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.

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