Bataille, Nietzschean mystic of the eternal return
by Antonio D'Alonzo
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Georges Bataille always felt great interest for all forms of extreme eroticism, up to the point of getting close to the ‘Path of the left hand'. In the thirties he planned the creation of a neo-pagan society based on the celebration of human sacrifices. They even identified the first sacrificial victim, but the start of the Second World War annulled the project. In certain periods of his life Bataille got close to the extreme right with his exasperated search for outrageous actions and the persistent theorization of transgression as a lifestyle. The study of a certain criticism of a Marxist kind in his youth rectified his thought; although his participation to the revolutionary ideas was not founded on a society without classes, but rather on a libertine world where extreme sensations could be enjoyed without restraint. Like Foucault, Bataille here was ready to perceive the Sadian message in terms of criticism of culture. Post-structuralists used the thought of the Divine Marquis for the liberation from removed and negative experiences against social sublimation; whilst Marxist critics read into it the edification of the materialistic reason in the age of Enlightenment.
Almost all French philosophers always tried to read Nietzsche in parallel with Sade, not only along the axis Freud-Marx. The will to power and the superman are well connected with the transgressive subjectivism – ratiocentric or psychotic-oneiric – of the French libertine. There isn't such a good connection with the Eternal Return, which is apparently a break in the Nietzschean thought. At least until Bataille; he builds his Nietzschean reading on what has been an element of difficult harmonization with the rest of the thought of the German philosopher.
The first philosophical work by Bataille is L'expérience intérieure , which, together with the two books Le coupable and Sur Nietzsche , are what he called, parodying Thomas Aquinas, an ‘atheological summa', Godless mysticism. Bataille's most important work, though, is La part maudite , where the French thinker deals with the problem of production and waste of individual and collective energy. This ‘accursed share' must be discharged through nutrition, reproduction and death. It is possible to organize parties and bacchanals, during which there is the waste ( dépense ) of the accursed share. In this situation the individual acquires sovereignty on the cathartic process. On the contrary, in civil cataclysms and wars, man turns into a passive subject and the waste has sovereignty on him, being ruled by processes extrinsically ordered to manage the catharsis of the social system. It is possible to link the Nietzschean wille zur macht (will to power) with the Bataillean accursed share. The excess of waste is the re-reading of the Nietzschean energetic idea of the world, intended as the perennial fight of wills to power. Furthermore, the active sovereignty that man acquires through orgies refers to the pages of the Birth of Tragedy , where bacchanals become the cathartic moment par excellence, where man goes back in the Whole and can look at the abyss of the primordial bottom. In the accursed share, Bataille sees the negation of the Hegelian possibility to totally reduce the thinkable of existence; since it is an energetic excess, the will to power is a waste and an irreducible hiatus. The Nietzschean Alles ist kraft throws Bataille towards a mysticism of the Other, an heterology that starts mainly with the work on the German philosopher.
Sur Nietzsche (note 1) is a complex and not easy to read text. The fragmentary and dispersive structure of the essay reminds us of the aphorismic style of Nietzsche in his Basel period. The essay is a kind of diary that tells Bataille's years in Paris at the beginning of the forties, during the Nazi occupation. He tells his hopes and disillusions, up to the joyful prelude to the American liberation. In the diary there is a mysterious woman, K., with which Bataille has a relationship and that he uses as an instrument for a series of introspective journeys to get closer to the supreme stage of chance as possibility of experience on the limit. In the spasmodic wait for the liberation Bataille mixes Nietzschean aphorisms and improvised dialogues with enigmatic interlocutors, in a plurality of narrative planes that reminds us of the Joycean technique of flows of conscience. The resulting picture is bizarre but interesting; perhaps it is one of the first attempts in the post-modern style. Bataille in the first part defines Nietzsche as a philosopher of evil. More than other French philosophers, Bataille has the habit of not explaining his ideas sufficiently. He only says that evil is antithetical to constriction, viz. the imposed morale. He compares Nietzsche's and William Blake's immoralities; for the latter energy comes only from the body, which is the eternal delight and is opposed to good as expression of decadence of reason. At the same time, though, we can also see the Sadian reading of Nietzsche; the liberation of the negative, the criticism to the morale of the time. As I said before, the excess of energy, the accursed share of Bataille is comparable to the will to power. The uncontrolled liberation of the will to power, the accursed share, is an evil and it causes social disasters; therefore there is the need for waste as general economy of the exceeding energy. Bataille decides that the privileged path through which his interpretation of Nietzsche occurs will not go through the wille zur macht , but through the idea of return. Indeed, in Sur Nietzsche , he devalues the will to power:
‘The ‘will to power' considered as an end, means to go back. By following it, I would go back to servile fragmentation. I would aim at a duty again and the good that is wanted power would rule me' (note 2)
For Bataille the will to power is linked to heaviness, the vassalage of the ‘Kraft durch Freude' . This latter term used by the French thinker is a Nazi slogan, obvious sign that Bataille realizes that to stress too much on the wille zur macht means to fall in a dangerous ambiguity. After all, we must not forget that he is writing in an occupied Paris . On the contrary, to stress the eternal return means to underline the dance and laugh of Zoroaster, the rarefied lightness, the absence of a purpose, the refusal of any project, viz. the most convincing antithesis of all Nazi ideologies:
‘Of this do not doubt even for a minute; we haven't understood one single word of Nietzsche's work if we haven't experienced this dazzling dissolution in totality first' (note 3)
Bataille's project is determined by a primary intervention: the discussion of the sovereignty of the subject. Bataille has been the first one to talk about heterologies, of knowledge that must not be brought back to the already–known, but it must be opened as a space where the experience of not-knowing, of limit and incommensurable can play. Bataille sees the eternal return as the dissolution of the identity towards the Other. The Ariadne's thread that Nietzsche vaguely looks for in the ‘madness letters' is a total absence of purpose, a pre-established renunciation to any existential project. For Bataille this is the will for desert and the pathos of Nietzsche's loneliness; the possibility to live the moment unconnected to the purpose. The superman that Bataille re-names ‘total-man' is the man who lives the moment not as a promethean pragmatic determination, but as pure and evanescent absence of motivation. Bataille's superman is similar to Ulrich in the Man without Qualities by Musil. Nevertheless Bataille distinguishes between the world of purposes and the non-sense world, theorizing for his total man the possibility of a third alternative different from both worlds that at the same time includes both. Pure action unconnected with purposes leads to the transcendence of action on the total man, who would then be entirely resolved and dissolved in a solipsistic praxis uprooted from any purpose. On the contrary, the total man can't transcend action subjecting it to an aim or purpose; otherwise he will fall back into the utilitarianism of the Just-in-time that refuses any immediate application.
For Bataille the total man has a third possibility; to limit the action to a principle of freedom, as long as it is a rational principle. Reason must limit energy, the accursed share, according to the instance of libertarian and reasonable principles.
In any kind of coded transgression we can find the tricks to limit and control the outside boundaries of the social system. Resistance is allowed small niches under the rigorous control of the reason that overlooks its evolution. But Bataille doesn't see the danger in conformist transgression and sees this principle of rational freedom as the equivalent of the possibility to reach an action that is not a heterogeneous aim. He is convinced that he has reached Zoroaster in his dance and laughter. The total man can get closer to the superman only by getting rid of any why, any purpose; immanence, viz. freed actions, is the advent of the kingdom of laughter.
Further on Bataille introduces the words ‘climax' and ‘decline' to be intended respectively as exuberance and consequent exhaustion. The climax, viz. the wille zur macht , the accursed share, is compared to Kafka's castle, because it is inaccessible like it. The climax can be reached only involuntarily, by chance; according to Bataille once dissolution has become a purpose of life it stops being as such. To really reach the climax of dissolution one must remain innocent and pure. In these pages there is a clear reference to the Tantra, which Bataille knows well. All of Bataille's thought seems to go towards a negative mysticism, a theology without the Christian God. It goes towards dissolution of identity in the absence, in the non-knowledge.
‘Climax is not ‘what we must reach', decline is not ‘what we must get rid of'. As climax at the end is nothing but inaccessible, decline is unavoidable from the start.' (note 4).
But if climax, the catharsis of the previous energy, can be reached individually and not socially only if we abandon the search for a purpose, a determined reason, there's nothing to do but open our daily life to the time of play. According to Bataille we can destroy transcendence – identity, Ego – only through laughter. Zoroaster's laughter and dance, though, are not the expression of the will to play but the opening of the game:
‘The answer that is given to desire is true only if it is not caught' (note 5).
Chance can only happen, it can't be chased. Chance, like the Heideggerian ereignis , is the space where man can find himself occasionally. In Bataille there is the will for chance only in the sense that when the possibility occurs we must question life itself to realize it, or more precisely to live it, since the chance has a casual character. Questioning oneself up to risk one's most precious possession, life, is what we must intend when we talk about experience on the limit. The latter has been opened not by the drive of a titanic will, but by a chance, a casual event. Bataille says that the true follower of Zoroaster, viz. the total man, is not the man who lives dangerously, but the man who doesn't have anything left to do or realize in his existence. We can be with Zoroaster only if we don't have any more faith in what we do. It is the Liberation, the Satori of Zen; identity, Ego, is totally staked in a new possibility that opens suddenly and casually inside our daily life. The will of chance is not pursued any more when we risk for something that is not casual but finalistic, for example a concatenation of partial goals aimed at a big project. This is why Bataille's total man is similar to the Musilian Ulrich in his non-persistence in purposes; even if he stakes his life, we never know where he's going to be the next moment. He stakes himself in what happens trying to reach the impossible in the casualty of chance, but he can't live day-to-day life in the sense of daily and progressive commitment:
‘Not having any finite need. Not admitting limits in any sense' (note 6).
Further on in the book, Bataille identifies the will for chance with the Nietzschean amor fati. He also opposes the will for chance and the temporality to God and the whole. According to Bataille, if we want a chance we can't desire God. Towards the end of the book, Bataille underlines the almost identity between his idea of chance and the Nietzschean eternal return. In both cases the essential condition of amor fati is the absence of effort, the living of the moment as lightness and nonsense:
‘If there isn't a great mechanism in whose name we can talk: how to tend the action, how to ask to act, what to do?' (note 7)
Bataille gives himself the answer when he says he only wants the chance, both as purpose and as means. Bataille gives the name of ‘theopathic' to this status of immanence where the identity of chance is completely resolved, adding that this climax is what transforms the being into time, viz. it opens him to immanence, in a non-differentiation between the being and the possible object. In the latter idea it is obvious the reference to Nietzsche's principle on the climax of contemplation. It is impossible not to see this mystic opening in the thought of the Frenchman, who uses words like ‘theopathic' and talks about states of undifferentiation with the being, which look like they've been written by Meister Eckhart rather than by a Nietzschean follower. For Bataille Nietzsche is mostly the prophet of a will oxymoronically lacking purpose, totally lacking any utilitarianistic direction; already the term will to power is equivocal. There is will to power only because a catharsis of exceeding energy is required, only because the accursed share will be extinguished in the waste. But for Bataille subjectivity is exhausted in an action freed from purposes, which for this reason doesn't stop to the being and data, but goes beyond the possible. We think that Bataille's Possible is the Trascendens of the mystical thought; indeed, the person renounces the project of being, which is what throws the authenticity of the existential dimension, to limit himself to live in the space of Possible. In Heidegger the existential dimension evolves in a centrifugal spiral-shaped movement that leads to focusing the attention not on the being anymore, but on the ereignis , on the advent. There isn't a real turning point in Heidegger's thought; the first and the second moment send back to and rely on each other. Heidegger deals first with the being of man, then with the ereignis , viz. the glade where possibilities as well as man's planning open. On the contrary in Bataille there isn't any kind of planning; indeed, chance occurs because man is not looking for anything in life. In other words, because ego and identity are annulled. The peculiarity of Bataille's mysticism is in its negativity, its refusal of transcendence, its absolute immanence, which is determined as an atheistic pantheism:
‘The state of immanence implies a complete exposure to the game, such that only an event independent from the will can dispose of a being so deeply <…> the game is research of the infinite possibilities, from fate to fate' (note 8).
Since Bataille is Nietzschean, he identifies this state of immanence with a being beyond good and evil, of the freedom of senses and refusal of ascent; it is the way of tantrism where the energy of the body is used to reach the mokśa , the final liberation. Its originality consists of the attempt to join a finally denazified Nietzscheanism with a negative mysticism of oriental inspiration. Only the fact that he managed to conceive this interpretation at the time of defeat, in an occupied Paris, is praiseworthy.
(note 1) Cf. G. Bataille , On Nietzsche (English translation of Sur Nietzsche ).
(note 2) Cf. Id.
(note 3) Cf. Id.
(note 4) Cf. Id.
(note 5) Cf. Id.
(note 6) Cf. Id.
(note 7) Cf. Id.
(note 8) Cf. Id.