Bataille’s Negative Vitalism

Georges Bataille populates his writings with the imagery of torture and murder. His fiction revels in sexual assault. He speaks of evil as having a sovereign value for humanity. He speaks of there being intimacy between the sacrificers and the victims in human sacrificial rituals. He compares sex to human sacrifice. He describes himself meditating on photos of a man being dismembered and recounts his ecstatic experiences of joy and anguish in doing so, going so far as to call the wounded victim beautiful. He holds forth violation and transgression as things that reveal our true nature.

– Stephen Bush, Sovereignty and Cruelty Self-Affirmation, Self-Dissolution, and the Bataillean Subject

Sometimes I think critics are shocked by Bataille. What’s even more interesting is for all their delving into Bataille’s thought they forget he is the last great decadent, a late Romantic in the line that stretches from Baudelaire to Ratchilde and beyond… as Paglia emphasizes,

“Decadent art is ritualistic and epiphanic. Its content: Romantic sexual personae, the hierarchs, idolators, and victims of daemonic nature. Even depicting episodes from poetry, Decadent art is never mere illustration. It dramatizes dominant western image and sexual subordination of the aggressive eye. Decadent art makes hostile claims on the viewer. Its style is pagan spectacle and pagan flaunting. Behind the trashiest Decadent painting are complex Romantic assumptions about nature and society overlooked by textbook accounts of nineteenth-century art.”1

Let’s face it Bataille was a true Sadean, whose life like Rimbaud sought to dissolve the Subject-Agent in the impersonal, and like his Gnostic forbears he used the extremes of ascetic and libertine excess to awaken that inner sense of ecstatic terror and horror of existence to produce an aesthetics of pleasure-pain; one based not on lack and need (Lacan), but rather on excess (Blakean) and transgressive intelligence and will (in the Nietzschean sense of Will-to-Power) . For Bataille, like Blake, evil is energy – the absolute vitality of the will-to-destruction that one sees in Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Balzac’s criminal vitalist, Vautrin, and Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror… One could even return to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, whose destructive vitalism overpowered six of her husbands, sending them all to that dark cadaverous world of zero. But unlike those vitalist harbingers, Bataille’s vitalism is born of absolute negativity rather than any positive energetic libidinalism; no, Bataille dissolved energy in an entropic vat of self-lacerating annihilation beyond which there could be nothing left but nothingness and the abyss. Bataille like other decadents would descend into the maelstrom, the womb of archaic night. Man, infantilized, is entombed in mother nature’s bower, the ultimate Decadent closure. Nature gives and nature takes away, letting her curtain fall upon her self-sacrificial son, whose ultimate sovereignty and sacrifice is self-immolation.

As a student of Nietzsche, Bataille understood the ‘art of cruelty’ all too well. If we take a look at Nietzsche’s notions concerning cruelty we begin to see a conceptual fabric emerge (below some notes and quotes from Beyond Good and Evil):

There is a great ladder of religious cruelty, and, of its many rungs, three are the most important. People used to make human sacrifices to their god, perhaps even sacrificing those they loved the best – this sort of phenomenon can be found in the sacrifice of the firstborn (a practice shared by all prehistoric religions), as well as in Emperor Tiberius’ sacrifice in the Mithras grotto on the Isle of Capri, that most gruesome of all Roman anachronisms. Then, during the moral epoch of humanity, people sacrificed the strongest instincts they had, their “nature,” to their god; the joy of this particular festival shines in the cruel eyes of the ascetic, that enthusiastic piece of “anti-nature.” Finally: what was left to be sacrificed? In the end, didn’t people have to sacrifice all comfort and hope, everything holy or healing, any faith in a hidden harmony or a future filled with justice and bliss? Didn’t people have to sacrifice God himself and worship rocks, stupidity, gravity, fate, or nothingness out of sheer cruelty to themselves? To sacrifice God for nothingness – that paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty has been reserved for the race that is now approaching: by now we all know something about this. –

(BGE 86).

This is my claim: almost everything we call “higher culture” is based on the spiritualization and deepening of cruelty. The “wild animal” has not been killed off at all; it is alive and well, it has just – become divine. Cruelty is what constitutes the painful sensuality of tragedy. And what pleases us in so-called tragic pity as well as in everything sublime, up to the highest and most delicate of metaphysical tremblings, derives its sweetness exclusively from the intervening component of cruelty.

We clearly need to drive out the silly psychology of the past; the only thing this psychology was able to teach about cruelty was that it originated from the sight of another’s suffering. But there is abundant, overabundant pleasure in your own suffering too, in making yourself suffer, – and wherever anyone lets himself be talked into self-denial in the religioussense, or self-mutilation (as the Phoenicians or ascetics did), or into desensitization, disembowelment or remorse in general, or into puritanical penitential spasms, vivisections of conscience or a Pascalian sacrifizio dell’intelletto– wherever this is the case, he is secretly being tempted and urged on by his cruelty, by that dangerous thrill of self-directed cruelty. Finally, people should bear in mind that even the knower, by forcing his spirit to know against its own inclination and, often enough, against the wishes of his heart (in other words, to say “no” when he would like to affirm, love, worship), this knower will prevail as an artist of cruelty and the agent of its transfiguration. Even treating something in a profound or thorough manner is a violation, a wanting-to-hurt the fundamental will of the spirit, which constantly tends towards semblances and surfaces, – there is a drop of cruelty even in every wanting-to-know.

(BGE 229).

…the spirit’s not quite harmless willingness to deceive other spirits and to act a part in front of them belongs here too, that constant stress and strain of a creative, productive, mutable force. What the spirit enjoys here is its multiplicity of masks and its artfulness, and it also enjoys the feeling of security these provide, – after all, its Protean arts are the very things that protect and conceal it the best! – This will to appearances, to simplification, to masks, to cloaks, in short, to surfaces – since every surface is a cloak – meets resistance from that sublime tendency of the knower, who treats and wants to treat things in a profound, multiple, thorough manner. This is a type of cruelty on the part of the intellectual conscience and taste, and one that any brave thinker will acknowledge in himself, assuming that he has spent as long as he should in hardening and sharpening his eye for himself, and that he is used to strict discipline as well as strict words.

(BGE 230).

Those three forms of religious cruelty that underpin the human: sacrifice to God; self-sacrificial mortification of instincts by way of acedia, and the ultimate sacrifice of God himself as the gate to nihilism and absolute freedom from the dominion of the Absolute. This sense of tragic cruelty at the core of all higher cultural praxis, a heroic core of sublime acceptance, of amor fati: the primal joy in the tragic “love of one’s fate” to all eternity, the fatalism of eternal recurrence as one’s right and justification, one’s honesty toward the cruelty at the heart of Being and becoming forever. Yet, this is not some passive fatalism, rather it is the active acknowledgement of the creative force at the heart of things, a cold hardening of the intellect in the face of the monstrousness of existence.

It’s this subtle ‘Art of Cruelty’ that Bataille would see in Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty as well, a communication beyond words, a figural dance of flesh and bitter-sweet honesty, the masked creativeness of unbounded cruelty. What Artaud primarily means by cruelty is “rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.” Such determination is in service of a “blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything” in its aim to wake people up—jolt them out of complacency—and put them in touch with vital forces of creativity that cannot but upend settled patterns of thought and conduct.2

Are the Sadean cruelty that Maurice Blanchot would uncover in his essays on the divine Marquise. One of the principal points about Sadean cruelty that Blanchot wants to make is that whereas in Sade cruelty finds its initial expression in the actions and impulses of people who gratify their own desires with total disregard for the suffering they inflict on others, the ultimate goal is to become so committed to cruelty and crime that one acts not for self-gratification but for the sake of cruelty as an end in itself. This is the height of cruelty, cruelty for the sake of cruelty, even when it destroys not just the victim but the perpetrator too. (ibid., 42)

For Bataille the art of cruelty was based on destruction, a force that disrupts us from our settled patterns of conduct, thought, and emotion. It desensitizes us from our cultural worldview, from the ideological structures that bind us, enslave us to the orthodoxy and dominion of the real. In many ways it is a form of de-programming our reality matrix, of cutting through the reality studio (Burroughs) and exposing the chaos of the true world outside our cultural prison. As Bush puts it Bataille seeks to break out of the prison house of culture and attain sovereignty:  “Bataille understands sovereignty to be a condition in which one is subject to no external authority: neither the authority of persons, institutions, texts, norms, or laws.” (NE, 44)

In Sovereignty, Bataille explicates the concept in these terms: it is that which is “opposed to the servile and the subordinate.” The sovereign “does not depend on anything.” The sovereign is the one who refuses to submit. Sovereignty is “the negation of prohibition.” Above all else, to be sovereign is to be in a state in which one is not a means to an end. Not to others’ ends and not to one’s own future ends. To be sovereign is to be in the present moment, subject to nothing and no one else. (NE, 45).

One coming on Bataille’s writings for the first time might see this tendency for cruelty as self-contradictory. How can one be at once self-denying and self-affirming? This affirmation of cruelty that leads one toward both self-destruction and creativity seems at best a fool’s game. But is it? As Bush reminds us,

Bataille’s aim is not to offer specific instructions on how to live. His aim is to shape the subject for and through ecstatic experiences. These experiences are ends in themselves for Bataille, but in my reading, the ecstatic experiences shape people’s character for their social lives when they have exited ecstasy. And for that process, he thinks what is called for is exposure to the extremes. Bataille wants ecstasy to expose the subject to extreme forces of absolute self-denial and absolute self-affirmation. Th e result is to bring about lasting changes in the subject so formed.

(NE, 48).

It’s this refusal of subservience that is the key to both cruelty and sovereignty in Bataille’s thought. This form of cruelty seeks to overcome the law of sacrifice that was the religious praxis, for religious cruelty sought the dominion and subjection of sovereignty over others in the name of the Orthodoxy. Rather for Bataille the art of cruelty does not seek the subservience of the other but its release into sovereignty. This is the task of the cruelty of freedom. No longer bound to God or Man the sovereign individual stands amidst his fellows cold, cruel, and alone; and, yet, in this solitude is attained that intimacy of communication such as was never attained under the dominion and tyranny of communal habit and custom.

(This post is already too long, but one will need to understand what Bataille meant by ‘intimacy’ to understand both the notions of sovereignty and communication. I’ll address that at some future time…)


  1. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 490). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Jeremy Biles (Editor), Kent L. Brintnall (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)

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