I spent the last few weeks working my way through Michel Surya’s brilliant 1984 biography of Georges Bataille. In French, the subtitle of the book is “la mort à l’oeuvre,” which roughly translates to “death at work” or, perhaps more literally, “death at the body of work.” In English, the translation is simply titled Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. The point here, of course, is not the signifying difference of these titles (and what this would entail about English-language vs. French-language “culture”), but rather, an experience at hand.
The book is a large tome, clocking in at nearly 600 pages–including almost 100 pages of (relevant) end-notes–and is also significantly larger (in both height and width of the book object itself) than the common trade paperback found bordering the walls of an airport bookstore. The size makes it a bit unwieldy to hold, and as such I read most of it recumbent in my bed. The first of five sections–more or less detailing Bataille’s life through the end of the first World War–I had read over a year ago before returning the book to my shelf. I can’t remember why I never picked it back up. Perhaps it’s because, despite a psychoanalytical insistence that the early years establish the themes which would come to haunt Bataille’s entire oeuvre, Bataille neither wrote or engaged in public intellectual activity during this period. He filled his time instead with his first majorly transgressive act: studying to become a priest so to besot his dead father’s insistent atheism. After studying in Spain he realized that he could never pretend that God was still around.
Of course, when I picked the book back up (a lark? perhaps, or more realistically, given Bataille’s life, a chance, a caprice), I found myself facing the beginning of Bataille’s actual literary “career”: his engagement with intellectuals and artists in Paris, his battles with Surrealism (of the Breton variety–of course, at the time, Andre Breton insisted that there could be no other), his writing of the brilliant essay, The Solar Anus, meeting his first therapist (who both introduced him to the photographs of the “Death of 1000 Cuts” [which was to haunt him from that moment until his death] & provided help in the writing & editing of his first major text), and, of course, the clandestine publication of the Story of the Eye–the text that, single-handedly, marked the trajectory of Bataille’s path for his entire life.
But really I’m not interested in merely recounting the events of Bataille’s life (if that’s what you’re interested in, I’d suggest just reading the volume at hand here, or for a briefer version, one could check out Stuart Kendell’s “Critical Lives” biography of Bataille) but rather certain elements of both the biography itself & Bataille’s life that inform something larger at hand.
When considering the subtitle of the biography–both the French & the English–there’s something to be realized: Bataille is one of the few notable thinkers of the 20th century whose life is inherently weaved with his work. He was not interested in speculating or theorizing as an intellectual exercise; his interests and thoughts were dedicated to that which he desired in a truly physical way–the desire of experience. His search, of course, was for the impossible. He went through many intellectually vigorous exercises and–despite being a man for whom the cornerstone of thought is heterogeneity–spent an abundance of time developing a system (or, perhaps, in his own words, and “unfinished system”) in which to frame his search. As such, there is no way to write a biography that offers purely biographical information: for that would be missing half of what was present in the rich life of Bataille.
Upon completion, I wondered–after a moment of sadness that the life (& work),at least on the page,had come to an end–if there could be another thinker whose biography could function in the same manner. If we, perhaps, knew anything about Blanchot’s life other than minor details, we could entertain that consideration, but, as we don’t, I can’t think of any other relevant thinker whose life is as entwined with his work as Georges Bataille’s.
As such, I am confronted with thought of how the moment of the now enforces such a regular fragmentation between life & work; work for money & work for one’s self. My life does not serve a totality; what I desire in my work, and day to day existence, is constantly interrupted by the banality of having to work a service job for long enough hours to pay my rent (the paycheck as reward for putting up with complete boredom for up to 40 hours a week), the interruption of any sort of indulgence into a framework; instead I piddle away with poems and texts, saving the idea of experience for a time when I have both physical and temporal space.
This is an unfortunate thought, but there’s little in the world we live in that isn’t a challenge or a problem. Perhaps the time of the dedicated intellectual is over. Or perhaps, and this I would find far more problematic, the current world only allows those born with a legitimate financial stability the time & space to really vigorously explore an idea–an experience–without the mediation of an academic framework (problematic in its own reasons, of course).
I say all this as if Bataille lived free and easy his whole life. This is not true. He was always, shall we say, “broke,” and even when he had a steady income (as when he was employed at the Bibliothèque nationale before the onset of the second world war) he would waste his money on brothels & booze, debauched & endless nights. So maybe, really, I’m just complaining. If Bataille navigated destitution and was still able to dedicate all of his life to his fragmented project, why can’t I? Maybe I can, we’ll see.