the numinous, or experience of the sacred, focusing on specific ideas pertaining to sacrifice, death, and eroticism. Although they frequently portrayed their viewpoints in unique and novel ways, their underlying philosophies were substantially similar. Both thinkers investigated the concept of ‘the void’, and were devoted to the notion of self-destruction as a psychological quest toward the realization of the purest experience. To Bataille and Klein, pure experience is the void, and the void is utter freedom; through transformative sacrificial practices we are able to experience a continuity comparable only to that of death, and for a moment become unrestricted: limitless, and without reservation.
Bataille defines ‘eroticism’ as “assenting to life up to the point of death” (Eroticism: Death & Sensuality, 1957, p.1). Unlike regular sex, eroticism is a ‘psychological quest’ independent of the natural goal of reproduction. Paradoxically, though, the “fundamental meaning of reproduction is … the key to eroticism,” since reproduction implies the existence of “discontinuous beings” (p.2).
To Bataille, discontinuity is part of our experience of normal, everyday life. There is a void, a gulf, a discontinuity, between people. According to Bataille, our sense of individuality stems from our use of tools – the literal separation of us from objects. On the other hand, Bataille equates death to “continuity of being” (p.2), because death “jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being” (p.4). When Bataille talks of death here, he is primarily alluding not to bodily death, but to death of the ego, and the death of prohibitions. Here death is associated with intimacy, since intimacy is the “absence of individuality”. (Theory of Religion,1973, p.50).
This naturally brings us to Bataille’s concept of sacrifice. Sacrifice involves destruction, but it is not annihilation. Instead sacrifice “destroys an object’s real ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility and restores it to that of unintelligible caprice” (ibid, p.43). This to Bataille is ultimate freedom – which brings us back to eroticism, since the “whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives” (Eroticism, p.4). Eroticism abolishes our established human confines and transports us to an entirely other realm. Moreover, Bataille defines the sacred as the “prodigious effervescence of life that, for the sake of duration, the order of things holds in check, and that this holding changes into a breaking loose, that is, into violence.” (Theory of Religion, p.52). Thus an experience of the sacred occurs through a violent rupture of boundaries that releases one into a state of simultaneous ecstasy and anguish. (Violence, in this case, is synonymous with ferocious passion.) For Bataille, an experience of the sacred is simultaneously “divine ecstasy and extreme horror” (Ecce Monostrum, Jeremy Biles, 2007, p.8). Since according to Bataille, we yearn for our ‘lost continuity’, we are naturally interested in religion, eroticism, and sacrificial practices, as they are all gateways to ecstatic experience that reveal and confirm our fundamental continuity by temporarily transporting our attention away from our awareness of discontinuity.
Like Bataille, Yves Klein examined the concept of freedom through death of the individual self as a foundational principle of experiencing the sacred in life.
Klein wrote fervently about materiality versus immateriality, once exclaiming, “Long live the immaterial!” Materiality, Klein alleged, is associated with confinement, and so is linked with self-imprisonment. To Klein the immaterial is total freedom, and akin to death. Here Klein’s ideas were similar to Bataille’s views concerning continuity versus discontinuity.
However, in an interesting reversal of Bataille’s philosophy, Klein believed individualism destroys our true natures. So Klein sought to destroy individualism by freeing art (and therefore life) from the limitations of corporeality, although paradoxically, this ‘destruction’ of the physical still required a material presence in the form of a canvas or other surface. So, like Bataille’s notion of sacrifice (to destroy but not annihilate), Klein set out to sacrifice pictorial representations of the world without doing away with the physical world entirely.
Klein’s creations reach beyond life, beyond art, into the void. Rather than merely being lifeless objects, they act as a gateway to an altered, ecstatic state of being. For instance, his monochrome paintings were instruments of destruction: they were the “ashes of [his] art,” representing the effect of the death of forms, of ‘things’. Monochrome was one of Klein’s primary manifestations of the immaterial void in a world of physicality. Klein wrote that the material world was distinctively represented through line, value, and an array of colors, but his monochromes provided a “perception … of continuity, of an enclosed space… Thus the sensation of the void is born.” (Air Architecture, Peter Noever and François Perrin, 2004, p.14). Furthermore, this “space … [which] opens up to pure color will tend to abolish the limits of painting” (ibid). Klein felt monochromatic paintings severed ties to the world of utility, much as the obliteration of the ‘thingness’ of objects was sanctified for Bataille. Klein refused to use tools such as paintbrushes on his other works because they were “too excessively psychological.” Instead he manipulated forces such as fire, water and wind to make marks. He also employed nude, paint-drenched young women, whom he dubbed ‘living brushes’, getting them to press their bodies against paper. He produced single colors so pure in pigment that they (ideally) evoked rapturous emotion in the minds of perceivers. He invented his own colors, and often displayed them in their powder states, their purest forms. He yearned for his colors to have depth.
Transformation of Experience
Klein’s monochromatic paintings directly relate to Bataille’s notion of the sacred, because of the ecstatic feeling they are intended to evoke in those who experience them. Besides his monochromes, Klein’s piece entitled Leap into the Void brilliantly captures Bataille’s definition of sacred experience. It is a photomontage of Klein in midair, leaping off a building, his arms outstretched and face forward. His feet look as if they’ve just left the platform. His facial expression is pure bliss, and yet the horror of the fall is imminent. This element of danger is akin to Bataille’s necessary component of ecstasy: horror.
In his series, ‘Air Architecture’, Klein devised a utopian plan where all architecture is formed from the natural elements – fire, water, air and earth. He was attempting to transform our mundane, false experiences into a more continuous, harmonious reality. He envisioned a world in which humans perpetually live in a state of ecstatic harmony with nature. In this, Bataille would disagree with Klein’s philosophy: Bataille thought that a universal property of ecstatic states is that they are transitory. But not unlike Bataille, Klein believed intimacy was a psychological incongruence in everyday life. In fact, for Klein, intimacy associated with everyday life was “not good, not beautiful” because it means we have “something to hide” (Air Architecture, p.91). The only way to achieve intimacy is to willingly sacrifice our routine selves. But in the new world, intimacy would take on a new meaning and become so inherent in our culture that it would “disappear” (p.91). Everything would become intimacy: although still based in physicality, our existences would be ‘continuous’, to use Bataille’s concept. However, for Bataille, Klein’s utopian (and perhaps unrealistic) world would be closer to death than to life.
Transformation of the Self
According to both Klein and Bataille, pure experience is the void, and so psychological self-destruction is necessary for total transformation to occur. Bataille writes, “It is necessary for me to die (in my own eyes), to give birth to myself” (Inner Experience, 1943, p.2). An element of violence – of violation – is integrally present in this transition: the “abrupt wrench out of discontinuity” (p.16) is a fierce blow against normality. “Only violence can bring everything to a state of flux in this way, only violence and the nameless disquiet bound up with it.” We “cannot imagine the transition from one state to another one basically unlike it without picturing the violence done to the being called into existence through discontinuity” (p.17). So both thinkers attempted to mediate the void between life and death through the destruction of prohibitions, capturing the infinite character of death, and effecting the necessary transformation of the self – a violent and inherently dangerous process.
Both Klein and Bataille were deeply interested in the transformation of the self as a psychological quest – a transformation that is essentially religious in nature. For Bataille, the sacrifice of one’s mundane self is necessary to achieve a pure experience of all-consuming ecstasy, total and without reservation – a state akin to sensations experienced through erotic or religious activities. Similarly, Klein used art to evoke a ‘state of ecstasy’ in his viewers – that is, to transport them to a state of utter openness. To Klein, true art meant the ecstasy of pure experience.
A religious connotation is inherent in the ideas of both thinkers. According to Bataille, “the quest for continuity of existence systematically pursued beyond the immediate world signifies an essentially religious intention” (p.3). In his passionate narrative Inner Experience, he also writes, “To face the impossible – exorbitant, indubitable – when nothing is possible any longer is in my eyes to have an experience of the divine; it is analogous to torment” (p.1). Klein and Bataille both claimed that the immaterial terrain represents unbounded creative possibility – yet the journey there is physically and mentally torturous. For Bataille, the ecstatic religious experience is fulfilled through sacrificial violence.
In The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel about Michelangelo, author Irving Stone noted, “We believe that art is religious because it is one of man’s highest aspirations.” Perhaps our passion to formulate great ideas, and to produce meaningful art, represents an eternal quest to understand the human condition in the light of our fleeting, yet unmistakable, perception of spiritual grandeur, of some greater design.
Our experience is paradoxical. We are limited by our unique individuality – immersed in the mundane world – yet we yearn for absolute truth, and seek oneness with a universal reality we glimpse only occasionally. This tension creates a unique duality in our experience. Thus we live in a kind of divine misery, within limited human trappings forever seeking to comprehend a grandeur of which we have only partial knowledge. Klein and Bataille attempted to reconcile that ambiguity through their works. As true artists they had no other choice. The potential for ecstasy justifies embarking on an agonizing journey. One thing is certain: we are nothing if we do not try.
© Danelle Gallo 2015
Danelle is a student, teacher and artist in Hawaii. She has a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and is working on a Masters in medicine. Please visit her work at artbydanelle.weebly.com. She spends her time reflecting, creating, and promoting compassion.