This essay was presented at the APA Central Conference of the Karl Jaspers Society of North America in the Palmer House, Chicago. The conference focused upon the reception of Van Gogh amongst Continental Philosophers and the papers will be published as Van Gogh Among the Philosophers.
‘Prometheus Dismembered: Bataille on Van Gogh’ was given as part of Session One, Van Gogh with Jaspers, Heidegger, and Bataille, on Thursday, February 27th, 2014.
Prometheus Dismembered: Bataille on Van Gogh, or
The Window in the Bataille Restaurant
I will begin my address with a minor coincidence.
The Window of the Bataille Restaurant, sketched with pencil in Paris in 1887, shows us a typical Van Gogh scenario, a table with a chair, setting in front of a window, which not only reveals the (framed) world outside, but also lets the soft light into the space of the restaurant. We can see Van Gogh’s hat and coat hanging on the wall by the window. We can also see two men below outside on the street. In general, the painting is quite dark, except for the intensity of the window and the motes of light that it channels onto the chair and table and the one who stands where he stands, in the position of the artist. Yet, this does not in itself disclose the coincidence. That it is a window in namely the Bataille restaurant is where the coincidence comes into view since today I came to talk with you upon the theme of light in Bataille’s interpretation of Van Gogh – yet, at the same time, there is a painting by Van Gogh with a central motif of light, and in reference to the name of Bataille. Of course, to give any real significance to such a coincidence, even if it is one, is, one would usually argue, merely faulty logic, fuelled by superstitious thinking, by the fatalism of synchronicity.
The Bataille Restaurant in fact has nothing to do with Georges Bataille, the philosopher whose work I am considering today. He neither was connected to it in any family or financial sense, nor does he mention the sketch in his writings on Van Gogh. Nevertheless, it could still be the title of my address as it contains within itself as a title poetically the theme of the address, which is light in the art of Van Gogh, and as is understood from the perspective of Bataille. It could be argued that it is the poetic license of example, motif, or symbol chosen to orient the discussion, the title of an artwork already indexed to the thematic and name of the interpreter under consideration. The strength of such a title, as a formal indication, is its ability to disclose the truth of the matter at hand, as it is with the artwork in Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1936).
But, this, it will be countered is the manner of thinking of the artist, mystic or lunatic.
Yet, each of these types could be attributed to Van Gogh or perhaps to any creative being. His religious mission to bring light to the poor, to the people, is the thinking of the magician, of the sorcerer who can guide the destiny of the world: the way of thinking of the artist. His obsessive alcohol and opium fuelled painting binges were guided by his wish to give a new sensibility to the people, to give light to those trapped in the factories or the coal mines. But, such a symbolic mission inevitably becomes political, and has become political with the emergence of the labour and socialist, communist movements at the turn of the last century and in the decades leading to the Bataille of my address, in his own confrontation with the dark captivity of a world on the brink of fascism.
Van Gogh himself never became overtly political, but spoke of such matters in his letters to his brother Theo. Instead, he engaged in intense periods of artistic activity – at one point living with Gauguin – punctuated by bouts of madness, during which he remained creative, even when institutionalised. Much of the chaos in his life was related to his abuse of alcohol, specifically absinthe, and his probable addiction to opium, which diminishes appetite and promotes dissociation from the everyday world.
It is Bataille who takes poetic license in his attempts to make Van Gogh political, calling him Prometheus (and despite Eric Michaud’s objections, in his ‘Van Gogh, or The Insufficiency of Sacrifice,’ which beg the question by considering Prometheus only in his heroic aspect), the Titan god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the creatures he himself had created. For this transgression, we will recall, Prometheus is sentenced by Zeus to be chained to a rock and each day to have his liver devoured by a vulture. At night, the liver would grow back, only to have the bird return the next day, and forever. The democratic dimension of Van Gogh’s work has become standard in any consideration of his significance.
Bataille invites us to consider Van Gogh, wearing the mask of Prometheus, on two occasions, in 1930 and 1937, with his ‘Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh’ and ‘Van Gogh as Prometheus’, respectively. In each instance, the text is preceded by a rupture with Breton: the castigation of ‘M. Bataille’ in the Second Surrealist Manifesto, who, it is prophesied, would eventually submit to Hegel;; and the dissolution of Contre-Attaque amidst the occult conjuration of the secret society Acephalae.
In the former instance (1930), Bataille sets against Bretonian purity, and that which he considered feigned madness, a deathly erotic vision of catastrophe, of an indigestible sacred.
In the latter moment (1937), Bataille and his cohorts seek to bring about their vision of an existential war against fascism, one whose weapons are not those of the Icarian sublimations/sublations of Breton, but of the Promethean de-sublimation (exposure, subversion and erosion) of vast and myriad homogeneities.
Prometheus accepts his punishment and does not seek redemption. For Bataille, there is no Prometheus Unbound in the ways of Aeschylus and Shelley. God is dead. There remains only hegemony and resistance. Hegemony is the profane homogeneity of the restricted economy, while resistance is the sacred heterogeneity of the general economy.
Van Gogh brought light to the people, but he also experienced the dismemberment of flesh, self-sacrifice, prophesy (‘keep this, it will be important one day’), and the overwhelming slippage of death. With the dismemberment of the god, the sacrifice of Prometheus, the freedom of creation and the power to cast light upon the fragile truth of the world is given to all human beings, without exception. But, each must take the risk of his or her own license, thereby achieving sovereignty.
Bataille wallows in filth for a reason: filth is outside of fascism and totalitarian consciousness – it is the seed of resistance in its very abjection. Icarus loves the sun too much, seeks to emulate Helios, the watcher of all, the god of surveillance, of the total state machine. Breton, who lives in an invisible house (Nadja), is bewitched with Hegel who claims to have thought the panoptic thoughts of god before creation.
Bataille hides in the shadows, in the pseudonym, the text with no face, debauched, useless for the purposes of fascism.
Van Gogh also abides amidst these shadows, equally useless or even harmful to the purposes of aggressive idealisation. He swills among the heterogeneous, sacred economy, the tragic community. His self-mutilation, an event, a dismemberment of self, is a breach, sacred, a laceration of the unquestioned ‘time-line’, the so-called history.
The Promethean aspect emerges, in the first instance, with paintings of stars and sunflowers, of the marvel of the cosmos in its intimacy. In the second instance, Van Gogh, not mentioned in the Surrealist Manifestos (and this is surely one of the reasons Bataille chose Van Gogh as his patron artist), captures and transfigures the sun, the celestial lights, into the earth, as a shamanic gift for the people.
Light dances across life, caresses the leaves, fields of wheat eclipse the stars. His Promethean transgression against Zeus is an incitement toward an explosion, a flame illuminating an an-archic openness. The awakening to the celestial marvellous of Saint-Rémy is surmounted by the diabolic conjuration of light from darkness, a remembrance of the birth of the sky from the earth. Life dances upon the earth, flesh is enlightened, darkness is imbued with light, awakened in the people amidst Van Gogh’s sacred anarchism.
The State and Revolution
Breton predicts that Bataille will succumb to Hegel, and to the discipline inherent in post-Leninist left-wing organisations. Bataille did not fit into Breton’s world – instead he remains as Diogenes, who seeks an honest man, but, in this case, finds a surrealist. In fact, Bataille was very aware of his own relationship to Hegel. Indeed, his own philosophy of non-knowledge emerged through his resistance to Hegel’s economy of absolute knowledge. Moreover, this resistance to the Absolute is carried over into the political domain in three essays from around 1933, which is the year of the ascension of Hitler: ‘The State’, ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’, and ‘The Notion of Expenditure’.
These essays, as a group, serve as a response to Breton, and as an attack upon fascism, communism and Americanism, which were for Bataille, variations of the same statist homogenising operations of the military, the government, the material economy and the church (propaganda ministry). Each of these is dominated by a restricted economy of power.
Bataille unearths, through his non-knowledge, that which exceeds absolute knowledge, and from the perspective of a sovereign discourse, re-contextualises absolute knowledge as a restricted economy within a broader, general economy. This is the outside of Hegel’s state, outside the Polis of Plato – the homogeneous order has been established, but the poets are still there, outside, in the dimension of heterogeneity, playing at the margins of philosophy.
And yet, perhaps the poets are better placed in the modern world as they have not yet been sent outside the city walls. This being-inside the site of the homogenising operations, within the total state machine, can serve as the place of the event, of the activity which exceeds or challenges the mechanisms of power, surveillance, interdiction, judgment, incarceration – all the features of the protocol of absolute knowledge, absolute power. (Edward Snowden)
Non-knowledge, the power of thought not restricted by the state, occurs in the general economy, in the resistance to power, dissolution of the self in intoxication, eroticism, and in the myriad other detours before death.
Or – in the dissolution of the state or some of its aspects – the state which is the indicator for the homogenising operations of the military, government, corporations and the church (which now could be expanded to include the culture industry as such, entertainment as religion).
That which must occur for Bataille are ungovernable Promethean de-sublimations of homogeneity, a Great Night (which could be a cultural era such as the counter culture of the 1960’s, or the French Revolution), characterised by an exposure of a regime of power: to delimit it, to describe it, to attempt to change it, and either attempt to take control of it (which is the necessary illusion of democratic governments, as if they can control the vast array of power and surveillance networks and mechanisms) or subvert the regimes of power until they suffer collapse and eventual erosion, back into the general economy which will manifest ever new forms of life and expressive existence.
Two examples of such de-sublimation come from the world of literature, perhaps the domain in which the self is least at risk from such experiments. Yet, that is said with an air of finality, as if nothing could any longer be shocking – we have arrived, we are free, no one could be threatened for what they write… But, it was not that long ago when Allen Ginsberg, our first example, had to go to court to defend Howl (1955) from charges of obscenity. In winning the obscenity case, Ginsberg, the Jewish, communist, homosexual poet of the Beat generation liberated us to the state we now take for granted, and which is always under threat. Soon after the Ginsberg case, censorship laws, having been exposed in the trial, were struck down, subverted, and have to a great extent eroded in their previous forms. Henry Miller, for instance, was banned until Ginsberg prevailed, and Ginsberg himself was called as a character witness for the obscenity trial of William Burroughs, for Naked Lunch. Censorship remains a vital terrain of battle, and it goes without saying that there are enormous challenges to free expression from restrictions on the internet, mass surveillance, and intellectual property laws, not to mention the capitalist economy in the publishing and art industries.
My second example comes from Bataille himself. His stunning short novel The Story of the Eye can be, to this day, a shocking read. By exposing the perversities and eccentricities of the characters, he shatters the naivety of a homogenised consciousness, and as with Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage, the Eye becomes indelibly marked upon the character of the world. Bataille sought to subvert the rigid Roman Catholic codes, norms and sensibilities by conjuring forth a world of innocently violent and perverse eroticism, terror, joy, humiliation, and murder. However, since he published The Story of the Eye in a limited run under the pseudonym Lord Auch, he was never called in to account for his alleged crimes like his hero De Sade. The book remained in the shadows, in the underground, and has remained ever since, in most places. Films of his books are being made, he is becoming one of the greats – but what kind of culture would ever regard The Story of the Eye as ‘normal’?
A brief comparison between these two examples may shed light upon the best strategy for subverting a regime of power. Ginsberg wanted to liberate his words and by implication, liberate the cultural, political, and personal acts which he describes. His words were allowed, as they were judged to be a legitimate form of art, with redeeming value. Some of the acts have begun to gain traction as well, such as equality and marijuana legalisation, and this manner of change works to modify the homogenous order, by local subversions or legislative transformations. The homogeneity remains, but ceaselessly works to co-opt (the list is long) or destroy an ascending heterogeneity, such as Malcolm X.
Bataille, on the other hand, was, as he said, debauched. One suspects that his interest in Van Gogh lies mainly in the fact that he not only cut off his ear, but also went insane. But, such a suspicion, while not altogether wrong, would be unfair as Bataille is seeking to change the world, as Marx called on philosophers to do in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. But, his method of meditation calls on those with ears to hear to remain in the shadows cultivating one’s vice, to be free as that which is indigestible, incorporable, ungovernable, one which is sovereign and secret.
It is thus in Blue of Noon (1957) that Bataille, written allegedly during the Spanish Civil War, focussed almost exclusively upon the debauched character Dirty. While an activist is present, this is certainly not The Just Assassins by Albert Camus. There is a sense in Bataille that the activist is engaging in some circus down the road, to which he decided not to go. It is simply not important, at least not as important as a debauched woman urinating on the chair in which she sits. Both of the main characters are drunk, one possibly near death, and there is nearly a taste of the unhygienic sexual chemistry of the protagonists.
Bataille does not want to get anyone’s hope up – indeed, that is the problem, for Bataille. As the necessity of going down detours is the lot of mortal beings – detours on the way to death, there is always a group or organisation or charismatic person who would be happy for you to sacrifice your life for a fantasy – religion, nation, revolution, etc. Over time, industries have been set up to process all of the detours, which now have been established as the various types of life expenditure, life industries. We are produced by these industries, by the hospital, the school, the military, religion, family, culture – we are a house of cards in which the cards are made out of commodities – homogenous established units of life.
Bataille does not want to build anything up, not to store the grain or accumulate capital and savings – he wants to expend resources in a flood of communal hedonism, the desire for which would destroy the forms of homogeneity that curtailed the desires of the community and its right to enjoy the fruits of its labour. Not to prepare, like the revolutionists and the religious fanatics, for the great event, but to enjoy the world in the innocence of its given-ness. The great event never comes, what does come, that is the battle.
It is the festival, as a social paradigm of de-sublimation, to which Bataille wishes us to descend. We would still be conscious, still use tools, and still reproduce our existence, but with the gift and not the commodity as the form of social relation, the sacred economy of expenditure for all will be the motive of economic activity. It is in this way that Bataille and Van Gogh share the same hopes for human beings, all human beings, and each acknowledge the necessity that light be restored to the life of the people. Van Gogh sought to give light to the people and to show them that anyone could be creative and that every life, every station is aesthetically worthy. Bataille sought to show us that we are freer than we even suspect and that all things and situations will undergo transformation or destruction.
As for the strength of my title, perhaps we saw all of this through the window in Bataille’s restaurant, which in the original French means a ‘restorative’ of one’s health and vigor.
icepoem # 010 by Dic Edwards
i can imagine that picture on the platform at The Hague Autumn 1883 leaving Sien with her
baby boy on his knee baby looking into the eyes of the colour god for love and Sien broken
who had given her body to him stripped to the pitch of death the pallor of hunger just like
the miners of The Borinage The Black Earth Country and The Common Grave blackened
by the haunting slag and the children looming to be saved and The Potato Eaters by the hard
pressed lamplight eating with the very hands that dug the dirt to get the crop for he had said
earlier in Paris how beauty is found among the rough hands of workers rather than the slick
nudes for sowing and reaping is not just work but allegorised life and death /Paris where
he had stepped out to the Luxembourg to admire the Millets and the Corots but recalling
the Amsterdam docks with the drenched ground and timber piles and the golden sky of
the rising sun captured in the forlorn puddles/ and then back to the low country and his first
palette with its ochre-red yellow brown cobalt and Prussian blue Naples yellow Sienna and black
and white when Christ became the supreme artist shacking up with Sien the whore pregnant with
a second bastard Sien ragged muse for a beggar with an act Sien whose beauty rose from the
scorn poured on her which he was too lost to contest until he had to go away from the misery
and the bleakness and to the South! and i can imagine him leaving the train at Arles armed with
his urgent pungent impressions of the Dutch countryside come to pursue a notional Japan
a land of magnificent colour a land of heat in the South French Vincent who had bantered
with Bernard contrasting the “good fucker” Courbet to voyeur Degas and quoting Ziem the
Barbizon painter who said how a man becomes ambitious the moment he can’t get a hard-on
and how to him Vincent he was indifferent on the matter protesting that his ambition could not
be so subservient this Vincent who had cried for the poor in the North where hard-ons were
utilitarian when what mattered was not to be able to draw a hand but its gesture to smell the wind
as the digger glances up the life so critical of those doomed by the dark not the boozy brotheling
nights with Lautrec and the slip into the waters of absinthe/stepping off the train at Arles and
into the SNOW and ice but he would go out into the white fields for one day the sun would
come and i can picture him out there in the white of his loneliness the loneliness always there and
among l’Arlésienne who hated intruders especially him weird him finding the blooming almond
in the ice which he painted and his brushstrokes the line of nature and the moving water and the
stark grass and the bridge on the canal and the thatched cottages surrounded by the reeds waving
wildly in the lunatic mistral and the stars above the Rhone and the café at night coloured more
than in the day and he painted the old arthritic olive groves and the rocks grain scalloped and
veined like the grain of old olive roots and the cypresses like thick dark lightening conductors
grounding the energy of the sky everything swept up in a current of energy everything he sees
made of the same plasma the moon coming out of eclipse and the stars blazing the sky heaving
like the ocean and the cypresses moving with it and the gravity of great sunlight effects the warm
colours of the South the beautiful contrast of red and green and orange of sunflowers and lilac
and i can picture him with Gaugin painting with Gaugin and him painting Gaugin and Gaugin
painting him and pressing on Gaugin beseeching Gaugin supplicant to Gaugin afraid Gaugin may
leave him and i can picture them when the rain came the constant rain and the night drinking and
now the impossibility of working like this and the anger and threats and the descent into madness
and the explosion of personalities and that cold wet December day when Vincent took the razor
to his head/and i can picture him committed at Saint Remy de Provence where the screams of
the mad echoed down the stone corridors him painting the view through the bars painting
landscapes and nature for your soul he would say is alive in the blue of the skies and the blade of
springing grass and he painted grass here in the South and fields and irises and sunflowers and
fields and grass and always landscapes but no people and he had turned away from the people
and into himself in search of colours the colours of heat and here in the South he abandoned
people for the warm colours of the South and i can picture him walking from the Auberge to the
Chateau d’Avers and i can picture him staggering bent from the shot that lodged in him though
fired point blank it should have passed right through him unless it wasn’t and he was shot from a
distance murdered and i can picture him at his funeral the bright yellow of the cornfields and
wheatfields the deep blue of the church at Auvers and the red of the poppies and the purple of
the irises and though the people had returned mourners from Paris bringing yellow flowers yet i
cannot picture that flaming soul thawing with its soul heat the ice around the people of the
References and Further Reading
Georges Bataille, ‘Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh,’ trans. Allan Stoekl, Visions of Excess, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 61-72.
___________. (1930) ‘Van Gogh as Prometheus’, October, Vol. 36, Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Unknowing (Spring, 1986), pp. 58-60.
Kirkpatrick, David (2005) Bataille and the Writing of Sacrifice, MSA 7 Seminar: Modernist Excess, Chicago.
Michaud, Eric (1989) ‘Van Gogh, or The Insufficiency of Sacrifice,’ October, Vol. 49, (Summer, 1989), pp. 25-39.