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Laura Wittman on Georges Bataille

Laura Wittman primarily works on 19th- and 20th-century Italian and French literature in a comparative perspective, and in particular is interested in connections between modernity, a new spirituality, the twentieth century religion of politics, and the literary expressions thereof. She is also interested in exploring the role of the ineffable, the mystical, and the body in […]

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This is KZSU's Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
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There are a few yellow leaves still hanging on our tree.
One or two more shows to go.
I can't go on.
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It's my distinct pleasure to welcome back to the show.
Today, my friend and colleague Laura Whitman, who teaches French and Italian literature as Stanford.
Laura was my first guest ever on entitled opinions back in the late summer of 2005,
when we did a show on the French author Michel Túdene.
If it's true, as the Italians say, that a good start is already halfway there,
entitled opinions got halfway there in one bound.
Our next show together, a couple of years later, was on the American poet A.R. Ammons.
Today, I have invited Laura back to discuss the French author, philosopher, mystic, neurotic,
Georges Batai.
I've received several requests from listeners to host a show on Batai, and Laura is the person
who knows more about him than anyone at Stanford, at least anyone known to me.
Before we begin, let me confess outright that I feel very little intellectual sympathy for Batai.
It's worse than that, really.
I tend to feel wretched when I'm forced to read him as I was in the past few days in preparation for this show.
But I'm sure that's what he intended for me to feel when reading him.
My active aversion to him not withstanding, there's no doubt that Georges Batai is an important, what should I call him?
Voice in 20th century French, what should I call it?
And I have no doubts that if anyone can convince me that Batai is worth the aggravation to read,
is Laura Whitman, who understands him as a mystic without God, who was principally preoccupied
with finding a way to resacralize our lived worlds, our bodies, our erotic lives, and our relation to matter in general.
I can dig that.
I was an altar boy in my very early years, so I do appreciate any attempt to reaffirm or rediscover the sacramental nature of our embodied selves.
Whether Georges Batai was the best person to undertake such a crusade, who knows?
I doubt it, but I'm here to be persuaded.
So let me welcome my guest Laura to the program and ask her to open up our discussion of Miss Georges Batai.
Laura is great to have you back on entitled opinions.
Thank you, Robert. It's great to be back.
So if we take things, um, by La Fua, one step at a time, why don't we start with some of the most important aspects of Batai's intellectual biography, if you don't mind?
Sure, sure.
I think one of the most important things about him is that he's one of these accursed figures, along with people like Lu Cremu or Budle,
Horjonjon and the 20th century, these figures who consider themselves outsiders and revel in being outsiders.
So he worked at the National Library in France, but many considered him a madman, a person who had a secret life, who wrote scandalous books that were very sexual, like story of the eye, which is probably his most famous, as well as his first book from 1928.
And of course, as an intellectual, he was very much marginalized by the mainstream thinking of his time, "Safthla Sinking", and was only rehabilitated later by the likes of Fuku, who actually claimed he was one of the most important people.
He was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century.
So big contrasts here.
And one of the important things about him, as well, was that his childhood was extremely difficult.
He was born in 1897 in Central France, and both his parents were ill.
His father apparently had syphilis, was blind, increasingly paralyzed, and died when Batai was about 18 years old.
And his mother tried to commit suicide three times.
She was clearly very unstable.
So this background really leads to Batai's sense of dereliction, Christian dereliction, as something that he had as a lived experience as a child.
Why do you say Christian dereliction?
Well, because a lot of his work has to do with the subversion of Christianity, or he would say, in actuality, a more authentic experience of Christ's dereliction, that a lot of the history of Christianity has sort of watered down and made us more comfortable with.
But isn't it true, Laura, that he actually converted to Catholicism after the death of his father and after the First World War?
So he had a stage there where at least he thought he was going to become a priest, wasn't he?
He was. He, in fact, joined the seminary in 1917, so a few years after his father died.
And people see this as a reaction to his father dying in this extreme state of rage and lack of faith.
But then three years later, Batai dropped out of the seminary and had a sort of negative conversion.
And he talked about it later as a kind of destiny that was waiting for him, you know, that was somehow already there in his father's experience that he had to, that the attempt at being religious in a traditional sense was a kind of evasion of his destiny that he could not actually undertake.
I'm curious whether his encounter with Frederick Nietzsche might have had something to do with his deconversion, as you call it, and this sense that his commitment to the seminary and being a priest was something that was an act of self-delusion.
Indeed, Nietzsche was very important and he started reading him just about at the same moment when he joined the seminary, which is an interesting double take on things at the same time.
And he did talk about Nietzsche's laughter, in particular this kind of desecretory laughter as being really important, as well as, of course, the call to redeem the physical world that he found in Nietzsche.
So that was very important.
And he also met Bergson in those years, and that was another important influence and read post.
So a number of people, and sad, so these were some of the main authors that he was engaged with at the time.
And after he left the seminary, he also underwent psychoanalysis with a doctor who in particular encouraged him to write as a way to sort of be less troubled.
So he continued writing but was never perhaps cured, quote unquote.
Well, in fact, thank you for saying that because when I read him, I have the sense of I'm reading someone who's using writing as a mode of therapy, and not very successful in all the time either.
But the psychoanalysis, Freud, sad, sad Nietzsche, and although I think Nietzsche is not just one influence among others, because although I don't know his entire corpus, I have this strong feeling when I'm reading him that Nietzsche's, especially Nietzsche's birth of tragedy.
And the whole vindication of Dionysianism as opposed to Apollonianism is something that he inherited in a very distinct way.
But maybe we can hold up on that and get through.
So he goes into psychoanalysis.
He has then in between the wars, it's an interesting time in his career, isn't it?
It is a very interesting time. It's really when he becomes an important intellectual if a marginal one.
And in various ways, one of the ways is by editing some journals that became very important, the journal "Dokumom", but even more the journal "Kritik" that was actually right after the war, starting in 1946.
But these were journals that published some of the earliest works of people like Blonchau, Bárth Foucault, Derrida, Philep Solerse.
So he was really one of the early editors of some of the famous theorists of what we especially in America didn't talk about as French theory.
So that was one of the ways in which he was very influential.
But some of the others, perhaps more interesting and more provocative, was he created in 1936 this secret society called "Acephal", which literally means "without a head".
And this group of people met together, and the idea was that they were really going to attempt to create a ritual sacrifice to enact a kind of, you would say, a sweet, generous kind of religion.
That would be different from all established and institutional religions, but would involve sacrifice and would involve the critique of all forms of authority.
So that's what the image of having no head comes down to. So not just external authorities, but even more so, our own internal tendency to set our self up as an authority or to worship authorities.
So it was an attempt to abolish all these things.
Well, it's not just an image, because this ritual sacrifice involved literal decapitation.
So we're rumors about that, which people have written very contradictory things. It really was secret in that very little has been sort of confirmed about what went on, but the rumors were that, but I himself proposed himself as a sacrificial victim.
And that the problem was they couldn't find anyone who would be willing to be the executioner, so that put the end to that project.
And I read somewhere that many people offered to be the actual victim, and none of them wanted to be the executioner, which shows to me that they didn't have what in Italian we call kolioni, because if you're going to be so presumptuous as to found a new ritual and you're going to call it a Cefal, and it has to involve decapitation.
Well, if you can't cut off the head, then you have no business proposing your head to be cut off in my view, but that's not advancing our intellectual analysis very far.
So the Cefal, very interesting, maybe we can return to it. What about the Kolez just socio-logy? This is an association that he joins or founds, I suppose, in between the two wars period in the 30s?
Yes, very much at the same time as Cefal in 1937. He creates this Kolez, the socio-logy with Ka'iywa and Leres, and they saw this as a kind of more theoretical or public side of Cefal.
So the Kolez was a gathering seminar, I think we would call it now, where they would reflect on how to bring the sacred back to modern society, and they drew in particular on ethnography.
So people like Durkheim, Marcel Mose, 19th century anthropology, like Fraser, and this Kolez was the name, especially suggests that they are some kind of cleric.
You know, there's a clergy here that is being formed. So the sacriallization of society was the idea, they are the clerics of this new society.
And the group was quite influential in that people like, well, people spoke such as Poulon, Julia Bandai in particular, but the audience also included people like Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, D'Huyo La Rochelle.
So the thinking that went on there was pretty provocative and pretty influential.
Laura, when you say the sacriallization, everything I know about Batai, that word sacriallization could equally turn into desacriallization.
In the sense that it seems that first you have to undergo this prolonged systematic desacriallization of the values of either Christianity or the bourgeoisie or any kind of authority figure, values associated with an authority figure, in order to recover a more primordial sacriality.
Very hard to know where the distinction lies between desacriallization and sacriallization, would you agree?
I agree in part. I think Batai's view was that the sacred was this kind of eruption of disorder, heterogeneity, irrationality within a world that has a tendency to construct order.
So, by necessity, you have moments when the sacred becomes present, so sacrifice would be, especially human sacrifice, but other kinds of sacrifice would be such moments of radical disorder.
But this moment can, by its very nature, not last, right?
It's not going to become socialized without becoming more orderly and structured.
So, one could say that the sacred contains the seeds of its own, becoming conventional, and what Batai would call desacriallized.
And the result of that is that once the sacred becomes institutional, the only way to bring it back is to do something highly disruptive, which may seem desacritory, but he would argue is in fact a return to the sort of original heterogeneous disorderly impulse.
And that would be this sort of call for a perpetual crisis mode, or a perpetual disruption, and discontinuity of being.
Right. And that's, I think, one of the things that really characterizes Batai is this permanent spiritual crisis that he seemed to live.
And it's part of what makes him very hard to read, is that he's constantly trying to provoke, and in some ways constantly changing the subject in that to propose a coherent philosophy or a system, would be kind of contradictory to his purpose,
actually, to try to provoke his reader into thinking outside of any kind of system.
Well, I can understand that. On the same time, I go back to some of his predecessors, who I think were much more persuasive in their search quest for this kind of sacralization.
And I'm thinking in particular now of Hambou, who called for a systematic deregulation of all the senses, so that through a kind of disorganization of a familiar modes of perception, one could have a glimpse into transcendent realities,
that we might call sacred. He did it successfully for a few years, and then of course he burned out, and was not able to sustain this state of exaltation.
Or, and therefore, I think a perpetual spiritual crisis as Batai tried to maintain throughout a life is probably maintained mostly through artificial devices,
because, again, I go back to Nietzsche and the whole notion of Dionysus. If you're going to do the real thing rather than be the retore of it, you're going to really commit yourself to sacrifice, and you are going to be dismembered by the main ads or by whatever sacrificial mechanism is in place,
and that the ultimate combination of the Dionysian rights is annihilation, not in the rhetorical sense, but in the true sense.
Here we're dealing, in my view, with a guy who insisted on permanent self annihilation, kept claiming that he was looking for always new ways of disorganizing, you know, the familiar and the quotidian, but actually doesn't end up in a genuine confrontation with his own self annihilation,
because he's always resurrecting from it.
I mean, I like your parallel with Hampou, I would argue that Batai does something that is along the same lines, and he doesn't, you know, go into exile and stop writing poetry in the way that Hampou did that was such a grand gesture in some ways of leaving everything, you know, abandoning everything.
So there is a sort of annihilation of a certain self taking place there, but I would really defend Batai on, you know, on precisely those grounds, in that his, the fact that you find him so unbearable,
is precisely a result of his always inhabiting the edge, not developing a kind of a philosophy that you can sort of say, well, here it is, this is, you know, Batai's system.
And I think maybe one of the differences between them that I suspect you dislike is that Hampou as a poet is perhaps more pleasing and more evocative, and Batai's poetry is more disturbing and difficult and deliberately unpleasant.
But I think they both were seeking that kind of deregulation of the senses, and in particular a kind of a dissociation from the self or the eye, you know, I think we have that with the Zhou Itanotra, the eye is other, but we also have it in Batai's work, where he really opposes what he calls the project.
And what he calls the project is really our tendency to imagine that our self is, that it's this sort of consistent thing that we can project into the future and draw out of the past, and that it has a kind of solidity and separateness from the rest of the world.
And from this perspective, Batai says that salvation is a convenience, right? Salvation is a kind of image of how we perpetuate ourselves.
And against all of that, I think Batai really sought a practice of questioning the self.
And I think it's actually, for me, surprisingly close to certain forms of Buddhist practice.
So I'm thinking of the famous instruction, you know, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
I think this is actually a very Batai kind of statement. And in fact, Batai said that the answer is when you forget the question.
So there's something kind of quite similar going on there, that the experience of the sacred happens when you abandon all claims to authoritative speech and knowledge.
And for this reason, of course, it's kind of paradoxical to set out and look for it. And we have this paradox with Buddhism too. How do you sort of decide that you're going to stop thinking about something, right? You're still thinking while you're doing that.
And I think in Buddhism, it requires enormous patience, which I think Batai doesn't have. Batai's answer to this is a very violent kind of, I'm going to just explode this self that is so inconvenient and so artificial.
And I'm going to sort of get rid of it through these extreme experiences that he was really interested in.
Well, if I can respond with two examples, one is going back to Hambou, why he was not a Hambou for me.
And the other is what you said about his suspicion towards projects that we're not in our essence is not in the projectual.
When it comes to Hambou, I get tangible evidence. It's not just that his poetry is more beautiful or more pleasing. I get tangible evidence of a breakthrough and access to a state of grace.
In the non-Christian sense of that, just a certain coloring of the world where the miraculous nature of appearances becomes an undeniable experience that overcomes the self with a state of grace.
As opposed with a state of complete prophination and degradation, which I'm sure Batai in search for the state of grace, found a lot of the former, namely degradation, and his texts, his corpus is full of the traces of the degradation and not of this state of grace in my view.
And therefore, what I sense is a lot of theory about the thing, rather than the thing itself.
When you mention project, and I'm glad we're here so that we can debate this issue because I know that you're the one, if anyone's going to defend him eloquently, it's going to be you.
That all means, but try to defend a moving jump all-sash, not mean who wrote in an article in Sichweschon, a new woman, Stik, a new mystic that concludes with him telling Batai, but we are a project.
Let me see a verse I have the English, but we are a project in spite of our author Batai, not out of cowardice, as Batai claims, nor to flee from anxiety as Batai.
But first and foremost, a project.
This, if a similar state must be sought out, it is because it serves to found our new projects, if a similar state recommended by Batai.
Christian mysticism is a project, it is eternal life that is at issue.
But the joys to which Mr. Batai invites us, if they must only reflect back on themselves, if they must not be inserted,
in the framework of new undertakings, to contribute to forming a new humanity that will surpass itself with new objectives, then these joys are worth no more than the pleasure of drinking a glass of alcohol or warring oneself in the sun on the beach.
Can I continue on, then you...
So he goes on. Consequently, this is last concluding paragraph.
More than in this unusable experience, I suppose, Batai, one is interested in the man who gives himself over in these pages, in his quote, "some choose and bitter soul" in his pathological pride in his self-discussed, in his rigorous logic that masks the incoherence of his thought, in his passionate bad faith in his vain quest for impossible escape.
But here, literary criticism finds its limits. What is left can be dealt with by psychoanalysis.
Do not exclaim, here, I'm not thinking of the clumsy and suspect methods of Freud, Adler, or Jung, there are other kinds of psychoanalysis.
That's where such quote ends.
Well, that's very interesting. I think that my first answer to that is that we really have to remember that South Pole was, after all, the one who did not react against totalitarianism for the same time,
and the one who was a totalitarianism from the left on time, right, and didn't adhere to a left-wing ideology even when it was failing and when it was becoming oppressive.
And that's precisely what Batai didn't do. He preferred to, even though he was very much a man of the left, his reaction to this problem was to say that all ideologies are wrong.
So that's one way to say, well, maybe we are a project, but maybe we need to learn to not be a project. I mean, I think that his first answer to South would be along those lines.
But I also think that to go back to some of the details of what you were quoting, the idea that new humanity has to have objectives, I think, is the thing that Batai would sort of, he would say he also wants a sort of renewed humanity.
But one where we no longer think in terms of objectives or in terms of cause and effect in the way that we used to, but rather that the new humanity in some way can escape this causal chain of history.
And the real contention, I think, between South Pole and Batai is that South Pole really wanted intellectuals to be engaged in history in, one could say in a very overtly political way.
So we're arguing about what kind of ideology we're going to propose, what kind of political system, what kind of political action and so on.
And Batai is a very different take on that, which is if you're discussing which system, you're already within a political structure.
If you want to create real subversion, you need to sort of do cultural and spiritual and psychological transformation.
And you need to sort of break the very system instead of just proposing an alternative one.
So that's kind of the attempt that Batai was making.
But certainly you have very antithetical ways of looking at what history is.
And some people have written about Batai as proposing a sort of alternative vision of history.
And so that takes me back to your first question, which is about Hambou and the state of grace.
And I think here we have another, I think, well, another important difference.
I certainly understand what you mean about being able to see the world as this place that is infused with spirit.
And we see that Hambou, this transformation.
And I think in Batai we have a kind of spirituality that is, I disagree with you that it's all theory.
I think it's definitely experience and practice. But there is degradation.
And the way I would defend him here is that his primary fascination, I think, is the kind of radical compassion that can happen when you meditate in a traditional context.
For example, when a mystic would meditate on the suffering of Christ, on his crucifixion in particular, on his wounds, on the details of them, the fleshiness of them.
And this would allow the mystic to identify with someone else's suffering.
And ideally, this experience would lead and did, in fact, lead Christian mystics to then identify with the suffering of all humans and to become actually very active in trying to alleviate suffering in our world.
So Batai really thought this was the crucial religious experience.
And it is kind of one of degradation and suffering.
And he sought to push us to have that experience, maybe not with Christ, because in some ways Christ has become a little dead to us, I think he would say.
We sort of see the crucifixion, but it doesn't mean suffering to us anymore.
But he wanted us to identify with suffering.
And so this is where you would have an alternative kind of history that is about us being able to identify with the kind of ravages that our own history produces.
Do you think he was committed to the alleviation of human suffering or can one also read him as welcoming and promoting excessive suffering as a way of breaking through to this mystical re-sacralization?
Because it doesn't seem to me, you mentioned before we came on air about the photograph of the Chinese torture victim that he was fascinated by.
And he there from what I read, he was actually taken by the look of almost the attitude that was mourned by the sufferer of this torture, not a lot of alleviation in the recipe there.
Well, I think you bring up a very big question that is there for everyone who likes Batai and for people like you who are a little more on the other side of that issue.
I think he does, let me start with the torture victim. I think what you're describing is I think a common reading and he does.
So what did he do? Let's explain a little bit what he actually did.
This was during World War II, which makes the story, I think more shocking for most people.
Batai practiced a form of meditation by looking at the photograph of a Chinese torture victim.
And he used this photograph in the way that traditional Christian mystics would use an image of Christ on the cross.
So you're really supposed to identify with every detail of the torture.
And indeed, he did write about this sort of ecstatic expression of this victim and identified and believed, I think, that the dissolution of the self or the annihilation of the self does lead to a form of ecstasy.
And this is the thing you would find in Christian mystics as well, maybe ones that have been considered heretical at sometimes.
The ones that are more associated with negative theology.
But the point was really of achieving a kind of state where the self is no longer separate, but fuses with the world and fuses with the other.
Although they don't all become one and we can maybe get back to that issue of the one.
But I still want to address this problem of how does this alleviate suffering?
And I think that's actually a question that remains for me and for many batai scholars.
Does this experience of extreme compassion, suffering, self annihilation?
What does it lead to?
And I think that's kind of an open question. Batai's claim would have been that it leads to a social cohesion or a community, people who have had this experience feel that they are united in a way that is different than being united by utilitarian goals.
We bend together as humans or as a culture because we need to survive.
So his claim would have been if we have this common experience, we actually feel that we are sort of interpenetrated with each other.
Did that actually happen? Well, we haven't actually seen it happen yet.
Good, Laura. You're doing a great job defending his position, which sounds much more palatable in the way you put it.
The question for me still is what value does human suffering have?
And I think here he's caught between a Christian ethic that you seem to be leaning in favor of, of it cashing out ultimately in a certain kind of Christian, neighborly love, even of kind of ecstatic neighborly love, if you like to fusion, a collective which is bound together as one, versus a more niche-in approach which saw in the Dionysian rights and orgies and exeses and communal,
kind of rapture, a destruct, an annihilation which then was affirming human suffering as a way of being reborn into a kind of new life rather than its alleviation.
So it is at that point of tension, I think that by time it becomes interesting.
I agree. I think I haven't explained myself well. If you think I'm defending sort of neighborly love in the case of by time,
because I think he really is more on the side of the Dionysian side where if he talks about a community that is founded by a common experience of sacrifice and suffering, it's going to be a community very different from what we think of as community.
And it certainly passes through an annihilation of everything we know in some way that is very Dionysian and is, I think it's Christian only in the sense that we can relate it to negative theology.
And maybe I should talk about that a little bit.
But I actually, after he left the seminary, went to school for conservation, historic conservation and studied medieval poetry and was very interested in medieval mysticism and in fact talks about Angelada Foligno in particular but also Saint John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena.
And he's really drawn to that moment that you find in certain Christian mystics where they begin with a sort of mystical marriage.
So the unity with the Godhead and its very ecstatic and a positive sense as that marriage image suggests.
But then they describe this as a step towards an even further ecstasy which is when you abandon the self and God and the whole idea of marriage and all of that disappears and all you have is nothingness and utter annihilation.
And usually this aspect of medieval mysticism, when it became to overt it would be condemned as heretical.
So an example would be Maghyrit Purhet who goes to this very extreme but also Angelada Foligno.
And often mystics were sort of able to hedge with the church by sort of saying, well, you know, I do talk about here, you know, Jesus and God.
But really they have this push towards complete annihilation.
So you say something about Angelada Foligno because he champions her against someone like a coin is correct.
Exactly, yes.
Well, Angelada Foligno was this Italian medieval mystic who is really most famous for the fact that she was unscrewalled.
So the extreme opposite of a coin is precisely in the sense of not proposing a system but this very direct visceral experience of ecstasy.
And the thing that fascinated Batai about her was her fascination with objection.
So she not only does she meditate on Christ's suffering but for example, she wants to, she imagines the bits of flesh that the nails have stuck in the wood of the cross and she wants to touch these bits of flesh and have them be in contact with her flesh.
Or she later develops gestures like she not only goes out and washes lepers but she then drinks the water that has been used to wash lepers.
So these kinds of gestures that are extraordinarily physical are things that absolutely fascinated Batai.
They were ways to annihilate the self that were very concrete.
Nietzsche would have thought that completely sick and pathologically self-hating and he does a whole psychology of his Christian neurosis in many of his works including genealogy of morals.
But Batai seems to take it in a different spirit.
He does, although I think it would be fair to say that Batai carries with him a lot of Christian guilt and that Nietzsche's analysis would in some ways be quite right.
And that Batai wants the Dionysian desperately but he still conceives of it as somehow we have to take traditional religious symbols and desecrate them or break them or undo them.
And of course this tells us how important they were to Batai.
And the fact that he'd went to seminary, the fact that this was, this question was posed for him as a Christian question as well as a question about ethnography and primitive societies as he called them.
It shows that Christianity was still very, very present in his psyche.
So somehow he has to deal with it.
And I think that the fascination with objection that we find in Batai but also in someone like Anjada Fouligno is an expression of this guilt.
So this extra, the surplus of ecstasy where you go from marriage and union with the Godhead to nothingness.
I mean what's so ecstatic about going beyond every possible boundary where you're left with nothingness.
This is a death drive in the classical Freudian sense, the most brilliant interpreter which was actually Jacques Lacan.
Maybe we can speak about Jean-Chappatai's connection with Jacques Lacan.
The notion of pushing one's desire to such an extreme where it connects what Lacan calls the "jui sauce" that as if there is ever going to be a true, full, jui sauce in the subject is going to amount to the annihilation of the subject and that Freud identified this with the death instinct or the death drive.
I take Batai to be promoting in the most vigorous terms possible the triumph and sovereignty of the death drive.
And if you're going to do that, well you should have found a way to die before you were 62 years old or something or whatever.
Be the real thing. Instead he just goes on talking about it and he doesn't seem to engage in the minutiae of someone like Anja, the Folinio, though we can talk about the operations and the practices that he did try to institute in order to arrive at this experience.
But before we talk about that, how about a word about Jacques Lacan? Is there any relevance here in what I say about the death drive?
I think there's a lot there. I'll start with Lacan. It's quite interesting actually.
Lacan came to Batai's lectures at the Colerge de Soussiro G.
There's also a biographical connection that I must discuss because it's just too funny which is that Batai's first wife, Cilvia,
was married to her I believe through four years and then they separated and she subsequently moved in with Lacan, who was married to another woman who he was separated from.
So there was all of this crossing of different families. But the result was that Batai's daughter with Cilvia was actually mostly raised by Lacan.
But when Lacan and Cilvia themselves had a daughter, she was actually named Batai because Cilvia was still married to Batai.
So there was this kind of strange exchange of daughters and people have written with a fair amount of irony about Lacan's obsession with the name of the father or the non dupea, which is of course very much this sort of figure of authority or fellow centrism that Lacan wants to criticize.
The gnaw being in French, both the word for name and the word for "no."
So the father is always indicating he's, "dow shall not." That's the father's authority.
People have suggested that Batai sort of occupied this authoritative position in four Lacan and there's a kind of discomfort there.
Now I think regarding the death dry, which is a sort of more fundamental question, I see the fascination with death in Batai, but he would claim that it's the very separation of a death drive from a pleasure principle if we want to use the Freudian terms that is incorrect.
And that pleasure and death are part of the same cycle of constant transformation and that to want to fix either of them into a sort of a concept is going against the fluidity of existence.
And for Batai, what terrifies us the most and yet fascinates us is the fact that life and death are this intertwined cycle.
Our birth and our death of the ego as we know it, but you could argue that we are also constantly dying and living and becoming different people and that we create a kind of fiction of continuity, that the the eye, the identity, the social identity, but even our own sort of image of ourselves is one that sort of is a fiction of I'm always the same, but in fact I'm constantly changing.
And so I think I'd like to just bring in very briefly this idea of the oceanic experience, which famously Freud debated with Hormé Hollal, right? Hormé Hollal said that the oceanic was this experience of fusion of the self into something greater was very important to really just experience and indeed Freud mostly saw there something like a death drive.
And recently in fact their whole correspondence over this issue has been published and analyzed and it's very interesting to see that apparently even Freud had some hesitation and as you know, even he sort of describes the death drive as something that is sort of obscure and frightening even to him.
And I think Batai would say, well, it is and it is tied to the sacred. So I agree with you that Batai is pursuing annihilation and a kind of place where we saw and annihilation come together in that La Canyan sense and yet it's not just death I suppose it's just for him it's what existence really is most fundamentally because we are discontinuous beings so finitude are very nature is this discontinuity.
Can we speak a little bit about the recipes not recipes but the the methods that he proposed for the sacralization, resacralization of the body, the erotic experience and nature.
So I think I put them in three main categories the first one being sexuality and the second one being sacrifice in the third ecstasy so I'll start and talk a little bit about how he he wrote about sexuality in various works.
And there are two things that he does one is a little more conventional I think than the other.
The first one is the idea that sexuality can be transgression of taboos right so we have to think back to the era he was writing in when even writing sort of overtly about kinky sex was a form of rebelliousness right and of defending the physical of defending the body if you want in a kind of Nietzsche and joyful sense.
But he also in a more interesting way argues that the sexual encounter between two human beings is a form of fusion or of undoing the separateness of the individual so he really wants to insist on what we would now call vulnerability but really let's take that word literally and talk about vulnerability is you are exposed to being wounded you are radically exposed to another person.
And this exposure really undoes our claims to being sort of autonomous and self sufficient and authoritarian.
So in this sense I think he he still has a lot to say about how we think about about sex in our modern world I think where we tend to.
It has become very commodified very utilitarian in many ways even if the usefulness is no longer procreation so much but maybe pleasure it's still utilitarian and that's what Batai would say is wrong and that it needs to be something where you put yourself radically at risk and that's what would make sexuality an experience that brings us close to the sacred so.
The idea is has still a lot to say to us the fact that you get there by transgressing taboos about sexuality that might be a little more difficult to do along the lines that Batai imagined.
Now I understand better why our good friend Andrew Mitchell good friend of entitled opinions who edited a great book on Batai.
This idea of exposure and risk and this how to get an openness is something I would imagine and there's very sympathetic towards in that regard.
Although our ordinary understanding of the sexuality I don't think is all that different from this slightly mystified language in which he's speaking about it I would imagine even the bourgeois if you ask the bourgeois enough questions will agree that it's a form of self release and self overcoming an union and.
That there's some kind of special if not sacred experience of being with the other that takes place in the act in ideal situation so.
I'm not convinced that there's something wildly revolutionary about Batai especially his book on eroticism death and sensuality I mean the connection between love and death is a very ancient one and I you know I reread part of that book just a few days ago and I.
And I like apart from the fact that he writes horribly in my view and uses writing as a therapy in that regard and that is his thinking seems.
Very choppy if not sloppy I was not able to come up with a thesis that I found all that revolutionary in that in that context but let's go on from sexuality to the next category for sacrifice.
Yes I'll respond very briefly to what you said just I don't think that his book on eroticism is one of the best ones to read I think if you want to.
Understand what he means by sexuality a little bit more so his fiction like indeed story of the I would be more the place to go because it's all in these images of liquidity and fluidity and fusion and so I think that's the place to look.
But anyway to get back to sacrifice indeed this sort of takes us back to this group as a file and the idea that one needed to find to create modern rituals that would allow people to experience in a group this.
This solution of the boundary between self and other between self and world and in particular, I was fascinated by primitive rituals that had that were you know being written about at the time by people like Maxel most for example and and do kind as.
So his idea is that one of the things ritual has to do is use up a lot of resources whether they be literal resources or resources of sort of human energy in a way that is not utilitarian it's not about then we get back what we put in sort of thing.
But that is kind of gratuitous and of course human sacrifices the extreme of that because it's purposeless it's completely absurd in some ways and his point was that if you practice this kind of sacrifice then you you found society on this this equilibrium rather than on the conservation of equilibrium or on a kind of economy that is constantly trying to maintain its growth as it were.
So his idea here really was that people would need to invent new kinds of rituals because the rituals that already existed and I think he associates myth with ritual he talks about how we don't have modern myths and we don't have rituals anymore.
And he would encourage people to I mean I think the way to describe it would be to invent rogue rituals you know and they would it would have to be a grassroots thing in modern terms because if it's institutional then it's already perpetuating a kind of you know economic structure of equilibrium and utility and all of these things that that I wanted to contest.
What would our friend who knows you'd ask about that.
Yeah I asked myself that question too it's very interesting because there is a kind of strange connection in the way they think about the sacrificial victim and how the sacrificial victim is the foundation of social cohesion.
I mean as I understand Jhah what what makes Christ so important is that he is a willing victim and also a victim where we are able to see that we are projecting our own violence onto the victim and exercising it by doing through this projection so so Christianity sort of shows us that it's our own violence that is at work here.
And and I think for Jhah inaugurates a reign of non violence of some sort right and I think Batai would say he would he would very much agree with this idea that we project our own violence on to the victim.
But I think he would say that we that non violence is impossible and that this in fact to this structure of projection and ritual sacrifice and sort of exorcism is inevitable and that the best we can do is to be.
To know that it's our own violence that we are manifesting so it's a kind of drama and in fact people have talked about the importance of dramatization in both in Batai's actions but also in his writing that rather than theory these kinds of rituals are a way to sort of dramatize our inner violence and acknowledge it in a non theoretical way.
Jhah would also say that the primary purpose of sacrifice is to institute order to resolve crises of disorders in times when the community is in a state of radical uncertainty and in differentiation that through the ritualization of sacrifice you re-establish order of course.
Batai does not want the re-establishment of institutional order. He wants to dismantle that all the time and therefore Jhah would probably say I would imagine that this is something self-defeating about using sacrifice in this way where it's neither going to institute an end to violence nor is it going to create new orders is just going to perpetuate the forms of into differentiation which is the sort of
source of all collective violence in the scapegoating ritual but this is a question we might have to ask him one day.
Yeah we definitely should I think it would be a very interesting thing to discuss absolutely.
So ecstasy finally.
Right so ecstasy here I already talked a little bit about the importance of medieval models for Batai and I'd like to read a quote where he really describes his own attempts or one of his
experiences of ecstasy. So this is from his book Inter Experience which was part of a three part some athelogique or a theological sumo response to Thomas Aquinas.
So this is what he writes.
The movement prior to the ecstasy of non-knowledge is the ecstasy before an object whether the latter be a pure point or some upsetting image.
If this ecstasy is at first given and if I suppress afterwards the object if for this reason I enter into anguish ecstasy is near and sends me further into ruin than anything imaginable.
So let me unpack that a little bit there are two moments here and Batai is describing them in a way that is I think relatively neutral in terms of it could apply to a Buddhist tradition or to other methods of meditation that are not even part of an established religion.
So first you're supposed to meditate on a particular point so it can be literally a point or it can be a vision such as the vision of Christ or a torture victim or anything.
And you identify completely with this point or object and then you remove the point and the object.
And the idea here is that you identify so completely that when the object you're meditating upon is removed your entire self is removed.
It's a kind of complete self annihilation, self opening, there is nothing left.
And this seems very much to be the method that Batai explores again and again with variations throughout his book entitled "Innore Experience".
And one of the things he brings up, I'm just going to read the end of this quote because I think it's important is or maybe I won't even quote it all I'll just paraphrase it that one of the things he brings up is that...
...go ahead and quote it. Okay.
Let's hear it.
If I hadn't gone to it and in French it is actually Ed, so it's she, we can talk about that too.
So if I hadn't gone to it as the eyes go to the object of their love, it would only be the absence of light.
As beautiful and disturbing as it may be night surpasses this limited possible and yet it is nothing.
In it I communicate with the unknown opposed to the Ipse which I am. I become Ipse unknown to myself two terms merge in a single wrenching.
So there's all of this imagery of the night as as Ed or as it in the English translation.
And I think one of the things to think about here is Batai is trying to express how do we look at nothing.
How do we contemplate nothingness and his tactic is to have something to focus your attention on and then to remove it abruptly.
And I think what's interesting is how then the night still has this kind of femininity on the one hand.
So this brings us back to the idea of the oceanic, the kind of merging into the oceanic.
And then the other thing that he adds, which I'm not sure I will have to paraphrase, but he does add that there's something.
There's a loss there that the object which is removed. He misses that object. There's still something about well maybe that that object is maybe one must be grateful for it.
And so the problem here is sort of you could say that he's acknowledging the fact that well when you meditate on the torture victim are you simply using this torture victim to further your own experience of self annihilation.
And I think this takes us back to some of the questions you've been posing about what is the ultimate sort of ethical I think and moral purpose that Batai is pursuing.
So two things here I think the method of meditation which I think is very close to some traditional religious ones really which are sort of concentrating the mind and then opening up to nothingness or to something radically other.
And then there's the issue of is the technique a kind of instrumentalization of someone else's suffering.
I mean you could say that about Christ too did Christianity instrumentalize Christ is suffering when it became an institution.
Yeah I don't have any issues with instrumentality we're not going to get away from it ever.
The question is to cultivate our instrumentality so the instruments are used for the right purposes I guess.
In the few minutes remaining Laura very few minutes actually if I were to ask you is Batai a philosopher is he a writer is he something else what the novelist does it matter how we conceive of him.
Well it might matter I think he's more of a mystic than you know I would I would pick that answer that he's a he's a mystic in the line of negative mysticism a mystic without God if you want.
And also a mystic where communication and community are crucial terms so I think that's the last thing I want to to stress is that.
He this experience of the self as unbounded or as interpenetrated by others and by the world is a radical form of communication sort of interpenetration and communication.
And it is also a seeking of a different kind of community that is not founded in ideas or in survival but precisely in acknowledging that we are not in fact separate.
And I think that's the thing that remains important that is really a big part of his legacy something that we're still thinking about you know and I'm thinking of something even as you know the recent book.
Rifkin's empathic civilization right a book that really talks about the importance of empathy to to the survival of culture and that you know we think of humans is all selfish but maybe we should stop thinking about that and try to think of humans as.
We're not isolated and only motivated by selfishness so I think about Ty kind of he speaks to that still in ways that are really important.
Great you've been an excellent ambassador for George but we've been speaking with Professor Laura Whitman from the Department of French and Italian here on entitled opinions.
Thanks again Laura and we invite our listeners to tune in again next week we'll be with you then. Thanks again.
Thank you.