LOL/OMG he is crazy

Georges Bataille, trans. Stuart Kendall , Louis XXX

Equus Press, 142pp, £6.00, ISBN 9780957121355

reviewed by Robert Kiely

Georges Bataille’s work is profoundly heterogeneous, being linked to the domains of literature, anthropology, philosophy, economy, sociology and history of art. He is an intensely inward-looking writer, pre-occupied with his major themes - death, eroticism, sovereignty – endlessly. One of his major works is Inner Experience, a quasi-theological and mystical series of meditations, mixed in with semi-autobiographical fragments - almost all of his texts are this chimera-like. My used copy of Inner Experience is a real joy. The previous owner has underlined and annotated in pink ink thoughout. Where Bataille writes that ‘Continuity horrifies me’, the reader has underlined it strenuously and writes: ‘LOL/ OMG he is crazy.’

I am not quoting these annotations to pour scorn on them. In fact, they might be the most visceral and appropriate meditations on Bataille’s work I have ever read. The shifts, within a page, from ‘Awwwww’ to ‘WTF’ give a remarkable glimpse of a reader's inner experience. This reader feels acutely the intense problem that Bataille raises, ethically speaking. When Bataille waxes lyrical over the image of a man being tortured, the pink pen erupts: ‘WHAT?’ and ‘WTF’. There is something curiously raw and unguarded about these annotations, which is also at work in the Bataille’s works.

Louis XXX presents the first English translation of Georges Bataille’s two late texts, Le Petit (The Little One) and La Tombe de Louis XXX (The Tomb of Louis XXX) - the latter unpublished during Bataille’s lifetime - united by the mysterious pseudonym of Louis XXX. Louis XXX is a non-existent King, the next Louis – the last Louis (XXIX) only lasted 20 minutes. The two pieces are obviously related, even if Bataille never tried to publish them together. But they are small – half of the published work An extended postface by the translator, Stuart Kendall (author of Critical Lives’ Georges Bataille, 2007), places the works in biographical, historical, and critical perspective. Louis Trente, the pseudonym of The Little One, re-appears in the title of The Tomb of Louis XXX. Stuart Kendall muses in his postface on whether or not Bataille would have printed The Tomb of Louis XXX under the same pseudonym, refuses to commit. It would certainly make sense if he did, since neither a Louis XXX nor a tomb appear in the text. Kendall’s commentary and footnotes provide much-needed context, and some manuscript transcriptions from the French Oeuvres Complètes.

These two texts are, as the blurb puts it, ‘experimental pieces of pornographic chamber music’ which commingle prose and poetry, fiction and autobiography, philosophical and theological meditations, abstract artifice and intimate confession. But these texts are no Story of the Eye, the triple-x denoting thirty rather than x-rated, and rather than a coherent narrative, they both offer a constellation of fragments and mainly-theological thoughts. Really, these are not fully philosophical, nor fully erotic. They are supplements, appendices (one section of Le Petit has already appeared in the Penguin classics edition of Story of the Eye).

There are moments of humour as well. In The Tomb of Louis XXX Bataille, meditating, imagines himself as an immense, hardening penis:

… When I first began to meditate, I habitually entered a state of torpor, wherein I suddenly felt myself become an erect penis. The intensity of my conviction rendered it difficult to deny. [...] The idea of being — my body, my head — a large hardening penis was so crazy that I felt like laughing. The comical idea even came to me that so hard an erection — the entire body tensed as a hard tail — had no other point than orgasm! 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.

Again, at a public reading of such prose, one may be unsure where to look. I kept thinking of the following lines of Stephen Rodefer as I came across these tenuous textual moments texts:

I want what is to be said
to smell like a finger stuck
in an asscrack, to bring up
that absolute inevitable scent
to the face.

I wonder how ironic Rodefer is being (to what does the title of the poem, ‘Asinine,’ refer? To the attitude of the speaker?), I wonder how and where and when a writer should avoid wearing their heart on their shoulder, in life and in print. But there is also something strangely and wonderfully confrontational about these lines and the position they advocate – perhaps what is said should be disgusting. Harold Pinter’s praise for the work of Samuel Beckett ‘the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him.’

But in that last quote, the slightly comic one of Bataille as penis, Bataille also pictures himself at the edge of climaxing, and suggests that his eyes are like those of the victim of torture he discusses in Inner Experience (in the Equus text, the upsetting image is included). Here is the crux of Bataille: the admixture of pain and pleasure, torture and eroticism. This is the fundamental problem, because as we follow this thread, as we pursue the simile, the ethical problems this raises loom large. Some critics have meditated on this - for example, Peter Tracey Connor on Bataille strange valorisation of Hiroshima - and I will not repeat them here.

Bataille is perverse, in multiple senses. He probes, and he is almost too willing to say outrageous things - it may even be his unique selling point. In a one-page play fragment, we have:

The stone:
I am God [...]
I kill you
I am a cunt

Beguilingly simple, but devastating. It is at once plain, boring, and yet graphic, shocking, violent.
Another fragment from The Tomb of Louis XXX:

At night
look at the sky
the crack behind.

This is one of the better fragments, a meditation which demands we see the fracture or ‘crack’ behind the very firmament itself, while this ‘crack’ also bathetically resonates with other moments in the text where Bataille muses on the female gluteal cleft. He is ‘delighted’ by his ‘past debaucheries’, he ponders degrees of nakedness – always naked women, as if he is professing his virility.

Which is slightly embarrassing, on some level. The kind one might feel when reading a passage like this:

Miserere Dei ...
To divine me would be ... what anguish! Divine anguish: no responsibility, no task to fulfil, no good to realise. Everything is consummated, there is nothing but the radiation of this agony.

This is one of the moments in Bataille’s oeuvre where one cannot help but hear the text voiced by an anguished teenager with deadpan, unironic emotion. Bataille is always jammed right up against a limit, straining, whether it be the limit of morality, of words, or of seriousness. At times he seems almost farcically angsty, some teenage-poetry that should have been thrown out. But it jostles alongside serious and profound insights. Bataille doesn’t let you pick and choose, he refuses to suppress what you wish he blotted out. Bataille observes in The Little One that ‘to write is to research chance,’ and these are texts which, indeed, take chances.

Truth be told, it is difficult to see why Jean-Jacques Pauvert claimed that The Little One was the most ‘shattering’ text that Bataille ever wrote. And hard to believe that André Breton remarked that The Little One ‘offers the most hungering, most moving aspect of [Bataille’s] thought and attests to the importance that that thought will have in the near future.’ Perhaps the very obscurity and condensation of The Little One added something for Pauvert and Breton – it was published in an edition of 50 copies while the other never saw the light of day. These texts are too minor for this overblown praise, but Kendall has done us a service by rendering these texts in English. May Bataille, one of the few modern gadflys, continue to trouble us. He will never be repatriated, in some senses, and this is as it should be. May he remain a foreign body, surrounded by scar tissue.
Robert Kiely is a poet, critic, and book reviewer, currently completing a PhD and tutoring at Birkbeck College, University of London.