David Vichnar reviews GEORGES BATAILLE’S LOUIS XXX (translated & introduced by Stuart Kendall, Equus Press, 2013). Image: J.-A. Boiffard, Papier colant et mouches, 1930. Illustration for George Bataille’s article “L’esprit moderne et le jeu des transpositions,” Documents, 1930. No.8, p. 488.
Typically of this most untypical writer, George Bataille’s Louis XXX collects two textually and visually hybrid texts, one of which was published under the pseudonym of “Louis XXX,” and the other abandoned and left unpublished, both of whom thus actively undermine authorship and authority: the one by falsifying it, the other by cancelling it altogether.
The question implicit in both the translator’s “Preface” and extensive “Afterword” regarding these two texts which “stand apart in an oeuvre that stands apart” is, how to account for their unwanted/unwarranted coexistence here? Or in Stuart Kendall’s words, where does one locate “the source of the laceration that binds them together under one name” (8)?
The bafflingly elusive authorial strategy that brought—or failed to bring—these two texts into being, finds many direct analogies in some of Bataille’s major texts (rendering the very binary of minor/major rather untenable), two of which have direct bearing upon Louis XXX. Bataille’s first novel—and, ironically, his only bestseller—Story of the Eye, originally published in 1928, underwent triple re-edition during Bataille’s life (and after), changing in fact so much there are now two separate versions included in Bataille’s Gallimard Oeuvres complètes.
In a kind of authorial afterword, Bataille sheds light on the reasons for his continuous reworking of the manuscript – the memories that inspired the writing of the pornographic story “have long since lost any emotional significance” for him, and so the only “way I could restore them to life except by transforming them and making them unrecognizable,” for it is during that “deformation” that “they acquired the lewdest of meanings” (Story of the Eye, 96). Continuous rewriting and re-edition, here, is a strategy of keeping the written not only up-to-date but also emotionally relevant – if only for the author.
In the “Appendix” to the 1957 edition of his other major hit, the novel Blue of Noon (completed in May, 1935), Bataille turns the particular “lewd” pornographic interests of Story of the Eye and their masturbatory “restoration” through writing into the general programme of new fiction: “This is why we must keep passionately striving after what constitutes a story: how should we orient our efforts to renew or, rather, to perpetuate the novel?” (Blue of Noon, 127)
And yet, on the same page and in one breath, Bataille explains the 22-year delay in publishing Blue of Noon with the rhetorical question of “How can we linger over books to which their authors have manifestly not been driven?” And, later on, “today I am far removed from the state of mind out of which the book emerged” (Blue of Noon, 129).
Abandonment and reworking thus seem the two sides of the same coin – the ambition to keep fiction somehow up-to-date, its ever-receding past bound together with the ever-changing present through the emotion the fiction grew out of and, when successful, is capable of preserving and evoking. The “driving” metaphor has been taken up in Will Self’s description, in his “Introduction” to the Penguin edition, of the novel as driven “as a car whose drive has lost control” and its reading as sharing “vicariously in being drunk at the narrative wheel” (Blue of Noon, vii)– a description equally fitting for both of the Louis XXX texts.
The same goes for the books’ thematic thrust: Bataille’s trademark interest in what can be termed e-scatology, his fascination with the lowly physicality (defecation, urination, and, well, sex) as THE site of man’s transcendence, where religious and sexual ecstasy fall into one, and this “active base matter” on which man’s being is predicated disrupts the opposition of high and low, destabilising all foundations.
Of the many contradictions inherent in Bataille’s life and work, of the many “untenable concepts” he held onto despite, or because of, their untenability (as he writes in “The Little One”: “Going to the depths of being, I introduce untenable concepts, the most audacious ones that can be made.” ), one can be singled out as the organising principle of the texts gathered in Louis XXX: Bataille’s lifelong attachment to surrealism, this despite his early-1930s fallout with André Breton and all things programmatically surrealist. Bataille’s fictions are, in Louis XXX perhaps even more radically than in The Blue of Noon, “the unreconstructed contents of a psyche in turmoil, downloaded on to paper” (The Blue of Noon, x).
Stuart Kendall’s afterword to Louis XXX, “Larvatus Prodeo,” an excellent piece combining close attention to minute textual detail with the capacity to draw wide-ranging conclusions relevant for the entire history of 20th-century writing and thought, draws attention to Bataille’s own programmatic statement on the effects of his poetics, quoting his 1953 “Post-Scriptum,” according to which
If one had to grant me a place in the history of thought, I believe it would be that of having discerned the effects, in our human life, of the ‘disappearance of the discursive real,’ and of having drawn a senseless light from the description of these effects: this light is blinding, perhaps, but it announces the opacity of the night; it announces the night alone. (Louis XXX, 90)
Kendall’s commentary is spot-on: to speak of such a disappearance is to invoke “the collapse of discursive referentiality” after which “no discourse, genre, or type of speech can – or should any longer – be taken to provide a stable means of reference to a commonly held understanding of reality.” Recognising language as a language game entails, for Bataille, the shift of attention away from “the game’s pieces – the words” and away from “the rules of the game – grammar, or in other cases specific taboos and transgressions” onto “the effects” which the game produces “upon its player” (92-3).
In the opening gambit of “The Little One,” Bataille turns his writing into “a festival for myself alone, at which, no longer able to maintain it, I break the tie that binds me to others” (13). “Break the tie” Bataille surely does – first of all, with conventional genre- and form-constraints, presenting instead sundry textual collages, profoundly heterogeneous, hybrid constructions, including elements of diary and autobiography, poetry, a play text, mediation on a painting and a photography, as well as more recognizably philosophical and theological fragments. Second of all, and consequently, Bataille breaks the ties of coherence and systematic thought, instead fully embraces the paradox, the oxymoron, the provocative aphorism: “Men misunderstand each other in the good and love each other in evil. The good is hypocrisy. Evil is love. Innocence is the love of sin” (13).
The “festival” in Bataille’s text is manifest in the rather flamboyant and nonchalant disguises he dresses up his title concept/image – “le petit,” of course, primarily referring to “le petit trou”: “One day, a naked girl in my arms, my fingers caressing the crack of her arse. I spoke to her gently of the ‘little one.’ She understood. I didn’t know that they sometimes referred to It in this way in brothels.” But then – a flashback into childhood when, “soiled and swallowed up, condemned to dissimulation, it is the gentlest voice in me that cries: I myself am the ‘little one,’ I only have a hidden place” (14). And, later on, a leap into Bataille’s own neurosis and auto-therapy through writing: “How comical it is to return things and explain my conduct with psychiatry: to do it with, like me, a ‘little one’” (17).
Ass-sociations start piling up, the “little one” moving from the ass to the social and back to the erotic and the divine: if “the pure erotic,” according to one of Bataille’s koans, is to be found in “the crater, / the impossible, it rises in the throat, has the scent of blood” – then, also, “In place of God… / there is / only / the impossible, / and not God” (23). When faced with the game’s limit and inevitable stalemate, the point is not to resign oneself to despair but to reinvent the rules in order to keep playing beyond the limit and after the stalemate:
Going to the depths of being, it is possible for me, with a concept, to “tempt God,” to draw him out of the “impossible.” Going to the depths of being, I introduce untenable concepts, the most audacious ones that can be made. I have no complaisance in evil. (33)
Meditating on the theological driving force behind his writing, Bataille is drawn back to another of his pseudonyms – that of Lord Auch, the name under which he published Story of the Eye:
The name Lord Auch recalls the habit of a friend of mine: when irritated, he said, “aux chiottes!” [to the shithouse ], or even shortened this to say “aux ch.’” Lord in English means God (in holy writings): Lord Auch is God relieving himself. The liveliness of this story forbids weighing it down; each being leaves transfigured from such a place: that God sinks here rejuvenates the heavens. (37)
In turn, the reminiscence of giving “the author of W.C. the pseudonym Troppmann” (38) recalls Blue of Noon and its rather unheroic protagonist. What follows these avowals regarding the motivation behind the re-christenings and pseudonymous evasions to which Bataille subjected his own name and authorship is an Oedipus-in-reverse meditation on the fate of Bataille’s blind father, left to die by his son and wife in a bombarded town near the German lines (a traumatising experience Bataille seems never to have recovered from), and the “Absence of Remorse,” whose nursery-rhyme verse contains cut-ups of previous themes and images: “I have shit in my eyes / I have shit in my heart / God flows away / laughs / radiant / intoxicates the sky / my crack is a friend / in the eyes of fine wine / and my crime is a friend / to delicate brandied lips” (43).
Then comes the inconspicuously-titled “A Little Later” section, which nonetheless contains what comes closest to any kind of “writer’s programme” or “manifesto” in the entire Bataille oeuvre; one to do with chance: from the epigraphic sentences such as “To write is to research chance” or “The point of chance is veiled in the sadness of this book. This point would be inaccessible without it” (47), to lyrical passages like “The warmth of life had left me, desire found no objects: my hostile fingers, sore, always wove the canvas of chance.”
Kendall’s editorial footnotes prove useful for the point made in this review, for in the manuscript version of the text (different from the one included in the Oeuvres complètes), Bataille links the his aleatory writing project directly to questions of authorship and anonymity when he writes: “To write is to research chance, not by an author in isolation, but by an all-becoming anonymous” (131).
The other half of the book’s coupling, “The Tomb of Louis XXX,” opens with a series of impressionistic sketches, capturing with haiku-like brevity both the lyrical and the obscene, the naturalist and the symbolic: “At night / look at the sky / the crack behind” ; “I drink in your laceration / and I spread your naked legs / I open them as a book / wherein I read that which kills / me” (53; 61).
Preceding the “Meditation” section is Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde – the succès-de-scandale realistic rendering of fully exposed female pudenda. And accordingly, following it is Bataille’s account of how meditating made him feel “become an erect penis,” the intensity of which “rendered it difficult to deny,” evoking the “comical idea” that “so hard an erection — the entire body tensed as a hard tail — had no other point than orgasm!” (67) The erotic, however, immediately gives rise to the religious and the violent:
Besides, it was impossible to laugh at such a moment: like the torture victim I have a picture of, my eyes were, I think, turned around in their orbits, my head turned around, lips open. In that unexpected state, the memory of this photograph came to my mind without provoking the habitual depression: a rush of horror, of light, brought me from the depths to the heights. Nothing exceeds the feeling inspired in me by torture more. (67)
The “picture” reproduced here is one of the infamous 1905 serial photographs of Lingchi, or slow slicing, the Chinese torture and execution method. This is the picture Bataille would write about twenty years later in his last book, The Tears of Eros (1961), that “I have never stopped being obsessed by the image of this pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable” (Tears of Eros, 206).
So, if “The Little One” is partly a retrospective collage of commentary on/reminiscence of Bataille’s previous works, “The Tomb of Louis XXX” can in a sense be conceived as a prospective one. Its preoccupation with eroticism, sacrifice, and suffering will become the staple Bataille over the course of the next two decades:
Time passed without suffering seems vain or, if one prefers, awkward, compared to time that ordains unhappiness. Not that profound suffering carries us to some goal and owes some result to this detour! Authentic suffering tells us: “Neither goal nor result justifies my cruelty; in no way were you able to hold onto the weakest hope: I bring only myself, I want you entirely, no conditions.” Still one must confess:
“If suffering wasn’t what it is, contrary to desire, it would respond to the desire that we have to escape limits. This is why, in its power, everything that is not suffering seems vain.” (70)
The obsessive insistence on the “seriousness” of it all and the “impossibility to laugh” are fortunately relieved by some bright flashes of self-contradictory humour. As when Bataille writes, on top of one page, “I imagined that I condemned myself to silence, to an indefinite suffering, so great that words…” (71) and on top of the next debunks his own pseudo-mysticism by averring that “I thought: “How cruel my suffering is, – no one is more talkative than I am!” (72)
And, although separate texts never intended for juxtaposition, the concluding foregrounding of “The Tomb”’s sustained e-scatological preoccupation (the line god-sex-arse-shit-death) does bring the text into direct dialogue with “The Little One” (the rectum, after all, is a grave):
Nudity, the urinary crack, the vicinities of shit are to death what the sunrise is to the day. At every moment, the obscenity of the “little death” reminds me of the horror of the “big” one. God saves me no more from my shitty nudity than from rotting in the earth. (76)
Paraphrasing that last sentence, one could conclud that Bataille’s pseudonymous evasion/refusal of authorship was a strategy that served to “save” him from “the shitty nudity,” exposure entailed in every appropriation and publication. Now that his own personal choices and subjective reasons are a matter of long-gone past, whilst questions of authorship, copyright, publicity and intellectual property all remain matters all-too-present, it is highly relevant that these texts and questions they keep posing be brought back to life and reconsidered, “restored” in the perfect Bataillesque fashion. All this and more has been achieved by Stuart Kendall’s excellent translation, commentary and critical apparatus.
Georges Bataille, Louis XXX, trans. Stuart Kendall (Prague, London, Paris: Equus Press, 2013).
———————, Story of the Eye, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987).
———————, Blue of Noon, trans. Harry Mathews, intr. Will Self (London: Penguin, 2001).
———————, The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989).
———————, Littérature et le mal (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1957).