Life and Work
|French literary history|
|France · Literature|
Georges Bataille was the son of Joseph-Aristide Bataille (b. 1851), a tax collector, and Antoinette-Aglaë Tournarde (b. 1865). Born in Billom in the region of Auvergne, his family moved to Reims in 1898, where he was baptized. He went to school in Reims and then Épernay. Although brought up without religious observance, he "converted" to Catholicism in 1914, and became a devout Catholic for about nine years. He considered entering the priesthood and attended a Catholic seminary briefly. However, he quit, apparently in part in order to pursue an occupation where he could eventually support his mother. He eventually renounced Christianity in the early 1920s.
Bataille attended the École des Chartes in Paris, graduating in February 1922. Though he is often referred to as an archivist and a librarian because of his employment at the Bibliothèque Nationale, his work there was with the medallion collections (he also published scholarly articles on numismatics). His thesis at the École des Chartes was a critical edition of the medieval manuscript L’Ordre de chevalerie which he produced directly by classifying the eight manuscripts from which he reconstructed the poem. After graduating he moved to the School of Advanced Spanish Studies in Madrid. As a young man, he befriended, and was much influenced by, the Russian existentialist, Lev Shestov.
Founder of several journals and literary groups, Bataille is the author of a large and diverse body of work: readings, poems, essays on innumerable subjects (on the mysticism of economy, poetry, philosophy, the arts, eroticism). He sometimes published under pseudonyms, and some of his publications were banned. He was relatively ignored during his lifetime and scorned by contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre as an advocate of mysticism, but after his death had considerable influence on authors such as Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom were affiliated with the journal Tel Quel. His influence is felt most explicitly in the phenomenological work of Jean-Luc Nancy, but is also significant for the work of Jean Baudrillard, the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, and recent anthropological work from the likes of Michael Taussig.
Initially attracted to Surrealism, Bataille quickly fell out with its founder André Breton, although Bataille and the Surrealists resumed cautiously cordial relations after World War II. Bataille was a member of the extremely influential College of Sociology which included several other renegade surrealists. He was heavily influenced by Hegel, Freud, Marx, Marcel Mauss, the Marquis de Sade, Alexandre Kojève, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the last of whom he defended in a notable essay against appropriation by the Nazis.
Fascinated by human sacrifice, he founded a secret society, Acéphale, the symbol of which was a decapitated man. According to legend, Bataille and the other members of Acéphale each agreed to be the sacrificial victim as an inauguration; none of them would agree to be the executioner. An indemnity was offered for an executioner, but none was found before the dissolution of Acéphale shortly before the war. The group also published an eponymous review of Nietzsche's philosophy which attempted to postulate what Jacques Derrida has called an "anti-sovereignty". Collaborators in these projects included André Masson, Pierre Klossowski, Roger Caillois, Jules Monnerot, Jean Rollin and Jean Wahl.
Bataille drew from diverse influences and used various modes of discourse to create his work. His novel Story of the Eye (Histoire de l'oeil), published under the pseudonym Lord Auch (literally, Lord "to the shithouse" — "auch" being short for "aux chiottes," slang for telling somebody off by sending him to the toilet), was initially read as pure pornography, while interpretation of the work has gradually matured to reveal the same considerable philosophical and emotional depth that is characteristic of other writers who have been categorized within "literature of transgression". The imagery of the novel is built upon a series of metaphors which in turn refer to philosophical constructs developed in his work: the eye, the egg, the sun, the earth, the testicle.
Other famous novels include the posthumously published My Mother (which would become the basis of Christophe Honoré's film Ma mère), The Impossible and Blue of Noon, which, with its necrophilia, politics, and autobiographical undertones, is a much darker treatment of contemporary historical reality.
During World War II Bataille produced Summa Atheologica (the title parallels Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica) which comprises his works "Inner Experience," "Guilty," and "On Nietzsche." After the war he composed The Accursed Share, which he said represented thirty years' work. The singular conception of "sovereignty" expounded there would become an important topic of discussion for Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and others. Bataille also founded the influential journal Critique.
Bataille's first marriage was to actress Silvia Maklès, in 1928; they divorced in 1934, and she later married the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Bataille also had an affair with Colette Peignot, who died in 1938. In 1946 Bataille married Diane de Beauharnais, with whom he had a daughter.
In 1955 Bataille was diagnosed with cerebral arteriosclerosis, although he was not informed at the time of the terminal nature of his illness. He died seven years later, on 9 July 1962.
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