Charles Baudelaire’s decadent visions pushed the Victorian cult of beauty toward modernism, Henry Miller’s lurid epics pushed a then staid modernism toward anarchic beat writing, and Georges Bataille and the surrealists of his arts journal Documents gave us much of the culture we have today, call it what you will if postmodern is too passé. Obsessed with torture, pornography, horror, and bodily fluids, Bataille “wanted to bring art down to the base level of other physical phenomena,” says surrealist scholar Dawn Ades. Where other transgressive figures of the past have mostly been tamed, Bataille, I submit, is still quite dangerous. The Bataille quote that opens the film above, A perte de vue (“As far as the eye can see”), won’t go down easily with almost anyone: “The world,” reads narrator Jean-Claude Dauphin, “is only inhabitable on the condition that nothing in it is respected.” This, the documentary suggests, is Bataille’s philosophy, one he defines as “a need for sensibility to call up disturbance.”
Bataille, a failed priest and sometime librarian, founded surrealist flagship Documents in 1929, published 15 issues, then went on to write novels, poems, and essays for the next thirty years. But his most famous work has remained his first, The Story of the Eye, originally published under the pseudonym Lord Auch in 1928. It’s a book that even today can seem like “social anthrax,” as novelist John Wray put it, in a way that other once taboo-breaking works like Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, certainly do not. It’s an apt comparison, not on literary grounds, but given that both writers were haunted by once fervent Catholicism turned to fervent rejection. Writes Mark Hudson in The Guardian, “he did believe in his own transgressive philosophies in a quasi-religious sense.” Like Joyce, “there’s a powerful dualism in his thought, a profound religious impulse.” Unlike Joyce—or Bataille’s fellow surrealists for that matter, who “excommunicated” him from the movement—“there is still much in his work that is difficult to redeem and far from being accommodated by the mainstream—if indeed it ever can be.”
You can read four of Bataille’s challenging pieces at Supervert’s elibrary: The Story of the Eye and three essays, “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade,” “The Big Toe,” and “The Cruel Practice of Art.” Bataille’s philosophy, writes Supervert, “apparently lay in personal experience—in particular his childhood with a suicidal mother and a blind, syphilitic father.” This kind of psychologizing may seem superfluous, yet Bataille introduces himself to us, in his own words—through audio interviews in the first few minutes of A pert de vue—as the product of “a sad place to be.” Personal origins aside, Bataille’s philosophy has resonated widely and “helped pave the way to contemporary critical theory.” By embracing everything rejected, feared, or held in contempt, Bataille reclaimed everyday parts of human existence—those we euphemize or seek to contain—for literature, philosophy… and well, the internet. If some of Bataille’s preoccupations are irredeemable for mainstream tastes, you may find as you watch the film above and read Bataille’s writing that this is for good reason.