What to make of Georges Bataille? In 1930, André Breton said that he was “psychasthenic,” that he had a “conscience deficit,” that he lived in a universe that was “soiled, senile, rancid, sordid, bawdy, insane.” In 1945, Sartre wrote that he was “paranoid,” “crazy,” and needed psychoanalysis. His ex-wife married Jacques Lacan. This July will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bataille’s death and it’s still hard to know where to put him: a former surrealist whose complete works were edited by Michel Foucault; a philosopher who wrote pornographic novels and founded a society dedicated to human sacrifice.
Here, in 1951, at age 53, he appears on André Gillois’s radio show Qui êtes-vous? (Who are you?) to answer that question. His interlocutors are members of the intelligentsia of the era: Jean Guiot, Emmanuel Berl, docteur Martin, Maurice Clavel, Jean-Pierre Morphée, people no one has ever heard of. The selections I have translated from the broadcast are presented as a simple question and answer to avoid confusion. Some things have been omitted.
Qui êtes-vous?: Two signs on George Bataille’s face strike me as dangerous, but I will strive to atone, in the sketch of his portrait, for whatever disparagements this preamble might contain.
In the back of hollow sockets, two eyes lit by a glare frozen in mercury, with no discernible eyelids, seem to peel back the skin of his interlocutors, and his voracious jaw seems ready to tear them apart. That cannibal drive, intellectualized, cerebralized, is never not worrying, and it gives his entire face, voluntarily stony, a hypnotic power that stupefies anyone who looks at Monsieur Georges Bataille. Less obvious is the slight asymmetry of that square face, as if it were projected beyond itself, his high forehead, his steely blue hair, his burrowing nose, his long mouth that alone animates this anxious face seemingly deprived of human warmth. The upper portion reveals the deep, intense emotion that its possessor must tease from a word, an idea, a vision; the lower conveys the cruel pleasure and painful delectation. Monsieur Georges Bataille undoubtedly exerts a seductive power over those that listen to him.
QEV: What activities or things make you especially happy?
Georges Bataille: Oh, God!
QEV: Your hesitation speaks volumes about the amount of things that make you happy.
GB: The first thing I can say is that I must be more or less like everyone else, and that, well, ultimately, I’m sure everyone knows that what makes people the happiest are the most intense feelings. But I would add, on a personal note, that what I find most interesting in feelings of happiness or rapture is closer to that of someone like Saint Teresa or Saint John of the Cross than what I first mentioned so enthusiastically.
QEV: Do you have a tendency to see the world in a favorable or unfavorable light?
GB: Favorable, definitely. Even though everything I’ve written seems to suggest the opposite.
QEV: What is, in your opinion, the most important goal we can set for ourselves in life?
GB: Obviously, I am a philosopher, to a certain extent at least, and my entire philosophy consists in saying that the main goal you should have is to destroy your habit of having a goal.
QEV: How do you explain that you consider life favorably while you say that your writings demonstrate the opposite?
GB: I believe that everything I have said that goes against taking life in a favorable light has to do with what I said earlier: that I think you must avoid having any goals, and hold to it. Insofar as you do have a goal, I think then you must look at life entirely unfavorably. Because, first of all, that goal is limited by death. But as long as you live in the present moment, there’s only occasion to see things in the most favorable way possible because you have not the slightest concern for the future.
QEV: The destruction of the goal, that’s the very moral of the Buddhists, isn’t it…?
GB: That’s right.
QEV: Who say that you should never do something for its gains…?
QEV: With the Buddhists, it is likely that the destruction of a goal, in actuality, makes a place for God. What occupies the place that you’ve made?
GB: Well, I would say, simply, with a play on words, that it’s to replace God…
QEV: Yes, but would you say more basically that destroying your goals, as you want to do it, makes space for God, or for nothing?
GB: God or nothing, it doesn’t matter. In reality we leave the door open.
QEV: Right, but is it this nothingness that you accept?
GB: You cannot say that from the moment you eliminate any kind of goal, there can even be nothing. Nothing is already saying too much, because we don’t care. Isn’t that right, that there cannot be an object of thought that is called nothing.
QEV: It’s a matter, then, of welcoming whatever you feel at the moment?
GB: It’s a matter, ultimately, of eliminating the order of thought, order accumulated by millennia of humanity.
QEV: Yes, but for what?
GB: For the disorder of thought that I find pleasing, that seems, in short, to contravene our general frustration. In the disorder of thought poetry is born, for example… I’m not saying that I meant to say poetry earlier, but it’s a clue. There is something profoundly poetic in any disordered thought.
QEV: Disorder in relation to what order?
GB: The very simple order I spoke of earlier, the order you need to have when you want to pack your suitcase for the train.
QEV: Yes, so poetry is the opposite order of the suitcase, but it’s also an order…
QEV: Do you have a particularly poetic way of packing your suitcase? I mean do you throw your clothes in all pell-mell?
GB: Oh no! Not at all, I’m very orderly when I pack my suitcase.
QEV: Can I just ask you this question: why do you write?
GB: In the end, it’s what I know best, and it’s what I have the most trouble saying. I could respond simply that it’s what most nearly resembles the absence of a goal. Though, when I align sentences, I have a goal, don’t I? I always have a plan: I know what I’m going to say, more or less. But, nonetheless, I only write to eliminate all goals. And, in the end, it’s always a plea, a moral plea for the elimination of the goal.
QEV: You would have your life be a sort of elimination, an asceticism of elimination, have all your goals falls away, all that is of this world, to arrive at an approach, to permit a sort of, shall we say, presence and not an absence, pure presence in fact, to manifest…
GB: Pure presence, absence, it’s the same thing. Because, when you say presence, you imply an object; if you eliminate the object, the absence of the object is a presence and that presence is thus defined as an absence.
QEV: Yes, but still, something positive, something concrete that would be neither of this world or of the goals of this world, that would be you… that would come from you…
GB: That’s already too much, isn’t it? I only have one aspiration insofar as I still have goals, and that is to eliminate myself. It’s natural that…
QEV: Well this is new!
GB: It’s natural that I should come under serious criticism, because, ultimately, not now or ever have I picked up a revolver, or poison. I think it’s more fun—and more cowardly—it’s more fun to try to eliminate oneself through mental or sensory gymnastics. I also believe it is humanly more interesting because that’s what man is. Man is at bottom an ill-begotten story, with all kinds of problems. He is forced, at some point, to realize that part of him is a considerable failure, and should be liquidated. But if he eliminates himself, he eliminates everything. That’s a problem. There is always, I believe, in man, that necessity to eliminate and save himself.
QEV: I notice that we always find ourselves back at God. Because for those who eliminate man, what is left over once man is eliminated, I don’t see how that can be given any other name.
GB: Yes, you’re right, but you sadden me at the same time because, what can I say, theologians, I mean the people who instituted, so to speak, the existence of God in the world, seem to me, if you want, very far off. They seem too serious.
QEV: I want to ask you, at what age did you feel, for the first time, this feeling that, indeed, you had to eliminate yourself? At what moment did the rupture occur, between a childhood spent, like all childhoods, between roughhousing and boredom, and the awareness that man should have no goal, but should still think deeply about himself to reach towards the image you propose?
GB: Well, I remember fairly precisely, it must have been near 1919, 1920, that these things became conscious at least.
QEV: How old were you?
GB: I must have been 22 or 23 years old.
QEV: It was only at 22 or 23 that this idea of striving to destroy, shall we say, your habits or your life, we could say, came to you?
GB: Thinking about it now, that’s not quite true. It took a more serious turn at that moment because I no longer had faith. Because I had broken with the idea of faith once and for all. While, before, the idea was limited by Catholic beliefs. But, still, within those Catholic beliefs, I remember I imagined that heaven was the elimination of oneself.
QEV: You were on the path of sainthood, and you renounced it around your twenty-second year.
GB: I don’t think that, to the degree I had Catholic faith, I was on the path to sainthood in the slightest. I was perhaps just as much on the path of sin. It was mixed, if you really want, but saintliness certainly did not predominate.
QEV: All this discussion of the mysterious goals that are in you, and that must be destroyed, is not satisfying me.
GB: Me neither.
The full interview, which occurred on May 21, 1951 in Paris, can be downloaded from the French National Audiovisual Institute for €1.49 at boutique.ina.fr.
TIMOTHY NASSAU B’12 loves nothing.