According to what Bataille tells us he had a terrible childhood. He was born from peasant stock on 10 September 1897 at Billon, Puy-de-Dome, in central France (some ten miles from Clermont-Ferrant). His father was blind and syphilitic and, when Bataille was three, suffered a general paralysis. Soon afterwards the family moved to Rheims. His school had other notable pupils: before Bataille there had been the poet Paul Fort, and, a few years later, fellow surrealist marginals, Roger Caillois, René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte would also pass through its gates. He tells us he was a lazy and insolent child, but after starting his baccalaureate suddenly changed and became a model student. At the same time, as an act of rebellion against his parents lack of interest in religion, he converted to Catholicism. With the coming of war in 1914 he was evacuated, together with his mother, since Rheims was subject to German bombardment, leaving behind his father, who was to die in the city in 1916. He was called up to fight in the army, but was soon demobilised on the grounds of ill health following a bout of tuberculosis.
Bataille defined his period:
I belong to a turbulent generation, born to literary life in the tumult of surrealism. In the years after the Great War there was a feeling which was about to overflow. Literature was stifling within its limitations and seemed pregnant with revolution.
Unlike most of the other surrealists, though, this turbulence seems to have affected Bataille on the rebound. For most of the first generation surrealists the First World War determined that revolt. Theirs was a sense of disgust at a loss and devastation in the service of a cause that no one could support. For most of those who came to surrealism it was impossible not to hate a society and a culture responsible for such carnage.
Bataille’s own experience of the war was more discreet. At this time, he tells us (and everything we know bears this out), he was a pious and diligent young man. His first surviving writing confirms this impression. In 1919 he published a short text called ‘Notre-Dame de Rheims’, in which he laments the bombing of the cathedral in the war and prays for its restoration. It is not the sort of text we might expect from someone who would later be drawn into the boiling cauldron of left-wing surrealist circles. The impression given is more that of the sort of young man who would soon be drawn towards the neo-fascism of ‘L’Action Française’.
However, politics seem to have played no part in this moment of his life. In 1917 he had joined the seminary of Saint-Fleur with the intention of becoming a priest or a monk. Three years later, he tells us, he lost his faith and his vocation during a stay at a Benedictine monastery in the Isle of Wight because ‘his Catholicism caused a woman he loved to shed tears’. He nevertheless remained a good student at the École des Chartres, poring over medieval texts and submitting his thesis on The Order of Chivalry, told in verse from the thirteenth century’ at the beginning of 1922.
The following month he obtained a fellowship at the School of Advanced Hispanic Studies in Madrid. From here he travelled extensively around Southern Spain and dreamed of far-away travel: Morocco, Russia, China and especially Tibet. He began an intensive study of foreign languages, including Russian and Tibetan, but soon lost interest in the idea. Nevertheless, two other events of 1922 had a decisive impact on him, and in many ways determined the course of his life. In May he witnessed the death of the bullfighter Manuelo Granero, whose skull was split open by the horns of a bull at the Madrid bullfight and, later in the year, he began to read Nietzsche.
By the end of 1922, he had obtained a position at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. He then threw himself into philosophy with the same gusto he had previously displayed for religion and medieval studies. Becoming a pupil of Leon Chestov, he immersed himself in readings of Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Pascal and especially Nietzsche.
As already mentioned, Bataille had little formal philosophical training. Prior to 1922, when he discovered Nietzsche, he seems to have been largely uninterested in philosophical thought and to have made little formal study of it. We should perhaps recall that at this time French thought was remarkably parochial and drew on a stagnant nineteenthcentury tradition that remained ignorant of if not hostile to the German tradition issuing from Hegel. Certainly Bataille’s initial exposure to philosophy in 1922 through Bergson (who he met in London) was not to his taste and did not encourage an interest in philosophy. It was not until he met the Russian emigré philosopher Leon Chestov in 1923 and became his pupil that he found a path into philosophical thinking. Although little remembered today, and hardly known in English, Leon Chestov was a marginal but important intermediary figure as the tide of French philosophy turned from its inward nineteenth-century tradition that had culminated in Bergsonian idealism towards German philosophy. Chestov had a dark view of the world perfectly suited to Bataille’s temperament. He had fled from the USSR after the Bolshevik Revolution and his resolute anti-idealism set him apart from the spirit of the times and undoubtedly marked Bataille’s thinking in a profound way, to the extent that he never appears to have properly appreciated what idealism really was and failed to realise that his own philosophy contained a very strong idealist tinge. Apart from having a crucial influence on Bataille, Chestov was the key influence on another marginal on the fringes of surrealism, the Romanian philosopher Benjamin Fondane, and in many ways, Chestov played a role in a Bataille’s life that was analogous to that of René Guénon in André Breton’s. There is much that connects Chestov and Guénon, even if they appear at first to be very different. Both were resolutely anti-modern, reactionary in the best sense, castigating the ‘idols’ of science, technology, progress and rationalism. But where Guénon looked to the East to formulate a critique of Western decadence, Chestov’s models were Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and the Bible.
Chestov really gave Bataille his first lessons in philosophy and revealed the marvel of Nietzsche’s philosophy to him. Although Bataille later minimised the extent of Chestov’s influence on him, it is apparent that it remained considerable and that Bataille’s understanding of Nietzsche was very much the result of Chestov’s teachings, to the extent that it could be said that Bataille continued to see Nietzsche through Chestov as much as he was later to see Hegel through Alexandre Kojève.
Chestov’s philosophy was based on a rejection of knowledge and its replacement with faith. For Chestov the great enemy was causation, which he considered to be a lie that had deluded people into believing they could master the universe by means of understanding. Science and speculative philosophy had destroyed man’s fundamental freedom, which was endowed upon them by God. The root of evil is the obsession with acquiring knowledge, which turns men away from God, for whom ‘all things are possible’. The modern age was thus a nightmare of godlessness. Its remedy was a return to faith, but faith that asserted revolt, since the essence of faith was a refusal to accept necessity. Distinctions between good and evil or truth and falsehood were thereby irrelevant. But, following Nietzsche, this recovery of God could only be accomplished by first passing through his own nothingness. If one accepted that God did not exist, it becomes essential to take God’s place, to become God oneself, since one was faced with a nothingness in which all things needed to be created. Faith becomes equated with an audacity to defy necessity so that distinctions of good and evil, truth and falsehood become irrelevant.
These elements are clearly crucial for Bataille and it is obvious that Chestov’s conception of philosophy at the extremes of human behaviour must also have been a revelation to a Bataille who was only just freeing himself from the rigours of ascetic Christianity. In Chestov’s thought, we can already see the germ of Bataille’s idea of ‘inner experience’. In the immediate though, Chestov imbued Bataille with his own violent antiidealism and caused him to recognise the necessity of following Dostoyevsky’s prescription ‘all is permitted’. Was it from Chestov that he took upon himself the need to supplement his everyday existence as a librarian with a double life in which he determined to experience life at the edge of being, which went as far as experimenting with Russian roulette?
One of the great enemies of the human spirit according to Chestov was Hegel, and this also coloured Bataille’s early feelings towards the master of Jena. Instinctively Bataille rebelled against the idealist elements in Hegel’s thought and also against the totalising elements that led to the possibility of completion within the terms of his system. Bataille found the idea of the ‘end of history’ somewhat absurd; this in fact was a source of conflict between him and Kojève. At the same time there were elements in Hegel that were too powerful for Bataille to resist, and we must not underestimate the importance of Hegel to Bataille, even if he remained doubtful about aspects of Hegel’s philosophy. It should be said also that his Hegel was one refracted through the teachings of Alexandre Kojève, whose teaching had an overwhelming effect on him. Although he wanted to understand the totality of experience, Bataille hated the idea of reducing totality to a calculated project and this aspect of Hegel’s thought did not interest him or perhaps even repelled him. But he was seduced by Hegel’s dialectical method, especially the dialectic of master and slave, which was the focus of Kojève’s teachings and became an essential element in Bataille’s thought. As he said, Hegel’s master and slave relation is
the decisive moment in the history of consciousness of self and, it must be said, to the extent that we have to distinguish between each thing that affects us, no one knows anything of himself if he has not understood this movement which determines and limits man’s successive possibilities.
RICHARDSON, Michael, Georges Bataille. London: Routledge, 1994, p. 19-20, 32-34.