PATHEOS / THE AGORA, September 13, 2016
In his essay “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” French philosopher Georges Bataille extols the potential value of a kind of Averse Gnosticism — a Gnosticism in which the demiurge of the material world, considered by the ancient Gnostics to be the “chief guard” of the prison of matter, and therefore a malevolent being, is in fact the object of worship and devotion. As Bataille explains, “the adoration of an ass-headed god” — one of the ancient images of the Gnostic demiurge — “seems to me capable of taking on even today a crucial value: the severed ass’s head of the acephalic personification of the sun undoubtably represents, even if imperfectly, one of materialism’s most virulent manifestations” (Visions of Excess, 45).
Bataille’s early twentieth century understanding of Gnosticism leaves much to be desired, academically speaking. He was not an expert in Gnostic doctrines, and lacked the primary source texts we today have access to when attempting to assess Gnostic ideas. He essentially admits as much when he suggests that “the protean character” of Gnosticism “has given rise to contradictory interpretations” (45). Bataille’s opinions about the ancient Gnostics comes mainly from his analysis of Gnostic talismans and jewels, which, according to Bataille, “precisely confirm the bad opinion of the heresiologists” (46).
This “bad opinion” is that the Gnostics espoused a “disfigured,” but “profound” dualism, reminiscent more of Manicheanism than Neoplatonism or Christianity. Bataille writes, “it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not simply be the absence of good, but a creative action)” (46). This would put Gnosticism at odds with ancient Hellenistic conceptions, which saw matter and evil as “degradations of superior principles” (46). Bataille’s Gnostics were the evangelists of a monstrous and terrifying creed:
Attributing the creation of the earth, where our repugnant and derisory agitation takes place, to a horrible and perfectly illegitimate principle evidently implies, from the point of view of the Greek intellectual construction, a nauseating, inadmissible pessimism … if we confine ourselves to the specific meaning of Gnosticism, indicated both by heresiological controversies and by carvings on stones, the despotic and bestial obsession with outlawed and evil forces seems irrefutable, as much in its metaphysical speculation as in its mythological nightmare. (47-48)
It is insignificant for Bataille that the ancient Gnostics rejected the “horrible and perfectly illegitimate principle” of the demiurge as a false god of materiality who wrongly believed himself to be the one true High God of the universe — sometimes figured as the Yahweh of the Old Testament. For Bataille, it is enough that the Gnostics, in his estimation, allowed matter and metaphysical “evil” an active role, as a creative force which cannot be reduced to a higher idealism or held at bay with abstract or rational forms. Base matter, for Bataille, is like a virus; it spreads and infects, and reformulates itself into newer, more virulent forms whenever we try to subsume it under the dominion of “higher values” like philosophical reason… [+]