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Georges Bataille’s Experience
Michael Mocatta finds a practical aid for recovery from addiction in a philosophy of extreme experience.
Georges Bataille (1897-1962) had a difficult childhood. In this article I will seek to explain this French philosopher’s thinking, and in particular his conception of extreme exterior experiences and sacred inner ones. We’ll see how Bataille writes of his experience of being driven to act by compulsions beyond his control, and in his writings on such compulsions, including his autobiographical ones, we can identify both the symptoms and root causes of several of the most common forms of mental illness. We shall also see that Bataille’s concept of inner experience can be of immense value to those seeking recovery from mental illness or addiction. Core to my argument will be Bataille’s autobiographical essay ‘Coincidences’, published as Part 2 of his novella The Story of the Eye (originally published in 1928, although my page references will be from the Penguin edition of 2001). I shall also present evidence from psychological literature to draw parallels between Bataille’s traumatic childhood and the traumas that underlie many of the most common forms of mental health problems in the twenty-first century, most notably addictions, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We will find that Bataille’s usefulness lies in his fulfilment of Susan Sontag’s definition of the exemplary modern artist as “a broker in madness” (Styles of Radical Will, 1969).
Bataille’s writings span the gamut of anguish, agony, and annihilation of self, but also chart a pathway to a more balanced existence. Importantly, Bataille reverses some widespread perspectives on his fellow mental health sufferers: he doesn’t see them as broken, marginalised or discarded individuals – the waste products of capitalism. Bataille calls such people the ‘doomed part’ or ‘the accursed share’ of society. Instead, Bataille ascribes meaning to the disorder of their lives and grants dignity and significance to their suffering. This creates hope for the transformation of an individual’s agony into “the possibility of a sudden and magical reversal, in a burst of wonder, with a new upsurge of life and the triumph of laughter charged with exuberance” (Marie-Christine Lala in Bataille: writing the sacred, edited by C.B. Gill, 1995, p.115).
Labour Day, Farshaad Razmjouie, 2018
The Sovereign Self & The Profane
Bataille used certain key concepts to describe his philosophy: the sovereign self; the sacred and the profane; the horizontal and vertical axes; internal and external experiences. Considering these concepts will help us understand his thinking.
Let’s begin with Bataille’s conception of the individual. He presents humankind as existing in one of three states: sovereignty, slavery, and alienation.
Bataille roots the origins of ‘man’s sovereign being’ in that which makes humanity different from animals – our ability to turn the material around us into objects. There once was a time, he says, when our experience differed not at all from the other members of the animal kingdom, where all that existed was our inner experience of the current moment of existence. With the advent of tools, however, humanity began to cleave from this. Now, as well as the inner experience, there started to be an external world of objects which could be put into use. In this new world, objects are created by practice, the shaping of one thing into another via a process he calls negation. That which is, the raw material itself, loses its essence by the practice of negation, and so becomes a new thing.
Soon enough, we began to see ourselves both as the subjects of our own experiences, and as tools – objects, with utility – to be used: “The objective world is given in the practice introduced by the tool. But in this practice man, who makes use of the tool, becomes a tool himself, he becomes himself an object just as the tool is an object.” (‘The schema of sovereignty’ in The Bataille Reader, edited by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, 1997, p.313)
We sit uneasily in this world of things. We are aware that we are not objects – but nonetheless individuals become negated, take on utility, and are made into objects. Our response to this objectification of ourselves is to accept, to one degree or another, our status as a subjugated object. In so doing, we alienate some or all of our being.
This alienation is the lot of the majority of humankind. Only a truly sovereign individual has none of this alienation, none of this servitude. A truly sovereign self is as free as a wild animal:
“This world of things, of practice, is the world in which man is subjugated, or simply the one in which he serves some purpose, whether or not he is the servant of another. Man is alienated therein, he is himself a thing, at least temporarily, to the extent that he serves: if his condition is one of a slave, he is entirely alienated; otherwise, a relatively substantial part of himself is alienated, compared with the freedom of the wild animal.” (The Bataille Reader, pp.313-4)
This world of process, of objects and their production, is a vertically ordered world, and philosophical and economic systems are so ordered. All activity, from study, to work, to sex, to religious activity, is instrumentalised – each has value only because of the output it produces. And the symptoms of a system organised on a vertical axis are progress, hierarchies, and purpose.
The Sacred & Sacrifice
Not everyone is able to make the compromise and accept this system. To Bataille, an individual who rails against this system has ‘consciousness’; and a conscious individual will seek, wherever possible, to achieve moments of sovereignty by acting in ways which the system cannot tolerate or explain.
Sovereignty is experienced in the sacred, which Bataille defines as anything that serves no purpose in the world of practice. For Bataille, this is an impossible contradiction because as soon as the sacred is conceptualised, it becomes a thing and has a purpose. The sacred, therefore is “not a thing (or formed in the image of a thing, an object of science) [yet] is real, but at the same time is not real, is impossible and yet is there” (The Bataille Reader, p.314). Contradiction, then, and the ‘Impossible’, lie at the heart of the sacred. This means that for Bataille, “Life is a booby-trap, opening up beneath our feet as we stand on it… It is nothing more than a pit of instability and vertigo into which we are plunged” (Lala in Bataille: writing the sacred, p.113).
Compare this idea with Søren Kierkegaard’s famous metaphor for anxiety as someone’s awareness that he has the freedom, should he so wish, to hurl himself off a cliff. For Kierkegaard, agency produces anxiety. For Bataille, people generally have no agency, must grapple with impossible contradictions, and may find themselves tumbling to extinction due to circumstances beyond their control. For an individual defined by alienation-servitude, this produces anxiety. But, writes Bataille, for a conscious, sovereign individual, this experience of “vertigo to the point of trembling in his bones” is the route to true happiness (‘The practise of joy before death’ in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, edited and translated by Allan Stoekl, 1985, p.236). The sacred lies not in denying the vertigo seen in the paradox of the sacred, but in grappling with the void into which one might be hurled at any moment.
So we strive to obtain something which cannot be attained. How then are we to encounter the sacred?
Historically, the sacred has been sought through organised religion, where (Western) humanity has been in a hierarchical, vertical relationship, first with the Church, then with those sacred things we call ‘salvation’, ‘God’ or ‘Heaven’. Bataille rejects the theology of the Christian church, as he does the ideology of all other vertical structures such as the State. The vertical axis contains only structures that promise transcendence but, ‘Icarus-like’, fail to deliver (John Lechte in Bataille: writing the sacred, p.128). Without a vertical route to the sacred, then, and with the centre ground of society locked in an alienating process of thing-making and negation, this only leaves the peripheral, the marginal, the extreme available as a route to sacredness. Moreover, sacredness, as we saw, cannot contain anything that is of use. As such, it is only through the sacrifice of the useful thing (money, the body, the mind) as an offering with no expected return that the sacred can be found. It is for these reasons that Bataille advocates extreme experiences. The first type of experience is external, and includes wanton drunkenness, orgiastic sex, and the transgression of taboos, including interacting with cadavers and rotting matter. The second type is internal. I’ll return to it later.
Bataille brought this transgressive world, with its extreme experiences, into all aspects of his writing. He sought to do so without compromising his own subjectivity by objectifying the sacred through writing about it. For this reason, Bataille’s preferred literary device was the metonym.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a metonym as “A word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated. For example, Washington is a metonym for the US government.” In his article in the Penguin edition of The Story of the Eye, Roland Barthes argues that, unlike metaphor or simile, metonym draws power from an object’s physical nature (for instance, the shape of things in the world or the way a word feels in the mouth). Metaphor – what an object might represent to either the subconscious or conscious mind of the poet – is the preferred literary device of the Surrealists, a movement of writers and artists inspired by Freud and with which Bataille had previously associated himself. But Bataille found metaphors too theoretical, too tidy, too requiring of interpretation by the artist or critic who would, by virtue of this interpretative role, occupy a place of privilege in the vertical hierarchy. Bataille’s preference was to ground his writing on the horizontal axis. Not only did metonymy not require interpretation by a poet, but by intertwining metonymies through his work, Bataille could also push at the limits of fiction and philosophy, with each metonymy stretching the other, creating disconcerting and unsettling new experiences for the reader. Blue of Noon (1957), for instance, intertwines sex with death in this way. Where there is one, there is the other, and the two culminate in a tryst between the two protagonists in a graveyard. Similarly, The Story of the Eye is a novel which constantly interweaves objects that resemble, or sound like, or (to use the grammatical term chosen by Barthes) that decline, eyes and urine.
Bataille & Psychopathologies
Having established the philosophical and literary purposes of Bataille’s transgressiveness, let’s turn to its psychological importance. I’ll first compare Bataille’s transgressive behaviour to behaviours typical of some common mental illnesses – namely sex addiction, depression, and PTSD. Then we’ll move on to examining whether there is anything in Bataille’s philosophical system that can be of assistance to people suffering from these maladies today.
In ‘Coincidences’, Bataille describes his childhood with a father maddened and blinded by syphilis, and with his mother, a manic-depressive melancholic who attempted suicide on at least two occasions. In recounting the story of his father swearing at a visiting doctor, Bataille writes that this episode left him feeling “a steady obligation unconscious and unwilled; the necessity of finding an equivalent to [his father’s exclamation] in any situation I happen to be in; and this largely explains the Eye” (p.73). To Bataille, this compulsion is a virtue: “How can we linger over books to which their authors have manifestly not been driven ?… The freakish anomalies of the Blue of Noon originated entirely in an anguish to which I was prey” (Blue of Noon, 1988 edition, pp.153-4, original emphasis).
So Bataille was driven by his childhood experiences to write, and to write in a graphic and unsettling manner. It is this compulsion to write about extreme and transgressive experiences that makes him so potentially important for the mentally ill.
Bataille’s Childhood Trauma
As with many adults who exhibit and act out extreme compulsions, Bataille’s childhood was lived out in a home where physical, sexual and psychological boundaries were regularly breached by his parents. Bataille describes his mother’s descent into insanity, for instance: “My mother… suddenly lost her mind too. She spent several months in a crisis of manic-depressive insanity (melancholy)… One day… we found her hanged in the attic. However, they managed to revive her… A short time later, she disappeared again. I myself went looking for her… wherever she might have tried to drown herself” (The Story of the Eye, pp.73-74).
The young Bataille witnessed the gradual destruction of both his parents by two very different forms of madness, and both parents relied on him in a reversal of the traditional adult-child roles. He literally became the life-giver to his mother, and dealt daily with his father’s bodily needs as a parent might do with an infant. The Story of the Eye was born from his childhood experiences of his parents’ madnesses, and were transmitted through metonymy. The character Marcelle, who dies midway through the narrative, was, confesses Bataille, at least partly modelled on his mother.
Georges Bataille by Darren McAndrew 2018
Bataille, Trauma, & Pathologies
What pathologies may have accompanied Bataille’s life and extended, via his compulsions, into his writing?
I shall not attempt a definitive diagnosis, but let me highlight some parallels with common mental illnesses which will help us to examine the implications and utility of Bataille’s philosophical writing. In each case, we shall find that Bataille’s own words are strikingly similar to the wording of the psychological literature. For instance, the existential psychologist Irvin D. Yalom writes that depressive patients present with a “dysphoric mood and neurovegetative signs… dependency, obsequiousness, inability to express rage and hypersensitivity to rejection (Concise Guide to Group Psychotherapy, Sophia Vinogradoc and Irvin D. Yalom, 1989, p.20). Troppmann, the protagonist of Blue of Noon, exhibits many of these symptoms throughout the novel. Here, for example, is Troppmann whilst bedridden with fever at the Parisian home of his mother-in-law (Troppmann makes a full recovery):
“I was the rubbish that everyone stands on… I had called down ill-fortune on my head, and here I was dying. I was alone. I was despicable… A black hole now opened inside me as I realised that I would never again clasp [my wife] to my breast.” (p.71)
Medically, depression and anxiety are linked illnesses, and are often rooted in childhood trauma. Faced with trauma, the depressed mind (although not necessarily the conscious self) finds the “integrity of the self and world… threatened by dissolution in the wake of the trauma experience” (Resilience and Meaning, Lee Rovira Herringshaw, 1998, p.8). This can be a causal factor behind suicidal thinking – a preference for death/self-annihilation – Bataille’s ‘void’.
Finally, let’s look at post-traumatic stress disorder as experienced by adult survivors of childhood trauma. Such survivors endorse:
“a belief in luck, an impersonal distributional property of positive events… their traumatic experiences as randomly assigned to and endured by them… [They] give little credence to the influence of justice as a force in determining the distribution of events… [Recovery from trauma for adult survivors is] heralded by the proclamation of an ‘ existential truce’ in which they achieved a complex cognitive reconstruction of concepts of self and the world which accounted for the extremes of both positive and negative experiences of their lives.”
(Resilience and Meaning, pp.vii-viii).
I added the emphasis in the above quote to highlight some key themes that appear in Bataille’s writing. For instance, Bataille shares with Herringshaw’s PTSD patients a belief in chance: “We freely overcome the major difficulties involved in the individual’s opposition to the collective, of good and evil…, only by denial, by a stroke of chance… The depression felt by life lived at the limits of the possible cannot exclude the passing of chance” (The Bataille Reader, p.335). And as one might predict from Herringshaw’s description, Bataille rejects the notion of justice: “Without having anything against justice, obviously, one may be allowed to point out that… the word conceals the profound truth of its contrary, which is precisely freedom” (The Bataille Reader, p.195). We will consider Bataille and Herringshaw’s existential truce below.
Bataille on Inner Experience
One of the questions asked in anguish by many addicts and depressives is, “Why me?” Bataille’s philosophy (particularly his search for and attribution of meaning to the different, deviant, and repulsive) helps answers this question, so providing much needed comfort.
Bataille suggested that the sacred can be found in extreme experiences. These fall into two categories, the external and the internal. It’s helpful to associate these two categories with two stages of addiction. The external experience is akin to the addict’s acting-out experience pre-recovery. Recovery enables the addict to experience the sacred via internal experiences, free of the need to act-out through substances, processes, or other people.
I think Bataille’s thinking is perhaps most useful to the addict in providing an explanation or meaning to the painful journey he or she undergoes. The addict initially finds joy through, say, alcohol or sex, then requires evermore extreme amounts to achieve an ever-decreasing hit. Eventually, reliance on the substance results in the addict facing rock bottom – akin to Herringshaw’s dissolution of the self or to Bataille’s void. Ultimately, says Bataille, the path to happiness – to sovereignty – requires the individual to develop a relationship with the void, and to pass through it with a “trembling in his bones” (Visions of Excess, p.236). And the promise of experiencing the sacred through profound silence, rather than through destructive orgiastic exterior experiences, provides the addict with hope.
Bataille’s ‘inner experience’ – the state that exists once the self has faced the truth of the void – accords both with Herringshaw’s ‘existential truce’ and with the mental health term ‘recovery’. The individual can acquire sacred inner experiences by grappling with their suffering and with their contradictory relationship with the Impossible, the need for the paradoxical sacred:
“The chief characteristic of the inner experience is not visible action, but déchirement, an inner sundering… the hero of the inner experience actively engages himself in ‘la déchirure’. He is dominant and virile [Bataille will later say ‘sovereign’] because he actively chooses his sundering… It is only because he writes his inner experience that we know… that he dominates his suffering by the act of engaging himself in it.”
(Susan Rubin Suleiman in Bataille: writing the sacred, p.42)
Eventually, the self develops the ability to experience “ une communication profonde des être” – “a profound communication between beings” (Sacha Golob in Comparative Critical Studies 13.1, 2016, p.58) – the pull of which is a powerful alternative, and potential antidote to the destructive compulsions of addiction.
Bataille recommends writing and other creativity to tame and express one’s mastery of the positive and negative experiences of life. As therapist Marie Wilson says, “Art functions as a safe container for extremely intense feelings such as rage, despair, terror, and pain. It provides both safety and distance from the content of the experience through use of metaphor and symbolism, yet also allows opportunity for full expression of traumatic experience. (‘Portrait of a sex addict’ in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 5:4, 1998, p.236). That Bataille was able write his own fiction with such power and skill demonstrates that it is possible to write the most unpleasant material which, because it is authentic, will be read as powerful art.
Bataille & Twelve Step Recovery Programmes
No less a philosopher than Jean-Paul Sartre complained that Bataille’s philosophy was a “portrait of a paradoxical individual, a madman, not a programme.” We have seen that what Sartre intended as an insult is in fact a correct diagnosis. To a fully functioning adult, the contradictions and impossibilities of Bataille’s philosophy may seem insurmountable. However, many who have experienced childhood traumas and addictions similar to Bataille’s find them incredibly familiar. Step 1 of the programme of the original twelve-step movement, Alcoholics Anonymous, achieves something similarly contradictory when it states that the first step towards recovery from addiction is admitting powerlessness over that addiction.
In fact, AA’s programme shares much with Bataille’s prescription for a life worth living. Bataille prescribes ‘ritual’; AA meetings have ‘strict guidelines’ followed worldwide. AA’s ‘fellowship’ is remarkably close to the ‘community’ Bataille valued. Bataille’s ‘sacrifice’ matches AA’s concept of ‘service’. So too does Bataille’s prescription ‘to write’ match AA’s recommendation ‘to journal’. Even the ‘God’ of AA’s Step 3 can be an imminent ‘power greater than [one]self’.
Madness is the key to unlocking Bataille’s otherwise baffling, complex, and contradictory system. To someone suffering a mental illness, or locked in addiction, Bataille’s philosophy provides an explanation as to why this is happening to them. He shows that they are not doomed forever to live as ‘the accursed share’ or ‘doomed part’, that is, as the waste products of society. Instead, there is a path to a stillness and spirituality accessible in the immanent world. In short, Bataille provides for the mentally ill the belief that they can regain their sovereignty and live a fulfilling life, in constant touch with that ‘Impossible’ in which lies the sacred.
© Michael Mocatta 2018
Michael Mocatta is a writer and entrepreneur, with Masters degrees from King’s College London and London Business School. He writes on depression and recovery at downlondontown.com.