Georges Bataille: A master of macabre eroticism and satanic fancies
Buying books is – without a doubt – my favourite Saturday morning pastime. It seems, however, that I have come to acquire more of the aforementioned than common sense as I am rapidly running out of space to accommodate them. Still, as someone who is short on sense I fear that this particular predicament will neither deter nor curtail my avarice. Trawling through the numerous shelves in a great little Oxfam in Notting Hill, my eye snagged on a book called Guilty by Georges Bataille. I have had a soft-spot for Bataille ever since I first discovered Story of the Eye at the tender age of 13. I read a few of his works thereafter including, The Solar Anus, L’Abbe C, On Nietzsche and Blue of Noon and found myself unanimously confounded, challenged and inspired by each and every one. I learned a lot about Bataille entirely through his work and came to realise that there are (in a very general sense) two kinds of writers: those who one admires, and those with whom one feels an affinity. Bataille, for me, has always been of the later variety through a mutual appreciation of writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka and a desire to “respond to impulses of freedom and whims” or else “destroy myself” only to “discover myself, drowning in a glass of water”. In my case, however, it would more likely be a glass of second-rate gin but that is by and by.
Guilty is a sort of literary nympholepsy, a work which, if pressed, I would only be able to compare to The Notebooks of André Walter by André Gide. And yet, the two books are different in subject matter as well as syntax but one made me think of the other perhaps entirely without just cause. Guilty consists of autonomous chapters, divided into sub-chapters, transcribing the writer’s stream of consciousness free from restriction imposed by “systematic thought”. In the Introduction, Bataille forewarns the reader by saying: “…my way of thinking diverges from others. Especially from the way of thinking of philosophers. Mostly it diverges on account of my ineptitude.” While this may be true from a logician’s perspective, it is Bataille’s indifference to belletristic conventions and his enterprising nature – both in manipulation of lexicon and ideas – that make him a 20th century maître à penser. In the opening chapter entitled Nighttime, Bataille declares that “Life is a feast, a celebration, it’s an incomprehensible and oppressive dream, with charms I’m hardly blind to. Being conscious of chance lets me see a difficult fate for what it is. And chance wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for sheer craziness.” A paragraph later he speaks of a love “so rapturous only torment could fuel it.” A thought which rang so true, it stopped me in my reading as I contemplated it in reference to my own experiences. Sitting outdoors, looking at the paper-trails overhead, the acuity of the above lines roused, as Bataille would say, a “wasp’s stinger in me”. And yet, somehow, it made me more at ease with the bittersweet predicament.
In line with the same thought Bataille speaks of desire likening it to a “hallucinatory darkness” pushing one “towards craziness” and the escape of “illusion of any solid connection…to the world”. In his own words, Bataille writes with “unholy light-heartedness” and an irreverence bordering on sacrilege, most expressly conveyed in his dictum: “My true church is a whorehouse – the only one that gives me true satisfaction.” This statement is significant both in view of Bataille’s background – a staunch Chatholic upbringing he later renounced – and the continued pursuit of pleasure which came to define his “filthy night” ecstasies and his work. In Guilty, Bataille often talks of the “unquenchable thirst, the unconquerable cold” and that which is “intelligible only to the heart”. In another chapter, Angel, he forsakes what humankind has sought throughout the ages, “complete knowledge”, instead trying to understand the universe which “in the dead of its night” allows you to “discover its parts and in doing so discover yourself”. He further adds, with resigned acceptance, that “knowledge, like history, is incomplete” and argues that the paleolithic human search for “completeness of knowledge” is a fallacy like the idea of God “who is complete only to be imaginary.”
Guilty is a peculiar sweeping fresco of existentialism, sorrow, self-mortification and also self-affirmation through the writer’s experiences, his meditating practices, his readings, his sexual fantasies, his fears, his memories and his evolving thought. At once theoretical and practical, personal and political, the book swings wildly between tone and subject, between frenzy, boredom and euphoria. It is both the most esoteric and exoteric of Bataille’s writings. It opens with the Nazi assault on Poland, Bataille notes: “The date I start (September 5th, 1939), is no coincidence. I’m starting because of what’s happening, though I don’t want to go into it. I’m writing it down because of being unable not to.” Thought Bataille refuses to talk directly of war; the unmentionable inevitably snakes into his writing as he takes flight from the encroaching chaos of combat, and familiarity of Paris, to the bucolic countryside. At one point, as though reflecting on the mortality of those who lost their lives in battle, Bataille says: “…occasional luck – my luck – in a world that seems increasingly terrible makes me tremble.” There are many things besides luck which make Bataille tremble, one of them being women who to his mind are an “invitation to ruin.” Famous for his sexual cupidity, frequentation of bordellos, macabre eroticism and satanic fancies Bataille muses: “There is some kind of identity between ‘woman’, ‘torment’ and ‘the ridiculous universe’ – my need for self-destruction comes from them.” And, after a short contemplation declares: “To give up my sexual habits would mean I’d have to discover some other means of tormenting myself, though this torture would have to be as intoxicating as alcohol.”
Speaking about Guilty to a fellow writer Jean Paulhan, Bataille said it concerned the “relationship between eroticism and mysticism,” adding “but the book considers a great deal more than that.” And it certainly does. It documents Bataille’s resolution to throw himself into a state of “headlessness” – a key concept in his general philosophical outlook – through drinking, madness, obscenity, cruelty and extreme sex, all of “life’s majestic horrors”. Guilty, however, is one of the texts which most notably marks the beginning of Bataille’s introspection triggered by the death of his lover Colette Peignot, who passed away of tuberculosis in 1938. Writing about it years later in “Notice Autobiographique” Bataille described it as “a death that tore him apart”. Unable to completely let go of the object of his loss, or relinquish the ties through morning, he merged her into the structure of his own identity, making Peignot an iconographic feminised ideal of the excess-pursuing, tormenting self. Peignot’s death was concurrent with the breakdown of many of Bataille’s closest friendships – predominantly over disagreements about the darker elements of his work – which left him largely isolated. It is therefore perhaps no surprised that Bataille himself once surmised Guilty, written during this particular time, as “violently dominated by tears, violently dominated by death”. Looking over some of his earlier entries in the book, Bataille muses: “Reading these fragments from last year I remember I felt death – a chill in my soul. It wasn’t anguish but a chill, an exasperation with the fact of being me, an exasperation with the lack of happiness and excess…”
In many respects, Guilty is a work of eschatology, a confrontation of death through “laughter that reaches the stars” and a need for “love eager to exceed the limits of things.” The latter is the dominating subject throughout but as Bataille warns one must not mistake it with sensuality or eroticism, which he defines as “the brink of the abyss”. The last chapter, Alleluia, speaks directly of and to a woman thought Bataille could be speaking to womankind itself. He says: “It’s time your delirium learns the opposite of each thing you know about. Time to take the boring, depressing, image of the world in you and turn it upside down.” He urges liberation from the manacles of the orthodox through “filth” and “desire for pleasure,” adding: “You come into the power of desire by spreading your legs, showing off your unclean parts, if you couldn’t feel that passion was forbidden, desire in you would soon die, and with it the possibility of pleasure.” Love, however, is something else altogether “flowers… sunlight flooding in, the gentleness of someone’s shoulder” and “in love we stop being ourselves” unwittingly becoming something greater because “Love’s insanity becomes sane when moving towards more insane love.” Guilty is Bataille’s most recondite and multifaceted work, but it is also his most personal and sage. Writing in a state of semi-permanent “anguished drunkenness” while facing the world “alone, wounded, dedicated to his own ruin”he meditates upon all the leitmotifs that have haunted his imagination since he abandoned Catholicism for the avant-garde. There are many conclusions one could draw about this book but the most accurate one has been drawn by Bataille himself, who said Guilty is a work of “chaos… boundless in every sense.”