Monday, December 10, 2007

Georges Bataille's "Erotism" Book Review

My wife saw me reading this and mistook it for a dirty book. I replied that it was densely argued, far from erotica, and would more likely put most readers to sleep rather than delay them from such. Bataille, as with many French thinkers-- at least in translation-- takes a convoluted, intricate, and often bewildering intellectual journey that proves demanding for even the erudite scholar or patient seeker to follow. This combines a 150-page monograph expounding his thesis with shorter talks and reviews that compress it. He argues that the moment of sexual abandon into the "little death" represents the closest we mortals will come to death in this life. The moment of ultimate "knowing" another peers into an abyss. Life engendered by this action triggers our own obsolescence. The contradictions abound at this "pinnacle of being." (276)

Discontinuous individuals "we perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure," but we seek nostalgia, in a primal continuity beyond our mortality. (15) But we know such a search dooms us only to knowledge of our limits within the flesh and time. The erotic (why the book is in fact not titled "Eroticism" as a translation of "L'Erotisme" eludes me, for Bataille uses "eroticism" and not "erotism" as rendered in English here) triggers abandonment. "Human life cannot follow the movement which draws it toward death without a shudder and without trying to cheat." (146) Sneaking about, we take paths of marriage, orgy, sacrifice, religion, crime, or -- at their root, violence against our higher nature as our bodies pull us down.

Bataille links pleasure with taboo, and the tension between an order that restricts freedom and a carnival that celebrates excess structures his anthropology. "In human terms the taboo never makes an appearance without suggesting sexual pleasure, nor does the pleasure without evoking the taboo." (108) Going out of bounds charges one's reaction.

"Transgression from what makes us orderly and human and civilized, the workaday world, reminds us of our animal nature. Our "sexual exuberance" thus "prevents us from being reduced to mere things;" our human nature, "geared to specific ends in work, tends to make things of us at the expense of our sexual exuberance." (158) In a review of Kinsey's then-novel studies, Bataille unearths a statistic that those who are thieves have many more weekly orgasms than working folks, although for the rich the amount of luxury and licentiousness appears to be considerably larger as well. From this, he supports his model that the more we work, the less we play. The energy exacted and the expense required for common people vs. the leisured classes reminds me of that curmudgeon from Regency England who of the sexual act mused more or less how "the pleasure is momentary, the expense extravagant, and the position ridiculous."

Nonetheless, when we have sex, we invest differently than we do when we save our hard-earned cash. Spending rather than getting, we reverse the usual accumulation of wealth that rewards our daily labors. This opposite conduct upends our urge to possess and retain; reproduction and courtship, Bataille ponders, lavish color and splendor beyond rational expectation. This erotic excess disorders our routine. "Nakedness wrecks the decency conferred by our clothes." (170)

The frisson of setting bonds only to strain against them illustrates this dark energy released by sex, violence, and their inherent if often subtle or repressed link in our bodies and minds. Out of this negativity comes the body's atavistic challenge to calm reason and enforced dogma. He quotes de Sade: "The best way of enlarging and multiplying one's desires is to try to limit them." (48) Bataille argues that disorder represented by de Sade stands not to be admired, but as a logical if worst-case scenario of silence and unrestrained appetites written down-- in prison. In two essays, he explores the paradox of the Marquis. De Sade attacks in his unreasonable assaults not fools and hypocrites (Bataille counters against those who would praise his predecessor) but the normal, decent person. He's like the sun, "intolerable to the naked eye." (171) Why we should then read him appears less clear; Bataille acknowledges in passing Simone de Beauvoir's critique but seems to shirk the combat. "Misunderstanding and revulsion from the generality of mankind are the only results of de Sade's ideas," he admits rather perplexingly. (191) We cannot applaud him, but refusing to congratulate Sade we at least understand the logic of our stance. For, "this lack of understanding at least keeps" the "essence of Sade's "ideas intact, whilst the admiration accorded him today by some few people proves very little since it does not commend them to the voluptuary's solitude." Bataille appears to leave Sade in the Bastille, to rage on impotently, pen on paper rather than penis in power.

For those of us less inclined to sadism than tenderness, what of our relationships? Bataille reminds us how desire kindles fear. We long to keep our beloved's body always, remain stricken with terror at letting go of our partner, and for some the path from possession in ecstasy to killing rather than surrendering one's lover can be a short step. "The violence of love leads to tenderness, but it brings into the striving of one's heart towards one another the same quality of disorder, the same taste for losing consciousness and the same after-taste of death that is found in the mutual desire for each other's body." (241) Even in the storybook happy home and the domesticated bed, Bataille detects danger.

Tenderness can find balance with violence, but without violence, "sexual love could not have lent its vocabulary as it has done to describe the transports of the mystics." (243) Essays here explore the difficulty that Catholic priests suffer when attempting to equate mystical transport with a sexual orgasm that they vow to refuse-- the contradictions here intrigue Bataille-- who does not mention this, but I believe that he himself lost his faith after he left the seminary for a failed love affair! (Compare his disciple Pierre Klossowski, whose own criticism of Sade shows how much he followed his master in setting Sade's endless vituperation against an order that could not be overcome, for if all were permitted to all, there would be nothing for Sade's selfish libertines to fulminate against.)

He matches ecstasy with death. In a preface to an erotic novel, "Madame Edwarda," he anticipates "the oneness of extreme pleasure and extreme pain, the oneness of being and dying, of knowledge finishing with this dazzling prospect and final darkness." (267) Annihilation depends on our awareness in sex of how close we can teeter towards the emptiness of utter dissolution. Does this bring us near God? While Bataille denied that the priests could by their very chastity approach this ultimate truth, he asserts that in sexual transport we might be carried very close to this apotheosis. Any God worth belief, Bataille hints, must transcend any definition. Even, or especially, a non-believer (I cannot claim him as an atheist, however, based on this book) like himself knows that God must destroy even Bataille's attempt to define God as "nothing at all." For, "we cannot add to language without impunity the word which transcends words, the word God." I am reminded of the cabalistic concept of "Ein Sof," the Hebrew "without end" that defines the indefinable Power.

"What mysticism cannot put into words, eroticism says"-- perhaps in sharing the same silence in which Bataille imagines our last second of life. (269) In "the terrible syncopated dance" of memento mori we also recall our momentary sexual escape from the flesh. "And the moment of torment will always come: how would we overcome it if it were to fail? But of all being ready and open-- for death, joy or torment-- unreservedly open and dying, painful and happy, is there already with its shadowed light, and this light is divine-- and the cry that being -- vainly?-- tries to utter from a twisted mouth is an immense alleluia, lost in endless silence." (270-1) I doubt if Carthusians would ever read this passage in their stony cells, but they might be surprised, when they reach their eternal reward, to speak with Bataille about their shared contemplation of what can only be said in silence. "In the end the articulate man confesses his own impotence." (276) I wonder what the author of the surrealist abandon of "The Story of an Eye" will have to say to the monks about their common experience of ecstasy.

(Posted in shorter form to Amazon US today.)

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