In Theory : Georges Bataille – “Literature and Evil”

All-purpose theorist Georges Bataille: Christian brothel-goer,  compere to the surrealists, ancestor to the post-modernists and post-structuralists, Nietzche’s descendant and Sartre’s rival, influential on Michel Foucault as well as on “the two Jacques” (Lacan and Derrida), and an authority on the so-called literature of transgression. After some nudging I thought I would pick up “Literature and Evil,” a slim collection of cryptic critical essays profiling notorious defenders of the dark side: Emily Bronte ( with her devotion for the satanic Heathcliff); Charles Baudelaire (possessor of a childish belief in his own uniqueness); William Blake (and his hermetic mythology that has no consistency and does not withstand logical scrutiny); Marcel Proust (too deep a socialite to do more than dabble on socialism), and the Marquis de Sade.

The chapter on de Sade is both the most accessible and most entertaining because it gives us historical ambiance, indulges in prurient gossip, makes a case for the Marquis’ supreme importance, and still points out that the pervert-monk-litanies of “Justine” and “120 Days of Sodom” are as frequently boring as they are shocking.  (“Literature and Evil” also contains pieces on Jean Genet and Michelet; I’ve not read either of those authors, and in fact had never heard of Michelet before.) The translation I read was not without some inelegant phrasing that I won’t blame on the original text; the clunky use of alliteration on a few places does seem traceable to Bataille’s poetic pretentions. His purportedly daring statements about literature’s “Evil” can and should be greeted with skepticism. Bataille’s dogmatic altar boy kneels before the overwrought shrine his own  impenetrable prose, and prays earnestly: the words should resound like Gospel, and perhaps they do in French, but will strike modern English ears as tinny, minor Apocrypha. There are interesting observations throughout, though: for instance, when Bataille suggests that God lacks the quality of Freedom, (since Freedom means the ability to act beyond, outside, and/or against God’s Order, which obviously God is unable to do.) An all-powerful God that is nonetheless powerless to overcome its own Godliness? Hmmmm.

RATING: COOL

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