To Love Oneself as a Stranger

March 15, 2007 at 9:15 pm | Posted in attention, bataille, christianity, ethics, excess, mysticism, no-self, political, the sacred, weil | 13 Comments

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.


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  1. This is excellent, uncomplicatedly. I don’t have time now to respond, yet. I’m reading Blanchot and Nancy on community right now (both of whom are writing in response to Bataille) so perhaps when I finish.

  2. Thanks, surlacarte! Writing this paper has put me woefully behind on your blog too, but that’s next on my to-do list. Oh academia.

    I have some dim thoughts on things that might be said about the splitting of self you posit in your Neruda post in conjunction with the ideas here– both the distancing you perceive between my present theorizing self & my past emotional self, and also the splitting you read into the subject of the poem. I’ll try to articulate these at length in a forthcoming post, but I’d be interested in the meantime if you happen to think of any connections/disjunctions along these lines.

  3. […] has been on a bit of a hiatus lately, but she’s back with a fantastic essay tackling the notion of the unified self — ties in with a lot of what we’ve been talking […]

  4. I agree with surlacarte: this is really beautiful work. I’m not able to engage happily with Weil on theological matters. Like every Christian intellectual before her, she is hard-pressed to understand the reason for evil, and her explanations for man’s fallen state are unsatisfying, though they don’t lack for emotional resonance. As I reflect on the story of the Good Samaritan, what strikes me is that Weil contrasts to the Cartesian subject the space between subjects, which exists because of articulated empathy. In the downward descent into the scarred, afflicted world of the other’s suffering, a doubleness within each person is revealed. The Samaritan and the sufferer recognize each other within themselves. Thus attention is a process that leads the sufferer out of affliction by paying homage to his sacredness, and thus allowing them to recover through his own capacity for what is divine. That is why it has to be a story of the sufferer coming to consciousness through the Good Samaritan’s ministrations. That is why it is more than throwing coins.

  5. Interesting thoughts, Joe. What I like about Weil’s theodicy is that it’s pretty much the closest to atheism that a Christian can get: she recognizes the utter incompatibility of the existence of God with the existence of suffering, so she sensibly posits that God is by definition absent from the world. (However, he can apparently still affect things here when he chooses to, cf. her mystical experiences, which it seems to me would be impossible if God were quite as absent as she sometimes maintains. And if suffering really exists so that we can pay “creative attention” to one another, that’s still a pretty inefficient & cruel system, which is why I personally am not a Christian of Weil’s stripe or any other. If the mechanisms of the universe are truly mechanical, at least they can’t be cruel.)

    Your reading of the Good Samaritan is right on target, and I would add that Weil’s conception of what is sacred in man is his capacity for optimism — this idea was in my paper but did not make it into this post. So the very experience of being paid attention to restores it in the suffering man. Instead of a capacity for optimism, you might call it faith in his fellow man or even simply love itself.

  6. As John Waters once said: ‘I’m grateful that I was raised Catholic, because I always feel guilty about sex and that makes the sex better.’

    Bataille would approve.

  7. Hi Uncomplicatedly — Nice to have you back! I’ve been on a blog hiatus myself, but hope to return with vigor soon. Life took over life, so the blog suffers.

    I find this post *really* interesting. I’m not as well versed in Weil or Bataille, so I can’t comment substantially here, but just wanted to say how interesting I find this! And, if you don’t mind sharing — did you publish your paper? Where can I find it? I’m suddenly compelled to drop all of my reading plans for spring break (though I can’t entirely) and pick up some Weil and Bataille. I was already interested in Weil, but Bataille’s comments on thingness, narrative, and knowing might help with with some work I’m doing on Heijinan right now.

    Again, nice to have you back!


  8. While I cannot say anything about Weil, I’ve read the Bataille works you mention and others. I found him fascinating for a while, but ultimately turned away. His “mysticism,” if it can be called that, is an empty pose. He likes to play with ideas and symbols, but they stay where he is: on a 20th century surface that pretends to probe depth.

  9. Roberto: Yes, exactly. I was thoroughly unsurprised when I learned that Bataille was originally a Catholic.

    eeink: Thanks for your kind words! Would that this paper were published; what you see here is the most public any part of it has ever been. In the full-length version, which I recently turned in for a class I took with Achille Mbembe of On The Postcolony fame, the above argument was interwoven with a much more substantial reading of Blue of Noon and in particular of the positioning of Weil that Bataille attempts in the character of Lazare. I’d be super interested to know whether & how Bataille helps you with Hejinian; would you be interested in a paper swap? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. 😉

    niebla: Welcome! My next post, actually, will address some reservations I have about Bataille, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

  10. Merci – looking forward to your next post!

  11. PS: I landed here because of the title of your post, “To love oneself as a stranger.”

    Regardless of the Weil and Bataille context, this sounds like a very interesting approach to oneself.

  12. Sure, we could paper swap. I’m not done with my Hejinian paper yet, but I should be posting about her soon. And I’m in the same boat as you — my recent work on Hejinian is not public yet, so the blog’s the first place it’ll probably show up. Cheers!

  13. […] 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. texto inteiro aqui. […]

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