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Introduction

The Sacred Monster


Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

We must refuse boredom and live only for fascination.


— g e o r g e s b a t a i l l e , ‘‘The Sacred Conspiracy’’

In the 1930s, French writer Georges Bataille (1897–1962) established a se-


cret society known as Acéphale. In the journal by the same name that pro-
vided the group’s public facade, Bataille sets the mood for this obscure
‘‘headless’’ organization, declaring with imperative exigency, ‘‘WE ARE
FEROCIOUSLY RELIGIOUS.’’1 Following this fervent enunciation, he
heralds the acéphalic deity that embodies this fierce religious sensibility.
Enhanced by a drawing executed by his friend, the surrealist André Masson,
Bataille’s description evokes a headless being, anthropomorphic but incom-
plete. Arms outstretched in a cruciform posture, hands bearing a blade and
a flaming sacred heart, intestines visibly churning within a gaping torso, and

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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2 Ecce Monstrum

with a skull in place of the genitals, the acéphale is at once frightening and
ridiculous, an absurd but fascinating conjunction of terror and hilarity.
Bataille insists on the contradictory nature of this headless being. De-
scribing the encounter with the acéphale, he writes:

Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless;
this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime. . . . He
reunites in the same eruption Birth and Death. He is not a man. He is not a god
either. He is not me but he is more than me: his stomach is the labyrinth in
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

Figure 1. André Masson, Acéphale. 䉷 by ADAGP, Paris, 1985.

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Introduction 3
which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover myself as
him, in other words as a monster [monstre].2

The acéphale is thus neither merely man nor solely god,3 because he is both
man and god—at once human and holy, mortal and deific. This conjunction
of opposites is what endows the headless being with its aura of fascination,
and what makes of it a sacred ‘‘monster.’’4
Bataille’s insistent conjunction of the monstrous and the sacred is the
subject of this book. Regarded by many as one of the most important think-
ers of our time, and acknowledged as an important influence by such intel-
lectuals as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques
Derrida, Bataille produced a corpus of wide-ranging writings bearing the
monstrous marks of the affective and intellectual contradictions he also sought
to produce in his readers. In the following chapters, I will specify some of
the ways in which Bataille evokes monstrosity to elicit in himself and his
audience an experience of simultaneous anguish and joy—an experience
that he calls sacred. In particular, Bataille is fascinated with the ‘‘left-hand’’
sacred. In contradistinction to its lucent and form-conferring ‘‘right-hand’’
counterpart, the left-hand sacred is obscure and formless—not transcen-
dent, pure, and beneficent, but dangerous, filthy, and morbid. This sinister,
deadly aspect of the sacred is at once embodied in, and communicated by,
the monster. As we will see, it is in beholding the monster that one might
experience the combination of ecstasy and horror that characterizes Batail-
le’s notion of the sacred.
The dual etymology of ‘‘monster’’ reveals that aspect of the sacred that
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

enticed Bataille. According to one vein of etymological study, the Latin


monstrum derives from monstrare (to show or display). The monster is that
which appears before our eyes as a sign of sorts; it is a demonstration. But
another tradition emphasizes a more ominous point. Deriving from monere
(to warn), the monster is a divine omen, a portent; it heralds something that
yet remains unexpected, unforeseeable—as a sudden reversal of fortune.5 In
the writings of Bataille, the monster functions as a monstrance, putting on
display the sinister aspect of the sacred that Bataille sees as the key to a
‘‘sovereign’’ existence. But in doing so the monster presents us with a por-
tent of something that we cannot precisely foresee, but something that,
Bataille claims, can be paradoxically experienced in moments of simultane-
ous anguish and ecstasy: death.

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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4 Ecce Monstrum

Death, according to Bataille, is not only a source of anguish, but also that
by which we ecstatically escape our limited senses of self. An experience ‘‘on
the level of death,’’6 occurs in erotic encounters or in moments of extreme
emotion, ‘‘jerk[ing] us out of our tenacious obsession with the lastingness
of our [individual] being.’’7 Wounding the closed form of the individual,
death elicits a sense of continuity, of communication with other ruptured
beings. In this regard, sacrifice is Bataille’s obsessive reference, for it is the
operation that ruptures the integrality of the individual form.
This sacrifice of form8 thus results in the creation of monstrous forms,
which are related to the informe (formless), to use one of Bataille’s key
terms. 9 At the same time, the presentation of monstrosity—the showing of
the monster—provokes a sacrificial experience. Beholding the monster in-
cites affective contradictions, a rupturing experience of both life and death,
joy and anguish. This paradoxical combination of extreme affects defines
what Bataille calls ‘‘religious sensibility.’’ In the course of this book, I will
attempt to show how Bataille deploys writing, philosophy, and art to por-
tray and produce monstrosity in himself and his audience, thereby inciting
a sense of the sacred in the modern world. In doing so, I will elaborate
Bataille’s monstrous mode of reading and writing, a mode that is agonistic,
but also an expression of friendship and communion.
Each chapter evolves through an examination of Bataille’s relations to
the work of a particular ‘‘friend,’’ a figure with whom he exhibits simultane-
ous intimacy and opposition. Focusing on these friends will not only allow
readers to discern important influences on Bataille’s thought (influences be-
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

traying both accord and opposition); it will also occasion consideration of


the monstrous strategies Bataille employs in his interpretations of others
and in his own writings. While individual chapters develop specific dimen-
sions of Bataille’s monstrous mode—contradiction, truncation, inversion,
reversal, excess, decay, and a confusion of the senses—the overall itinerary
of the book suggests something about the role of monstrosity in Bataille’s
thought more generally. In the end, we will find that the various ways of
thinking with which Bataille engages—primarily philosophy, literature, and
visual art—are themselves subject to monstrous operations, for Bataille
brings them into relations that exploit both their mutual intimacies and
antagonisms. Provoking violence through these relations is one way in
which Bataille opens readers to ecstatic experience.

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Introduction 5

I have followed dual but closely intertwining trajectories, assessing how,


according to Bataille, individuals undergo monstrous transformations in re-
lation to certain domains of thought, and how these forms of thought func-
tion in relation to, but also in tension with, each other. The discussion in
the pages that follow is grounded in Bataille’s understanding of the self as
it emerges in proximity and opposition to a Hegelian understanding of the
subject. With this understanding in place, it is possible to examine the sev-
eral monstrous strategies by which the self is transformed—altered through
experiences of contradiction—in relation to varied intellectual and artistic
expressions.
The discussion opens with an analysis of Bataille’s account of the forma-
tion of subjectivity, which is particularly inflected by Alexandre Kojève’s
influential lectures of the 1930s on G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
It is Hegel’s formulation of subjectivity with and against which Bataille is
working, and in the face of which monstrosity is generated. Bataille trun-
cates the Hegelian account; displacing the central Hegelian concept of ‘‘rec-
ognition’’ in the master–slave dialectic, Bataille’s notion of sovereign
subjectivity derives from a logic of profound identification: empathy without
reserve. For Bataille, this identification proceeds not according to the dy-
namics of power and submission attendant upon Hegelian recognition, but
rather by way of a total relinquishment of power in an empathic merging
with an always and only powerless—indeed tortured—other. This notion
of identification is part and parcel of what Bataille calls a ‘‘counter opera-
tion,’’ an operation opposed to the dominant mode or attitude of thinking
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

associated both with Hegelian recognition and discursive thought. This


counter operation takes many forms in Bataille’s writings, and each subse-
quent chapter of this book will address some instantiation of it.
The account developed in chapter 1 sets the stage for my treatment of
Bataille’s relationship to Friedrich Nietzsche in chapter 2. With Hegel,
Nietzsche was among the greatest influences on Bataille’s thought; reading
Nietzsche marked a decisive moment for Bataille. But Bataille’s interpreta-
tion of Nietzsche is idiosyncratic, as he insists on a Nietzsche who has sacri-
ficed reason on the altar of madness, and whose writings are meaningless if
not understood as expressions of a peculiar mystical or ‘‘inner’’ experi-
ence—a movement from the philosophical syntheses of the Hegelian spirit
to the anguish of the experience of the eternal return. In this chapter I show
how Bataille at once critiques those aspects of his German predecessor that

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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6 Ecce Monstrum

attest to a will to power, while specifying and exploiting that in Nietzsche


which exhibits a morbid will to sickness and decline. In developing his vale-
tudinarian version of Nietzsche, Bataille inverts the Nietzschean concept of
tragic overcoming, putting sacrificial death in its place. Ultimately, Bataille
identifies with Nietzsche, but with a sacrificial Nietzsche, reading him not
as the philosopher of the affirmation of life but, by way of a dramatic rever-
sal, as the madman who also pronounces a ‘‘Yes’’ even to death.
A similar antagonistic dynamic is examined in the analyses of chapters 3
and 4, where I discuss another crucial influence on Bataille’s thought: surre-
alism. Concerned with the interrelations of methodic rational thought and
ecstatic experience, Bataille claimed that his ‘‘method of meditation’’ was
situated ‘‘beyond but alongside surrealism.’’10 Indeed, Bataille occasionally col-
laborated with surrealism’s founding father, André Breton. More often,
however, he was Breton’s critic and nemesis, railing against Breton’s ethe-
real inclinations—that is, his failure to face, much less embrace, the sordid
aspects of material reality. Building upon the analysis of Bataille’s fraught
‘‘friendship’’ with Nietzsche, in chapter 3 I articulate, and develop, Batail-
le’s critique of surrealism, both extending and diverging from recent work
by art historians who have made headway in reconceptualizing the surrealist
movement. In a manner that recalls his subversive reading of Nietzsche,
Bataille incorporates some of Breton’s most cherished surrealist concepts—
dream, chance, and automatism—only to exceed and pervert their surrealist
meanings; in Bataille’s hands they are not the tools of poetic transformation,
but rather the means of embracing base reality. In developing an extremist
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

and ‘‘monstrous’’ surrealism to counter Breton’s more moderate brand of


surrealism, Bataille finds an unlikely companion in the figure of Simone
Weil.
While Weil and Bataille’s shared political interests drew them into con-
versation in the 1930s, their subsequent friendship was nonetheless fraught
with a sense of opposition. Indeed, in some respects, no one could be more
different from the famously austere and pious Weil than the infamously
excessive and scatological Bataille. However, I argue in chapter 4 that Weil
embodies, as much in her death as in her life, the ‘‘hyperchristianity’’ that
Bataille believes to be the extreme culminating point of a surrealism that no
longer fails to contend with the morbid and contaminating aspects of real-
ity.11 Drawing on biographical and philosophical evidence in a reading of
the character Lazare (based on Weil) in Bataille’s novel Blue of Noon, I sug-

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Introduction 7

gest that Bataille construes an image of the posthumous Weil as a divine


but decaying intercessor: a patron saint of perishability. His monstrous
reading of Weil’s writing and life conveys an embodiment of contradiction
that finds its fullest expression in the lacerating paradox of time and eter-
nity, human and god, in the crucifixion. It is in light of this reading of Weil
that Bataille finally witnesses a hyperchristianity that exceeds the sublimat-
ing paradigm of Breton’s surrealism, marking another dimension of the ex-
perience of the sacred.
Crucifixion figures contradiction again in chapter 5, where I examine the
work of artist Hans Bellmer in relation to Bataille. I argue that Bellmer’s
work reveals a lasting obsession with the painted crucifixion of Matthias
Grünewald’s harrowing Isenheim Altarpiece. Though an atheist, Bellmer and
his work exhibit what Bataille calls ‘‘religious sensibility,’’ a monstrous and
contradictory combination of horror and ecstasy. This sensibility is ex-
pressed in Bellmer’s construction of the iconic and uncanny decomposable
doll for which he was best known, as well as in his graphic work. In particu-
lar we will see that Bellmer and Bataille dramatically oppose the philosophi-
cal tradition of the hand, in which dexterity and synthetic balance are
paramount in the pursuit of good form. To this end I examine the skillful
hands of Bellmer, arguing that his own dexterity is put to monstrous ends
in a kind of Bataillean counter operation; his practiced right hand executes
sinister forms: images of the left-hand sacred that instill in their viewers
the religious sensibility that Bataille has articulated. Bellmer additionally
provokes a confusion of the senses through his manipulations of image and
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

text, bodies and language, each cutting into the other. I conclude chapter 5
with an examination of Bataille’s wounded hands, suggesting that the evoca-
tion of wounds in art and writing evinces a monstrous sacrifice of form
that might provoke in the audience an ecstatic experience at the level of
death—and thus an experience of the sacred in the contemporary world.
The stakes of Bataille’s writings are high, as they not only attempt to
provide the means to understand certain aspects of the sacred, but also at-
tempt to elicit experiences of it. At the outset of his life as a writer, Bataille
received a gift from his psychoanalyst, Dr. Adrien Borel: a photograph of a
man undergoing a horrific torture. (Chapter 1 contains a discussion of this
photo.) Dismembered and eviscerated, the man, still alive at the time the
photo was taken, and exhibiting a strangely ecstatic expression, has been
turned into a monster—disfigured, a vision of horror. For Bataille, the

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=3239719.
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8 Ecce Monstrum

transfiguration of this man is emblematic of the monstrous transformation


he seeks in his brand of religious experience—ecstatic even to ruin, raptur-
ous and ruptured to the point of death. This profoundly troubling sacrificial
model for inner experience is one that Bataille revisits and modifies
throughout his writings. I think that ultimately Bataille’s writings can be
read as a sustained method of meditation in which he explores the possibil-
ity of enacting and provoking—through a monstrous mode of writing, read-
ing, and artistic production—the sacred ruination for which bodily sacrifice
had been the model. In this book I attempt to clarify and build upon Batail-
le’s concept of monstrosity, and, in doing so, to elaborate the possibilities
for engaging in a practice of joy in the face of death12—that is, for arousing
the intolerable contradiction that defines the sacred: divine ecstasy and ex-
treme horror.
Copyright © 2007. Fordham University Press. All rights reserved.

Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum : Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form, Fordham University Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=3239719.
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