“And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
looking at everything and never from!
It floods us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and we decay.
Who’s turned us around like this,
so that whatever we do, we always have
the look of someone going away? Just as a man
on the last hill showing him his whole valley
one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers –
so we live, and are forever leaving.”
— Rainer Marie Rilke, from the Eighth Duino Elegy
Something has been troubling me in all this talk of ecstatic self-forgetting. In order to make Bataille and Weil play nice with each other, I had to sand off some of their rough edges. In particular, I had to paint both Bataille’s abandon and Weil’s obedience as essentially mental states; in the foregoing post, these writers resemble nothing so much as a Buddhist monk and nun who, in their quite distinct ways, are striving to quiet the chatter of conscious thought and to replace it with the profound silence of the sacred. As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention, but the weakest link in her chain is the way that attention translates into action — all she can say is that “the actions that follow [attention] will be automatic.” There is a troubling refusal of responsibility here that seems to have to do with Weil’s discomfort in her own embodiedness; we have already seen, in my post on Weilian self-sacrifice, the fierceness with which she deprives herself of necessities in the name of ethics, but her wish to be “decreated” is more profound than a wish for death — it is a wish, as her term suggests, to undo her own creation. She writes, “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart.” She wishes, in short, to not have a body, and this creates a problem in terms of engaging with the physical world — her efforts at ethical action, as outlined in that earlier post, are often bizarre, unsuccessful, and misunderstood. Ultimately they are fatal. (Though they retain, as I argued, a symbolic value.)
In Bataille, the disconnect between mind/soul and body is just as profound, but since he values the body and not the soul, we encounter Weil’s difficulty reversed, as in a mirror: the blind spot in his thinking is how to get from action to attention, from ecstatic bodily practice to reflective morality. Bataille is not even really interested in reflective morality; the closest he comes is to argue for the continual overthrow of moral systems in favor of a continual quest for the authentically contradictory promptings of the deepest self. My problem with this is not so much that this ‘deepest self’ disappears into the bodily (though it could be said that this is another escape from responsibility), but rather with the particular way in which Bataille mobilizes the category of the animal in order to describe the embodied aspects of personhood.
Last time, I described Bataille’s sense of humans as “discontinuous” beings, fundamentally alone in their heads. This is imagined, in Erotism and especially in Theory of Religion, in contrast to the “continuity,” the immanence and immediacy, of the animal world, for which he argues we have a deep nostalgia. We imagine that animals “exist in the world like water in water,” and we experience ourselves as lacking this feeling: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy.” Bataille’s pursuit of the experience of sovereignty is the quest to “lose his head” and give himself over to the animal within.
This account of the animal world resonates with us because it does sound true, it does recall a feeling we can empathize with. Animals are frequently evoked, in literature and film, as figures of Edenic innocence or of blind necessity — and either way, we see in their unselfconsciousness a state we envy. Rilke, in the poem excerpted in the epigraph, describes this nostalgia: “All other creatures look into the Open / with their whole eyes. But our eyes, / turned inward, are set all around it like snares.” The problem, as in Bataille, is self-consciousness; if only we could rid ourselves of it, we could exist “in that pure space . . . in which flowers endlessly open,” we could reside in “Nowhere without No.”
Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal follows Heidegger in exposing this imagined nostalgia as an utter fabrication. Where Rilke and Bataille see the animal’s experience as one of glorious harmony with its surroundings, Agamben and Heidegger see it as one of blindness and incomprehension. Agamben cites zoologist Jakob von Uexküll on the experience of the tick, who is blind, deaf, and ultimately responsive to only three things: the smell of butyric acid, contained in the sweat of all mammals, which causes her to abandon her post and fall blindly downward; the temperature of 37 degrees centigrade, which indicates that she has in fact fallen on a mammal; and the typology of mammal skin, which she navigates in order to find the least hairy spot from which to suck her meal.
The animal is, in Heidegger’s terms, “captivated” by those few phenomena that trigger its behaviors. He explains that a stone is “worldless,” while an animal is “poor in world” — it is open to certain specific phenomena, but it cannot recognize them as such. The tick has no knowledge of the dog, or its sweat, or butyric acid; it just responds automatically to a signal. The problem is that we don’t want to think of animals as mechanisms; waterfalls obey the laws of physics, but animals behave, even if they cannot act. Heidegger calls them “poor in world” to indicate the degree to which we humans project ourselves onto them; rather than seeing, as Bataille does, humanity as constituted by a lack of animal immediacy, Heidegger reverses the terms. We can think of animals, he argues, only in terms of a subtraction from ourselves: animals lack the uniquely human understanding of beings as beings.
The temptation to romanticize this lack is great. Agamben writes, “The tick is immediately united to these three elements in an intense and passionate relationship the likes of which we might never find in the relations that bind man to his apparently much richer world. The tick is this relationship; she lives only in and for it.” But is being a relationship the same thing as having a passionate relationship? The answer is an unequivocal “no,” and this is what Bataillean romanticizations of the animal obscure. When we speak of “animal passion,” we anthropomorphize the animal; for passion to be involved, there must first be a recognition of subject and object, which puts us squarely in the realm of the human.
At times, Bataille acknowledges this. Near the beginning of Theory of Religion, he admits that there is a “sticky temptation of poetry” about the animal, because “In a sense, I know this depth: it is my own.” Annie Dillard, in an essay called “Living Like Weasels,” succumbs to precisely this temptation: she valorizes the weasel’s instinct to bite and hold, offering an image of an eagle shot out of the sky with a weasel skull attached to its neck. The weasel, attacked by the eagle, must have fought back and almost won, and its corpse must have dangled from the eagle for weeks. Dillard, of course, turns this grim scenario into a moral imperative:
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
This is a beautiful metaphor for passion, but it cannot be said that the weasel feels passion. The danger here is that we believe these metaphors, and they trick us into facile ways of thinking about our own relationship to the animal part of us: our bodies. Bataille seeks, in his mystical practice, to liberate himself from conscious thought and obey his animal instincts, but this is never in fact possible. Agamben puts it this way: “While mystical knowledge is essentially the experience of a nonknowledge and of a concealment as such, the animal cannot comport itself toward the not open.” In other words, an animal doesn’t know that it doesn’t know itself, whereas a human can never quite escape her self-awareness. The terms of the comparison are always ours, because the animal doesn’t have terms.
Timothy Treadwell, subject of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, provides a vivid example of one way this mistake can be fatal. He spent thirteen summers in remotest Alaska, living with and filming grizzly bears, until inevitably he was killed and eaten by them. This is not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first three minutes of the movie and is plastered all over the preview — in fact, Treadwell’s death is what makes this a film worth watching and not just another nature show. Treadwell loves the bears; he names them all, he pets them, he mourns their deaths, and at several different points in the film he works himself into a frenzy about trappers and poachers and the encroachment of civilization: “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends! In love with my animal friends. I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f-ed over, which so sucks.”
He is sympathetic because of his passion. It is animal passion, in the mistaken sense evoked by the passage from Dillard — the bears are Treadwell’s one necessity, and he is holding onto them even though they might be his death. In fact, it often seems that he devotes himself to the bears because they might be his death. One of the people interviewed in the film is a woman whose house in Kodiak, Alaska was always the last place Treadwell stayed when he was on his way out into the wilderness; she reports that every year, as he would set out, he would tell her that if he didn’t come back, she shouldn’t be sad, because he had died doing what he loved.
But the bears, as director Werner Herzog reminds us, cannot love him back:
And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.
The problem with romanticization of the animal is that it does not allow us to see the radical closedness of the animal. People like Treadwell, Dillard, Rilke, and Bataille fancy that they are getting in touch with something “primal,” originary, and authentic within the human when they embrace their “animal” passions, but in fact, this is a profound rejection of what is most animal-like within us. The animal is that which does not know itself; it is the truly unknowable, blindly biological forces that, terrifyingly, motivate us at the core.
The problem I have with both Weil and Bataille, then, is that whether you value the mind over the body or the body over the mind, you are still failing to deal adequately with the dual, always contradictory nature of the human. Treadwell becomes a reverse Ahab, proving that to embrace the animal is just as fatal as to reject it.
The last time I wrote about Simone Weil, I talked about her drive to self-effacement in terms of an ethics of attention. In this post, which is a condensation of material from my recent paper, I will talk about self-effacement as, paradoxically, a drive for authenticity. Georges Bataille is a veritable prophet of authenticity, seeking to live the vicissitudes of his id to their fullest, whereas Weil is fiercely obedient to the commands of God. These, I will argue, are actually quite similar practices — both mystics strive to be true to impulses within themselves that are, at the same time, perceived to be in excess of those selves. What I aim to uncover here is the way in which recognizing the otherness of ourselves provides a necessary counterpoint to the ethics of attention, which requires us to recognize others as ourselves.
The basic idea behind Weil’s ethics of attention, as I explained last time, is that affliction deprives people of their humanity and attention has the power to restore it. I demonstrated this through Weil’s thoughts on the parable of the good Samaritan; before he was paid attention to, the beaten man was just a pile of flesh and rags by the side of the road. Bataille also believes that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to be reduced to “thinghood” by the pressure of outside forces — the prime example of this is slavery, but lest we think that this problem ended with abolition, Bataille reminds us that in modern capitalist society, all human beings are required to be materially productive and thus we are all reduced to thinghood (see The Accursed Share, vol. 1). The way to restore humanity is to embrace uselessness in order to remove oneself from the chain of production — in Bataille’s mystical practice, a person restores herself to humanity through an experience of the self as sovereign.
In Blue of Noon, the character Dirty (short for “Dorothea”) stands for the sovereign orgy of expenditure. When the book opens, she is “utterly” drunk in a London dive bar, “the most squalid of unlikely places,” and wearing “a sumptuous evening gown.” The implied class status makes her debauchery more complete; for a woman “so rich . . . [that] she could spit in other people’s faces” to have arrived at a condition and a place like this, she must be squandering resources in earnest. Dirty and Troppmann (the protagonist) “managed, with no respect for conventional pigeonholes, to eliminate every possible urge, in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever [they] had to.”
The experience of sovereignty that accompanies the breaking of taboos has a double source, according to Bataille (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Immediately apparent is the sensation of freedom that comes from transgressing a rule; one obeys only oneself, and feels that one’s desires are no longer in check. Alexander Irwin (in Saints of the Impossible) reads in this experience the potential groundwork for a politics: “The inner experience of freedom remains the precondition of any meaningful deployment of freedom in the public, political world.” But Troppmann is profoundly conflicted; he is enthralled by Dirty but impotent in bed with her. He longs to “lose his head” and give himself over to passion, but he cannot; he admires the candor of Dirty’s utter debauch, but witnessing it makes him “distraught with anxiety” almost to the point of weeping. This reflects Bataille’s theory that transgression “suspends a taboo without suppressing it.” From the suspension of the taboo comes a dizzying rush of freedom, but the prohibition itself remains, producing an anguished state of inner conflict. This anguish is the second source of the experience of sovereignty that accompanies transgression, more hidden and more powerful than the naïve sensation of freedom. Breaking rules would be trivial if we did not feel bound by them; in doing so, one exposes oneself to a lacerating experience of self-contradiction that threatens the unity of one’s selfhood, insofar as it is a unity, with annihilation: “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.” Rather than simply reveling in the freedom to pursue his own desires and thus being inspired to work toward freeing others to do the same, the practitioner of Bataille’s philosophy is led to suffer the anguish of realizing that his own desires are deeply contradictory. What are the political possibilities of this anguish? Bataille does not pursue them in depth, but we can begin to see them by putting him in conversation with Weil.
Troppmann and Dirty strive to “lose their heads” by “eliminat[ing] every possible urge”—that is, in their debaucheries they seek to transcend their rational, unified selves by allowing their irrational, fragementary desires to take over. Troppmann’s boorishness and cruelty are at least partly the result of a deep concern for authenticity: “I would have liked to give her a real kiss, but I felt myself verging on insincerity. I left immediately.” It makes perfect sense that a Bataillean profligate would place such value on being true to himself; the experience of sovereignty seems to entail a radical trueness to self that goes beyond all fictions of unified desire.
Curiously, Weil’s self-emptying attention also entails a concern for authenticity. Born a Jew and raised an agnostic, Weil experienced a Christian awakening in 1937 following a stint of factory labor wherein she realized that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves” (see Waiting for God). Her conversion experience was one of being subject to a strong external force; in a chapel at Assisi, she writes, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” The perceived externality of this force is what convinces her of its reality, and similar mystical experiences will continue to fuel her religious belief. However, she is adamant in refusing baptism because she has not experienced a similar kind of compulsion with regard to it. She explains, in a letter to Father Joseph Perrin, that she has resolved to stop wrestling with the question and plans to simply wait for God’s command:
It is very possible that after having passed weeks, months, or years without thinking about it all, one day I shall suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to ask suddenly and immediately for baptism and I shall run to ask for it. For the action of grace in our hearts is secret and silent. It may also be that my life will come to an end before I have ever felt this impulse.
Bataille would applaud the decision to take the promptings of “irresistible impulse” so seriously, but for him impulse originates in surging internal desire whereas Weil waits for something she can attribute to an external source. This points up what I see as the crux of the difference between Bataille’s and Weil’s thought: it’s not that she believes in God and he is an atheist (for the God that she believes in is quite absent from the world), it’s not that she advocates “good” and he advocates “evil” (for these categories are slippery, as will be discussed in more detail below), and it’s not even that she sees an orderly universe where he sees a disorderly one (though this is true). In terms of their ethical thought, all these concerns are secondary to and derive their importance from the fundamental situation of the subject: Bataille’s is profoundly isolated while Weil’s is profoundly open.
The experience of sovereignty, which Irwin reads as “the basis for an effective resistance to political tyranny,” is a self-enclosed experience, “an experience of the self as sacred.” In Erotism, Bataille explains that humans are “discontinuous” beings, which is more or less to say that we are alone in our heads:
Each being is distinct from all others. His birth, his death, the events of his life may have an interest for others, but he alone is directly concerned in them. He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity.
This creates a profound sense of loss, Bataille theorizes, wherein we yearn for the imagined continuity that links everything outside of us; we long to “exist in the world like a wave lost among many other waves.” This sense of loss is what motivates human endeavors such as love, religion, and violence, none of which in its ordinary form can ever really heal over this imagined loss. Death is imagined as a return to continuity, but actual death does not allow its subject to continue to exist and reap the benefits — so Bataille’s mystical practice aims instead at the shattering of the subject, which is a kind of death-while-still-conscious. Eroticism is the name he gives to his mystical practice in this particular book, and he names three varieties: physical, emotional, and religious. Troppmann and Dirty engage at the physical level, wherein the transgressing of taboos and the unselfconsciousness of orgasm offer “little deaths” and the experience of sovereignty described above. The emotional level is tied to romantic love, wherein one can imagine oneself dissolving into one’s beloved. Both of these practices do involve the participation of another person, but the experience of the subject as Bataille conceives it is profoundly isolated; the importance of the encounter with the other lies in the trauma it inflicts on the self, trauma that can cause the desired shattering. In the third level, that of religious mysticism, the other is no longer necessary at all and the required trauma is internalized, imagined through meditation.
Faced with the same gulf between human beings, Weil turns not inward but outward. Bataille seems to conclude that, since inner experience is the only kind available, the best one can do is to cultivate that experience to its extremes. Weil, on the other hand, finds her inner experience boring and trivial, choosing instead to focus on the challenge presented by the unknowable outside world. In her ethical practice, this takes the form of attention to the suffering other; in her religious practice, it takes the form of attention to God.
Bataille seeks sovereignty; Weil seeks abdication. Both seek to liberate us from unexamined, fictively unified notions of self, and this has important ethical consequences. Peter Connor (in Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin) calls our attention to an exchange between Bataille and Sartre that took place in March of 1944, in which Sartre points out that Bataille’s valorization of “evil” seems less like a rejection of moral systems than like an alternative moral system. Bataille responds by explaining that, in the overturning of “good” morality by “evil” morality, what is really important is the overturning itself. The process he is describing is not one of abandoning the search for morality, but rather one of an infinite search that seems to have something in common with Weil’s infinite wait for the commands of her absent God. Connor explains that for Bataille,
There is no moral of the story. Ethics does not consist in acquiring knowledge of some thing that can be communicated through a text. This was Kant’s error. Rather, it lies in the infinite inquiry into how communication is possible in general. The movement toward ethics is a movement away from knowledge.
Weil’s faculty of attention also depends crucially on the movement away from knowledge, which would lead one to draw hasty conclusions rather than waiting patiently the truth. But in a world where God is absent and other people are, at bottom, unknowable, must we wait forever?
Weil reflects that “to love a stranger as oneself implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger.” Her choice of the word “stranger” instead of the more common Biblical “neighbor” reflects the sense of the parable of the Good Samaritan as well as the thrust of her own ethics of attention, which involves taking on another’s suffering. But the reversal is intriguing, and this is where Bataille can help: ethics cannot be about self-denial alone. The love that motivates it must be universal, and this means that in addition to loving others, we must embrace our flawed, contradictory, selfish selves.