“There are masses of lilacs here, irises and wisteria. The forest seems like peace itself, but when the day comes it will burn like a match.” – Georges Bataille, [x]
The Paris Review published a happy birthday essay to Bataille today. While I love that people are keeping Bataille in their hearts and minds, that essay falls prey to the same tired tropes that people seem to cling to when writing about him: Lord Auch, The Story of the Eye, the pornography, the unsated sexual urges. While none of this is exactly wrong, it always paints Bataille as a sort of 20th Century Marquis de Sade, who cannot help but reach out and attempt to bind the carnal delights of the mortal world.
To take it further, (a slightly late) happy birthday to Georges Bataille, born on September 10, 1897. I can’t imagine what it was like to grow up in the heart of French modernization, the explosion of biopolitical control, and to become an archivist of thinking. I bet it had to drive you up the wall; all those books, all that information. A literal plenitude that can never be exhausted because it is just there and waiting to be expended. No one ever writes about your day-to-day life working at the library. They focus in on the private, the strange, the pseudonymous writing, but never the things you did in public every day for years.
Sylvia Makles married Georges Bataille in 1928. A decade later her and Bataille were estranged and she was living with Jacques Lacan. Paris, in the adolescence of the 20th century, was very small. In a letter from around the time when Sylvia left him, Bataille wrote to Michel Leiris and said “There is no better thing for crushing than the wheels of a train but that does not stop me from paying to get on board. What an absurd curiosity for what it would be better never to find; one ought not to have been born.” [x]
What annoys me about the bog-standard tropes surround Bataille is that this melancholic, strange figure is reduced down to some sexual Parisian monster. We lose him to the specter of an it that carnally eats everything around him.
The association isn’t ridiculous. The man did spend an immense amount of time thinking about sex, violence, and the proliferation of things across the world. A formative question that extends through his writings on literature, art, sexuality, and philosophy: why do things stop? Why doesn’t every single thing keep going until it extends over the planet and all experience?
This question always gave rise to bleakness. From his “Sade“:
There is only one means in his power to escape from these various limitations – the destruction of a being similar to ourselves. In this destruction the limitations of our fellow human beings are denied; we cannot destroy an inert object: it changes but does not disappear: only a being similar to ourselves disappears, in death. The violence experienced by our fellow human beings is concealed from the order of finite, ultimately useless things. It returns them to immensity.
The follow-up to “why do things stop?” is “in what way to we experience them stopping?” Critical case studies: the body (amputation), experience (orgasm, death), economies (the potlatch), and hundreds of others.
It is always a danger to read biographically, but I do believe that a critical piece of Bataille is contained in the work of his shorttime partner Colette Peignot. Cutting to the end of it: she died of tuberculosis in his living room, lying on his couch, in 1938. In September of that year he wrote a letter to Leiris: “[Colette] is really better now but she has been in a dreadful state. It does seem that for the moment she is out of danger and yet still I had to call the doctor at nine o’clock yesterday evening. . . . May I ask you to send us cards telling us what you are up to and somewhat making light of Colette’s illness?”[x]
Two months later, in November, she was dead. There are no letters exchanged between Leiris and Bataille from September to July 1939.
Bataille never came to terms with her death, and the “Found Fragments on Laure” in Laure: The Collected Writings show how often he tried to get something out, to make it make sense. After reading them over and over again, I can only come to the conclusion that the frantic metaphysical thinking that consumed the rest of his life was a method of trying to get to her, to think about her, to come to terms with how she could be both “an inert object” and the experiencing, thinking being who was returned to “immensity.”
In some ways, his work after her death was merely a continuation of the work that she had been doing all along in short stories, poetry, and fragments of philosophy. He writes:
In brief moments of respite, her sentences became intelligible. She asked me to look in her purse and in her papers for something it was absolutely necessary to find; I showed her everything that was there, but I could not find what she wanted. Only at that moment did I see a small, white, paper folder that bore the title: The Sacred, and I showed it to her. The hope came to me that when I read the papers she was leaving, she would speak to me again, beyond death. I knew that she had written a lot, but she had not given me any of it to read, and I never thought I would find, in what she was abandoning, an answer to the specific question that was hiding in me like a starving animal. [x]
Bataille took that fragment, published it under Colette’s name, and continued to build on it for the rest of his life. Her understandings of communication, sovereignty, and the sacred itself became the core themes and terms that he developed throughout the rest of his life.
And that is the Bataille I want to remember. Not a sex addict or a perverse writer, but a “starving animal” who was consumed with understanding the universe that could take away the person he loved.
I sit here, crying a little because these fragments and letters are always the same no matter how many times I read them, wishing a slightly belated happy birthday to Georges Bataille, who speaks after death, entwined with Colette.