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Eroticism by Georges Bataille
Mark Price uncovers an urgent, thrusting book about love, sex, death and spirituality by Georges Bataille.
Almost fifty years have passed since the publication of this remarkable book (Editions de Minuit, 1957). Mary Dalwood’s translation appeared rather quickly by the standards of academic publishing (Calder and Boyars, 1962); but still, outside of a small circle of intellectual Francophiles, Bataille was and remained largely unknown. Even in Vincent Descombes’ Modern French Philosophy, which many of the UK’s leading ‘Continental’ philosophers of the present day were devouring as undergraduates in the 1980’s, Bataille is only mentioned in passing. Why read the relatively obscure Bataille now? And why read Bataille’s Eroticism now? Besides the practical considerations that it is two pounds cheaper, the illustrations are noticeably crisper, and it is easier to fit in one’s pocket than the 1987 edition?
Perhaps the speed at which a thinker becomes canonical is an index of how little their thought changes anything. Even if that were so, it by no means implies the counter-principle that a thinker’s profundity can be measured by the degree of ignorance afforded to them by the kingmakers who write histories of French thought. Sartre’s swiftly popular philosophy of freedom and responsibility, for all its avowed atheism, made perfect ontological and moral sense to anybody who had enjoyed a short term with the Jesuits. God was dead for many Twentieth century intellectuals, but all His values remained in place in the ‘human soul’, the unique being-for-itself. The anti-humanism of Bataille was then and is now beyond the pale for many readers. Despite the profound relevance of Bataille’s work to fields as diverse as theology, psychology, literature, anthropology, economics, sociology, and philosophy, there was never the slightest chance of Bataille joining the popular lists of the great and the good. It is not that Bataille is a second- or third-rate thinker. Rather his thought was simply too disruptive, and even when he was alive his mixed and virulent output had something of the character of an unburied corpse. Eroticism is amongst the most important works of one of the most stimulating and neglected French thinkers of the Twentieth century. Anyone who has laboured through the endlessly qualified and deferred prose of late-phenomenology would do well to look at Bataille’s Eroticism as soon as possible. Much contemporary French thought is as difficult but ultimately harmless to assimilate as a tencourse tofu banquet. After such fare, the encounter with Bataille’s late works – particularly Eroticism, Literature and Evil, or The Tears of Eros – should be satisfyingly dense, bloody, and rich. Earlier texts such as Guilty, Inner Experience and On Nietzsche are to say the least challenging, even to the most sympathetic readers. Eroticism is not an easy text for reasons we shall come to presently, but it is arguably the easiest and most rewarding portal into Bataille’s disturbing world.
Broadly speaking, Bataille is a programmatic (though not a systematic) thinker. But his programme is self-avowedly impossible. This impossible project involves examining those blindingly over-lit or twilight points at which theorization collapses or dissolves into seizure, sobbing, fugue, orgasm, or the scream of anguish. Eroticism is not an object of enquiry, simply because the erotic is precisely that ‘sacred’ materiality which abrades and ruptures the categories of subject and object, self and world, inside and outside, human and animal. Unlike Hegelian reflections upon the logical constitution of the limit, Bataille is primarily concerned with the somatic limits of experience and theorizations thereof. It is not our habits or their disruptions which make us human, Bataille contends, for animals seem to exhibit as much: “animal sexuality does make for disequilibrium and this disequilibrium is a threat to life, but the animal does not know that [...] Eroticism is the sexual activity of man to the extent that it differs from the sexual activity of animals. Human sexual activity is not necessarily erotic but erotic it is whenever it is not rudimentary and purely animal…” (p.29).
Such a bludgeoning division between the human and the animal (especially via the dubious privilege of ‘knowledge’) might suggest that Bataille is proposing a partially-atheistic humanism similar to Sartre’s. But that is merely the surface: the entire notion of separability (logical, ontological, moral or biological) is rapidly abraded in Bataille’s world. Indeed, only the relative ‘discontinuity’ of conscious ‘beings’ absurdly raising themselves above the blind ‘becomings’ of a world of material continuity can configure this set of problems as a set of problems. It is the habitually desired balances and equally habitually desired transgressions of those habits that makes human embodiment so uncanny (pp.254-255).
The impurity of this book will no doubt offend the sensibilities of many academics, whatever their stance on the value of interdisciplinarity. Bataille’s twisted and tangled reflections on incest, art, mysticism, pre-history, cell division, philosophy, menstruation, economics and murder form not so much a rich tapestry of argumentation as a catastrophe. ‘Catastrophe’ in two senses, one positive, the other negative: firstly, if one expects from Bataille an ‘argument’ in the classical mode, a careful connecting of evidential propositions to safe conclusions, one can only see this kind of work as confusion and abomination. This is the positive catastrophe of Eroticism (and indeed, of eroticism). Like the common or garden variety of misogynist bore pointing to the child-molester, the purportedly abject failure of an other’s behaviour to measure up to decent standards is seized upon as evidence of the positive value of ‘respectable’ theoretical work. The ‘straight’ anthropologist, sociologist, theologian or philosopher will be much reassured by the untenability of Bataille’s corpus on their terms. From the inside of any hygienically constituted discipline, Bataille is a transgression which shores up the norm. This is the ‘positive’ or utile value of his catastrophic work.
The negative catastrophe of Bataille’s Eroticism is concerned with the work of the writer as something impossible and paradoxical. It amounts to nothing less than an incitement to the pursuit of non-utile work. The production of a book which is literally good-for-nothing (except perhaps the de-commodification of knowledge) is about as heretical an idea as could be fielded in the free democracies of latecapitalism. Yet Bataille’s project, if it can be thus described, is precisely geared towards a theorization of the conditions under which everything is wasted for the sake of a sacred, impossible contact with the ‘outside’ of the human world of work and utility. It is for this reason that Bataille’s book, for some, remains as enigmatic, compelling and sordid as the transmission of an impossible truth: as if a close relative with a good career and a great marriage had been arrested in a public lavatory for a practice so unusual that the Crown Prosecution Service were having difficulty deciding whether or not it was covered by existing laws.
The greatest difficulty that a philosophical reader might encounter in Bataille’s Eroticism may well be the uneasy relationships Bataille courts with two large figures in the history of Continental thought. Throughout Eroticism one senses the suppressed and distant noises of a titanic battle between Nietzsche and Hegel. Both are mentioned, the former more or less in passing (p.259) and the latter as a means of pointing up the failures of a selfsatisfied, stabilized and systemic notion of philosophy (pp.254-255). Hence my claim that Eroticism is a difficult text despite its deceptively straightforward and conversational tone. The path by which one reaches a thinker will always to a certain extent colour the reading; but with Bataille’s work there seems to be a particularly chronic inbuilt problem concerning hermeneutics and personal histories. Readers from a broadly Hegelian background will probably find Bataille’s reflections upon unmediated ‘base’ materiality naively pre-critical, whilst readers approaching the work from the domain of a ‘Nietzschean’ critical materialism will scent something suspiciously dialectical about many of Bataille’s formal argumentative moves. Bataille does indeed suffer from all manner of faults at the level of methodology, often crushing together statistical studies, myth, dialectics, genealogy, poetry and appeals to biological ‘fact’.
Yet in a way this failure (or, refusal) to make explicit any kind of harmonic synthesis between his approaches to the impossible (non-)object of his enquiry is entirely appropriate for an attempt at understanding the nature of radical disruption. The extent to which one considers his bricolage enlightening may ultimately be undecidable on theoretical principles alone. For some, the ragged urgency of Bataille’s mission may lead them to excuse him on similar grounds to Malcolm X’s “...by any means possible”. For others, it may provoke something closer to bewildered horror, as when Colonel Kurtz asks “Do you think my methods are unsound?” and Captain Willard answers “I don’t see any methods, Sir.” Throughout Eroticism Bataille is keenly aware of the difficulties involved in the attempt to communicate and justify one’s journey into radical alterity, given the paradox of language as method for communicating only the commonest experiences (see particularly his chapters on DeSade in Part II).
Anybody interested in the darker side of the arts, social sciences and humanities, or who is interested in destroying their lives as utile subjects should read this book.
© MARK DOUGLAS PRICE 2004
Mark Douglas Price recently completed a PhD thesis on the role of violence in post-Kantian philosophy. He is now a part-time lecturer at Bolton Institute of Higher Education. Comments and interesting job offers to: email@example.com
• Eroticism by Georges Bataille (2001). Translated by Mary Dalwood, with an Introduction by Colin MacCabe, Penguin Classics, paperback, £7.99/$16.95.