BLACK SUN: Bataille on Sade - Geoffrey Roche (2006)

Georges Bataille is one of the most influential thinkers to have seriously considered the work of Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade. What is undeniable is that the two thinkers share a number of thematic and theoretical commonalities, in particular on the subject of human nature and sexuality. However, there are serious theoretical divergences between the two, a fact generally overlooked in the secondary literature. Rather than being a mere precursor to Bataille, as himself implies, I suggest that Sade is a very different thinker, a fact that Bataille does not fully acknowledge.

…if [Sade] had not existed he would have had to be invented…

Bataille The Accursed Share (AS Vol. III: 252).

In the last five or so decades, a number of philosophers, writers, artists and film makers have implied that there is some profound significance to the work of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). One of the most prominent and influential of these was thinker and author Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Bataille almost single-handedly established Sade’s place in the realm of ideas, and is unusual, as a non-specialist, in having had a major influence on Sade scholarship. A good deal of the secondary literature on Sade (for example, that of Michel Foucault, Marcel Hénaff, David Allison, David Martyn, Deepak Narang Sawhney, Alphonso Lingis, and Béatrice Didier) takes for granted that there is a natural intellectual affinity between his work and that of Bataille. Bataille frequently introduces Sade into his meditations in such a way as to suggest a complete identification. He takes Sade to be largely in agreement with his own discussions of sexuality, ‘general economics,’ and what he refers to as the ‘Sovereign.’ This paper will function as a critique of Bataille’s utilization and identification of Sade. I aim to clarify whether we actually learn anything of Sade’s thought from reading Bataille (or vice versa), that is, whether Bataille is a help or a hindrance in coming to terms with the Sadeian labyrinth. Firstly, I will outline the thematic preoccupations that Bataille shares with Sade. Secondly, I will map the theoretical continuities and discontinuities between the two thinkers.

In the 1930 essay “The Use-Value of D.A.F. Sade (An open letter to my current comrades)” (hereafter UV), Bataille discusses what, for him, is Sade’s true message total revolution, and the wish to “release dangerous movements and be their first victims.”1 In so doing, he lambastes those members of the Surrealist circle who he felt had entirely misunderstood Sade, who instead ‘worship’ him in the manner of “primitive subjects in relation to their king” (UV: 17). Given the anodyne version of Sade embraced by André Breton and others, Bataille’s has the merit of being under no illusions as to what Sade’s work entails, this being the most striking, and vital, feature of his interpretation. Sade reappears again in most of Bataille’s subsequent works, in particular Erotism (hereafter ER, 1957), The Accursed Share (hereafter AS, written 1949, published 1967) and Tears of Eros (hereafter TE, 1961).

Bataille shares with Sade a number of thematic preoccupations. Bataille’s fictional work, in particular Story of the Eye, is similar to that of Sade to the point of appearing derivative. As in Sade, in Bataille there is a great deal of scatology, sex scenes in churches, blasphemy, humiliation, rape, torture, and necrophilia.3 There are also philosophical similarities, although these have often been exaggerated. The most obvious theoretical commonality is in their ethical orientation. Sade’s view that civilization and morals have softened man is close to Bataille’s attitude (Juliette, hereafter J, 776). Both writers draw a link between the absence of God and the nullity of morality, suggesting a traditionally religious view of moral thought (Bataille’s project of founding an ‘anti-ethics’, without reason or justice, is explicitly a Godless ethics ).4 Bataille states that Sade took the mentality of the aristocracy to its limit under the pretence of criticizing it (ER: 166). Bataille also notes that, though Sade’s work remains on the fictional plane (ER: 175; AS Vol. II: 183) he “stated his [principles] but never really put them to practice” (TE: 142). Bataille admires Sade for his nihilism and his total disregard for his fellow man, and notes that he was a “connoisseur of torture” (ER: 171-172, 189; TE: 206).5 Yet he also describes Sade as in some sense an ethical figure. In Erotism, Bataille holds that, because “violence is silent,” Sade’s attitude is “diametrically opposed to that of the torturer” (ER: 186, 252). The paragraph below illustrates the tension in this account. Sade, for Bataille, represents both the attitude of ‘sovereignty’ that stands beyond concern for the fellow man, and the (assumedly) moral attitude of the revolutionary.


Image: Marquis de Sade, Ladislav Guderna (1979)

INNER EXPERIENCE IS NOT PSYCHOSIS: Bataille’s Ethics and Lacanian Subjectivity - Andrew Ryder (2010)

Lacan and Bataille

Despite his personal proximity to Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan makes very few direct references to his work. Indeed, the only mention of Bataille’s name in the 878 pages of the Écrits is in a footnote to “On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis.” This article declares that Daniel Schreber, the prototypical psychotic, was exposed to inner experience by his insight that “God is a whore.” Lacan affirms that his mention of inner experience is an allusion to Bataille, and refers the reader to Inner Experience, which he calls Bataille’s central work; and to Madame Edwarda, in which “he describes the odd extremity of this experience.” Lacan here identifies the experience of Madame Edwarda with Bataille’s “inner experience,” and stipulates that both are identical to Schreber’s psychotic break.

“On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” was written in 1958 and generated by a seminar Lacan gave in 1955-1956. He had known Bataille for twenty years, having been a participant in Bataille’s Acéphale group. Lacan was also the companion of Sylvia Bataille (née Maklès), Bataille’s first wife, following their separation in 1934; Lacan married her in 1953. Sylvia remained close to Bataille for the rest of her life following their separation and divorce. Moreover, Lacan raised Laurence, Bataille’s daughter, because her birth parents separated when she was four years old. The 1950s was a period of close contact between the two men; Lacan contributed some of the research for Erotism, published in 1957.

Aside from this close biographical link and Lacan’s explicit invocation of Bataille in his consideration of psychosis, Slavoj Zizek has argued for another point of proximity between their thought, a link that he finds dangerous and aims to overcome. In Zizek’s view, it is in Seminar VII that Lacan is closest to Bataille in his formulation of transgressive jouissance. This is an influence that Zizek believes that Lacan subsequently escapes. I will argue that despite Lacan’s personal friendship with Bataille, his statement in “On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” betrays a misunderstanding of Madame Edwarda. That is, while Lacan had commitments to the reconstitution of subjectivity that render Bataille’s work illustrative of psychotic experience, close reading of Bataille’s text reveals a distinct position on self and other. In consideration of these two points of contact between Lacan and Bataille (on psychotic experience and transgression), we must note that the neurotic who is led to undertake an act corresponding to the essence of his or her desire is not said to be a psychotic. To reconcile this apparent contradiction, it is necessary to realize that for Lacan, all subjects are potentially psychotic, and avoid this only by the fragile construction of an ego ideal. Psychosis, then, is the result of a foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father and a denial of the Other of the Other, leading to direct contact with the real. From this perspective, Bataille’s refusal of the Name-of-the-Father and of subjectivity (writing under a pseudonym) and emphasizing an immediate contact with otherness that identifies a specific alterity (the title character) with its ultimate guarantor can only be read as a psychotic experience. I will inquire into Lacan’s theories of subjectivity and examine the impetus they receive from Bataille’s ideas on ipseity, as well as their departure from his thought, as well as investigating the Lacanian approach to a Kantian ethical problem, as read by Adrian Johnston, with the end of comparing this to Bataille’s own imbrication of eroticism and ethics. A close reading of Bataille will show an alternative position on alterity that escapes subjectivity, while remaining distinct from the psychosis diagnosed by Lacan and the irresponsible nihilism suspected by Zizek.