The Agony and the Ecstasy: Georges Bataille’s Inner Experience

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Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Stuart Kendall (Albany: State University Press of New York, 2014).

Jean-Paul Sartre, “ A New Mystic,” in Critical Essays, trans. Chris Turner (London: Seagull Books, 2010), 219-293.

—“These streams within us are of an alarming plasticity” (127).

Georges Bataille’s Inner Experience, since 2014 available in a new, expanded English translation, is a work that intentionally defies easy categorization as a work of literature, philosophy, or theology. In fact, by design, Bataille set out to write not a “work” of any sort but rather a book that might be akin to a general strike of the mind, a cessation of the labor of the concept, exposing the limits of any project that would reveal itself in “work” or eventuate in “a work.”

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However arduous it might be to have written or to read Inner Experience, its shattered form and aimless argument seek no less than to uncover a humiliating experience of idleness at the center of human thought.

Though Bataille’s reading of Martin Heidegger’s work, which was just beginning to make its impact on French thought, was relatively superficial (Jean-Paul Sartre characterized it, unkindly, as “inept”), Heidegger nevertheless offered Bataille an important point of departure by linking existence to a temporal movement of understanding in which existence is explicated as “possibility.” In Being and Time, Heidegger characterizes this movement with the verb entwerfen (“projection,” or even, taken more literally, “outlining,” “drafting,” “sketching”) and the noun Entwurf (project, outline, draft, sketch), which capture in a constantly revised understanding the way time “throws” (werfen) and “projects” (entwerfen) human existence out into its future possibilities.

Bataille asks whether it is also a (paradoxical) potential of existence to suspend this structure linking understanding, possibility, and time, and what would be experienced in this situation. Implicitly, he suggests that Heidegger does not take his existential structure to its extreme point, where its temporal “ex-stases” of past, present, and future collapse into an atemporal black hole of impossibility. Only where project, possibility, and understanding cease or are radically disrupted, Bataille argues, does the inner experience that is experience of this im-possible state of existence commence. Such experience will be momentary, disengaging the temporal extensions of existence backwards and forwards in memory and anticipation, in history and project. It will suspend the movements of understanding in a stupefying, convulsive, rapturous, or abject non-knowledge. And it will eschew possibility—conceived existentially as my grasp of myself projectively, as a future potentiality to be—in favor of a collapse of the projective faculties and a confrontation with the impossibility of possibility in this state of existence. “[T]he mind attentive to inner movement only gains access to the unknowable depth of things,” Bataille writes: “by turning to an entire forgetting of self; not being satisfied by anything, always going further toward the impossible” (115)

If, as Bataille writes, “The project is not only the mode of existence implicated by action, necessary to action, it is a paradoxical way of being in time: it is putting existence off until later” (51), by contrast, “Inner experience is the denunciation of the truce, it is existence without delay” (52). However, this existence “without delay,” an existence unextended across the temporal span running from retrieved past to lived present to anticipated future, is not experienced as an untold fullness of being, a plenitude, but a rather as a lacerating insufficiency, an evacuation and lack. To grasp oneself in inner experience’s unknowledge and impossibility is to experience a defining shortfall of being at the heart of human existence, which no projective becoming will ever overcome. “There exists a principle of insufficiency,” Bataille concludes, “at the base of human life” (85).

Bataille likens this insufficiency in human being to the blind spot of an eye:

“There is a blind spot in understanding: which recalls the structure of the eye. In understanding, as in the eye, one can only reveal it with difficulty. But whereas the blind spot in the eye is without consequence, the nature of understanding demands that the blind spot within it have more meaning than understanding itself” (112).

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If understanding extends from the negligible gap in visual perception in the eye’s blind spot to the very unfolding of existence in time as the projection of possibility for being (again, referring to Heidegger), then human existence must recognize that at its very center is a gaping black hole, through which rushes the night of unknowing:

“[T]o the extent that one envisions in understanding man himself… the spot absorbs attention: the spot is no longer lost in knowledge but knowledge is lost in it. Existence in this way closes the circle, but it couldn’t do this without including the night from which it only escapes in order to return there again. As it moved from the unknown to the known, it is necessary to invert itself at the summit and return to the unknown” (112).

Inner experience, as Bataille develops it, finds its anthropological expression in practices such as ritual sacrifice, laughter, intoxication, eroticism, religious ecstasy, and—with some qualifications—aesthetic intensities connected with art and poetry.

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The consistent existence of such practices in many cultures and historical periods appears, at first glance, paradoxical, given that inner experience derives from the collapse of “project” and “understanding,” and therefore also should escape mediation by discourse, language, and conventional signs. But Bataille insists on what must be true of inner experience if it is to be collectively shared and reproduced over historical time: that which seems to evade (discursive) communication must be in some other more profound sense “communicable.” And it is too here, in this theory of communication, that Bataille ventures his most original, if elusive and self-consuming thought.

Bataille sees the anguishing experience of insufficiency as a sharable one, the very foundation (abyssal) of a communication that shatters discursive understanding and even the underlying existential structure of understanding that grasps existence as project and possibility. “What I wanted,” Bataille writes: “the profound communication of beings to the exclusion of the bonds necessary for projects, which discourse forms” (95). Recounting his early obsession with laughter and sacrifice, he writes, “I prepared myself to show that the path of communication (the profound bond between peoples) is in anguish (anguish, sacrifice united men of all times)” (100).

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The communicable anguish that comes from the foundering of human projects—whether in unwilled tragedy, or through willed sacrifice, ecstasy, and laughter—is for Bataille an anthropological constant running deeper than the time-bound, evolving projects of human collective activity dependent on discourse, which in turn grounds historical cultures and civilizations.

Further developing this point, Bataille introduces the notion of dramatization—explicitly derived from mystical and meditative practices such as Loyola of Ignatius’s spiritual exercises—as a technique to propel thought towards the point of reversal in non-knowledge.

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Dramatization is a paradoxical practice of using images and narratives—for example, of images of torment, tragedy, or sacrifice—to shatter discourse and render inner experience communicable as shared pathos.

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Bataille admits that this involves a sort of “recourse to degrading sentences,” a shadowy pre-communication which allows an approach to a more profound communication ultimately achievable only in anguish or ecstasy. Yet Bataille never really resolves the problem of how an inauthentic mode of communication, a discursive simulacrum of non-discursivity such as that represented by these “degrading sentences,” can give rise to that authentic communication that he seeks to affirm.

He seems to suggest that provoking a strong affect through dramatization—in a passage where he spells this out most explicitly, the affect in question is disgust—may suffice to overcome the humiliating, temporary compact with discourse and to overturn it in the anguished silence and non-knowledge necessary for authentic communication:

“I had… recourse to a simple modes of dramatization. I did not set out like a Christian from a single discourse, but also from movements that I grasped in their stream or river-like flowing, I could set out from them in order to condense them in a point where the accumulated intensity caused a simple escape of water to pass into a precipitation evocative of a waterfall, of a flash of light or lightening. This precipitation could occur precisely when I projected before me the river of existence flowing from me. The fact that existence, in this way, condensed itself into a flash, dramatized itself, stemmed from the disgust that the languor of the flow, which I could enjoy at my leisure, quickly inspired in me” (121).

Yet however impressive this extended metaphor may be in capturing the phenomenological process by which ecstasy’s onset is prepared, its evidently rhetorical character only heightens the contradiction in which an effect of language is made to index a state presumed to exist exclusive of language.

Pierre Klossowski, in his contemporaneous book Sade My Neighbor (and certainly in dialogue with Bataille), underscores the suspect nature of this rhetoricity that couples the unspeakable to communicability and vice versa. Klossowski notes that this structure also underlies the relation between Sade’s shadowy brothel-haunting perverts, who pursue their singular aims in incommunicability and silence, and his voluble libertines, who derivatively narrate these perversions to bring them into language and communicate their excitations to one another through the strong emotions these stories provoke.

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Although unlike elsewhere in Bataille’s work, in Inner Experience the presence of Sade is ancillary, Bataille does at one point suggest that The 120 Days of Sodom provokes a suffering in him that comes from a sort of mimetic communication from book to reader and concludes: “In the 120 Days, we attain the summit of voluptuous terror” (49).

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But unlike Bataille, who seems to take Sadean communication at face value, Klossowski explicitly characterizes it as sophistic, a simulacrum of communication meant to seduce the listener and reader into an intensity of sense and feeling, even when first experienced as disgust and fear—a passional inner sanctum where the libertine already has established dominion.

Moreover, Bataille’s hydraulic metaphor, representing a growing impetus within discourse towards a rupture with discourse, surreptitiously turns a historical narration around into an image of anticipation, a retrospection into a prolepsis. For as Sartre insightfully notes in his critique of Bataille, Inner Experience is:

“like most mystical writings, the product of a re-descent. M. Bataille is returning from an unknown region; he is coming back down among us…. If, like the Platonic philosopher brought out from the cave, he had found himself suddenly in the presence of an eternal truth, the historical aspect of his account would probably have been eliminated, giving way to the universal rigor of Ideas. But his encounter was with non-knowledge, and non-knowledge is essentially historical, since it can be described only as a particular experience had by a particular person on a particular date” (“A New Mystic,” 230).

But it is precisely this particularity—and hence this historicity, this inescapable already-having-been-ness of ecstatic experience—that Bataille wants to disavow, that he seeks to shed by smothering it in general communicability. His “theory” of how this is achieved, in fact, does little more than hypostatize this aim, projecting the loss of particularity into both the conditions and outcome of inner experience: each particular self, he argues, denudes itself in a common sacrifice of selfhood. He acknowledges the exasperated circularity of his argument, however, which registers the original aporia of a communicability founded in incommunicability: “Nonknowledge communicates ecstasy—but only if the possibility (the movement) of ecstasy already belonged, to some degree, to someone who disrobes himself of knowledge” (124).

In the end, Bataille, like Dante or the mystics Angela de Foligno,

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and St. John of the Cross, whom Bataille cites at length,monte-carmelo-702x1024depends far more on this historicity, rooted in a particular self and its life, than on the coherence of his philosophy of communication in non-particularity, as Sartre also attests:

“What remains of such an undertaking? First, an undeniable experience. I don’t doubt that our author is familiar with certain ineffable states of anguish and torturous joy. I merely note that he fails in his attempt to impart to us the method that would enable us to obtain them in our turn. . . .”

“Rather than with this unusable experience, then, we shall concern ourselves more with the man who reveals himself in these pages, with his ‘sumptuous, bitter’ soul, his pathological pride, his self-disgust, his eroticism, his often magnificent eloquence, his rigorous logic that masks the incoherence of his thought, his passion-induced bad faith and his fruitless quest for possible escape. But literary criticism runs up against its limits here” (“A New Mystic, 285-286).

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