The Laughter of Dionysus: Bataille and Derrida on Joyce

This essay, a work in progress, was originally presented at the SEP-FEP Joint Conference in Cardiff in 2009.

The Laughter of Dionysus


In his essay on Bataille, ‘From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,’[1] Derrida alludes to Bataille’s reference to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in his essay, ‘Hegel, Death and Sacrifice’,[2] in which the ‘Welsh Coffin’ is illustrated as the symbol of a communal event that is performed – comically, as with the ‘wake’ in the southern United States – in the face of the singular ‘event’ of death.  As Derrida retells Bataille’s (second-hand) story,[3] the deceased is stood up in his coffin in pride of place amongst his fellows – dressed with a top hat, cigar and suit – and who, contrary to the usual and useful expulsion of the corpse, begin to essentially ‘roast’ the one who had passed – but, is still strangely in attendance.  Such a ritual performance is an intimation of the mortality that is shared by each member of the community.[4] However, in Joyce’s ‘telling’ of the tale, the corpse, Finnegan, at the height of festivities, wakes up and begins to create mayhem for all in attendance.  Not only does the tale break from the traditional ritual, with comic and blasphemous results, but the manner of writing of the text is destabilizing to meaning, as the text performs the very disruption which is its own ostensible motif and intent.

In the following pages, I will explore the philosophical implications of Finnegan’s Wake, as the ‘Trojan horse by which the universe gets into the mind.’[5]  I will pursue the  question of the power and effectivity of language as it has emerged in light of the ‘unconscious’ and ‘unstable’ last text of Joyce – in its reception by the exiled surrealist Bataille and by the post-structuralist Derrida, in his own excursions into Joyce and Bataille. Against the background of cautionary remarks by Habermas, I will argue that Finnegan’s Wake is a disseminal text which, in its a-syntactic operation, is a strategic abuse (abuso) of language (catachresis) with the intention of, in the formulation of Turnheim, an ‘apotheosis of the word’.[6]  In the wake of the apotheosis, the text not only reflects the – as with Kristeva’s contemplation of Celine in her magnificent Powers of Horror[7] – the necromantic and abject disruption of existence, but also serves to disrupt the inter-textual universe in which the subversive text erupts – and disseminates its contagion.

Reading Joyce: The Makeshift of Text and World

(Book One, Chapter 1.1, pp 23-25)[8]

O foenix culprit! Ex nickylow malo comes mickelmassed bo-           16

num. Hill, rill, ones in company, billeted, less be proud of. Breast    17

high and bestride! Only for that these will not breathe upon             18

Norronesen or Irenean the secrest of their soorcelossness. Quar-       19

ry silex, Homfrie Noanswa! Undy gentian festyknees, Livia No-     20

answa? Wolkencap is on him, frowned; audiurient, he would           21

evesdrip, were it mous at hand, were it dinn of bottles in the far      22

ear. Murk, his vales are darkling. With lipth she lithpeth to him        23

all to time of thuch on thuch and thow on thow. She he she ho        24

she ha to la. Hairfluke, if he could bad twig her! Impalpabunt,         25

he abhears. The soundwaves are his buffeteers; they trompe him      26

with their trompes; the wave of roary and the wave of hooshed       27

and the wave of hawhawhawrd and the wave of neverheedthem-    28

horseluggarsandlisteltomine. Landloughed by his neaghboormis-     29

tress and perpetrified in his offsprung, sabes and suckers, the           30

moaning pipers could tell him to his faceback, the louthly one          31

whose loab we are devorers of, how butt for his hold halibutt, or     32

her to her pudor puff, the lipalip one whose libe we drink at, how    33

biff for her tiddywink of a windfall, our breed and washer givers,   34

there would not be a holey spier on the town nor a vestal flout-       35

ing in the dock, nay to make plein avowels, nor a yew nor an eye     36

to play cash cash in Novo Nilbud by swamplight nor a’ toole o’        1

tall o’ toll and noddy hint to the convaynience.                                 2

He dug in and dug out by the skill of his tilth for himself and      3

all belonging to him and he sweated his crew beneath his auspice    4

for the living and he urned his dread, that dragon volant, and he     5

made louse for us and delivered us to boll weevils amain, that         6

mighty liberator, Unfru-Chikda-Uru-Wukru and begad he did,        7

our ancestor most worshipful, till he thought of a better one in         8

his windower’s house with that blushmantle upon him from ears-     9

end to earsend. And would again could whispring grassies wake     10

him and may again when the fiery bird disembers. And will             11

again if so be sooth by elder to his youngers shall be said. Have       12

you whines for my wedding, did you bring bride and bedding,        13

will you whoop for my deading is a? Wake? Usgueadbaugham!      14

Anam muck an dhoul ! Did ye drink me doornail?                        15

Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure        16

like a god on pension and don’t be walking abroad. Sure you’d        17

only lose yourself in Healiopolis now the way your roads in             18

Kapelavaster are that winding there after the calvary, the North       19

Umbrian and the Fivs Barrow and Waddlings Raid and the             20

Bower Moore and wet your feet maybe with the foggy dew’s          21

abroad. Meeting some sick old bankrupt or the Cottericks’ donkey  22

with his shoe hanging, clankatachankata, or a slut snoring with an   23

impure infant on a bench. ‘Twould turn you against life, so               24

‘twould. And the weather’s that mean too. To part from Devlin        25

is hard as Nugent knew, to leave the clean tanglesome one lushier   26

than its neighbour enfranchisable fields but let your ghost have        27

no grievance. You’re better off, sir, where you are, primesigned       28

in the full of your dress, bloodeagle waistcoat and all, remember-    29

ing your shapes and sizes on the pillow of your babycurls under       30

your sycamore by the keld water where the Tory’s clay will scare     31

the varmints and have all you want, pouch, gloves, flask, bricket,    32

kerchief, ring and amberulla, the whole treasure of the pyre, in the   33

land of souls with Homin and Broin Baroke and pole ole Lonan      34

and Nobucketnozzler and the Guinnghis Khan. And we’ll be           35

coming here, the ombre players, to rake your gravel and bringing     36

you presents, won’t we, fenians? And il isn’t our spittle we’ll stint    1

you of, is it, druids? Not shabbty little imagettes, pennydirts and     2

dodgemyeyes you buy in the soottee stores. But offerings of the     3

field. Mieliodories, that Doctor Faherty, the madison man,               4

taught to gooden you. Poppypap’s a passport out. And honey is       5

the holiest thing ever was, hive, comb and earwax, the food for       6

glory, (mind you keep the pot or your nectar cup may yield too        7

light !) and some goat’s milk, sir, like the maid used to bring you.    8

This selection from Book One, Chapter 1.1, pp. 23-25 of Finnegan’s Wake tells of the resurrection – the necromancy – of Tim Finnegan at his wake.  His wife Annie, in the manner of the surrealists, had laid out his exquisite corpse as a meal for the mourners to eat.  After a brawl breaks out amongst the mourners, whiskey is spilt upon the corpse, and Finnegan rises up seeking wine and sex, as he says for himself,

Have you whines for my wedding, did you bring bride and bedding,

will you whoop for my deading is a? Wake? Usgueadbaugham!

Of course, this is an ‘agreed’ meaning of this text amongst those institutional experts and readers of Joyce whom Derrida taunted – in an extemporaneous style – at the James Joyce Symposium in 1992 with his ‘Two Words for Joyce’ in which he asked, ‘How many languages can be lodged in two words by Joyce, lodged or inscribed, kept or burned, celebrated or violated?’[9] Derrida is alluding to the ‘nightmare’ – and to the comic ecstasy – of historicity, of temporal existence, as it is intimated in the traumatic work of Joyce.  Derrida declares – in light of its undecided status – there can be no ‘… Joycean competence…. no Joycean foundation, no Joycean legitimacy.’[10]  Behind this declaration, however, lies a philosophical question – but not that of an announcement of ‘meaninglessness’ – ‘non-sense’ – in the out-flanked analytic sense.

Instead, for Derrida, the text of Joyce is a sublime example for his provisional ‘motif’ of différance[11] which intimates a play that, he claims, is prior to Being, and the ontological difference between beings and Being.  This ‘motif’ is neither a word nor a concept – it is instead a trace of becoming which does not have being, or presence – or, is not, and this is significant, meant to have presence.  Joyce himself tells us that he is seeking in Finnegan’s Wake to intimate ‘nocturnal life’ and the ‘dark night of the soul’.[12]  Yet, perhaps, for Derrida, Joyce says too much (as he already allows ‘discourse’ to begin to quarantine – in the sense of Foucault – his ‘statement’ from the homogenous discourse of the ‘order of things’.  Derrida, on the contrary, considers that which is shown, exposed by the text of Joyce, as significant and sublimely insignificant.  We have heard the words of Joyce, but did we, can we, understand these words in a univocal manner as the ‘Joyce experts’ do?  And, is this not precisely the question – one that we could – and do – carry with us as we traverse our ‘own’ and other textualities of existence?

We have read the words of Joyce.  What does he mean, and what does it mean that there are scholars who say – or want to know – what he means…. what ‘Nietzsche’ means, what ‘Heidegger’ means, what even ‘Derrida’ means ….? Should we not become silent immediately – as with John Cage or when Bultmann preached that it was a ‘sin’ even to mention the ‘name of God’ (‘He war’).[13]  Yet, we know enough to ascertain the contours of the question.  Joyce, he tells us, sought to enact a nocturnal dithyramb in which a univocal ‘meaning’ was impossible.  But, should we play along with Joyce, Derrida et al. or should we simply dismiss this – though longstanding – last work – as did many critics, including the ‘fascist’ Pound – as an impenetrable and self-indulgent work?  Or, should we become ‘Joyce experts’ and pretend to have deciphered that which, for Derrida, is an inexhaustible text, one that, in its instability, bleeds upon the surface of every page – and into ‘worlds’?

Derrida reads Joyce as an intimation of the utter untranslatability and the radical dispersion of the text.  Is Finnegan’s Wake not already translated?  Is there any need to translate this text?  Cannot everyone misunderstand it? A book for all and none?  Would not translation be redundant, dead, useless?  It would seem however that we should instead witness the fragmentation that disseminates from this text.

Bataille on Joyce: On Dismemberment

Bataille engages Joyce’ Finnegan’s Wake in his essay, ‘Hegel, Death and Sacrifice.’  The essay itself is a symptom of his longstanding and quasi-masochistic attempt to grasp the philosophy of Hegel (through Kojeve).  For although Hegel commands us – as the Sage – to ‘think contradiction’, he – at once – seduces us to acquiesce to his non-ironic absolute, ‘unity, the ‘good infinite’ – to that which sublates ‘contradiction’ as the Absolute Idea.  Hegel failed – which is doubly ironic – as a romantic poet (cf. Agamden’s The Language of Death).  Yet, he succeeded in a way his friends Hölderlin and Schelling have not – yet – as a philosopher.  Hegel wishes to bring us into an Absolute in which we are necessarily ‘eaten’, ‘digested’ and ‘excreted’ – a situation, as Nietzsche suggests in his Will to Power, ‘New World Conception’, in which excrement is the food of an innocence of becoming.

Bataille invokes the sacred as the ‘indigestible’, as the radically heterogeneous and useless.  In this light, the ritual of the ‘Welsh Coffin’, as with Greek tragedy, provides the sacrificial space in which the restrictive taboo of homogeneity is transgressed – and re-configured – amid the general economy of the comic ‘event’, of the radical energetics of the tiger.[14]  Bataille describes the event:

The Irish and Welsh custom of the “wake” is little known but was still practiced at the end of the last century.  It is the subject of Joyce’s last work, Finnegan’s Wake – the deathwatch of Finnegan (however, the reading of this famous novel is difficult at best).  In Wales, the coffin was placed open, standing at the place of honor of the house.  The dead man would be dressed in his finest suit and top hat.  His family would invite all of his friends, who honoured the departed all the more the longer they danced and the deeper they drank to his health.  It is the death of an other, but in such instances, the death of the other is always the image of one’s own death.  Only under one condition could anyone so rejoice; with the presumed agreement of the dead man – who is an other -, the dead man that the drinker in turn will become shall have no other meaning than his predecessor.[15]

As the corpse shares in the Dionysian feast, the ‘Welsh Coffin’, through its surreal subversion of the everyday, invokes a sense of the tragic sacred, the only response to which – after perhaps an initial terror or horror – is the sublimity of laughter, beyond the restricted economy of solemn production.  The laughter of tragedy, in this way, invades and mutates the rhythmic normalcy of religion within the limits of reason through the temporary irruption of the radically other – of that which, contrary to Habermas, is not the imperative violence of a heterogeneity which profanes itself through an incestuous amalgamation with homogenous power, but a subversive dissolution of a homogenous order which is not a community of intimates, but whose jurisdiction is already that of strife (Heraclitus).  In this way, the festival of death that is celebrated does not seek to establish a regime of violence, but to invoke, disseminate, and propagate amid this ‘order of things’ that which it seeks to exclude – and, in this way, to dissolve this ‘order’.

Bataille, at the precipice of his essay, quotes Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: ‘Spirit attains its truth only by finding itself in absolute dismemberment’ (déchirement).  It is this be-ing torn into dancing threads that is intimated in the text of Joyce, this makeshift of an indefiniteness that cannot ever fathom the ‘infinite’, the grace of the absolute idea, the ‘end of history’, the eclipse of temporality, the redemption of finitude.  This is the sense of Bataille’s laughter at Hegel’s totalitarian ‘system’, a laughter that is possible from the placelessness of the sovereign ‘outside’.  The ‘outside’ is this state of dismemberment that resists the masks of the ‘order’ of a restricted economy.  The sacred, in Bataille’s sense, could never be co-opted into the service of such an economy, but must still ceaselessly resist its ‘hunger’.

Derrida on Bataille (and Joyce): A ‘Holocaust’ of Words

The key to Derrida’s interest in Bataille (and Joyce) concerns the opaque topos of inter-textuality, of an open space of interacting ‘absences’ (amid the indefinite ‘All’).  As through a looking-glass darkly, Derrida plunges into the text of Joyce as an instance of the disintegrative epoché of authoritative – ‘authorial’ – determination, intention – amidst a deconstructive incitement that celebrates the play of meaninglessness as sovereign silence – and despite the fact that Joyce ‘let the cat out of the bag’ with his quasi-Wagnerian description of the project of the ‘reconstruction of nocturnal life’, in which amid the surreal noumena, ‘objects’ lose their being in the night of the world.[16]  This is the background sense of Derrida’s contestation of the ‘legitimacy’ of Joyce scholarship.  After all, the very point of Finnegan’s Wake is not only the projection of a performative space of meaninglessness, but also of inviting the Nothing, death, back into the world of positivity – even though, except for his lobe, the corpse would not allow itself to be eaten.  Derrida points out an ambiguity in this situation:

In discourse (the unity of process and system), negativity is always the underside and accomplice of positivity.  Negativity cannot be spoken of, nor has it ever been except in this fabric of meaning.  Now, the sovereign operation, the point of nonreserve, is neither positive nor negative.  It cannot be inscribed in discourse, except by crossing out predicates and by practicing a contradictory super-impression that then exceeds the logic of philosophy.[17]

Perhaps, Derrida would intimate that Finnegan’s Wake is such a super-impression that exceeds the ‘logic of philosophy’, of ‘meaning’ (in the sublative sense of Hegel).  Such a reading may allow us to begin to fathom his statements in ‘Two Words for Joyce.’  Indeed, it is precisely the ‘expert reader’ who seeks to know what the text means – and will struggle for an exclusive possession of meaning with respect to the ‘Joycean symposium’.  At the same time, however, the Joycean text, even Finnegan’s Wake, does make gestures toward ‘meaning’ – even if poly-semic – and can be read – read not only as a deliberate ‘linguistic integration’ (Hitler), but also as a cultural artefact with its own indigenous and polyvalent meanings.  Nevertheless, the text is unstable, and does intimate that which for Bataille is heterogeneous with respect to the homogenous order of (sayable) ‘meaning’ (within the limits of reason alone).  Yet, is this instability merely an intimation of the negativity which, Derrida alludes, abides as the underside of positivity, an impotent revolt that remains servile to the ‘seriousness of meaning and the security of knowledge’?[18]

But, is there not another sense or state of play in which the Joycean text intimates or incites ‘sovereignty’?  For not only does Finnegan’s Wake playfully describe the archaic practise of the ‘Welsh Coffin’ – or, the invasion of the homogenous world of utility and order by the heterogeneous ‘other’ – but it also, through its own linguistic practise, infects this ‘order’, not only disseminating the myriad instabilities of laughter and confusion within the realm of ‘discourse’, but also – and this could be Bataille’s reply to Derrida (and to any ‘resolute’ Wittgensteinian) – exposes the makeshift character, the imposture, of this alleged ‘order’ of ‘sense’.  That which is significant  – and this is something upon which Derrida and Bataille can agree – is that it is the wings of a dove, the stillest hour of sovereign silence – the general economy of existence – which resists – and for Bataille, erupts, to destabilise any particular restricted economy of ‘meaning’ – and thus, to allow for a transfiguration of the economy of ‘meaning’ into a radically ‘other’, into, as it were, the ‘eternal recurrence of the same’.  Wittgenstein quotes Augustine in his comments on Heidegger, ‘What you swine, you want not to talk nonsense?  Go ahead and talk non-sense, it does not matter.’[19]

Habermas: On the Tragic Irony of the Law

We turn finally to Habermas’ essay on Bataille, ‘Between Eroticism and General Economics: Georges Bataille,’[20] in an attempt to address his criticisms of Bataille’s notion of sovereignty in light of our current discussion of Joyce.  While much of his essay on Bataille is expositional – with many long quotations from works covering differing periods of Bataille’s work – Habermas does engage critically with Bataille with respect to his notion of ‘sovereign violence’.  In what is essentially a political interpretation of Bataille’s philosophy – and one that speaks, it has to be said, from the timely perspective of the ‘homogenous order’ – Habermas questions (as he does with Foucault) whether or not Bataille has set forth sufficient ‘theoretical’ resources to be able to make the necessary distinctions as to any specific character of subversive transgression, as for instance, between ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ violence – both of which (among the other usual suspects of poets, philosophers, artists, and anarchists) are indicated by Bataille as ‘heterogeneous forces’ in his 1933 essay, ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’.[21]

At the same time, however, while Bataille could be ‘identified’ as a fellow traveller of the political Left (as he regarded himself), such a limitation of his perspective does not adequately address the significance of his explorations of sacrifice, eroticism, intoxication (a Dionysian ‘Communism’)– and, his appropriation of the archaic sacred – or his distinction between homogeneous and heterogeneous ‘forces’ – or, between a ‘restricted’ and ‘general’ economy.  Such a limitation cannot allow us to fathom Bataille’s cultural strategy of subversion and his resistance to the marriage of ‘utility’, ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘religion’.  Indeed, Habermas acknowledges:

Just as religion already stands under the curse of labor, and only restores the destroyed order of things and makes possible a wordless communication with it for brief moments of ritual renunciation of the self, so, too, is pure sovereignty to be won back only in moments of ecstasy.[22]

While one could question this formulation of Bataille’s thought – and the suggestion that Bataille was dangerously close to ‘fascism’ – it is important to fathom that Bataille’s attempt to conjure the sacred as subversive transgression does not hold the same significance for Habermas with respect to ‘meaning’.  For the latter, sovereignty exhibits a ‘tendency toward a differentiation of distinctions of rank.’[23]  Yet, for Bataille such a play of difference need not be tied immediately to any political and ideological field – just as with the case of Hegel, Heidegger, or Nietzsche.  Indeed, it would seem that Bataille is instead attempting to account for historical change as an ‘event’ of infiltration of a restricted (profane) economy by the exteriority of the general (sacred) economy.

In this way, the question is not that of the perfection of a ‘homogenous order’ which is already always tainted by imperative forces (and the incestuous ‘enlightenment’ project of the alleged purification of such forces), but of disclosing – or exposing – the tenuousness of any homogenous order that has attempted (as with the Apollonian suppression of Dionysiac music and poetry in the polis of Plato) to suppress the incessant eruptions of the general economy of the sacred in everyday life.  That which Habermas fails to see is the tragic irony of the law, which by suppressing otherness as such, fails to exhibit the critical resources to call into question these imperative – unlawful – forces in the homogeneous order – whether this order be ostensibly ‘socialist’, ‘fascist’, or, for that matter (and, in our own case), ‘liberal’.  That which is essential for Bataille is his notion of an expenditure that erases the priority and seeming eternity of any homogeneous order of work and utility – and recalls to us the unrestricted general economy of the gift which surges beneath the surface of representation.

The In-Significance of Joyce: The Chaos of the Primal

In its dispersion and radical uselessness, Finnegan’s Wake is a disseminal text for contemporary questions of ‘truth’, of meaning/meaningless, of sense/non-sense.  In its an-archic destabilisation, the text of Joyce intimates a primal celebration of Fate as it is disseminated through subversive expressions and transgressions (‘custom’ as the existential negotiation of rule-following and rule-breaking).  In the wake of the dispersion of the text, it is necessary for us to cultivate a different understanding of language as not merely that which organises the place of existence, as the poetics of existence, whether as a house of being, language game or some other notation.  Language must also be capable of destruction, subversion and transfiguration of a world, or in the birth of the new.

Such a gesture points to Dionysus and the rebirth of the Open (in the sense of Trakl’s ‘Helian’) as the transfiguration – and destruction – of the pretentious ‘order’ of the restricted economy.  The mask is torn off revealing the ever faceless apparitions of an ever receding flux and chaos of existence.  Trakl laments:

O how their hair stiffens with excrement and worms

When he stands in it with silver feet,

And they step deceased from bleak rooms.

O you psalms in fiery midnight rains

When servants smite gentle eyes with nettles,

The childlike fruits of the elderberry

Bend astonished over an empty grave.

Softly yellowed moons roll

Over the youth’s feverish linen

Before the silence of winter follows.[24]

The desolation of this funeral scene is markedly different from that intimated by Joyce of the resurrection of Tim Finnegan.  Yet, both serve to dispel and disrupt the illusions that are cultivated to achieve a stable, orderly community.  Death is an ordeal which is endured, and orchestrated according to a defined ritual, one which will assure the obedient execution of temporal existence.  Finnegan rebels against the order of things, while Trakl emphasises the emptiness and decay of the grave, which was meant to be dispelled by the ritual and the insertion of the name of the diseased into the narrative of the community.  There is no name, the grave is empty and the destination of all is the silence of winter.

Another example of subversive writing comes from Bataille himself with his Story of the Eye, Section 13, ‘The Legs of the Fly’.  In a different type of death scene, Bataille describes the tumultuous acts of Simone and her accomplices:

We dropped the swine and he crashed to the floor. Sir Edmund, Simone, and myself were coldly animated by the same determination, together with an incredible excitement and levity. The priest lay there with a limp cock, his teeth digging into the floor with rage and shame. Now that his balls were drained, his abomination appeared to him in all its horror.

He audibly sighed: “Oh miserable sacrileges…”

And muttering other incomprehensible laments.

Sir Edmund nudged him with his foot; the monster leaped up and drew back, bellowing with such ludicrous fury that we burst out laughing.


Simone squeezed, a dreadful shudder ran through that mute, fully immobilized body, and the cock stood on end. I took it into my hands and had no trouble fitting it into Simone’s vulva, while she continued to squeeze the throat.

The utterly intoxicated girl kept wrenching the big cock in and out with her buttocks, atop the body whose muscles were cracking in our formidable strangleholds.

At last, she squeezed so resolutely that an even more violent thrill shot through her victim, and she felt the come shooting inside her cunt. Now she let go, collapsing backwards in a tempest of joy.

Simone lay on the floor, her belly up, her thigh still smeared by the dead man’s sperm which had trickled from her vulva. I stretched out at her side to rape and fuck her in turn, but all I could do was squeeze her in my arms and kiss her mouth, because of a strange inward paralysis ultimately caused by my love for the girl and the death of the unspeakable creature.

I have never been so content.[25]

Bataille seeks to subvert the rigid French Roman Catholic cultural code, the network of rituals, the sanctity of its practitioners (Priests), the Christian notion of Love, and the old law tablets which invisibly dictate the morals, mores of the Patristic community.  There is no redemption for Simone and her accomplices.  But, neither she nor her cohorts care if they are beyond redemption.  Simone lingers in a trance of pleasure, having strangled the priest who, at the moment of his death, had achieved his own greatest pleasure, while the narrator declares that he has never been so content.  Such a monstrous community would have been, before the fall of the Church from political power, burned at the stake as were the Heresy of the Free Spirit, the followers of Marguerite Porete.[26]  Bataille enjoys not only the relative emancipation of the letter in his own era, but also the anonymity in which he, like Kierkegaard, shrouds himself.  Yet, the power of the Church has not disappeared, but has gone underground, infiltrating and guiding the culture through its usual channels: birth, sickness, marriage, poverty and death.  Bataille devastates the civil context of a culture that abides the conservative values of tradition – he challenges their sanctity and underlines the collapse of enforcement, whether terrestrial or divine.  That which is most significant for Simone is not the fate of her soul, or the question of guilt or responsibility with regard to the death of the priest – it is instead a fly, whose legs are affixed to the eye of the priest.

Bataille is one of many writers and artists who have challenged either our sensibilities or our moral or ethical perspectives – who have cast light upon that which would have been excluded from previous cultural depiction or indication.  The extension of aesthetic categories over the last century, from the beautiful and sublime – to the ugly, horrifying, the absurd, ridiculous and joy – these latter categories are the contribution of modernity and post-modernity, and are symptomatic of the emancipation of the artist and cultural expression in the late 20th century – in every respect except for the servitude of capitalism in art.  But, as Jim Urpeth has argued in his essay ‘Religious Materialism,’[27] it has been capitalism that has been the engine by which traditional mores and constraints have been subverted and in the way, capital as the breach, has become the sacred.  Yet, as with Nietzsche’s ‘Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit’, in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, creativity requires more than merely a destructive capacity for subversion.  However, it is clear that the negative, in the usual regard, as in horror, absurdity, ridiculousness and the ugly, can itself serve as the ground for an affirmation of existence in the depths of human mortality, which is a disclosure that is forbidden in traditional narratives, such as rely upon the notions of God and personal salvation, and other anaesthetics of the mortal soul.

In this light, there can arise a great laughter from that which is most horrendous, hideous, immoral.  This is surely evident in daily life and in its echoes in theatre, literature and film.  Or, following his life-long companion Nietzsche, if one is to affirm a single joy, then one must also accept all of the horror that goes along with it.  That does not mean that one cannot work to change the world, to write a differing narrative, a different chapter, but the impulse to change the world cannot become confused with the salvation of a different realm, as when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of his Father.  Such a postulate, as it is taken as a statement of truth, takes the step beyond the desire to change the world, to effect a differing course, to the negation of the world itself, to the denial of the very conditions in which we ourselves are: mortality.  The otherworldly hope of the Messiah is an act of denial of the temporal character of human existence, of joy, sorrow, sickness, pain and death.  He has chosen to exclude that which contradicts his eschatological vision of eternity, but he has merely denied the creation and its radical mortal singularity.  The very postulation of salvation, of resurrection, is a falsification of human existence, one which forbids us from truly experiencing the depths and peaks of authentic human sorrow and joy.  The challenge is to comprehend the Dionysian truth of our predicament, of birth, individuation, and death, dissolution – and to affirm this monstrous site, and to laugh.

Nietzsche sings in one of his poems of youth:

Lift up my anxious heart that

Finds no rest in heaven’s height.

I throw myself into green grass

And from gushing tears,

My eyes become gloomy, my cheeks wet,

My soul pure and bright.

Branches bend down,

Enshroud the sick and

Weary with their shadows

Like a still grave

I would like to die in this green forest

No! No; away with such bitter

Thoughts! There in the green forest,

Where merry bird songs resound

Where oak trees shake their mighty heads

Soon a much greater power

Will shake your grave,

Peace of soul will come there to your coffin

Only through it can you

Attain true peace

Clouds, in golden beams,

Surround you like white snow,

And gather themselves into storm

And lightning flames down to earth

When the sky weeps in lovely Spring

And jubilation resounds far and wide

He is only meant to find

One who longs for death

Such bitter tears fall upon you

And you wake up

And you stand up

And look around and laugh.[28]


References and Further Reading

Attridge, Derek. Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bataille, Georges. ‘Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,’ Yale French Studies, No. 78: On Bataille, Yale University Press, 1990.

________. (2001) Story of the Eye, City Lights Publishing.

Bultmann, Rudolf. ‘What does it mean to speak of God?,’ Faith and Understanding, Harper & Row, 1969.

Derrida, Jacques. ‘From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve’, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

________. ‘Différance’, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Habermas, Jürgen. ‘Between Eroticism and General Economics: Georges Bataille,’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, translated by Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.

Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake, New York: Penguin, 1976.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Luchte, James ( ‘Under the Aspect of Time (“sub specie temporis”): Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and the Place of the Nothing,’ Philosophy Today, Volume 53, Number 2 (Spring, 2009)

Nietzsche, F., ‘Oh, sweet forest peace’, The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche, translated by James Luchte, New York and London: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

Roughley, Alan. Reading Derrida Reading Joyce, University of Florida Press, 1999, p. 60.

Thomas, Dylan. ‘Under Milk Wood,’ Dylan Thomas Omnibus, London: Phoenix, 2001.

Urpeth, J. (2000) ‘Religious Materialism: Bataille, Deleuze/Guattari and the Sacredness of Late Capital’ in Goodchild, P. (ed.) Difference in Philosophy of Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 171–86.

[1] Derrida, Jacques (2003) ‘From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve’, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, London and New York: Routledge.

[2] Bataille, Georges (1990) ‘Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,’ Yale French Studies, No. 78: On Bataille, Yale University Press, pp. 9-28.

[3] Both Bataille and Derrida testify that Finnegan’s Wake is difficult, if not, impossible reading – or, that it is in its articulation ‘indigestable’.  Symptoms that both relied, to some extent, on second hand accounts come, on the one hand, come from Bataille’s reference in footnote 12 to ‘E. Jolas, “Elucidation du monomythe de James Joyce” in Critique (July 1948): 579-595, and on the other, to Derrida’s own repetition of Bataille’s account of the ‘Welsh coffin’.  It could be argued, however, that the ‘true’ account, that the surrealist Annie laid out Tim Finnegan to be eaten, would have given each of their own analyses more bite.

[4] A more recent example could be found in the ‘dark poetry’ of the late comedian Bill Hicks, especially in expressive and performative transgressions in his comic routines.

[5] Vicki Mahaffey (2006) Modernist Literature: Challenging Fictions, Wiley-Blackwell.

[6]  Turnheim, Michel (1993) Freud and the Rest, Vienna: Turia & Kant, p. 163.

[7] Kristeva, Julia (1982) The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press.

[8] James Joyce (1976) Finnegan’s Wake, New York: Penguin.  A delineated online version of the text can be found at: Finnegan’s Wake.

[9] Attridge, Derek (1985) Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, Cambridge University Press, p. 145.

[10] Roughley, Alan (1999) Reading Derrida Reading Joyce, University of Florida Press, p. 60.

[11] Derrida, J. (1968) ‘Différance’, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[12] Ellmann, Richard (1983) James Joyce, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] Bultmann, Rudolf (1969) ‘What does it mean to speak of God?,’ Faith and Understanding, Harper & Row.

[14] The tiger is a symbol in the Accursed Share, Volume One, of the Dionysian general economy of existence which stalks at the limits of the restrictive economy (order) of ‘things’.

[15] Bataille (1990), p. 24.

[16] Regardless of his dis-stated meaning, however, for Derrida, Joyce will dissolve, become faceless, into the nowhere (utopia) between the shore and the waves, between terrestriality and aquacity.

[17] Derrida, Jacques (2003) ‘From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,’ Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, London and New York: Routledge, p. 327.

[18] Derrida (2003), p. 328.

[19] For an in depth discussion of these issues, see Luchte, J., ‘Under the Aspect of Time (“sub specie temporis”): Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and the Place of the Nothing,’ Philosophy Today, Volume 53, Number 2 (Spring, 2009)

[20] Habermas, Jürgen (2007) ‘Between Eroticism and General Economics: Georges Bataille,’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, translated by Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[21] Bataille, Georges (1985) ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism,’ Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, University of Minneapolis Press.

[22] Habermas (2007), 225-226.

[23] Habermas (2007), p. 226.

[24] Trakl, Georg. ‘Helian’, translated by Jim Doss & Werner Schmitt, Loch Raven Review. 2008.

[25] Bataille, Georges (2001) Story of the Eye, City Lights Publishing.

[26] Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, ed. Ellen Babinsky. Paulist Press, 1993.

[27] Urpeth, J. (2000) ‘Religious Materialism: Bataille, Deleuze/Guattari and the Sacredness of Late Capital’ in Goodchild, P. (ed.) Difference in Philosophy of Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 171–86.

[28] Nietzsche, F. (2010) ‘Oh, sweet forest peace’, The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche, translated by James Luchte, New York and London: Continuum International Publishing.


Go to: The Ends of the British State in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: “They Destroy, We Create: The Anti-Austerity UK Alliance” in Planet Magazine: The Welsh Internationalist

Go to: Athens Without Slavery: The Battle For Europe – Syriza and the New European Left

Go to: The Tragic Community: Friedrich Nietzsche and Mao Tse Tung

Go to: Marx and the Revolution of the Sacred

Go to: The Politics of the Imperfect: Building a Different World

Go to: The Laughter of Dionysus: Bataille and Derrida on Joyce

Go to: The British Wasteland: A History of the Present

Go to: Wales in the European Union

Go to: UKIP and the Politics of Disruption

Go to: Divided We Fall: Plaid Cymru and the Green Agenda

Go to: Discovering Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales

Go to: Dylan Thomas in Exile

Go to: Whispers of a Forgotten Nation – The Writings of Dr D. Ceri Evans

 Go to: Edward Snowden on Walden Pond

Go to: Of the Feral Children: A Mayan Farce (Novel, 2012)

Publication on this site is at the discretion of the editor.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s