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)