Consider the Titans of old and the incredible, monolithic edifices they constructed. Vast halls, ruthless arches supported by volcano-sized columns and towers stretching up like signals. On a smaller scale, the Abbey Vezelay is such an edifice. Its architectural elements coalesce into forms nobler because the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Utter beauty.
Surely this structure is holy; surely God cannot resist visiting; surely mankind is closer to God when within the Abbey than when outside in the so-called secular world.
Strange then that in one of the graves in the nearby Vezelay Cemetery, a man, who once considered taking Holy Orders and attended seminary, but then renounced his faith, is buried. Yet Vezelay, France is where he chose to reside permanently, forever after. At the end of his life he even lived nearby, in rue de l’Hotel de ville.
The headstone is simple: a mid-sized white rock, smooth, not like the glaze of quartz, but smooth like a chunk of chalk cut in two, with a vestige of texture to it.
Rocks and wild grass decorate the cemetery. There are few trees. A gentle breeze puffs here and there, as if too satisfied to do more. Perhaps the puffs are the pulses and drafts of angels’ wings, for the air carries the scent of the glistering realm. And if you cease all thought and all feeling, and really listen, you can hear a faint throb, like a visible disturbance the ear hears but the eye cannot see.
On the headstone is engraved the name: Georges Bataille, which was his given name. He also used a number of aliases, pen names, and pseudonyms: Lord Auch, which freely translated means ‘Lord to the outhouse;’ Pierre Angelique, and Louis Trente.
Most definitely one of the wild things, Georges Bataille arrived in the world in 1897, in Billon, Puy-de-Dome, in central France. When he was three his family moved to Rheims.
As a child Bataille must have felt like he was being punished in advance for some great, unknown sin since both his parents were insane: his father suffering the latter stages of syphilis, the devil’s polymer; his mother afflicted with mental dysmorphia. Seeking some semblance of sanity in his life, some continuity, Bataille wrapped himself in the cloak of Catholicism when he was seventeen years old. At the same time, he, along with his mother, fled Rheims, as the Germans advanced upon the city in 1914. They left his father behind, as his ravings made him unmanageable. Alone, penniless and in agony, his father died, drooling and gibbering, enslaved by his diseased mind.
The impact of his father’s dreary death upon Georges was definite, and powerful. He later wrote of his father’s struggle with death: “Furthermore, he had huge, ever gaping eyes that flanked an eagle nose, and those huge eyes went almost entirely blank when he pissed, with a completely stupefying expression of abandon and aberration in a world that he alone could see and that aroused his vaguely sardonic and absent laugh…In any case, the image of those white eyes from that time was directly linked, for me, to the image of eggs…”
His words also described his own reaction to what he was witnessing, feeling, experiencing, learning of his father’s tortured death. Such scenes from the abyss of madness drove Bataille to the bosom of the Church. At the age of twenty he entered the seminary of Saint-Fleur, seeking mental and emotional safety.
At the age of twenty-three, while still in seminary, he discarded his faith in God as being nothing more than an empty pleasure without reality. For “his Catholicism caused a woman he loved to shed tears.” Later on he announced that the brothels of Paris were his true Church, their prostitutes his confessors, saying “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.”
Under the circumstances, his reaction – casting away faith and religion – seems reasonable. Bataille had seen enough anguish. When even his religion caused others to suffer, he rid himself of it.
So Bataille left seminary. He abandoned God and began his secular education.
A remarkable student of high intelligence, he graduated Ecole des Chartes in Paris, second in his class. From there he went to Madrid, Spain, attending the School of Advanced Spanish Studies. Taking advantage of his situation, he traveled as much as possible through Spain. On one of his trips, he attended a bullfight, where he beheld the gory death of matador Manuelo Granero, as the bull won.
Earning his living as an archivist/librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Bataille wrote poems, novels, essays and non-fiction books. Designated by some a philosopher, he himself ridiculed the term, refusing to be classified. Many of his writings were scatological and erotic in nature, in the grand, graphic style of de Sade. Thus, many of his works were banned.
Fascinated by death and the exotica of the erotic death – orgasm, the “little death” – he founded journals and several groups, of which one was a not-so-secret-secret-society called Acephale, which means ‘the headless.’ The intent of Acephale was to start a new religion; its symbol was a decapitated man. All the members of Acephale volunteered as human sacrifices, if only an executioner could be found. None of the members volunteered to wear the executioner’s hood, even though compensation was promised.
A religion of death offers little hope of an afterlife. This probably explains the group’s eventual disbanding. However, I assume Bataille was making a point and not really proposing a religion of death. His point was this: that any and all religions are nothing more than quaint superstitions, grasped at because they offer hope, a hope Bataille regarded as fraudulent and concocted.
Fifteen years later, older and wiser and more famous, Bataille called the whole idea “insane.”
In keeping with his erotic, atheistic mystical weltanschauung (world-view), Bataille proved responsive to the urgings of the flesh. Married twice, first with Silvia Makles, a sensuous and beautiful actress, with whom he had a daughter; second with Diane de Beauharnais, with whom he had another daughter, Bataille also had many affairs with beautiful, intelligent women. One of his affairs was with Colette Peignot, who later died. Her death nearly shattered Bataille’s thin veneer of sanity.
Bataille’s last published book, The Tears of Eros, is a study of the tension between horror and the voluptuous, pain and joy, death and ecstasy. Each pairing is presented as two sides of the same coin. Condemned and banned at its publication, the book is Bataille’s text of his failed attempt to reconcile God, mankind, suffering, and evil by means of his mysticism.
In the end, Bataille’s writings about the erotic, death and the fallibility of religion are equivalent to a furious, formidable faith in the future of religion and faith – the reality and future of God.
Like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, Bataille was trying to pretend something else existed. So he sailed across a pretend ocean on a pretend boat to a pretend place where pretend wild things lived. He wanted to be one of them. But in the end, he sailed back home to his Catholicism, which explains his choice of burial sites in the shadow of Abbey Vezelay.
Bataille wanted to be loved most of all, too. And probably is still, by the God he discarded long ago. For once upon a time Bataille had enough faith, and believed in God enough to enter the priesthood. And although he cast his faith aside, faith is the wand of perpetual sufficiency: once the wand is waved, it never fails. Faith is its own form of mysticism – the heart’s knowledge of what the senses reject.