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Rob Weatherill: Bataille and Levinas at the Limits of Psychoanalysis

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 » Rob Weatherill: Bataille and Levinas at the Limits of Psychoanalysis

Paper presented to a one day conference held by the College of Psychoanalysis.  “Trauma, Body, Impasse”. Oct 7. 2006
Our clinical problem, the central problem, is that in every instance in every case, we discover at root a more or less distant attachment to pain, to a pleasure-pain alloy, a catastrophic metallic excitement, covered by the term jouissance.  This is the nuclear secret, the discovery of a primordial masochism, or as Freud refers to it as a “primary erotogenic masochism”  (Freud, 1924, p164), or in “Analysis, terminable and interminable”, he points to ‘a force which is defending itself by every possible means against recovery and which is absolutely resolved to hold on to illness and suffering’. (Freud, 1937, p242).  This is the bedrock of our heresy where we come up against what George Bataille, more than any other thinker, has a right to call the impossible.
Bataille lived the death drive (1). Bataille was analysed by Adrien Borel who showed him  photographs (taken by Louis Carpeaux, reproduced in Surya, 2002, p274-275) of a murdered Chinese prince, Fu Chou Li, being cut into a hundred pieces. In the series of photographs, the victim’s reactions seem to resemble those of mystics in states of ecstasy. What so impressed Bataille was the juxtaposition of divine ecstasy and extreme horror. (2) What followed was his lifelong search for the “sacred” beyond the enlightenment of the civilised world.
In the years leading up to WW2, the West was in a state of deep moral crisis with the seemingly inexorable rise of fascism. Bataille’s response was not so much to counter this process of moral decline, but to accelerate the decent with an (ironic) aggressive and visceral anti-intellectualism and anti-idealism. He criticised the “idle negativity” of European intellectuals on the Left, countering with his review, Ancephale, the cover of which reproduced a drawing by Andre Masson of a headless man (reproduced in Stoekl, 1985, p180), representing the “death” of anyone foolish enough to still have faith in cephalic reason and progress. Following in the tradition of de Sade, Neitzsche, Dionysus and others, the first two issues carried articles by Klossowski. The first, published in June 1936, called, “The monster” asserting the Sadean dream of ‘total monstrosity’, the negation of the self, the power of dream over consciousness, the second article was on the current state of Nietzschian studies attempting to rescue Nietzsche from anti-semitism and fascism.(3) Ancephale was a negative religion, a negative theology, but fiercely religious for all that: in the spirit of the melevolent Aztec gods; in the spirit of ritual sacrifices, familiar with the most violent death; in the spirit of non-productive wild expenditure borrowed from Marcel Mauss, (Mauss, 1950) of a mad generosity, as well as in the spirit of the bullfight and the bullfighter gored by a horn that penetrates the bullfighter’s eye, which also held a great fascination for  Bataille.
Nothing, as far as Bataille was concerned, must get in the way of the totality of being, no divided consciousness, no Freudian repression or renunciation, also, beyond a certain point, no language. Ancephale was a secret society. However, there is no evidence that it actually carried out any human sacrifices (see Surya, p250). 
Against what Bataille regarded as the ‘weak’ forms of ‘servile’ morality in decline, like Christianity, communism, surrealism, ‘spineless’ bourgeois democracies, and today we might include “multiculturism” and “political correctness” all of which opposed life with some ideal, goals, ends, progress, etc., Bataille went into reverse, turning all morality into a hyper-morality of the sacred, of ruin, of giving, of madness, of sovereignty. Here, for Bataille, the unconscious is a non-knowing at the heart of consciousness itself, which is the headless attraction and fascination felt for abjection and excrement, a primary masochism, what Bataille terms a “heterology” - the Other logic. This Other is the Lacanian Real, made flesh, as it were, and, like the Lacanian Real, Bataille is insistent that it has nothing to do with nature or biology, but is profoundly an effect brought about by the purity and elevation (homogeneity) of Christian religion and culture. The flesh is subject to decay and putrefaction, torn and lacerated. Bataille, like the Cathars, pushes religion to its extreme limit point. The flesh is cursed, because the body is tied inexorably to its own decay and death. There is no sexual liberation (as in the sex manuals which promote an idealised sexuality) but rather a black erotics, where the orgasm is the shattering moment of nothing, linked to the final death which it anticipates and rehearses. The beautification and cosmetic surgery of the body is only an  attempt to placate the sacred, the otherness of decay, ageing, necrosis, while at the same time signalling its overwhelming hidden power.
Bataille makes clear that, ‘To the extent that we are normally drowned in this world of mechanisms that a sacred element is completely other for us...irreducible to the things of the profane world’ (in Richardson, 1998, p40). The mechanisms of exchange in the profane Symbolic social universe in which we exist in our alienated fashion, exclude this radically sacrificial logic.  Against differentiation and mechanisms of exchange, Bataille seeks contagion - prodigality, perversity, crime, anguish. His mysticism is above all social, but has nothing to do with sociology or communications theory. After Ancephale, Bataille set up his so-called “College of Sociology” in 1937 with Roger Caillois and Michel Leiris. But this was neither sociology nor a college. Here, what constitutes the “social” what brings people together is death; death and sacrifice bind a community.   ‘Everything leads us to believe that early human beings were brought together by disgust and a common terror’ (Surya,p265.). ‘The living only gather together “in anguish”; the greater this is, the stronger being is in them, and the stronger their community, [always of necessity] a tragic community’ (Surya, p243). Laceration creates communication.  Our love for each other is based on a shared death: communication in tragedy. Death must circulate freely without resistance among the living as an awakening to fatality - father, can’t you see I’m burning.  The crucifixion, in the Christian version, was a sacrifice offered to mankind to save us from our sins. But Bataille adds, that this crime, this striking at God himself, leads us to understand that man might now communicate in endless memory of this primal murder: Christ’s death makes us speak.
In his work, Eroticism, Bataille understands the erotic as connected to an elemental violence and violation which we discontinuous beings go in fear of. We will go some small way towards this excess, with our “safe sex”, our manuals on sexual etiquette and sexual hygiene, but on the hitherside of repression, as it were, the sacrificial logic of continuity is at one with death. ‘Eroticism opens the way to death’ (Bataille, 1962, p24). Bataille links up, at this point, desire, terror, intense pleasure and anguish. At this point of rupture, all terms become equivalent and contagious, continuity is re-established. Violent death disrupts the individual’s discontinuity, and ‘what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one’ (p82). The earliest taboos were erected against the violent surge of life which they saw all around them in the cycles of death and rebirth. Freud’s Totem and Taboo is a more recent living vestige. (201).. Life in and for itself alone, in its continuity, teems, multiplies, convulses, circulates, unleashes itself. In this sense it is sacred.  And, ‘violence alone, blind violence, can burst the barriers of the rational world and lead us into continuity’ (p140). The ugliness and disgust we feel for the sacrifice, especially as the ‘victim is chosen so that its perfection shall give full point to the full brutality of death’ is linked as ever with the ugliness of the sex. ‘Human beauty, in the union of bodies, shows the contrast between the purest aspect of mankind and the hideous animal quality of the sexual organs’(p144). This hideousness is not so much linked to any educational training or any repressive child-rearing, as we hear so often stated, but linked to a certain animality, which has nothing to do with animals per se, but has to do with our knowing of death and decay and its generosity and our fatal attraction towards them. As Bataille says, ‘Language cheats to conceal universal annihilation’ (p187). Language, as Freud noted, provides ‘the shield against stimuli’. Echoing Freud, Bataille tells us about the no language of violence, ‘the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists’ (p188). Criticising de Sade, he suggests that a paradox exists, because ‘he attributes his own attitude to people who in real life could only have been silent...he is the mouthpiece of a silent life, of utter and inevitable speechless solitude’ (pp188-189).  Relating the erotic to mysticism and states of rapture described by mystics of all religions, they have the same  significance, ‘of non-attachment to ordinary life, indifference to its needs, anguish...until the being reels, and the way left open to a spontaneous surge of life...which bursts forth in freedom and infinite bliss’ (pp246-247). Secrecy, silence, the outside to ordinary life, eroticism is silence, the denial of which is language: ‘language scatters the totality of all that touches us most closely...Through language we can never grasp what matters most to us’ (p274). 
And Bataille was well placed to become this “excremental philosopher” (Breton). What clearly marked his life as impossible was the blind visceral helplessness of his syphilitic father. Were his father and mother mad or did they go mad?  Bataille’s older brother by 8 years, Martial, bitterly denies that either were mad and wanted no public comment made.  Their father, Joseph-Aristide, was 35 when he met and married Marie-Antoinette Tournadre.  He had previously undertaken medical studies, but not finished them.  He became a civil servant, working as a college bursar, a prison employee (of Melun prison), then a postmaster.  Then his illness came to light.  He was 44 when George was born (1897) and already blind.  Three years later he lost the use of his limbs and was confined to an armchair.  ‘He had huge ever-gaping eyes...[that] went almost entirely blank when he pissed.’ (GB quoted in Suyra, p7)  These eyes were the void, the gaping hole, no doubt ‘absolutely obscene’ As Suyra says,  ‘These eyes, open to the void or the abyss, this truth of eyes that were more real than those of the living were the eyes of either a “madman” or a saint’ (Surya, p7).  ‘Stabbing pains tore animal cries from him.’ ‘He sometimes shat in his pants.’ (GB  quoted in Suyra, p8)  At night George helped his father onto his bedpan.  Suyra affirms clearly, ‘George Bataille loved this man.  He said so simply without thinking he should add that this love owed nothing to pity’ (pp8-9). However, at 14, hatred took the place of love... ‘I began vaguely enjoying his constant shrieks, in one figure the blind man and the paralytic, that supremely nauseating figure’ (GB quoted in Surya, p9, italics mine).  At this point in 1911, George claims that his father’s madness set in.  In this year Martial went off to do his military service and did not return until after the war.  There are violent screams in the night, and the doctor who had come to help is accused by the father: ‘Doctor, let me know when you’re done fucking my wife’ (p10).   His mother makes two suicide attempts: the first by hanging in the attic; the second by attempting to drown herself in a local creek.  Can we believe all this?  Did George as Martial claimed take pleasure in darkening the story?  His father definitely had syphilis for 20 years.  George went to school in Rheims where the Batailles came to live.  Bored there, he claims to have been devoted to the joys of self-mutilation: ‘I wanted to inure myself to pain’ (quoted in Suyra, p14).  He also became convinced that his father had made obscene advances toward him in the cellar of their house.  He used the word ‘rape’ and says he saw his father ‘beckoning his obscene hands [towards him] with a venomous and blind smile’ (quoted, p15). In 1914, at the age of 17, he discovers God and becomes a convert to Catholicism.  Later that year, from 5-12th September, Rheims was almost completely destroyed by the advancing German army, by which time, along with the civilian population, George and his mother had obeyed the order to evacuate (at the end of August), leaving his father to ‘fire and destruction.’  By August 1919, Rheims had been through 857 days of concerted bombardment. He would never see his father alive again.  ‘On 6 November 1915...two or three miles from German lines, my father died abandoned’ (GB quoted in Surya, p18) The son was placed in a position that caused him a sense of guilt that would never leave him:  ‘No one on earth, or in the heavens was concerned with the anguish of my dying father’ (quoted, p18).  ‘I abandoned my father, alone, blind, paralytic, mad, screaming and twitching with pain, transfixed in a worn-out armchair’ (quoted, p19). 
There were three senses that George Bataille gave of this abandonment of his father: 1) the flight from Rheims, as per the orders given; 2) not returning in spite of knowing how close his father was to death (giving in to his mother’s “madness” - the suicide attempts were at this time); 3) converting to Catholicism and a consoling God, when his father had lived and died without religion. His conversion is dated precisely at the time of the abandonment in Rheims.  
What his father’s suffering laid bare and manifest in the Real, with his empty eyes, was the materiality, the absolute presence without mediation, of a slow, painful decent into death, which George and perhaps he alone witnessed as a helpless child for many many years.  George, later makes clear his travail: ‘God, who watches over my efforts, give me the night of your blind man’s eyes’ (quoted, p20). As Suyra concludes, ‘Praying to him, entreating him, kept Bataille at his father’s side, obedient, long before he knew it, to this Hegelian injunction: “The spirit is this power only in knowing how to look the negative in the eyes and knowing how to stay close to it”’ (p21).
For some nine or ten years Bataille was a devout Catholic. Then came debauchery; the plunge into the horror/fascination of the flesh.  He had been reading about the Christian martyrs and their extremes of suffering. According to Andre Masson, Bataille’s was a violent loss of faith.  He gave up piety, which he felt was an evasion: ‘I wanted to escape my destiny at any price, I was abandoning my father. Today, I know I am “blind”, immeasurable, I am man “abandoned” on the globe like my father at N. No one on earth or in heaven cared about my father’s dying terror’. (Bataille, 1928, p78).
It would be an understatement to say that this was ever an easy return to the body - his body, his father’s body - never a simple affirmation of the flesh, but quite the reverse - a transgression full of impossibility. Bataille was not and never could be a forerunner of our current therapeutic evangelists of the flesh where everything appears as resolved and reconciled, at peace – like the anti-depressant wishful fantasy of “safe sex”.
Quite the reverse. To take surely an entirely unoriginal analogy, we are the moths circulating around the hopelessly intense flame of the sacred-Real, in ecstatic danger of being consumed, but quite unable to leave the intense light, that gives us life and death at the same time. The question of impasse (body and trauma) can be formulated as such: being caught between the rock of the real of the flaming death and the hard place of the Symbolic and “death” by alienation. Caught between the two, we are stuck, in a holding pattern, like a flight (non)arrival at Heathrow. Impasse: we apologise for the delay, please hold. Baudrillard has this lovely piece at the beginning of Cool Memories IV, whereby he suggests in Zarathrustrian mode, that silent laughter is the background noise of the universe, the silent laughter of the trees and the flowers and so on, that is, until man comes along with what Baudrillard calls, the whole catastrophe of the real world. Similarly, Schopenhauer suggests that even if the World is destroyed, music will persist. Our appearance on the scene, as an unwanted guest who is currently under the illusion of being a special guest(!) causes a perturbation in the universe and creates a hell on earth. The emergence of consciousness (meaning, logos) is the emergence of hell – the hell of lack, the hell of imperfection and limitation, which Bataille, in his own rigorous way, refused, by silencing everything that lacked and was liable to impasse and dividedness. Emergence, or creation, always involves a tearing like giving birth. Form leaves a rent in the potential of non-being: a carving is the death of a stone. The violence of making, is a “tearing away”; a ruptures of primordial unity and cohesion. I remember the sculptor, Dick Joynt, spending 8 hours a day everyday, chiselling granite - the violence of beginnings.
The current strategy (impasse) however has been to put all “negativity” out of our minds, making the world totally transparent and “evidence based”, on the one hand, and a celebratory culture of glitz and bling, on the other, leaving ourselves open to infinite ironic subversion.  Without a sense of humour, we makes jokes of ourselves, driving our tiny children round in ridiculously massive four-by-fours built like tanks; embracing political and emotional correctness, engaging generally in what Baudrillard terms, the massive ‘laundering of Evil’. Imagine your little girl taking part in a beauty pageant, with total make-up and bouffant hairdo at the age of five or six. The film, Little Miss Sunshine, itself an ironic take on the American dream family, ends with a brilliantly staged subversion of the beauty pageant, by Olive (Abigail Breslin), who, when her turn eventually comes, dances the increasingly outrageous, obscene and explicit erotic moves taught her in secret by her wonderful grandpa, firing parts of her gear into the increasingly outraged audience. The beauty pageant is precisely and emblematically, the extreme appearance of living without the negative
We could think also of the whole rhetoric of bullying/anti-bullying, pampering, comfort zones, being good to the inner you, healing the psyche. There is such a demand for retreat to the world of childhood reassurance, the demand for escape. Even the recent concern expressed by a range of experts for the welfare of children, living increasingly in their virtual worlds, cited the worrying desire of adults to be children again.

Not staying close to the negative and what do you get? Christopher Hitchens codified it well: endless - self-pity, self-righteousness and self hatred.
For Bataille, there was no neutralisation of the sacred and profane: life and death, the living and the dead must circulate without reconciliation. Remember Ishi, the last native American, who when he saw the vast crowds in San Francisco believed that the dead must be co-mingling with the living. The dead don’t die, they can appear out of nowhere on the street, they constantly reappear in dreams.
An Irishman's home is his coffin, wrote James Joyce in Ulysses. ‘Nobody does death in quite the high style of the Irish - it's just life that we sometimes find hard to manage’, writes Declan Kibird, (Irish Times, 26.9.06). He is praising Cré na Cille (killer), the greatest novel in the modern Irish language. Its author, Máirtín Ó Cadhain (Kine), born in 1906, sets the novel in a Connemara cemetery. There, the buried bodies refuse to be quiet, but gossip non-stop about one another. In each chapter, a newly-deceased person is interred, bringing news of the latest outrages above ground, causing all tongues to wag even faster. Kibird suggests that it is more likely that the talking corpses were Ó Cadhain's version of the Irish language itself, considered dead by detractors but still astoundingly articulate. Kybird quotes Beckett: ‘All the dead voices . . . They make noise like wings . . . To have lived is not enough for them . . . They have to talk about it’.
A culture that prevents this circulation, this exchange of life and death, must periodically make war. In Terry Eagleton’s vernacular ‘effing the ineffable’, relentless positivity, utopian idealism, will be burst open and blown apart by chthonian violence, madness unleashed, a reign of terror.
Bataille did not bemoan his fate demanding narcissistic redemption, but plunged in, in intimate solidarity with his father’s extreme suffering and abandonment to illness, to war and burning destruction. Give me the night. No retreat, no going back to religion, but the reverse, an absolute facing of the blind abyssal eyes of his father (4).
For Levinas and Bataille, the ethical is precisely this real encounter with the other: by substitution; by being taken hostage; by sacrifice; by obsession; by subversion and black humour by being accursed with no way of slipping away from the naked face of the other.  This is a version of the Lacanian fundamental phantasy. Both understood the world in terms of an extreme shaking. They, after all, experienced criminal ideologies at first hand, which were secreted as surplus by enlightenment humanism (Communism) and nationalism (Fascism). They wanted, above all, our awakening from the dream of progressivism. They were against the century of machines of negative perfection - machines of death. Both are situated in the same beyond of Freud’s death drive, in an asymmetric universe which dissolves any hope of the self identifying conformably with itself. They were moved by a elemental fraternity that precedes yet underpins any political notion of solidarity, by a communion in death that moves us to proximity, a continuity with the other in communion. The unconscious, here, opens, not to the language of the Other that structures it, but to silence. Both had been involved in that celebrated revival of Hegelian studies in Paris during the ‘thirties with Alexandre Kojeve and Alexandre Koyre and both had contributed to Recherches Philosophiques (see Roudinesco, 1993, Ch 10). They would take up in their different ways the limitless ethical challenge posed by the void left by the Death of God and the free-fall of values of European civilisation in the face of Fascism.
Without the sacred, without this polybonding of the social, what falls out are atoms, discrete packages of discontinuity, little minature machines as it were, the smallest nanobots, in random opposition to each other, at war without end. In a sense this is the tragic underside of all liberation struggles. We get the negative by default, literally by our failure to repay our debts to the Symbolic. Are we not back with Weissman’s protista (cited by Freud in Freud, 1920) that are immortal by virtue of being a-sexual and complete in themselves with no need of an other? Condemned therefore to an endless repetition compulsion - more of the Same? Or to put it in the words of Peter Porter’s poem: once bitten, twice bitten.
‘Please explain’, asks a young analyst of the contemporary Millerian-Lacanian school, ‘why an analyst might read Levinas, Bataille, Baudrillard and others that you say you read? How could they help in the clinic?’
‘Not an easy question to answer’, I replied, sensing that she was not enthusiastic, merely polite. For, I might have added, there is no reason and no explaining as such. All one can say is that something of the extra-ordinary emerges from these texts that creates an opening that recuperates nothing but unsettles everything – an impasse that psychoanalysis maybe inclined to ignore. We will return to Lacan, psychoanalysis and this complex question of truth in the next chapter.
Bataille and Levinas establish the infinity of the ethical dimension, the a priori of ethics, ethics as first philosophy (Levinas) and therefore point to the position with respect to freedom one must take.  We must now be clear precisely what we have to fight against. After both thinkers, there can be no complacency. However, subjectivity becomes complacency; subjectivity is indifference to suffering (ironically no longer sub-ject). When I assert my rights, my desire, ‘my place in the sun’ (Levinas is always quoting Pascal), I am indifferent to the other and the Dark. When I choose an ethical position, i.e. to do this not that, to say this not that, I must also be indifferent to the that, presenting a razor edge to that other, like in a divorce where everything is divided down the middle. The other has to be fought against, the Dark has to be fought against, all in the name of a clearing of a transitional space for subjectivity. What has been demonstrated above is just how hard this fight, this vigilance and wakefulness has to be, will always be. It is a fight without ceasing, but a fight with responsibility and a fight with what Levinas refers to as non-indifference.
(1). Bataille was widely read in psychoanalysis and had a founding influence on Lacan in particular, although Lacan never refers to Bataille specifically.
(2). Of the victim, Bataille says, ‘I loved him with a love in which the sadistic instinct played no part: he communicated his pain to me, or perhaps the excessive nature of his pain, and it was precisely that which I was seeking, not so as to take pleasure in it, but in order to ruin in me that which is opposed to ruin’ (ibid. pp274-275)
(3) Nietzsche had already criticised the anti-semitism of his sister and her husband and had never adopted any authoritarian doctrine of soil, race or fatherland. On the contrary, Nietzsche was a celebration of freedom in a world without God.
(4). However, by saying or suggesting this (above) living out of his life experience, we do not wish in any way to pathologise his theory that has an “origin” in neurosis or psychosis (see Steokl, 1985, px). Bataille’s contribution stands independently of its neurotic underpinnings.
Bataille, G. (1928) The Story of the Eye, trans J.J.Pauvert, London: Penguin, 1982 
Bataille, G. (1962) Eroticism. Paris. Edition de Minuit. Trans: M. Dalwood. London: Marion Boyars. 1987.
Freud, S. (1920) ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’.  S.E. 18. 3-64.
Freud, S. (1924) ‘The economic problem of masochism’.  S.E. 19. 157-172.
Freud, S. (1937) ‘Analysis terminable and interminable’. S.E. 23. 209-254.
Mauss, M. (1950) The Gift, Presses Universitaires de France. Trans. W.D. Halls. London: Routledge. 1990.
Richardson, M. (1998) (Editor) George Bataille Essential Writings. Sage Publications
Roudinesco, E. (1993) Jacques Lacan. Trans. Barbara Bray. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Stoekl, A. (1985) (Editor and translator) George Bataille. Visions of Excess Selected Writings 1927-1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Surya, M. (2002) George Battaille. An Intellectual Biography. Trans. K. Fijalkowski and M. Richardson. Verso 2002.
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