Friday, October 01, 2010

"enormous moral energy": Bataille on de Sade

"We know what men are with their particular circumstances and limitations. We know in advance that generally speaking they cannot fail to judge de Sade and his writings in the same way.

"Lack of understanding is in the order of things; it is that of mankind in general; it comes from their lack of strength and their feeling of being threatened.

"The criticisms that de Sade defied were well founded. He was not against the fool and the hypocrite as much as against the decent man, the normal man in all of us, so to speak. He was less concerned to convince than to challenge.

"Certain minds are fired by the thought of turning the most securely established values topsy-turvy. They are thus able to say gaily that the most subversive man who ever lived--the Marquis de Sade--was also the man who rendered the greatest service to humanity. Nothing to their mind be more certain; we shiver at the thought of death and pain (even the death and pain of other people), tragic or unspeakable events cut us to the quick, but that which inspires us with terror is like the sun, no less glorious if we turn our weak eyes away from its blaze.

"Like the sun at least in being intolerable to the naked eye, the figure of de Sade fascinated and terrified his contemporaries: was not the very idea that the monster was alive revolting? In our day and age, however, an apologist for his ideas is never taken seriously, and no one thinks them at all significant.... That would not matter if only de Sade's ideas did not lose their essential value: namely, that of being incompatible with the ideas of reasonable beings.

"De Sade asserted these unacceptable values in book after book. Life, he maintained, was the pursuit of pleasure, and the degree of pleasure was in direct ratio to the destruction of life. In other words, life reached its highest intensity in a monstrous denial of its own principle.

"Such a strange doctrine could obviously not be generally accepted, nor even generally propounded, unless it were glossed over, deprived of significance and reduced to a trivial piece of pyrotechnics. Obviously, if it were taken seriously, no society could accept it for a single instant. Indeed, those people who used to rate de Sade as a scoundrel responded better to his intentions than his admirers do in our own day: de Sade provokes indignation and protest, otherwise the paradox of pleasure would be nothing but a poetic fancy.

"In one way it is easier to be be receptive to de Sade's eroticism than to the religious demands of old. No-one today could deny that impulses connecting sexuality and the desire to hurt and to kill do exist. Hence the so-called sadistic instincts enable the ordinary man to account for certain acts of cruelty, while religious impulses are explained away as aberrations. By describing these instincts in masterly fashion then, de Sade has contributed to man's slow-growing awareness of himself--in philosophical terminology 'consciousness of self'; The expression 'sadistic', in universal use, is in itself clear proof of his contribution.

"The cruelty of de Sade's heroes should not be wholeheartedly abominated. It is a denial of the principles on which humanity is founded. We are bound to reject something that would end in the ruin of all our works. If instinct urges us to destroy the very thing we are building, we must condemn those instincts and defend ourselves from them. But there remains this question. Is our being ineluctably the negation as well as the affirmation of its own princple?

"One cannot fail to observe mankind's double nature throughout its career. There are two extremes. At one end, existence is basically orderly and decent. Work, concern for the children, kindness and honesty rule men's dealings with their fellows. At the other, violence rages pitilessly. In certain circumstances the same men practise pillage and arson, murder, violence and torture. Excess contrasts with reason.

"These extremes are called civilisation and barbarism. But the use of these words is misleading, for they imply that there are barbarians on the one hand and civilised men on the other.

"Common language will not express violence. It treats it as a guilty and importunate thing and disallows it by denying it any function or any excuse. If violence does occur, and occur it will, it is explained by a mistake somewhere, just as men of backward civilisations think that death can only happen if someone makes it by magic or otherwise. Violence in advanced societies and death in backward ones are not just given, like a storm or a flood; they can only be the result of something going wrong.

"But silence cannot do away with things that language cannot state. Violence is as stubbornly there just as much as death, and if language cheats to conceal universal annihilation, the placid work of time, language alone suffers, not time and not violence.

"Useless and dangerous violence cannot be abolished by irrational refusals to have any truck with it, any more than the irrational refusals to treat with death can eliminate that.

"The characters of de Sade's novels do not speak to man in general, as literature does even in the apparent discretion of the private journal. If they speak at all it is to someone of their own kind. De Sade's twisted libertines talk to each other. But they indulge in long speeches to show they are right.... What they insist upon is the overriding value of violence, excesses, crimes and tortures. In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists.

"These disquisitions upon violence which keep interrupting the accounts of infamous cruelties that make up de Sade's books do not belong to the violent characters into whose mouths they are put. If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence. These are de Sade's own ideas, and he uses this means to address other people.

"A paradox underlies his behaviour. De Sade speaks, but he is the mouthpiece of a silent life, of utter and inevitably speechless solitude. The solitary man for whom he speaks pays not the slightest heed to his fellows; in his loneliness he is a sovereign being, never called to account, never needing to justify himself to anyone.... All this calls for enormous moral energy, but such energy is in fact the point at issue.

"The solitary man proceeds step by step towards total negation: denial of other people first, and then by some monstrous logic denial of himself.

"It may be that de Sade's language is not common parlance, not addressed to all comers, but intended for those rare spirits capable of attaining to superhuman solitude in the very bosom of humanity.

"The man who speaks has nevertheless broken out of the solitude to which his condemnation of other people has condemned him.

"This monstrous anomaly hardly seems to correspond with the intentions of a man who, as he spoke, forgot the solitude to which he was condemning himself more unreservedly than other people had done, for he was betraying this solitude. Normal men, standing for common necessity, obviously could not understand him. His plea could not have any meaning, so that this enormous work taught solitude in solitude; a century and a half passed before its message was spread.

"Misunderstanding and revulsion from the generality of mankind are the only results worth of de Sade's ideas.

"De Sade's philosophy is not to be classed as madness. It is simply an excess, an excess to make our heads reel, but the excess of our own extravagance. We cannot ignore this without ignoring our own nature--and it is our nature that makes us tremble with fear.

"For the sake of greater satisfaction de Sade strove to infuse violence with the orderly calm of awareness.

"De Sade's writings, and this is their peculiar value, tend to bring men back to an awareness of something they have almost completely turned their backs on, looking for loop-holes and postponing the moment for coming to terms.

"They bring to man's thinking on the subject of violence the slow pace and the spirit of observation that characterise the conscious intelligence.

"In this way we reach a violence possessing the calmness of reason.

"The fact is that what de Sade was trying to bring to the surface of the conscious mind was precisely the thing that revolted the mind.

"It is only today we realise that without de Sade's cruelty we should never have penetrated with such ease the once inaccessible domain where the most painful truths lay hidden.

"And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path. Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently--those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature."

--Georges Bataille, "De Sade and the normal man" in L'Erotisme (Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo), 1957

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