Saturday, December 8, 2012

George Bataille's "Tears of Eros"... observations

George Bataille’s The Tears of Eros unfolds, innocently enough, as a simple timeline of the history of eroticism in art. According to Bataille, eroticism is set in opposition to Christianity, then aligns with Satanism (a real career killer), and is finally forced underground by god-fearing folk. From here on out, Bataille associates eroticism with (choose any three scary adjectives)… violence, sadism, and horror.

My response the essay The Tears of Eros took form early in the reading of it. I became simultaneously baffled by the content, and annoyed by the manner of the writing. For my befuddlement over content I’ll respond in a Reasonable Way, but for my annoyance over the manner or writing, I’ll respond in an Unreasonable Way.

The Reasonable Way (a response based on content)

I’ll begin by asking, “what is eroticism”? The standard dictionary definition is something like the following; Eroticism is an aesthetic focused on sexual desire, especially the feelings of anticipation of sexual activity. Sounds good to me. But now I have a problem… what do violence, horror, and death have to do with the anticipation of sexual activity? What is Bataille talking about?

I’m not sure that Bataille proves this central point in his essay; he merely asserts it. If I were to attempt a defense, I would say that it is NOT that images of violence, horror, and death are themselves erotic… or that actual death is erotic… but rather, that these images, in as much as they deal with the non-idealized body of vulnerable human flesh… the body of mortality… the body of sensuality, which like life is a fleeting experience… then to this extent they symbolize the nature of eroticism, but are not themselves erotic.

Bataille provides a clue (i.e., words that are literally right there in the essay, but whose meaning must be deciphered) when he writes… “But what is sobriety, if not the fear of everything that is not lasting, at least of that which seems as if it will not last”. Hmm, what could that possibly mean?

I take it to mean that sobriety is linked to reason and idealism, all of which focus on the unchanging, everlasting truth. The world of the erotic is the world of flesh, emotions, and sensations… a transient world derived from our animal nature.

Bataille makes another bold assertion with the following.
“… human consciousness – in price and humility, with passion and in trembling – must be open to the zenith of horror”.

Now clearly, we’ve all met people that we think should be open to the zenith of horror, but we don’t usually follow through with a threat like that. But why should all of humanity be open to such suffering?

I think this is a statement of the existentialist admonition to live in the truth, whereby we accept that the world of meaning, identity, and idealism that we create in order to make sense of living… is merely a diversion from the underlying truth of our lives. That truth being that we will all die, and that there is no meaning in life other than that which we project.  Living in truth is to live with the realization (which seems horrible) that our lives have no inherent meaning. But what does this have to do with eroticism, other than to equate the non-rational source of eroticism (our animal nature) with the blunt truth of our animal nature, which is that we are finite, material, and decaying things.

I suppose this last thing is exactly how it applies. Evolving as it has in a western cultural tradition that has historically maintained a dichotomy between the mind and body, eroticism is trapped forever on the body side of that dichotomy… and though the sensual pleasures of the body are many, their summation into the concept of the erotic unites them with other bodily conceptions, such as sickness, death, and decay. Thus doth the politic of the mind/body make strange bedfellows of eroticism and death.

The Unreasonable Way (a response based on form)

An alternative response to the essay is to focus on the form of the writing, rather than the content. The essay just comes across as so poorly written, in the sense that the reader is not immediately, or even eventually able to understand many of the points being made. I was overwhelmed by seemingly obscure passages, such as the following.

“Certainly, the possibility of error played a part: the demon, it seems, had the power to bestow good fortune. But such an appearance proved in the end to be deceptive. The inquisition had the power to disabuse”

“Lightness might have mad an appearance then only to open the way for heaviness… Sometimes laughter sets the stage for a hecatomb.”

“In his agitation there was the equivalent of an explosion that tore him apart but suffocated him nevertheless”.

And so on. And of course, the essay does contain five exclamation points! At any rate, what accounts for these strange and (to my mind) difficult formal writing devices?

My initial thought was that Bataille, being a French intellectual, was predetermined by his cultures (French culture, intellectual culture, and French intellectual culture) to be circumspect, emotional, and smugly unconcerned that his audience might not understand him. Curious about the man, I researched a little into his background. It turns out that really is a smug intellectual. However, a much more interesting picture emerged.

Bataille was a philosopher, a surrealist, a novelist, and a seminary school dropout. He was fascinated with human sacrifice and founded a secret society, the symbol of which was a decapitated man. These facts shed some light on his essay. I can now imagine a seminary student rejecting the priesthood, who then becomes a philosopher who rejects the Christian attitude toward eroticism. I can imagine someone fascinated with human sacrifice as being someone who is committed to the world of the flesh… perhaps one that would argue for the earthbound nature of Satanism. I can see the existentialist in him demanding that humanity live truthfully in the awareness of their own meaningless bodies.

Most significantly, I can imagine him as a surrealist, with the surrealist emphasis on subconscious processes… automatic writing, unedited by the rational mind. I can imagine him not writing essays, but spewing them.

This last point brings up a question that might explain why Bataille writing appears so confusing. If he does work in a more automatic way, tapping into the subconscious, then I have to ask, “What is the status of the unconscious mind in relation to this aforementioned mind/body dichotomy”. Is the unconscious (being non rational) assigned to our animal nature… or, since it is an element of consciousness, does it have the status of being mind? Is the unconscious mind, or is it body?

I don’t know the answer, but I can suppose that if it is the body, and if Bataille spontaneously spews his thoughts unprocessed… like a beat poet… can we interpret his words (to the extent that they are of the body) as being in themselves, erotic? Can words be erotic simply by being of the body, by being automatically called up from the subconscious?  If this is so, then a strange thing has occurred… that an essay, whose content is eroticism, is written in an erotic form.

As a final thought, it occurred to me that if one had never been drunk, but wanted to understand intoxication, that should talk to a drunk. Of course, when you do, you won’t understand what they’re saying (because they’re drunk).  So then you yourself might become drunk, so that you can understand the drunk, and therefore understand what intoxication is all about.  But when you are drunk, you won’t need to ask another drunk person what drunkenness is… you will be immediately aware of what drunkenness is all about. You have to physically enter the world of the drunk (or any world) to understand it. As you-know-who said… “No one can be told what the matrix is, you have to see it for yourself”.

By this analogy, Bataille is the intoxicated man, drunk on a cocktail of “of the body” automatic connections to his animal nature.  If his prose seems circumspect and emotional, it might be that I am sober to his intoxication.  Perhaps a precondition to awareness of eroticism is to enter the world of the erotic… the world of the body… the world of automatic writing where the mind must abandon consciously controlled literary sobriety. If the ideas produced there seem to stagger and swoon, who are we to say they’re out of control, maybe we’re standing too straight for our own good.

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