Today’s video is a rare 1958 television interview with Georges Bataille, nine minutes in length, discussing his book Literature and Evil. It appears after the notes on Bataille below, which appear in my 2011 book Word Made Flesh, available from amazon.com here. I also wrote briefly about his book Erotism here.
Squaring the dark-suited, professorial librarian of Paris Georges Bataille with the first-person narrator of Story of the Eye or, for that matter, the philosopher of Erotism or The Accursed Share is an instructive affair. The wild imaginings of these writers are hard to find in the demeanor of the writers themselves. It points to a paradox of ecstasy and reserve in the most radicalized of writers. If one aspires to explore the farther reaches of imagination, it seems to suggest, one is well-advised to keep one’s nose clean: to avoid offense in appearance or manner, in order to clear the way for the private imaginings conducted behind closed doors. But this is not all, for in the world of the casual week, never mind the casual Friday, this care in appearance and behavior, this leaning towards formality even in friendships, seems almost ostentatious. And so it is. However, there is ostentation too in the self-conscious self-presentation of the apparent democratic populist, the friend of the working man and the oppressed: one sees it in Brecht especially, though Brecht, at least, retained that cultural radicalism and ambivalence. Inevitably, this behavior and costume betray a philistinism of which its subjects are proud: it is moral and aesthetic authoritarianism clad in a t-shirt, but authoritarianism nonetheless, partaking gladly of the offerings of the Culture Industry (whose products include styles of fashion and demeanor), subsuming a blind self in mad consumption. And thirsting for the power, influence and money to messianically change the world, always in his own image, and kill the autonomous individual human being through ignorance and distance. This is, today, the status quo, especially of theatre.
The pursuit of tragic experience, which takes us to the outer reaches of imagination, paradoxically flourishes in this formal milieu, which in the twenty-first century is subversive all on its own. The ladies and gentlemen of tragedy, then: even as their behavior, manner and mien seem to partake of high-bourgeois culture, it is a high-bourgeois culture of almost a hundred years ago and radical in our time. It denies the desire for power and influence, seeing through its transparency and smilingly shrugging at its vanity. (Money it wants too—so do we all—but earned rather than as its due merely for existing.) It partakes of glamour and style, even in behavior: moderation and a good-natured personability, a tendency towards self-control and restraint (an absence from projects which create new forms of individualized white noise, like virtual social networking within arenas owned by corporations; besides, we need the time and silence for the work) rather than an excess of personality; we keep our counsel; an eye towards how we are seen. And not seen—we are gathered at cocktail parties on the side. We are comfortable even in our uncomfortable though carefully chosen clothes, our costumes which hint at the elegant bodies beneath; our recognition of each other makes us a community; our imaginations soar in the tragic theatres we make. An elite, if self-elected for all that: but there are enough of us.