Georges Bataille: An Introduction to The Radical Philosopher’s Life & Thought Through Film and eTexts

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Michel Fou­cault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Theorist’s Con­tro­ver­sial Life and Phi­los­o­phy

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

David Lynch Presents the His­to­ry of Sur­re­al­ist Film (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.