The Writing Life

January 10, 2007 at 10:16 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, exemplarity, love, meta, metaphor, mysticism, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 14 Comments

“Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.”
— Simone Weil

In my last post, I talked about “reverse graffiti” as a template for my New Year’s resolutions. The idea I was professing back there — “I should make of my life a message” — was not my own. I have been reading Alexander Irwin’s Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil, and the Politics of the Sacred, and it is his central claim that the primary way in which Georges Bataille and Simone Weil, whose philosophies are enormously opposed, resemble one another is that both stage themselves as sacred beings who tried to fuse their lives with their writings, to live their messages, to be living messages, in order to destabilize the destructive political paradigms of the second World War. What I hope to explain in this post is how this idea has been helping me think about blogs, which are now — unsurprisingly — something I think about a great deal.

Like many things these days, my interest in Bataille is Kugelmass‘s fault. About two months ago I told him I was thinking of writing about Weil for my political theology class, and he wanted to know if I’d read Bataille’s Blue of Noon in which Weil appears as a central character. I hadn’t, so I did, and now I find myself down a long, dark Bataille/Weil tunnel from which this will represent the first of probably several postings.

I’ve loved Weil for a long time. She was born a German Jew in 1909, raised as an agnostic in Paris, and converted to Christianity later in life but refused baptism for complicated reasons. She preferred to be an outsider saint, sitting at the threshold and pushing people in — she couldn’t bear the thought of taking sanctuary in a community of the saved while so many people suffered outside the church. During WWII, she tried to convince the Free French movement to allow her to organize and spearhead a group of battlefield nurses, who would go out on the front lines and administer emergency first aid to the wounded right in the midst of combat. They relegated her to a desk job where she contracted tuberculosis and exacerbated it by writing furiously — 800 typed pages in the last 4 months of her life — and by refusing to eat more than the rations of her beloved Parisians in occupied France. She died in 1943 at 34 years of age. Her theology is as unique as it is shocking: “Whenever I think of Christ on the cross, I commit the sin of envy.”

Weil’s obsession with self-sacrifice is well-known, but it’s difficult to figure out what to make of it. Some suggest she was simply insane, but this is clearly dismissive. (Was Beethoven insane? Who cares?) Others point out the bizarre futility of her death, claiming that because her convictions led to such an eminently pointless demise, they must not have had much political relevance. Irwin aims to rescue her from these accusations by suggesting that Weil intended her life and her death to be a sort of text, affecting the world through the power of metaphor. Weil wrote that her goal was to “make of life itself the supreme poetry.” Furthermore, at the beginning of WWII, she wrote, “Our propaganda cannot be made of words; to be effective it would have to be composed of dazzling realities.” That these are not exactly the same thing will be dealt with a little later.

Bataille’s philosophy was about as opposed to Weil’s as you can get: she proclaimed herself on the path of good, and he proclaimed himself on the path of evil. Bataille was an atheist and a libertine, obsessed with sacrifice in the form of unproductive expenditure (orgy, carnival, etc). Weil’s sacrifices, by contrast, were always utilitarian — though her death may have looked pointless, in her mind it both set an example and exposed the horror of war. But between 1932 and 1934, the political commitments of these divergent thinkers led them both to be associated with La Critique social, a dissident leftist journal, and with Boris Souvarine’s Cercle communiste démocratique. Their writings, both public and private, respond to each other with passionate hostility during this period, and the Cercle did not hold together for long. In 1935, Bataille wrote Blue of Noon in which the character of Lazare is a clear portrait of Weil. The main character, who is quite autobiographical, finds himself both attracted to and repulsed by Lazare’s deathly demeanor which makes such a contrast with his own exuberant vice.

During the war, Bataille’s behavior was almost diametrically opposed to Weil’s. He abruptly stopped writing political treatises, declaring “I will not speak of war, but of mystical experience.” He withdrew into himself, writing extensively about his meditative exercises and the pleasures of the flesh. Irwin characterizes this vividly: “While millions died on the battlefields and in concentration camps, the bloodiest event depicted in Bataille’s confessional prose was a painful tooth extraction.” Weil, by contrast, was trying her hardest to be allowed onto the battlefield and was producing pages upon pages of political tracts and proposals for the Free French movement. Irwin’s argument is that Bataille’s public display of uselessness was ultimately a form of protest not unlike Weil’s. He objected to the war not by actively fighting it, but by refusing to engage with it — but what he shared with Weil was threefold: firstly, a conviction that the sacred could provide an alternative vocabulary with which to address the present catastrophe; secondly, a drive for self-annihilation; thirdly, his medium, which was both his writing and his life.

In this post, which is already quite long, I will concentrate mostly on this third convergence. In the future, you can count on missives addressing sacredness and self-effacement. I am not nearly as versed in Bataille as I am in Weil, so please forgive me if the following is clumsy or inaccurate.

Bataille was not a pacifist. In fact, he saw in violence a supreme opportunity for people to confront death as the ultimate truth of life. This seems to have a lot to do with quasi-Buddhist ideas of impermanence: only by accepting and truly understanding the impermanence of the world and of oneself can one properly appreciate and experience the present moment. But the problem Bataille had with war is that, while actually engaged in battle, one is not able to achieve a sufficiently reflective consciousness for the violence to be of any spiritual use. The person who can achieve this level of reflection is the writer. Writing is bound up with violence in a number of ways for Bataille, not least of which is — ironically — its inadequacy to experience. To write is to lacerate experience, to tear it to pieces and rob it of its vitality. And yet this is the only way we can really understand it.

What is needed, then, is a way for experience and writing to compliment each other and be part of the same thing. Neither by itself will do. Irwin describes Bataille’s project this way:

What Bataille sought to present was not a set of ethical propisitions or radically coordinated political theses, but rather a style of life that, considered as a (lacerated but living) whole, offered an alternative to the values and forms of existence that had found their culmination in totalitarian oppression and war. The life of mysticism and expenditure Bataille proposed could not, he claimed, be adequately described in the language of philosophical, social scientific, or political discourse. This mode of life could only be grasped in its realization (performance) in the exemplary being: the mystical writer, Bataille himself.

The alternative Bataille offered was an experience of the self as sacred. His mystical texts were often meant to be guidebooks to lead his readers to a similar experience, which according to Irwin constituted a basis of effective resistance to political tyranny. Similarly, Weil espoused the importance of a concept she called “real metaphor” (la métaphore réalle). She writes, “the story of Christ is a symbol, a metaphor. But in other times it was believed that metaphors occur as events in the world.” She advocates a return to a mindset wherein events, and not just words, are charged with complex meaning, and she wishes for her life to be such an event.

Reading all of this reminded me of an exchange I recently had with my friend _swallow on the subject of my decision to begin my “serious” blogging under a new, semi-anonymous internet identity. She wrote:

I only really care about the intellectual ideas that people share online when they’re visibly attached to such an “I”, and attached via narrative. Part of this is my hungry gossipy interest in other people’s selves, and my inability to separate personality from insight (I was stuck fawning on Cynthia Ozick’s rapturous prose, for example, while my classmates tore apart the conclusions of her essays). But gee! it seems to me that although I probably should learn to separate them a little more, narrative and philosophy– personality and intellect– art and criticism– the two are more like different glosses on the same thing than truly different things. And to privilege “one” above the “other” is therefore doubly a mistake.

Scott Eric Kaufman’s recent musings at Acephalous on academic blogging, and particularly the talk he delivered at an MLA panel on the subject, have got me thinking about what appears to be a fairly consistent crisis for bloggers, namely: how am I going to justify my online existence today? _swallow appears to be on the trail of an answer, which also might have been Weil’s and Bataille’s answer, namely: your life should justify your writing, and vice-versa. We read blogs instead of books for recreation because we are interested in people, not just ideas. In blogs, lives become texts, unfolding almost in real time.

If one impulse behind transforming one’s life into a “real metaphor” is a wish to avoid the lacerating inadequacy of language via producing propaganda composed of “dazzling realities,” we still need to consider the other side of life-writing: writing life. Weil’s desire to “make of life itself the supreme poetry” is also a desire to complicate life, to turn life into the messiness of language and, above all, to orient her life toward others.

Why does this matter? Bataille writes,

It is in [the writer] and through him that man learns how he himself remains forever elusive, being essentially unpredictable, and how knowledge must finally be resolved into the simplicity of emotion. It is in and through the writer that existence, in a general way, is what a girl is to the man who desires her, whether she love or spurn him, bring him pleasure or despair.

Well. Patriarchal paradigms aside, what is a person to another who desires him or her? A horizon, an uncharted but enticing territory. In the fusion of writing and life, things are not pinned down like dead butterflies to the page. Words and realities flutter freely, sometimes touching and sometimes floating apart. In the gaps: the sacred — vast and silent.

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  1. Have you read Kevin Hart’s Kevin Hart’s ‘The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred’ yet? (I think of it because for me Blanchot is ultimately an interpreter of Bataille – and perhaps one who improves on Bataille, since I find GB’s own texts deeply troubling in many ways.) It addresses a lot of what you bring up here (and it’s really good, too.)

    Did you find Blue of Noon helpful in thinking about Weil? I really didn’t – Lazare was such a charicature (that’s not how you spell that word, is it) that, I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me.

  2. I have been trying to teach Bataille and the likes for years now. I must say I agree with your final assessment, inasmuch as such theories of the sacred lean toward the essentialist side and often call for an “inside” understanding. What I have found is that it is nearly impossible to get the students to grasp this notion of the sacred without injecting some part of poetic prose in the lecture.

    And of course, I have also found that students who read or write a lot have a much more immediate understanding of such theories.

    Having said this, I would warn almost anyone against “immersing” in Bataille: I’ve seen people consecrate their thesis to him, and boy, they just looked like they needed a trip to the amusement park! By comparison, us Foucault lovers looked like rosy-cheeked 10 year-olds going to a birthday party. 😉

  3. Tim,

    I have not, nor am I very familiar with Blanchot. I’ll put it on my long-term to-do list, though; it sounds interesting!

    And no, Blue of Noon is not terribly helpful in thinking about Weil, though it’s interesting to see her how other people must have seen her. From inside her own writing, you wouldn’t necessarily guess what a macabre figure she apparently cast — though you’re right that the portrait is probably exaggerated. What was helpful was getting a sense of how Bataille thought of Weil — the attraction/repulsion thing makes a lot of sense, and is something I think I’ll be able to work with. One of the problems with Irwin’s book, I thought, was that he seems to be more sympathetic to Bataille than to Weil; I got the sense that she was being made to fit his mold more than he was being made to fit hers. In this post I tried to turn the tables a little bit by framing things more in terms of Weil, and in my eventual paper this will probably be my general strategy. One thing I didn’t have time to deal with in this post, but will hopefully be able to address in the future, is that when Weil says she wants to make her life poetry, she also wants to cede authorship to God and just be his pen — which is very different from what Bataille intends when he makes a spectacle of himself.

  4. StupendousWoman,

    It’s interesting that students who read and write a lot have a more immediate grasp of Bataille’s theories. The easy explanation is that they’re just better, more careful & practiced readers, but do you think it has anything to do with a deeper understanding of textuality itself? Textuality, and what it means / feels like to write seem to be important themes for Bataille.

    And don’t worry! It is my fondest wish to crawl out of this Bataille hole as soon as possible and return to the cheery world of Modernist poetry.

  5. […] January 10, 2007 at 4:33 pm | In Blogroll, not assholes | From uncomplicatedly’s most recent offering.  The post itself is first in a series exploring the possible resemblance between Georges Bataille […]

  6. Just a note: yes, I think the students who read more also have a better understanding of textuality.

    Or, well, they at least know what a metaphor is… 😉

  7. JuniperJune, this was an astonishing post, and I’m flattered by the citation. One thing I love, within the post, is the tension between the monolithic aestheticism of Weil and Bataille, and the messiness you claim for yourself (which is actually quite different from the simplicity of emotion into which knowledge resolves for Bataille, and even different from Weil’s iconographic quest).

    One way of talking about this messiness is to cite the difference between humanist authors and anti-humanist ones. The anti-humanists tend to want to transform life into poetry, as though poetry was its as-yet-unrealized goal. The humanists, like Montaigne or Proust or Alan Ball (in American Beauty) take a close look at the past and discover that it is and always has been poetry, even if the past wasn’t lived fully or comprehended in its time.

    There are blogs that celebrate the accidents of the everyday, and there are blogs that militate with an eye on the future. Perhaps some blogs can begin doing both.

    I love your coming to place the sacred, like a glittering sea, in the silences all around the act of communication. The best acts of writing and exemplarity point beyond themselves, speak about their own limits. They are humbled by the moving silences around them (and truthfully some of this awe communicates itself in Thomas The Obscure). I am troubled by the staying power of the divine in Blanchot, and by the notion of a God with enough agency to move one’s pen. That does seem to retain both the mawkish kind of relationship with God, and the psychological symptom of projection. But I am not troubled by the sea, or by the sympathy that can unfold first in silence.

    Blanchot and Foucault, eh? The two successors of Bataille. I would warn anybody against becoming a recluse who only leaves his room once to wave at a passing line of protesters. In Blanchot I miss Bataille’s sense of adventure.

    Foucault’s supporters may be occasionally more hale, but that’s only because they aren’t corroded by having to continually explain to a crowded seminar room the deep significance of severed eyeballs and the solar anus. Perhaps here we can also look to Proust: the sleepless night, the bloodshot eyes, the trembling hand or suppressed stutter are also signs of truth in their turn. To paraphrase, Proust notes that jealousy and painful loves leaves in their wake the beginnings of knowledge.

  8. It is really killing me that my line breaks aren’t showing up right.

    The epigraph is deeply reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s writings on the “knight of infinite resignation” in Fear and Trembling.

  9. Damn it, at the beginning of this comment I tried to surround Fear and Trembling with ascii hearts, but wordpress would have none of it.

    And yeah, I have no idea what’s up with the line breaks in this style. It happens on petitpoussin’s blog, too.

    You are definitely getting a handle on my thoughts about silence. Much much more to come on this subject when I get around to writing that self-effacement post. Weil wants God to do more than move her pen: “To be what the pencil is for me when, blindfold, I feel the table by means of its point — to be that for Christ.”

  10. Found that title I mentioned to you: it’s _Strange Likeness: The Uses of Old English in 20th Century Poetry_ By Chris Jones, published by Oxford UP. Just came out!

  11. uncomplicatedly,

    I have been wondering, and perhaps this is a silly question, but have you read The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil by Stephanie Strickland? It won the Brittingham Prize, and just in case you haven’t read it, I wanted to mention that I think you would really enjoy it. (I recently became interested in writing poems about and from the voice of Hildegard de Bingen and Denise Duhamel directed me to Strickland’s book about Weil.)

    (Finally, I can not think of a single appropriate shortned version of your name. Perhaps that is why you choose it.)

  12. Jane,

    I have not, and thanks for the recommendation! Tim up there in the comment thread, in his recent article “Praying to an Absent God: The Poetic Revealing of Simone Weil” in a recent issue of Culture, Theory, and Critique, put me on the trail of two recent Weil-influenced volumes: Overlord by Jorie Graham and Decreation by Anne Carson. You might be interested in looking at those; I plan to put all 3 on my recreational-reading list.

    Pat on a previous post came up with “UC” as a nickname; I think it works. (The opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect the opinions of the University of California or any of its associates.)

    (And thanks to you too, Amy!)

  13. You know I’m too insubstantial to post a real comment here, but I love this post! I love the way you connect the literary device of literalized metaphor with the interstitial space, between life and literature, of serialized autobiography. I’m going to keep thinking about this for a while.

  14. […] The Writing Life He objected to the war not by actively fighting it, but by refusing to engage with it — but what he shared with Weil was threefold: firstly, a conviction that the sacred could provide an alternative vocabulary with which to address the present catastrophe; secondly, a drive for self-annihilation; thirdly, his medium, which was both his writing and his life. Filed Under: Georges Bataille Tagged: Simone Weil, war * * * […]


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