The priest of nothingness
BIOGRAPHY: Georges Bataille was not a nice man. He had a placid face and wore elegant suits. He worked as a highly esteemed librarian in the archeological archives in Paris and lived a dutiful life with his widowed mother until he married a good bourgeois Parisian at the age of 38, with whom he later fathered a child.
He was courteous and calm. He always smiled. In every respect, then, a most respectable French citizen. But deep down, under the mask of civility, this was a man who wrote horrible books about horrible things.
He was proud of the fact. Proud that he could out-Sade Sade in his lust for degradation and obscenity, that he could out-Nietzsche Nietzsche in his abhorrence of a Christian God of charity and peace, promoting instead a sacred cult of "infinite sacrificial orgy". Bataille is, by his own admission, the most Godless of modern intellectuals. He did, it is true, have notions of founding a new religion; but it was to be one of profanity.
And in this respect he declared himself to have been inspired by certain privileged epiphanies. These included ritual child sacrifice in Mexico, the gouging of a Spanish toreador's eye by a frenzied bull, the gratuitous dismemberment of a live, tethered female gibbon, and the Chinese torture of the Hundred Pieces. (Bataille jealously guarded a set of graphic photos of the mutilation of a "young and seductive Chinese man" in 1905; he praised the images for "ruining in him that which was opposed to ruin"). There were other profanations too, unmentionable here. Bataille was "a mystic without God". A devotee of the Death Drive. A priest of nothingness who wished to replace eschatology with scatology.
Georges Bataille was a friend of the surrealists in the late 1920s and 1930s; but he broke with all of them in time. With Breton because the latter preferred fidelity in love (l'amour fou) to limitless debauchery. With Leiris because he would not go along with Bataille's plan for an occult human sacrifice (a plan that was eventually abandoned, it seems, because nobody in Bataille's acéphale group would volunteer to be sacrificed). With Masson because - though he shared several of Bataille's predilections for violent and erotic transgression - he would not follow his perversions as far as the "mortuary abyss".
Bataille broke with Simone Weil too. (Weil was one of Europe's finest woman philosophers of her time). This episode is quite intriguing. She spent many long hours listening to his dark ruminations about profanation and death in late night Paris cafés, but ultimately told him he was a "sick man" .
Bataille compared their encounters to those between a loving angel and a depraved demon. Between Ariadne and the Minotaur. For if Weil sought to weave a golden thread of grace that might lead us out of the labyrinth of contemporary nihilism, Bataille was determined to show us the way back into the heart of darkness. All the way back.
He was determined to expose and embrace the Horror. Without condition, without alibi, without excuse.
At the political level, Bataille despised parliamentary democracy and confessed himself a celebrant of violent upheaval and monstrosity. He deplored all forms of idealism. Instead he sponsored the outbreak of "generalized catastrophe". He appeared fascinated at first by the bold subversiveness of communism and fascism; but he ultimately recoiled from their commitment to collective structures of Nation , State and Authority. The only politics Bataille admired was that of terror and excess - the practice of useless expenditure. The rest was compromise. His parting testimony says it all: "One day this living world will pullulate in my dead mouth". Lovely.
Yet for all that, Bataille is considered by some (including the author of this biography) to be one of contemporary Europe's greatest intellectuals.
And there can be no doubt that his influence has been considerable, almost as significant in certain avant-garde circles as that of his favourite predecessors, Sade and Nietzsche. For many, his joyful cynicism in the face of modernity's emptiness and his uncompromising drive to expose the obscene core of western civilization is enough to make him great. As great as Milton's Satan when he shouts "non serviam". Or Molière's Don Juan when he goes laughing and unbowed into the jaws of hell. Besides, he did write rather well and rather a lot. Daring alone didn't do it. His collected works, published by Gallimard between 1971 and 1988, come to 12 volumes, not counting the collected letters.
This biography - Prix Goncourt for Biography - goes to remind us that some very nasty people can be very good writers. Some of the world's most perverse minds can produce some of its most famous and formative works.
That alone is food for thought.
But this is a hard book to digest. Not because it is badly written - it is, in fact, beautifully crafted - but because it is profoundly disturbing, disorienting and ultimately dispiriting. Certainly not bedside reading. Indeed not really recommendable for anyone sensitive, optimistic or even half-humane.
By the time one has finished this mammoth biography (almost 600 pages) one cannot help agreeing with Simone Weil that this tormented, brilliant man was a very sick person indeed. What a shame he didn't listen to Weil more during their midnight exchanges in those legendary left-bank cafés. He might have been a happier soul. Who knows?
Richard Kearney holds the C. Seelig Chair of Philosophy in Boston College. His most recent books include the trilogy On Stories and Strangers, Gods and Monsters (both Routledge), and The God who May Be (Indiana UP).
Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. By Michael Surya, translated by K. Fijalkowski and M. Richardson.