Like water in water

Susan Rubin Suleiman

At first glance, nothing seems less likely than that these two books were written by a single author. One is a piece of philosophical theorising about religion and its relation to the economic organisation of societies, from the beginning of time to modern capitalism, the other a trio of pornographic narratives which, thirty or forty years ago, would not have been allowed to reach the bookstores without an obscenity trial. But written by a single author they most certainly were – and therein lies their charm (if that’s the right word), as well as Georges Bataille’s importance as a writer.

One could have heard just such an argument from the French avant-garde writers and philosophers of the Sixties and Seventies – Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Sollers – who made Bataille into a veritable cult hero. What appealed to these theorists were the contradictions and paradoxes of Bataille’s life and work: the fragmentary nature of his writing, the deliberately unfinished quality of his philosophising, the personal risks and constant testing of boundaries as well as the deep duplicities (in the sense both of ambiguities and of secrets) they sensed in his thought. The fact that this self-proclaimed philosopher of paradoxes, an admirer of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, was at the same time the author of some of this century’s most troubling works of pornography and a lifelong functionary (trained as a specialist in ancient coins, he had a 40-year career as a librarian, starting in 1922) was merely one manifestation of the tensions and contradictions which made Bataille so appealing. The jacket of My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The Dead Man conveys this contradiction rather nicely: on the front it shows a photograph of a human face partially covered by what looks like a transparent membrane from a butchered animal; on the back, a photograph of Bataille as an elderly intellectual, smiling, benign, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, and a blurb by Sartre.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Bataille, whose ideas exerted such an enormous influence on theorists who became household names in Anglo-American intellectual and academic circles many years ago, should only now be getting widely translated in the United States and Britain. Until the publication, in 1985, of his selected writings, Visions of Excess (edited with an excellent introductory essay by Allan Stoekl), almost none of Bataille’s work was available in English translation. Over the past few years, new translations (as well as reissues of a few old ones, such as Story of the Eye and Death and Sensuality) have come fast and furious. By yet another irony, this outpouring is arriving here at a time when the ‘second generation’ avant-garde that made Bataille’s theories prominent in France (the first generation being Bataille’s own, in which Surrealism was predominant) is itself becoming part of history.

One wonders to what use Bataille’s work will be put as it becomes more widely available in English, especially in the haphazard form its availability is taking. He was a fragmentary writer, but his many works are all chips off the same block – or, to use a more Bataillean image, fluids streaming from the same body. The more of them one has read, the more each one makes sense separately, but the more obvious it appears that they all come from the same source. In ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, an essay published in 1933, Bataille, basing himself freely on the ethnologist Marcel Mauss’s description of ‘potlatch’ in primitive societies, sketches out a theory for a social and psychological economy of ‘waste’ rather than an economy of production. The same argument is amplified in the much later book La Part Maudite (1949 – published recently by Zone Books as The Accursed Share); and taken a stage further, in an even more comprehensive theory of ‘spending’, in his book on transgression and the sacred, L’Erotisme (Death and Sensuality).

In 1970, Gallimard began the daunting task of publishing Bataille’s complete works – the final volume, Volume XIII, appeared less than two years ago. The task was daunting for the very reasons that made Bataille so attractive to his admirers: much of his work was still in unfinished or fragmentary form at the time of his death in 1962, with large blocks of it unpublished or scattered in recondite journals of the Twenties and Thirties; there were often as many as three different manuscript versions of a given work, whether it had been published or not; finally, whole chunks of work had been unacknowledged, apparently ‘unavowable’, by Bataille during his lifetime.

In this last respect, the Autobiographical Note published at the end of My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The Dead Man, drafted by Bataille in 1958 and translated here by Annette Michelson (it was first published in Volume VII of the Oeuvres Complètes), is very revealing: written in the third person at the request of a German publisher, the Note mentions Bataille’s major activities (he participated in a number of left-wing or anti-Fascist collective projects between 1929 and 1939, and founded an important, still ongoing journal, Critique, after the war) and lists the various books he published from 1943 on. But it makes no mention of his first and probably most notorious book, Story of the Eye, published under a pseudonym in 1928 – and also leaves out other pornographic works, including Madame Edwarda, which Bataille published during his lifetime but did not acknowledge as his.

The Oeuvres Complètes incorporate the pseudonymous and posthumous works with the others and provide detailed bibliographical notes about each, as well as copious variants whenever possible. This might seem like a scholarly luxury, but in the case of Bataille it is more like an ordinary necessity – indispensable if one is going to make any kind of serious study of his work. Although it would be unreasonable, I suppose, to expect the same lavish apparatus in the English translations which are now hitting the market, some kind of orientation does seem to be necessary if an English-speaking reader is to make sense of much of this work. Unfortunately, even the most basic information (such as when a work was written, or first published) is often absent from the English edition, or else it is incorrect or incomplete.

One may think that it does not make a huge difference to know that Bataille never published Madame Edwarda under his own name, contrary to what the Publisher’s Note in this edition tells us. And yet the fact that in 1956 Bataille published a solemn celebratory preface to Madame Edwarda, but still maintained that the story had been written by ‘Pierre Angélique’, is not irrelevant. For one thing, in 1956 one could still be fined or jailed in France for obscene publishing; and Bataille’s hide-and-seek games indicate that he was a perverse writer in more ways than one. He must have delighted in the contradiction, ‘Battle’/ ‘Angelic’, between his own name and the pseudonym, and in the incongruity between the angelic pseudonym and the story’s blasphemous content.

Still, at least there is a Publisher’s Note (accurate in all other respects), as well as essays by Mishima and Ken Hollings and an Autobiographical Note (which would have been more useful with a word of explanation about when and for what purpose it was written) in this volume. Theory of Religion, by contrast, a very handsome book on fine paper with extra-wide margins, comes to us with no introduction at all. Perhaps the publishers wanted Bataille’s Theory to hit the English-speaking reader like a meteor, or dazzle him or her like a flash of lightning. Perhaps, but it would have been helpful to provide at least some minimal information – for example, that this work was written in 1948 but never published by Bataille, and never completely finished. Bataille incorporated most of its ideas into La Part Maudite, which he was writing around the same time, and into L’Erotisme; and he meant to include it in the grand ensemble of his projected Somme Athéologique, a kind of atheistic general theory of mysticism and the sacred, whose aim, as its title indicates, was to rival the Angelic Doctor St Thomas Aquinas.

I tried to imagine, as I read this book in Robert Hurley’s translation (which is on the whole excellent, although there are two mistranslations on page 85 which make a mess of an already difficult paragraph), what it would be like to read Theory of Religion without knowing any of Bataille’s other work. In some respects it would be infuriating: Bataille engages here in the broadest speculations about the evolution of human societies and religions without citing a single historical example; his syntax is difficult, his vocabulary obscure, his transitions non-existent. To read him is to struggle. As you continue, however, if you do, things begin to fall into place. You begin to understand why Bataille, writing about the relation between the profane and the sacred (what he calls the ‘order of things’ and the ‘order of intimacy’), which is also, for him, the relation between what can be grasped by ‘clear consciousness’ and all those phenomena whose essence is precisely that they operate at a level where ‘clarity is no longer given,’ adopts a style of writing and of thought which constantly puts clarity and the possibility of full understanding in question. Having reached that point, you decide that Theory of Religion is as good a place to enter Bataille’s work as any other – and you enter it, stumbling over the mess and the unfinished pieces, as one enters a building in progress. This image is one that Bataille himself proposes for his work in the Introduction, where he writes: ‘I have tried to express a mobile thought, without seeking its definitive state ... A philosophy is never a house; it is a construction site.’ Formulations like this one are among the things that make Bataille worthwhile.

The essence of religion, he writes, is ‘a search for lost intimacy’. In Bataille’s vocabulary, ‘intimacy’ refers primarily to the immanence of pure animal existence: ‘The animal is in the world like water in water.’ Animals, lacking self-consciousness, know neither transgression nor the law; and for the same reason, they are equally unaware of instrumentality. Only humans treat the world, including objects but also animals and other humans, as an instrument, a thing to be used for some specific end. The evolution of societies and religions, according to Bataille, has tended toward the ever greater autonomy and predominance of the instrumental domain, in which human beings become masters over nature, but are themselves subordinated to systems of useful production. This leads, with the advent of the Protestant ethic and capitalism (Bataille acknowledges his debt to Max Weber in an appendix which also cites his other sources and affinities), to the undisputed reign, in modern Western societies, of the ‘sovereignty of servitude’.

The search for a lost intimacy, then, is a search for at least a momentary escape from the grim necessities of instrumentalism and rationalised production. In some ways, one might think of it as a yearning for the immanence of animality, where there is no separation between self and world (‘like water in water’). But Bataille is not a primitivist, nor an advocate of mindless regression; the constant problem, he realises, is precisely the ‘impossibility of being human without being a thing’ (that is, without being necessarily caught up in instrumentality and rationality), and the concurrent desire to escape the ‘limits of things without returning to animal slumber’.

Rather than returning to ‘animal slumber’, Bataille theorises the human will to rediscover the boundary-less state of intimacy (which is the essence of the sacred, though not linked to any specific religion), even while maintaining self-consciousness. This undertaking, he insists, is by definition incapable of fulfilment: but it can find an approximation in all those attempts that seek self-consciously to ‘reduce the reduction’ imposed by the order of things – in other words, that seek to destroy, on however temporary a basis, by means of excessive ‘spending’ and waste, the rational order of production. Drinking to the state of drunkenness is one such approximation; carnival and ritual sacrifice (where the victim must be a useful thing given up ‘for nothing’) are others; debauchery, an eroticism which has nothing to do with ‘healthy sexuality’ or the reproduction of the species but everything to do with loss and total self-exposure, is yet another, which Bataille does not mention here but develops in the book on eroticism.

This is where the pornographic narratives enter the picture. We might put their relation to the philosophical works in terms of theory and practice (note that practice precedes theory – Story of the Eye comes before any of the theoretical writings, and Madame Edwarda and The Dead Man date from the early Forties), or description and performance. If the philosophical works tell about eroticism’s link to the sacred, the pornographic works show it. And, the best of them – like the three I’ve just mentioned, for example – do so in an extraordinarily powerful way. To read them is to be shaken up, maybe never to be quite the same again. And this would appear to have been Bataille’s hope.

In Madame Edwarda, the first-person male narrator (all these stories, except The Dead Man, are narrated in the first person) presents himself in the opening paragraph as a typically Bataillean seeker after absolutes: ‘There – I had come to a street corner – there a foul dizzying anguish got its nails into me (perhaps because I’d been staring at a pair of furtive whores sneaking down the stair of a urinal). A great urge to heave myself dry always comes over me at such moments. I feel I have got to make myself naked, or strip naked the whores I covet: it’s in stale flesh’s tepid warmth I always suppose I’ll find relief.’ The combination of existential anguish and nausea and the desire for nakedness or total self-exposure which characterises this nameless narrator (who is always the same figure in Bataille’s fiction, whatever name he carries) is what Yukio Mishima calls, in his introductory essay, Bataille’s ‘vivid, harsh, shocking and immediate connection between metaphysics and human flesh’. In Madame Edwarda, as in all Bataille’s fiction (including the two ‘slightly less than pornographic’ novels which he published under his own name, Blue of Noon and L’Abbé C), this paradoxical connection between pleasure and anguish is emblematically embodied in the figure of a woman.

The title character of Madame Edwarda is a ‘ravishing’ whore, stark-naked, whom the narrator picks out as ‘the kind he has a taste for’ in the crowded living-room of a brothel. But she is not only ravishing and naked, she is also ‘excessive’ in a Bataillean sense, and thus a true sister soul of the tormented narrator. No sooner have they embraced than she spreads her legs and shows him her ‘old rag and ruin [guenilles], hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid’, commanding him to look at it and kiss it, and announcing to him that she is GOD. At first he is too shaken to move, but then ‘I sank down on my knees and feverishly pressed my lips to that running, teeming wound.’

One would have to go far to find a more vivid representation of the ‘sacred’ horror inspired in a man by the female genitals. Bataille is not parodying Freud – rather, he pushes him to the limit. The blasphemous equation of Edwarda’s ‘wound’ with Christ’s stigmata is another typically Bataillean stroke, alluding to a whole strain of mystical discourse about Christ’s wounds. Edwarda, it turns out, really ‘is’ GOD, divine in the sense that erotic transgression, for Bataille, leads to the sacred. It can hardly come as a surprise to learn that Madame Edwarda (first published in 1941) was to be the opening work of a trilogy Bataille sketched out in the mid-Fifties, which was also to include My Mother and its brief sequel, Charlotte d’ Ingerville, and which was to bear the general title Divinus Deus.

The power of Madame Edwarda, as of The Dead Man (which tells how the beautiful young woman, Marie, spends the night after her lover’s death – she engages in the most abject public drunkenness and self-prostitution, until in the morning she kills herself and ‘follows Edouard to the grave’), derives in part from their conciseness, and in part from their explicit use of obscene language, which appears all the more shocking in the context of Bataille’s classically elegant diction and syntax. The translations by Austryn Wainhouse are often quite successful in conveying these incongruities, especially in The Dead Man. One place where he badly falters, however, is in his attempts to translate the French verb jouir. This is an almost insoluble problem, as the translators of Roland Barthes (among others) know: but to render Edwarda’s cry, Comme j’ ai joui! by ‘The fun I’ve had ...’ simply will not do.

My Mother, which, like The Dead Man, remained unpublished at the time of Bataille’s death, may appear at first glance the most transgressive of all these works: what could be more shocking, in our culture, than a mother who instructs her son in all the ways of perverse pleasure – pleasure as Bataille understands that term, of course, which is to say utterly anguished and full of self-inspired nausea. The narrator’s mother, in this tale, is a ‘professor of desire’, reversing Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir: there, a young girl is instructed by an older male, and her mother – representing conventional morality – is humiliated and murdered in the process. Here it is the mother herself who inducts her son into irremediable corruption – but unlike Sade’s libertine, who resembles the leader of a Black Mass, Bataille’s mother is more like a Holy Sinner. She recognises her own ‘horror’, and teaches her son to do likewise.

In my view, this novel is less successful than the short texts: it eschews obscene language for the coy circumlocutions of ordinary pornography, and it is too long to maintain its shock effect. It is also, in a paradoxical way, too Catholic for my taste. But then, one could make a good case (though not a total one) for reading all of Bataille’s oeuvre as the final poisonous flowering of a long line of Catholic mysticism – a line starting with the ecstatic saints of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, moving along a bend with Pascal, reaching a perverse turn with Baudelaire, and continuing transgressively from there on, in increasingly secularised forms and with various degrees of irony, in Rimbaud, Huysmans, Lautréamont, Genet. Bataille lost his faith at around the age of twenty-five, after a few years of intense piety. But Baudelaire’s famous verse ‘La Conscience dans le Mal’ could serve as an epigraph for all Bataille’s fiction, and for much of his theorising about literature and religion.

Ken Hollings’s afterword to My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The Dead Man strikes me, despite its intelligence and understanding of Bataille, as somewhat unfortunate in its lack of distance. At times, indeed, it sounds like an unreflective pastiche of Bataille: ‘Penetration, sacrifice and murder ... are the fullest realisation of thought and sensation. Severed from their consequences, denying all possibility of survival, decisive yet torn by conflict, they indicate a point at which deliberate transgression gives way to the condition of absolute freedom.’ Really? Bataille himself, in his Autobiographical Note, stated that he believed that the ‘fascination with exterior forms of violence’ which characterises Fascism, and which was once also his own fascination, ‘can lead to the worst’. His writing is heady stuff: it should be handled with care – though a bit of humour wouldn’t come amiss.