Georges Bataille: The Dark Soul of the Night

Unnatural Theology

Georges Bataille’s life was an uninterrupted search for the divine. In his wanderings and writings he consistently wrote of the necessity of scientific knowledge, critical reason, and theoretical evaluations. He did this, however, in order to firmly delineate the horizon beyond which these epistemological approaches prove insufficient, misleading, and even poisonous. His scientific search led him to a religious atheism and systematic account of non-knowledge. In his posthumously published Theory of Religion he talked of “the sticky temptation of poetry” that he thought caused illegitimate anthropomorphic descriptions even in the exact sciences. Bataille associated clarity and consciousness with rigorous scientific analysis, and he attempted to apply the tools of analysis to the phenomena of religion. At the same time, he had a desire to give an account of what precedes and comes after the clarity of self-consciousness and scientific rationality. In his slim, fiercely naturalistic exploration of religious thought and practice he hoped to play midwife to a new joining of clear consciousness and the ecstasy previously associated with forms of religious mysticism. According to Bataille, the conflict between religion and science could not be alleviated by a thin synthesis or a partition of duties. Instead, the joining of violence and consciousness must produce a new form of post-Christian and post-rational religion.

Many of the raw materials for the volume are, as Bataille openly admitted, eclectic in the extreme, drawing from the works of sociology, ethnology, and history of religion. Theory of Religion opens with a long passage taken from Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel and the bibliography contains standards from the likes of Émile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, and Marcel Mauss. The living form of this text, however, is due entirely to the intensity of Bataille’s personal experience and desires. He is not interested in setting down another explanation of religion which will be set on the shelf next to other respectable academic labors. His theory is at the same time an uncontainable longing which exhorts the reader to join him in a common project. He addresses himself to those for whom life is an experience to be carried as far as possible. Although this sounds rather benign and perhaps even banal, what Bataille has in mind is more energetic and archaic than what J.S. Mill most likely intended in arguing for different experiments in living. Far from jettisoning archaic modes of thought, Bataille thought that the history of religion was like a hieroglyph or the riddle of the Sphinx which had to be deciphered. One of Bataille’s most eloquent admirers, Jacques Derrida, would later write persuasively of the myopia in Hegelian semiotics that identified hieroglyphics as a temporary and imperfect phase of linguistic development destined to give way to the parousia of the phonetic alphabet.[1] Bataille parted ways with this eschatology of reason (although he appreciated the Marxist readings of Hegel provided by Kojève) convinced that it was an bloodless substitute for actual desires and a misunderstanding of consciousness. The sleep of reason that produces monsters so feared by Hegel was something Bataille hoped to induce deliberately by excavating, interpreting, and applying one feature of religion in particular: sacrifice.

How seriously should we take Bataille’s efforts? 20th century French philosophy is a notoriously difficult and divisive subject. The idiomatic and often confessional style of figures like Louis Althusser or Paul de Man have often been condemned as transparently superficial performances by con artists posing as philosophers. In the same writings, others have seen what can only be called highly technical virtuoso performances by impossibly erudite figures of the utmost seriousness. Some have seen (or have called themselves) a mixture of the two. In the case of Bataille, we have unique extra-textual evidence of his lived commitment to his theories. In 1936, he founded Acéphale, a journal of philosophy, sociology, and religion whose inaugural cover displayed a grotesque, headless, and insignia-laden version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. This surreal figure, holding a flaming heart in one hand and a dagger in the other, represented the exhaustion of classical reason in desperate need of a restorative sleep. The artist behind the drawing, André Masson, shared Bataille’s convictions that Acéphale should not be merely a publication, or an outlet for a new kind of art, but something much more radical. Bataille, Masson, and several others formed what they called a Sacred Conspiracy which held clandestine nocturnal meetings near an oak riven by lightning. They read aloud passages from Sade, Nietzsche, and Freud, but their chief purpose was to commit an act of human sacrifice. Often dismissed as the stuff of legend or at least of hyperbole, the recent publication of internal papers have corroborated the existence and intent of the society. Before their dissolution due to fractious political disputes, one of the members had already volunteered to be the victim. This period, though relatively brief, of Acéphale (1936-1939) and the Sacred Conspiracy, where Bataille was instrumental in attempting to sacrifice another person, should make us more credulous in reading the convictions and desires he expresses in Theory of Religion.

Why Bataille?

Even if he is serious, what does Bataille, a dissolute atheist, have that could interest or benefit us? I would say that there are two main reasons why a Catholic should take notice of Bataille. The first reason involves his entry and subsequent falling away from the Church. Though Bataille was baptized at a very young age, he grew up in a functionally irreligious household. His emotional, and by all accounts fervent, turn toward Catholicism came during his young adulthood and he remained in the Church for the better part of a decade. The profane and transgressive style typical of his writings cannot be ascribed to adolescent rebellion because he had nothing to rebel against. He joined the Church free from any external pressure and left it as a result of his internal convictions. There was nothing superficial about his spiritual life during this period of Catholic belief. He even considered the priesthood and briefly entered the seminary of St. Flour in 1917 (he also planned to write a devotional work called Notre-Dame de Rheims).[2] Why his faith corroded after this point is unclear but reading Proust, Gide, and especially Nietzsche seemed to have played a part. Between 1922 and 1924, he experienced the final stages of what the biographer Michael Surya calls “a conversion in reverse” which Bataille described in this way:

On my own, I’ll have to face the same difficulties as Nietzsche—putting God and the good behind him, though all ablaze with the ardor possessed by those who lay down their lives for God or the good.[3]

The dramatic reversal of this young man—possessing a formidable intellect—should sober any Catholic and draw her intense interest. Bataille’s case is not that of Freud who admitted, in response to his friend Romain Rolland relating his personal experience of the eternal as one of “oceanic bliss,” simply replied that he could not detect such a feeling in himself and that it is difficult to deal scientifically with feelings. Nor is it like the case of Max Weber who declared himself “unmusical” in all religious matters and even described himself as “crippled” in this respect. In these cases, the believer could comfort herself with the suspicion that, no matter how intelligent, these poor souls suffer some congenital defect that has left them deaf, dumb, and blind, to an entire register of spiritual experience. Bataille’s psychological makeup (in the fullest sense of psyche) was endowed with a natural attunement toward interiority, spirituality, ecstasy, rhapsody, desolation, and exaltation; he had every natural gift and advantage not only for belief, but for a faith of the kind usually experienced only by mystics. In the prologue to his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, St. Bonaventure says that “no one is in any way disposed for divine contemplation that leads to mystical ecstasy unless like Daniel he is a man of desires (Dan. 9:23).” Bataille was such a man of desires and yet he felt compelled to slake his spiritual thirst in other wells. His story is arresting for a person of faith because he judges Catholicism and finds it wanting not in some peripheral matter but at the very heart of the spiritual life. Whoever drinks of the water I will give him will never thirst.

The second major reason to read Bataille is to comb his writings for theological insights. This is possible because his thought remained indebted to spirituality, religion, and even theology after his apostasy. In writings like Eroticism and The Tears of Eros he moves easily between sinners and saints, equally interested in the Marquis de Sade, St. Teresa of Avila, and El Greco. He did not see atheism and religion as contradictory poles of belief. If anything, he thought they were concerned with the same limit-horizon of experience. Bataille believed that he was elaborating on something that Nietzsche had discovered:

Nietzsche’s atheism is of a singular nature, an atheism of a man who knew God, who had the same experience of God as the saints . . . Everything moreover commits us to believe that Nietzsche’s teaching requires an initial assimilation to Christianity in order to be followed.

It was this non-oppositional attitude towards the in-between atheism and religion—particularly religious ecstasy and mysticism—that provoked scorn from those who considered themselves beyond such things. One contemporary intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously reviewed Bataille’s book Inner Experience under the pejorative title “A New Mystic” and accused him of being in bad faith about his atheism. “This is the true mystic speaking, the mystic who, having seen God, rejects the all-too-human language of those who have not seen him.[4]

Armed with these justifications for reading Bataille, we are in a position to examine his account of sacrifice in Theory of Religion and make some theological emendations and retrievals.

Bataille’s Theory of Religion

Bataille began his account with the animals. He saw in their immanent and immediate natural life a stark contrast to the mediated existence of self-conscious human beings. The former live “as water in water,” a phrase deliberately reminiscent of mystical descriptions of unity, while we are forced to navigate a world of subjects and objects. It is self-consciousness that drives a wedge between our lives and the primal unity of nature. Bataille, following in part Kojève, related the emergence of this self-consciousness to the production of tools and manufactured objects for instrumental purposes. Here, for Bataille, was the fall which is passed on to every generation. Against this fall into the utilitarian “order of things” Bataille opposed the “order of intimacy” which he interchangeably called “life,” “the holy,” “the sacred,” “the mythic”, or even “salvation.” Bataille believed religion was at its most effective when it breaks through the utilitarian order and demands sacrifice—an act of consumption that negates any further use. Bataille is careful to distinguish the violence and death necessary to free an object from its “thinghood” from annihilation itself. Sacrifice “draws the victim out of the world of utility and restores it to that of unintelligible caprice.”[5] He presented the annihilation of the object as an almost accidental feature. Nevertheless, violence of all kinds, from uncontrollable laughter to physical death are what reveals the sacred. Archaic religion was much closer to this sacred order of intimacy than we are but it too was complicit to an extent in deflating and mediating the irrepressible demands of immanence with the needs of production. Bataille did not believe that a simple return to ancient religion would resolve the inherent tension of intimacy and self-consciousness.

Yet, he also saw Christianity as having a deleterious effect, because it identifies God, morality, and reason, thereby suppressing the necessary transgressive violence for restoring intimacy. He argued (along familiar Nietzschean and Lutheran lines) that the Christian religion brought with it ossifying dualisms between good and evil, spirit and the flesh, and the sacred and the profane. Bataille also saw a relation between a concern for stable moral categories and the prominence of abstracted conceptual reason. In fact, an increasingly moral deity, he argued, propelled its own displacement by lending sovereignty to reason.

Not all conceptions of Christianity were equal in Bataille’s eyes, either in their insights or in their sociological effects. Following and expanding on Weber, he saw a connection between the Protestant doctrine of justification of faith alone and the rise of capitalist accumulation. While he found the refusal of a causal relation between morality and salvation admirable, Bataille’s compared this soteriological transition to “the fool who jumped into the river to get out of the rain.”[6] Not only did it completely emancipate the world of production and instrumental reason from any participation in eternal life, it restricted salvation absolutely to the next world. Bataille recoiled from any soteriology that proclaimed that eternal life could be possessed in a way that did not actually involve experiencing it in this world. “[O]ne cannot posit divine intimacy unless it is in the particular, without delay, as the possibility of an immanence of the divine and of man.”[7] Even though Bataille considered archaic and medieval sacred festivals, monuments, and architecture as half-way houses that functioned as partial replacements for the reality of immanence, Protestantism definitively severed the order of intimacy from the order of things. Here the death of God, Reformed doctrines of justification, and the rise of industry are practically identical for him.

The way forward, in Bataille’s words, is a reduction of the reduction. He thought that sovereignty of reason must be subject to the same ruthless criticism that enthroned it in the first place. Science must turn its gaze toward the ground of its own illumination which is the emergence of self-consciousness in the subject-object distinction. In a move parallel to St. John of the Cross, Bataille urged an eclipse of reason by the disciplined use of reason. “[N]o one can correctly answer the requirement given in the forms of objective knowledge except by positing a non-knowledge . . . the clear consciousness of what is at stake immediately ties divine life to a recognition of its obscure nature, of the night that it opens to discursive knowledge.”[8]

Bataille and Catholic Thought

Bataille takes sacramental tropes like sacrifice, the intimacy of eating, and divine life and disembeds them from biblical narrative, creedal formulae, and the praxis of an embodied faith community. In doing so, he provides the theologian with a bracing, if disconcerting, defamiliarization of lived religious practice. By tacking back and forth between ethnographic, sociological, philosophical, and literary vantage points, Bataille induces a kind of methodological vertigo that can be a particular gift for theological readers. The practice of Catholic theology and philosophy also means ranging to and fro from hagiography, mystical dialogues, patristic and medieval exegesis, scholastic treatises, religious poetry and literature in order to most fully receive the normative content of Scripture and Tradition and the created order. The examples of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Truth is Symphonic as well as William Desmond’s account of the porosity of Being in The Intimate Universal are paradigmatic in this way. An attentive reader will also note how Bataille did not abandon the rhetorical verve or inclination to emotional extremity of his native French Catholicism—the clime of Bossuet, Pascal, Arnauld, and Bérulle. Bataille’s writing is a kind of spiritual writing at the same time that it is an atheistic disembowling of organized religion. The theologian must receive Bataille in the mode he was written in order to reply effectively. I will briefly sketch three areas of engagement: reason and desire, economy and sacrifice, and soteriology.

Reason and Desire. Bataille is perceiving an aspect of the truth when he notes that Christianity covers up the violence of the sacrificial act and reserves it within a quasi-economic system. The latter part of this charge has been a standard Protestant objection to sacramentalism for centuries. The former part is more difficult to answer. Clearly Bataille finds something attractive in the Catholic fixation on eating the flesh and blood of the God. There is an explosion of raw desire and even a horror in this mystery that has the power to abolish the mundane. For Bataille, the doctrine of a specifically sacramental dying and eating could only seem like a concession to moralistic sensibilities and weak stomachs. Why does the Catholic Church insist that, in the language of Trent, the holy sacrifice of the mass is immolated in an unbloody manner? For that matter, why does St. Paul take great pains to teach in the same breath that we are living sacrifices and that we engage in “rational worship”? This seems like proof positive of Bataille’s assertion that Christianity immediately elided the divine with the rational. Turning from St. Paul to St. Peter, we are exhorted in his first epistle to “crave the pure rational milk” which causes us to grow into our salvation. The adjectives often translated “reasonable” “rational” “proper” or “fitting” however, are derived from logos, suggesting further complications. Ss. Peter and Paul, whether in this context or elsewhere, do not tend to equate the acquiring of salvation with abstract conceptual facility.

The prologue of John, however, does indicate that all logicizing is a participation in the second person of the Trinity who tabernacled among us. If we insist on translation these passages with “rational” we must bear in mind that they might as easily be rendered as “spiritual.” It may seem strange to us but this equivalence seems to have been common to at least the 7th century if the line “Mary, fold of the rational sheep” in the Akathist hymn is any indication. The point of a sacramental sacrifice is to unite the flesh and spirit in an erotic way that does not degenerate in violent and chaotic multiplicity. Bataille’s criticisms of reason as a pale discursive faculty seem ill-fitted to anything other than Kantian and post-Kantian formulations. Scriptural accounts of the intellect do not separate it from desire and the Catholic exegetical and theological tradition has always seen resonances between these descriptions and the eros of the intellect in Neoplatonic thought.[9]  Even so, a differentiation between analogical knowledge of God gained by conceptual analysis of creatures and an experiential perception of the divine (especially through the sacraments) does exist within the Christian tradition. Bataille’s elevation of a kind of knowing that is higher than conceptual or discursive reasoning is not new but a memory of an older form of reason that was not opposed to eros. St. Maximus the Confessor describes it in this way:

The scriptural Word knows of two kinds of knowledge of divine things. On the one hand, there is relative knowledge, rooted only in reason and ideas, and lacking in the kind of experiential perception of what one knows through active engagement; such relative knowledge is what we use to order our affairs in our present life. On the other hand, there is that truly authentic knowledge, gained only by actual experience, apart from reason and ideas, which provides a total perception of the known object through a participation by grace. By this latter knowledge, we attain, in the future state, the supernatural deification that remains unceasingly in effect. They say that the relative knowledge based on reason and ideas can motivate our desire for the participative knowledge acquired by active engagement. They say, moreover, that this active experiential knowledge which, by participation, furnishes the direct perception of the object known, can supplant the relative knowledge based on reason and ideas.[10]

Sacrifice and Economy. Bataille expands specifically religious and theological concerns into unexpected areas of social science and political economy. Max Weber, R.H. Tawney, and Marcel Mauss had previously related these areas but with none of the intensity of Theory of Religion (to say nothing of his multi-volume exploration of religion and political economy in The Accursed Share). This presents an opportunity for Catholic theology to similarly expand its scope to give a more satisfying theology of work, production, and exchange. If we return to the Scriptural sources of a theology of sacrifice, we might find that they already have economic resonances. Bataille would probably commend the examples of both King David (“I will not give to the Lord what costs me nothing”) and the woman who broke an alabaster jar of ointment over Jesus’s feet instead of giving money to the poor. David’s sacrifice was a destruction of utility and the woman at Bethany recognized that worship does not justify itself by anything other than itself. These are episodes that align well with Bataille’s criticism of instrumentalism.

This recognition and commendation of Bataille’s breadth does not, however, mean a simple absorption of his account. He refused to accept that sacrifice was in any sense teleological or that it resonated with the peace of God rooted in the goodness of Creation and the redemptive economy. His account of the fall was limited to a change in the mode of knowing and as a result he could only described salvation as unintelligible inoperativity. Bataille imported (consciously or otherwise) severe Jansenist understandings of an inscrutable capricious divine sovereign. In refusing any form of transcendence or participation, Bataille simply brought the dark god of Jansensim into the realm of inner experience. Such an understanding does not lend itself to communities of worship and his religious atheism was plagued with incommunicability though he clearly desired to form a larger movement. The only temples that remained for him were individuated bodies attempting to break the shackles of self-consciousness through spastic violence to themselves or others. A Catholic account of sacrifice and political economy would be irreducibly ecclesiological and be rooted in the doctrine of the Mystical Body.

Soteriology. The most difficult charge to answer is his criticism of the delayed experience of salvation. Bataille’s accusation is more subtle than simply saying that Christ has not yet returned even though every generation of Christians is supposed to be expecting him in some way imminently. He focuses his charge on the lived experience of religious practice. Coming as he was from a Catholic background, we can assume that the experience of receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments was also the target of Bataille’s insistent question: What can it mean to partake of the divine life in this world (which Catholic soteriology affirms more vehemently than Protestantism) if there is little to no experience of that life which is not easily dismissed?

If the unity of God and man is both the model and the mode of salvation, a constantly deferred parousia seems intellectually and experientially unbearable. The charge is doubly effective as it makes a case against the sacramental efficacy of the Incarnation on Incarnational grounds. We are used to thinking of the Real Presence as an act of faith, but in some ways, our own deification through the Eucharist is a greater hurdle for belief.

This is an important place for Catholics and especially theologians to lower their weapons and let down their defenses. We should stay here a while not only because the question is illuminating but because the questioner experienced a cataclysmic spiritual shift in his own life on account of this objection.

Wrestling with this objection means wrestling with Bataille and in so doing wrestling with the possibility and credibility of eternal life for in the modern world. Bataille, and modern atheism in general, are symptoms and not the first causes of larger shifts. The onslaught of divine absence perdures for the Catholic faithful as well. As Joseph Ratzinger advises in the beginning of his classic Introduction to Christianity, we must admit that believers and unbelievers share the same phenomenological space, a mood, of uncertainty. Bataille’s rigorous unknowing is obliquely connected to the knowing beyond knowing of the Christian mystical tradition. They are neither identical nor opposites. Georges Bataille, the dark soul of the night, is a violently immanent iteration of the dark night of the soul experiencing the absence of God. Each paradigm is capable of challenging the other in fruitful ways. These questions should be approached with fervent prayer, spiritual discipline, and intellectual generosity or our evangelistic efforts will be justly reproved with the proverb Physician, heal thyself.

Editorial Statement: CLJ will explore the latest developments in the relationship between science and religion throughout September 2018. Special emphasis will be put upon exploring the demise of the conflictual model of science and religion. Our series is a celebration of the McGrath Institute’s Science & Religion Initiative winning an Expanded Reason Award from the Ratzinger Foundation and the University Francisco de Vitoria (Madrid, Spain). Posts in the series will be collected here (click link) as they are published. 


Frankenstein’s Scientific Chaoskampf

Featured Image: Author: Sorayagüell, no title, 2015; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

[1] Jacques, Derrida, “The Pit and the Pendulum: Introduction to Hegel’s Semiology” in Margins of Philosophy.

[2] Michael Surya, Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography, 45.

[3] Ibid., 52-53.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, “A New Mystic” in Critical Essays.

[5] Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, 43.

[6] Ibid., 88.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] Ibid., 98. Bataille’s nonchalance in using a phrase like “divine life” to describe this escape from alienation perhaps justifies another of Jean-Paul Sartre’s accusations. “Spinoza’s system is pantheism of the right-handed type, while that of Mr. Bataille is the left-handed variety.” We do not have room here to examine the possibility that Bataille has used Nietzsche to transpose Spinoza’s scientia intuitiva into a more rhapsodic and violent key.

[9] See: Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, Chap. 4, which explicitly identifies agape and eros. Or Pope Benedict XVI’s slightly different but also positive account of eros in Deus Caritas Est.

[10] Ad Thalassium, 60.

Andrew Kuiper

Andrew Kuiper is an alumnus of Hillsdale College and a former teacher at Great Hearts School in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been published in The Regensburg Forum, Touchstone Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and is the main contributor to the online theological blog at publishing company Ex Fontibus.