I often have this one particular thought and it usually occurs to me in the checkout of the Lidl around the corner from my office, and the thought kind of goes something like: these fellow shoppers, placing on the checkout conveyer belt all their canned goods, detergent, toilet paper and so on, bright and shiny in plastics and packaging, what are their sex lives made of, how do their bodies appear naked, fornicating, rubbing on top of another body and in turn being rubbed? And this thought leads on to another, somehow logically connected question: what do their bodies smell like, the crevices, the rolls of flesh out of sight thanks to their stone-washed denims, their ersatz tracksuits?
Bataille and Lidl
The only thinker or indeed writer I have to make myself feel better about having these wayward, somewhat disturbed, thoughts is Georges Bataille. But if I’m honest this was for no good reason: it’s a decade since I sat down and read The Story of the Eye for the first time and I don’t think I have gone back to it since. It was upon graduation and a trip through France that I picked up another novel of his and plodded my way through it in the back garden of a woman I had rubbed and been rubbed by, but who, after a long arduous trip to her childhood home, was having little or no carnal fun with me at all. How glum I was as I sat looking for solace by reading Bataille’s Le Bleu du Ciel, frowning not just from navigating the French, but arranging this language so as to better understand the off-smelling necrophilia and incest exuding from its pages. Bataille is widely known for these two slim novels, which is particularly the case in the Anglo-Saxon world, and largely I have no doubt, for their promise of Gallic smut, that particularly sought-after brand of sex that offers the reader not only titillation but also something more, philosophical edification, the promise of a kind of intellectual de-shackling from the staid status quo. De Sade comes to mind, as does The History of O, perhaps more recently Catherine Millet. For me it was always Bataille, his promise of the Surrealist release of an anthropologist’s juissance.
So after a particularly long wait at the checkout in Lidl I have decided to go back and tackle Bataille’s Eroticism and the The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, volume 2 of which in particular: ‘The History of Eroticism’. For Bataille the accursed share is that excess which accumulates in any economy and which must be spent or expended in luxury or without apparent gain – in the useless, the profane, in the erotic.
Bataille and Bataille
Born in the last years of a somewhat prudish century in 1898, Bataille was the son of a tax collector who died of syphilis of the brain, on the face of it an inauspicious biographical detail. He was a devout Catholic as a young man, indeed almost becoming a priest, and this makes perfect sense for a man who would later form the secret society Acephale, the inauguration of which would see one of its members being ritually sacrificed no less.
There’s always been this attraction to Georges Bataille: for the present author he’s one of those writers that get into your brain by their name alone, and all the seemingly limitless depth that it entails. The smooth, soft sophistication of Georges, the generic name for older French men in my mind, followed by the ballistic Bataille, as bellicose and percussive as the word battle itself. The wool suited librarian with his tie done up well, who also was a great producer of smut, an anthropologist who made no apologies for seeking out the carnal vestiges deep within human activity. But also a great thinker in his own right, even if contemporaries like Sartre dismissed his mystical moments, a philosopher of the erotic certainly, but also an explorer of subjects as diverse as evil and taboo, how they inflect literature and society, and indeed less conspicuously, his general economic theory that he outlined in the first volume (the only published in his lifetime) of the three volume work The Accursed Share.
Bataille and the Natural
What makes Bataille such a good thinker on the erotic is that he places it in the immediate vicinity of someone who, like me, passes the time in a checkout queue having depraved thoughts about fellow human beings. Or even more than that, those of us who carry out disreputable acts, behave sordidly, stray beyond the sanctity of the accepted normative arenas society has created for us to pantomime our fantasies in: reproductive sex, monogamous relationships, marriage, community. What Bataille can teach us, beyond the surface level titillation of the stories of his fictions, is the radical distance qua distaste we’ve cultivated for not only the natural world, but also for the natural processes of which we are subject to: excretion, menstrual blood, bodily disjecta, sex, death.
What then is the essential meaning of our horror of nature? Not wanting to depend on anything, abandoning the place of our carnal birth, revolting intimately against the fact of dying, generally mistrusting the body, that is, having a deep mistrust of what is accidental, natural, perishable – this appears to be for each one of us the sense of the movement that leads us to represent man independently of filth, of the sexual functions and of death.
The ability to approach man and the multiple ways he represents himself is one of the many characteristics that attracts me to Bataille, starting with reading his Erotism when I was still an impressionable younger self. The intensity of the idea bred from what the French call le petite mort, the expenditure of cum during coitus, or perhaps more to the point, in masturbation, and the expiration that comes in death are connected through eroticism – sexual activity liberated from reproductive goals. ‘Eroticism is assenting to life even in death‘, is how Bataille would posit, and in so doing he becomes the great thinker we need in our self-aware, extremist age of consumerism – he is the philosopher of excess and superabundance and how human excesses are expended in the various domains of civilized life, both private and public.
Bataille achieves many things as a writer and thinker – a brilliant interpretation of Claude Levi-Strauss’ look at incest by that writer’s own interpretation of Marcel Mauss’ The Gift is one such fine example of penetrating ability for advancing original thought – he is interested in demonstrating how human activities draw from a basic, fundamental energy, despite their apparent disparities, so for example war and eroticism are not to be considered separately. What use has eroticism if it is sexual activity minus the useful goal of reproduction? We live today in a contraceptive world, and if our relationship to the natural world is going to give our civilization any chance at all, to a large degree this relationship is dependent on contraception. Bataille offers us glimpses of why this is the case, beyond the arid data of demographic statistics.
Bataille and Civilisation
It never ceases to surprise that we should have a civilization to speak of in the first place, considering how hypocritical and delusional we are as a species. The domain of our mind, and what we hide from ourselves is infinite in its intricacies, the dexterity of our double standards gives us much art, custom, psychology. Our lives aren’t harmonious units, but rather full of discrete worlds we keep separated, which intuitively we can see in the separation of work, play and the familial. ‘Even the father playing with his daughter forgets, as it were, the disreputable places where he enters as an inveterate pig.’Like me at the checkout in Lidl, passing the time of day in base thoughts: how is it I can reconcile these with polite behavior moments later back at my office desk? Bataille demonstrates that the faculty of thought itself gives us the answer. The result is a paradox that haunts humanity and any notions of civilised progress.
Crucially for Bataille in The Accursed Share what we call the erotic is the sexual activity of humans as opposed to that of animals. So the inveterate pig is actually contrasted to the fact that not all human sexuality is erotic, but it mostly is, and further we’re brought on a journey around a domain that is much larger than mere sexy time, it looks at the meaning of nudity, the prohibition of incest, menstruation and excremental disjecta, to death itself. Man sets himself apart from nature by making sure his sexual life is never unreservedly free – it is constrained by the boundaries of custom, mores and manners. These then, the great walls set up around much of human sexual activity – marriage, monogamy, taboos of various kinds including incest – are thus examined and laid bare for what they are: they are not a single piece of information we can comprehend in one go, but rather a history, a history that dates back to our very first moves away from being mere animals, what Bataille would term our ‘destiny’ is the on-going breaching of these walls of censure and prohibition.
Bataille and Food
All of this is pretty much a round about way of saying that Bataille is a writer who is better informed than most about what makes us tick. It’s the anthropologist in him. The point he makes about the eye for instance: we don’t really like to eat eyes much, there’s something to the idea of chomping on a white, viscous globe that makes many people curl their toes in horror. This is not a cultural condition, but a common trait across societies and ages. Back to the notion of civilized man: his ability to be horrified, his ‘inexplicable acuity of horror’  toward eating eyes of any kind, is a defining characteristic, and which is why the horror of insects for so long led to a distinct disability in the West to consider them as food, something which is slowly changing as our notions becomes more relative, and impending food crises loom on the ever-warming horizon make them a viable source of protein in the western mind. And yet, anyone with an ounce of common poetry can point out that it is the eye that beholds not just the soul, but even a common seductiveness, and yet ‘extreme seductiveness is probably at the boundary of horror.’ So for all the pornographic carnage of The Story of the Eye, there is in fact an almost commonsensical observation in the double push and pull attraction to the white sphere of the eye, it’s logical connection to hard boiled eggs, a Platonic form of fertility qua nutrition and the bull testicles which lead to the castration scene toward the end of the book. The common attribute of roundness and whiteness is further extended into the cat’s milk saucer as well as the semen so liberally spilled. This is why Roland Barthe’s reading of the tale is so pertinent: Bataille’s smut is in fact a story of one object, one that is passed between characters, metamorphoses, and fulfills multiple functions, and the object is in turn a spherical metaphor that makes it more than just a mere story, indeed the action and logic of the story become irrelevant (like any good porno).
What then would Bataille make of ‘food porn’, our Instagram snapshots of phallic, pudendal plates of seductive haute cuisine? That it is a step further from our natural selves perhaps, a dressing up of that which we will shit and piss out – and therefore in one sense it is metaphorical; he may even suggest that such finery is another testament to a repugnance of our animal need for sustenance, a distraction that cuts us a little further off from the natural world because after all man negates nature through labour, ‘which destroys it and changes it into an artificial world’, a world where children no longer know that hamburgers come from cows or cornflakes from stuff that grows in fields.
So there I am looking at all this foodstuff, wrapped in plastic, Kinder chocolate eggs birthed in tinfoil from some asexual, mechanical mother of man’s invention. I’m having that strange feeling of waiting in the checkout – think carefully about how you feel next time you’ve emptied your shopping trolley and are waiting idly for the queue to advance, observe your fellow humans closely – it is at once familiar, it is ‘of me’ and at the same time an imposition, an external event I take part in as participant, I am alone but also in the company of others. There are many ways Bataille feeds into our contemporary moment, and I’ve really just looked at one or two key ideas of the thinker in this article, namely his conception of how the erotic fits into the natural world and how his is an anthropological project that looks at the world in an almost jocular yet scientific manner. This is why Bataille has a strong life amongst artists and writers of all kinds, because the familiar is explained by way of distinct yet familiar images, like the best metaphors. As he had it in an earlier work, the wonderful The Solar Anus, the world is parodic, which means we can laugh at it, but also that what we see is something else, processed food is the animal and natural world underlying everything, it’s defecation, sex and death itself.
Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Volume II, page 91, Zone Books, NYC, 1993
Bataille, Visions of Excess, 17, University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Roland Barthes, ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’ in Critical Essays, Trans. by Richard Howard, Northwestern University Press. 1972