Bataille’s Project: Atheology, Non-Knowledge

Bataille’s Project: Atheology, Non-Knowledge

2003-11-12
The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge
Georges Bataille
Trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 273pp $39.95 (cloth)

Marc LaFountain reviews a new collection of Bataille’s writings and considers the philosopher’s thoughts on prayer in a system and practice of atheology.

Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall have produced an extremely important volume that belongs in the libraries of all who are interested in Georges Bataille. The Kendalls’ collection of Bataille’s essays, notes, poems, letters, lectures, paratextual comments, and aphorisms presents many works not before assembled. These works are fragments of a volume that Bataille envisioned, and repeatedly rethought and rearranged, from the early 1950s onward, but the volume remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1962.

The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge contains some previously translated essays and writings, but it also contains new translations, commentary, and working materials that Bataille did not ready or intend for publication. The title of the Kendalls’ text parallels Le Systeme inacheve du non-savoir, Bataille’s projected title for the fifth volume of La Somme atheologique. The first three volumes of La Somme atheologique (Inner Experience, Guilty, and On Nietzsche) were published, whereas the fourth, Le Pur Bonheur, was completed but hasn’t been widely circulated, and the fifth was never completed. Both the fourth and fifth volumes were even omitted from one of Bataille’s projections of La Somme just prior to his death. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge contains Method of Meditation and “Post-Scriptum 1953,” which Bataille added to the second edition of Inner Experience (the Kendalls note these were missing from Boldt’s well-received 1988 translation of Inner Experience). It also contains the projected fourth volume, Le Pur Bonheur (“Pure Happiness”), as well as Bataille’s notebook for “Pure Happiness.”

The Kendalls’ introduction is interesting and informative. It contains chronological and background information that is often discussed in other works on Bataille and his writings. It focuses in particular though on the time of the late 1940s until his death. They direct this focus, however, not at his war and post-war politics, but rather at his interest in what amounts to a “codification” or “handbook” of sorts, by Bataille himself, of what is meant by and necessary for “sovereign operations.” One senses here the aging Bataille’s interest in clarifying his work on effusion and “the extreme of the possible” as a “method of meditation” (94). Unlike Breton’s papal relation to the Surrealist canon, however, Bataille sought only to emphasize the methodical practices and various principles or postulates derived from his explorations. The Kendalls highlight the many plans Bataille had for various books and writing projects, most of which he refigured incessantly and eventually abandoned. In particular, the Kendalls give significant attention to the many imagined versions of La Somme Bataille generated. The introduction provides clear definitions of Bataille’s “atheology,” especially within the context of the works this unique volume assembles. While admittedly their introduction is a series of fragments covering many aspects of Bataille’s thought, the Kendalls celebrate Bataille’s unfinished La Somme by focusing in particular on “the demise of discursive thought” (xxxviii), as found, for instance, in Bataille’s “Aphorisms for the `System`” and “Notebook for Pure Happiness.” Particularly interesting and important are the endnotes that accompany Bataille’s writings. For instance, in “Post-Scriptum 1953,” which accompanied the 1954 edition of Inner Experience, Bataille notes, “In my eyes, Method of Meditation was situated as an extension of Inner Experience” (291).

The first of Bataille’s writings that the Kendalls present is his proposal for a “College of Socratic Studies.” This essay highlights “slipping,” one of Bataille’s favorite and, I think, too frequently overlooked notions. This piece also emphasizes a number of familiar and important terms Bataille worked with over time: inner experience, expenditure, slippage, contestation, impossible, chance, the sacred, a beyond, irony, nonknowledge, isolation, communication, anguish, and method. Perhaps the Kendalls begin here because of their emphasis, developed in their introduction, that Bataille cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the degree to which he was a systematic thinker. Bataille engages and enters “the system,” but unlike Rael in Peter Gabriel’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, who finds that “you gotta in to get out,” there is no “out.” Indeed one must go in, and that necessitates method. Only method opens the possibility of the impossible. But there is no getting out. Thus, unlike Surrealism or religion or philosophical systems with an “end” (e.g., structuralism, or phenomenology writ large by Hegel or small by Husserl and the French existential phenomenologists, who formed the intellectual matrix Bataille swam in), there is nothing to return to. There is an end, temporary, to isolation, which is where communication happens, but there is no out. A beyond, but no out. A beyond that is immense and proximate, and impossible. Hence contestation, and surprisingly, prayer.

In this piece Bataille defends, for a moment, the value of scholasticism. His focus is not on Scholasticism as set of particular ideas per se, but scholasticism as outline and method - a practice of proceeding methodically to develop language, thought, and discursive principles only to expend them as they reach a limit they cannot express. It is in this methodical practice is where the slippage toward real communication happens. Bataille chooses Socrates not to defend his scholasticism (“Aren’t those who fight for the dead already dead themselves?”), but because of the irony that proceeds from Socrates’ twin principles: “know yourself” and “I know but one thing, that I know nothing.” Like Socrates, or Buddha, or the Christian, Bataille developed a method that was demandingly principled and systematic, but it lead nowhere. Only in this nowhere would humans for once truly end their isolation. This nowhere, experience itself, has value beyond language. Bataille is careful to differentiate his method and its “end” from that of the Buddhist, who denies the world and pain, and the Christian, who finds God as an exterior authority in which the “incessant interrogation of existence by itself” indeed ends. For Bataille though “the end” is impossible, and that is the happy anguish that awaits those who participate in his “Socratic College.”

The Kendalls follow the essay on the Socratic College with Bataille’s discussion of Nietzsche’s laughter. Laughter is not just about dissipation, it is also about inner experience as the leap into the abyss. It is about Bataille’s concerns with divinity and God, who haunts his thought as did Hegel, and his efforts toward an understanding of sin and “hyper-Christianity.” Following this essay is the important “Discussion on Sin.” As Bataille continued to envision his atheological system, he reiterated his struggles with philosophy and God. Over and over and over again he reiterated that “method,” “practice,” “postulate,” and “principle” are spaces of slippage, eternally returning moments when “I pull the rug out from under myself. And so what: I’m free, powerless, and I will perish: I ignore the limits of obligation in every way ” (108, emphasis Bataille). We see that ignoring the limits requires methodical and careful engagement with those very limits.

Bataille’s “Discussion on Sin” considers inner experience and sovereign moments in relation to Nietzsche’s notions of the “summit” and “decline” moralities and his efforts to articulate his critique of Christianity and defend his ideas against various critics. The “Discussion on Sin” is significant for Bataille’s development of his ideas on communication and his rejection of individualism. Too frequently Bataille’s work is confused with a form of subjectivism; this piece shows his thinking on that matter. The significance of this piece also lies in its being representative of a number of group discussions that Bataille, much like the Surrealists, pursued on a regular basis. Participating in the discussion on sin were the usual suspects associated with Bataille - Klossowski, Blanchot, Leiris, Paulhan. Also there were Sartre, Camus, de Beauvior, Merleau-Ponty and Hippolyte. A third group was comprised of priests such as Father Danielou and Father More, who hosted many such meetings at his home, and Gabriel Marcel. The “Discussion” not only presents “propositions” from Bataille’s lecture, but also a response from Father Danielou, as well as the discussion, with lengthy exchanges between Bataille and Sartre, Hippolyte, and Marcel.

Bataille sought a revolution in consciousness (hence, among others, his ongoing affinity to Surrealism despite his differences with its canon). Sovereign experience is not subjective experience. In fact, it is grounded in a “communication” that ends the isolation of subjective beings, even though that communication is impossible. Perhaps this rejection of subjectivism necessitated Bataille’s obsession with producing propositions and a method of meditation. These were absolutely necessary for the contestation of the self and of existence by itself. Without this contestation and the end of the possible, sovereign moments would be entangled in decline moralities that themselves were tangled in projects. Here Rimbaud is perhaps more illuminating than Jesus or Buddha or various yogis and mystics. Unlike Breton and the Surrealists, however, Bataille did not ride the Hegelian dialectic. Or if dialectics are to be thought, they must be transvalued as an “advanced dialectic,” which Bataille recommended in Death and Sensuality. Such a dialectic doubles as transgression, and it leads to “continuity.” Transcendence and nothing occur at the end of a ruptured (dialectical) movement that eternally returns. Klossowski and Blanchot’s versions of the eternal return are closer to what Bataille might have accepted as a “dialectic.” The beyond at the end of this “dialectic” is more akin to the differance that drew Derrida and the alterity that inspired Levinas. Nor is contestation random or to be left to objective chance. Rejecting objective chance, Bataille is closer to Dali than to Breton in his insistence on the active intervention of subjectivity in producing the delirium and effusion that would instigate its own undoing. Contestation is eternal and leads nowhere. To arrive at this nowhere is the projectless project of Bataille.

The above discussion of the significance of propositions and method should not lead the reader to assume that The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge strays from Bataille’s interest in expenditure of self and discourse. For instance, in “Outside The Tears of Eros,” the very last piece included in The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, which was also Bataille’s working notes from 1959-61 for a new book he was preparing while he was completing The Tears of Eros, one finds Bataille describing himself as “the hurtling train, the catastrophe…flash of lightning in the night…groping in obscurity…” (259-60). To the very end of his physical existence he struggled with the end, the impossible, with God, with Hegel’s system, and with language. In Method of Meditation, Bataille had noted that poetry is “the closest effusion to meditation” (95). The very last words of “Outside The Tears of Eros,” which are the very last words of the volume itself, are “ready to pray” (273).

The Kendalls note in their introduction that this readiness to pray accompanies Bataille’s acceptance of the failure of atheology. What a (bitter)sweet failure. At the limit of the possible, the effusion of poetry inevitably necessitates method and practice, this time as prayer. Prayer? Bataille? Not what one might have imagined. Then again, prayer is language and discourse, a space which must be contested. Prayer is another method by which to seek what his friend Blanchot sought: disaster and affliction, and fascination and radiant immensity. Prayer is a practice by which to experience the immobilizing and passionate encounter that Blanchot describes in The Space of Literature as distant, yet absolutely near. This distant proximity disturbs and animates life. Prayer then for Bataille is a practice of the kind of “acrobatics” and “ridiculousness” he called for in Madame Edwarda and Inner Experience, which assert the “fundamental right of man to signify nothing.” Then again, maybe Bataille, at the abyss very near the end of his life, unlike Nietzsche, was ready for expiation or supplication, or a project? To think this would be counter to the project framed by what we know or want to know about Bataille. But just what do we know?