Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography by Michel Surya

There is plenty here to keep fans of Story of the Eye happy, but Surya is more at pains to give Bataille his due as a philosopher and political thinker. Yes, this is the man who masturbated in front of his mother’s corpse while his pregnant wife slept in a neighbouring room, but he is also the author of “The Psychological Structure of Fascism”. Yes, this is the man who experienced a kind of ecstasy at London Zoo at the sight of a monkey’s arse (“a beautiful boil of red flesh”), but he also analysed the role of utility in social exchange in “The Notion of Expenditure”.
And yes, this is the man who was obsessed by some horrific photographs (reproduced in the book) of the Chinese torture of a hundred pieces, convinced that the young man being cut up alive was in a state of religious ecstasy (“hideous, crazed, lined with blood, as beautiful as a wasp”), but he also wrote “The Problem of the State”. It soon becomes clear that the morbid, obsessional erotic novels cannot be entirely divorced from the morbid, obsessional political philosophy.
Bataille’s literary works are not directly autobiographical, though they frequently borrow from his life. Unfortunately he only remembered the bad times, leaving us with the (probably) mistaken impression, says Surya, of “a black and completely accursed life”. Surya overcomes the lack of documentary evidence by focusing on Bataille’s intellectual development. However perverse Bataille seems, he argues, there is a systematic philosophy behind the work, although he was better at sudden insights than sustained argument. Nevertheless, through no fault of Surya’s, this remains a curiously bloodless portrait. The flesh-and-blood Bataille is missing – which is odd, for a man so obsessed by flesh and blood.
Surya traces Bataille’s pathological state of mind to his childhood. His syphilitic father was blind and paralysed and eventually went mad, and the family had to leave him behind when they were evacuated in September 1915. His tormented mother became delirious and attempted suicide. Two months later the family returned home to find “a fastened coffin in the bedroom”. Little wonder, then, that Bataille was fascinated by death.
Reacting against his irreligious father, Bataille found God and converted to Catholicism. He devoured medieval texts depicting the body as a bag of excrement, and studied the horrible tortures of the Christian martyrs. Looking back, he saw this devout period as an attempt to evade his “destiny”, which turned out to be Nietzsche. God was dead and “the tide of laughter sweeping over me had turned my faith into a game”.
Suddenly everything was permitted and he became devoted to the pleasures of the flesh (“My true church is a whorehouse”). He cared only for that which was “dirty”, and he wanted to make dirty anything sublime and pure. In the end only death was filthy enough for him, as is evident in Story of the Eye.
Bataille rarely mentions love except to degrade it. He was “systematically and copiously unfaithful”, says Surya, and his marriage in 1928 did not stop him from frequenting nightclubs, brothels, orgies (his wife left him in 1934), nor from having a mistress, Colette Peignot, the model for many of his heroines. It remains a mystery how Colette died (aged 35 in Bataille’s bed). Bataille said he would speak of it one day, but never did, and in truth women seem to pass through his life like figures in a dream.
It was a life of extreme solitude and, ultimately, disappointment. He never became the respected writer he dreamed of becoming. As Surya points out, Bataille was envious of André Breton’s celebrity and covetous of his position as leader of the Surrealists, yet he refused to join them, preferring to carp from the sidelines. Breton thought he went too far in embracing filth and corruption. “Mr Bataille loves flies,” he said. “Not we.” So Bataille remained on Surrealism’s fringes, a buzzing fly that would not go away.
Illness and age caught up with him in the end. On top of pulmonary tuberculosis he was diagnosed with cerebral arteriosclerosis aged 58. Dizzy spells and lapses of attention followed and he complained that his mind was “undoing itself “. In 1962, at the age of 65, he gladly succumbed to the “laughter of death”.
An important question hangs over this serious and respectful biography, and Surya returns to it several times: was Bataille mad? Surya does not think so, and neither did Bataille. “I was not insane,” he wrote, “but I undoubtedly made too much of the necessity of leaving, in one way or another, the limits of human experience.”

Ian Pindar,
Via Justin Murphy <>


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