Friday, June 29, 2012

In Memoriam Georges Bataille: Truth, Love & Death

Portrait of "Dianus" by Alberto Giacommetti

“As I sought it out I have never found it.”

Truth. Comprehending the truth of love, of death, of laughter and tears: such experiences disclose the Impossible. This truth is strictly speaking ungraspable. It exists inextricably bound by a relationship of complementarity, a discordant accord, with that other side of truth which is the business of lucid scientific rationality, i.e. the production of knowledge as an objective description of the world of things, of what is possible. Irreducible to objectivity, such experiences as love, laughter and tears are no less real and no less a part of the world in which we live and die. They escape the grasp of knowledge, properly speaking, and yet without the perspective given therein, truth would remain forever incomplete; and what's more, the unknowability of death itself guarantees the necessarily incomplete status of life, of history, of the world, and of the totality of the universe.

Georges Bataille à Oréans, 1961
“Science is silent about the moment in which reflection loses its moorings within the impossible.”

The truth of love and of death, viz. the impossible can only come into the purview of objective knowledge (whether according to the methods dictated by scientific reason or by philosophies such as phenomenology or logical positivism) by means of a reduction: any objective description and knowledge of love, of death, is possible only from without and après coup: to mistake love or death for merely biological phenomena amounts to an amputation of all that arises from (inner) experience. While a work of decidedly broader perspective and (in my view) greater intellectual rigor and honesty, P.-L. Landsberg's Essai sur l'expérience de la mort remains the fruit of a project doomed in advance, one that could only fall short or fail utterly: one simply cannot have knowledge the experience of death from the perspective of the one who dies – for death is essentially the permanent disappearance of the very subject of knowledge.

Laure and Georges: once again united by death.
“In so may ways, the ensemble of mankind has fallen into a trap. This much we can grasp.”

Our inevitable, final fall into the impossible is our common destiny: slipping beyond the bounds of meaning into absolute senselessness, every being does finally escape from the twin prison-houses of self and world; likewise from that of language. That final destiny which we share with every living being is to at last venture beyond every possibility, to transgress the most distant of limits. We are bound to joyously disappear into that unknown domain to take leave of the world, of knowledge, without so much as a shadow of self. Dissolution into boundless immanence is our final destination, for the world in which we live is that of false, reified – deified – transcendence. The lie of transcendence is supplanted by truth in the final reckoning, for “the totality of the world rests finally on my precarious self, and on death.” In truth, we are bound together by the universal and inevitable disappearance of our selves.

Would this then not be the “nothing of transcendence?

No, let us not be seduced by the thought of nothingness. Human existence is always in suspense of death: beneath the surface there is an inconceivable abyss into which, one day, we will fall. Does the end of all possibility and knowledge signify or reveal nothingness, non-being, as the ultimate truth of life, of being? No, for we can only speak of nothing as poets, as dupes, or as liars: for nothing exists only as the abstract negation of the something that is. There is no nothing: no experience of nothing. What's more: even in the vacuum a sort of creation ex nihilo takes place - an ephemeral creation destined to return to its origin and to repetition.

"Experience is immeasurable," and the universe is inconceivable. When we confuse our impossible destiny with absolute annihilation we succumb to the seductive, cold comfort of nihilism: we suppose that we have attained absolute knowledge, an immutable, ultimate truth, and thereby forget that human existence is of its essence an unanswerable, open question, forever incomplete(able). 

"We are never within our rights in preferring seduction: truth has rights over us. Indeed, it has every right. And yet we can, and indeed we must, respond to something which, not being God, is stronger than every right, that impossible to which we accede only by forgetting the truth of all these rights, only by accepting disappearance.”

The preceding reflections, composed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death (7 July 1962), are to a great extent inspired by the final expression of the thought of Georges Bataille, the preface to The Impossible. This text was written with a sense of great urgency, as his correspondence with the publisher indicate, and the book had been in print less than three months before he died peacefully, like a cat, in his sleep, while his wife and young daughter were vacationing in England. With the exception of the last, which concludes the published preface, all quotations are drawn from the manuscript version found in Tome III of his Oeuvres Complètes (my translations).

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