Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Divine Filth

by Georges Bataille

Translated by Mark Spitzer

This 2004 collection of prose and poetry fragments from French cultural theorist and writer, Georges Bataille, begs the question, if we’re reading Georges Bataille, which one are we reading? Whose Georges Bataille? That is, the George Bataille we encounter in the Mark Spitzer edited and translated “Divine Filth” is a very different beast than the one discussed elsewhere on this blog. I want to investigate why that’s the case. I’ve previously looked at “the Accursed Share,” a fascinating work where Bataille fuses Marxism and sun-worship within the framework of economic theory. But what’s going on here? What is localized in this particular text? Spitzer is our mediating agent, the lens through which we experience Bataille, as he subsumes certain aspects of Bataille’s writing in order to emphasize a scatological sensationalism. The reader can be forgiven if they lose sight of Bataille’s relationship with Hegelian transcendence and Marxism in the face of Spitzer’s exaggerations of “…the various threads of ecstasy and death permeating these translations – a loss through which Bataille exceeds himself by seducing his readers with instances of excess.” Ok. But what does that mean? Or, what is that actively meaning?

“Divine Filth” is in constant danger of becoming a dishonest collection. Does it deceive the reader? Does it deceive the text itself? The book masquerades as a cohesive volume of fissures, yet its gaps are promulgated by an outside agent – Spitzer – and not design. It’s best to keep this in mind. Not that Spitzer’s effort isn’t without its pleasure and its charm – it’s hard not to appreciate his efforts to bring these fragments to a general readership beyond the hoary bounds of scholarship. But these “lost writings,” as Spitzer calls them, are indeed fragments, and they must be reconciled as such in reference to the larger infrastructure of Georges Bataille’s complex and at times daunting body of work.

The jottings and half-finished prose pieces of “Divine Filth” are exciting not because they afford us a new ‘product’ to assimilate, but because of the rough scaffolding it displays. These are the cogs of Bataille’s procedural mechanism, amidst both the chaff and the treasure. Bataille asks, “How to disconnect myself? Imagine myself drunk? a drunkard? But alas, that’s false! What words can only touch upon: I get where I am by noticing nothing. A blunder, I slipped, I fell…” The act of writing acknowledges itself. Here are a series of mistakes, some brilliant and many negligible, which leads to a greater illumination of truth. No, to the greater search for transcendence, if not that very thing. As we read and enjoy these unpublished writings, we should ask ourselves why Bataille decided not to publish them. Such an appraisal does not cross out this text, but bring it into context.

The ambiguity, the great arbitrariness of this collection, cannot be forgotten. Why should it be? We must question this work as we make our way through it, if we hope for any actual glimpse of it. Perhaps my qualms about “Divine Filth” would be partially assuaged if the work under discussion was apprehended as selections from a notebook, and therefore chimerical, instead of solidified as poetry. Bataille is a promiscuous writer! His work roves with a solar ferocity across disciplines – poetry, philosophy, pornography, and all pushing outward. Why not explode this diversity? But does Spitzer’s Bataille illuminate the writings available elsewhere? Or does “Divine Filth” deemphasize certain elements in an attempt to bring Bataille in collusion with the gaudy ‘derangement’ of its publisher, Creation Books?

My issues with this volume’s editorship collide nicely with Bataille’s own consideration of negation throughout these fragments. These pieces, these discarded pieces, chase annulment as they recede and cease. Writing is an act of erasure, as is the case in the work of Bataille’s countryman Jacques Roubaud, and others, such as Paul Celan and Edmund Jabes. But Bataille’s negation is of a different sort – the cyclical nature of destruction is here inescapable. Bataille “…can destroy all observers by crossing them out. From the moment I start writing, I’ll spend a lot of time crossing out, ripping apart, burning, and getting rid of others!” But is this a sort of paring down to reach an ineluctable veracity, or is it something else, a negation with a more ritualized vigor?

“Divine Filth” unspools as the reader progresses through its spacious and vast blankness. We begin with two prose pieces, move onto complete poems, then fragments, and finally the wisps of an appendix. “Divine Filth” is a sea shell, circling inward to its nullified spiral. The two prose fragments, here titled “Filthy” and “Divinity,” come and pass, insubstantial and incalculable glimpses of transcendence, its futility. The first of the two fragments, “Filthy,” is prefaced by a lengthy excerpt from Hegel. Is the individual itself another fragment, another incomplete thing? Hegel suggests that “with the positing of the individual, the Beyond is established even if it is perceived only as existing alongside it, as in spatial intuition.” Can this Beyond even be reached, or do our attempts to exceed ourselves only affirm our own selfhood, and therefore exclude any transcendence?

The main character, Filthy, rebels against the strictures of class and propriety expected of her, but these transgressions are also affirmations of her very class identity. She drunkenly leans against the walls of an elevator and reminisces about “…when I was a kid… about ten years ago… when I was twelve… I was here with my mother.. a tall old lady… past her prime… like Queen Mary or… and right here… getting off the lift… the operator… the same one… he didn’t stop it very well… it went too high…” This spatial movement upwards is a desultory subversion of transcendence. It concludes with her telling us that “My mother fell flat on her face…,” followed by Filthy herself toppling to the ground. Is this an entrapment?

The characters in “Filthy” strive for a greater freedom in the libertine tradition of Sade. Filthy hopes to push beyond her limits by reinforcing the social and class-based limitations of those around her, in this case members of the working class, an elderly lift operator and a frightened chambermaid. Freedom is not an elimination of power, but an affirmation of it. Filthy, a member of a privileged aristocracy, depends upon her class-mediated superiority. It’s all a matter of economics, as she “…motioned for her purse and the maid brought it over. An extremely long minute passed before she put her hand in it, then threw a bundle of banknotes on the floor, simply stating: “Split it up.” Behavior is here a defined limit.

Filthy flaunts proper conduct in hopes of moving beyond its strictures, but this excess reveals itself as a futile derangement. She is as trapped by her own social status, just as the lift operator and chambermaid are by their own. Filthy turns to her male companion and asks, “Do you know why they’re so calm and collected? They’re afraid. Their knees shake. Their teeth chatter. They don’t dare act out. I know because I’m scared too. Do you understand, my little man? I’m even scared of you. Scared enough to faint.” Filthy shrieks “I have a hole in my head…,” as she blunders around the room - in negation towards a hoped for transcendence. She stumbles “… to the window and looked out at the Thames beneath her and the monolithic monstrosities in the distance. Promptly, she vomited out into the sky…” Is this defiance successful? Filthy’s male companion believes so, he testifies “In that room, and in those dives we visited, our hearts were crushed by anguish and we exceeded our limits.” Negative value provides the only opportunity for transcendence.

Prose fragments give way to poems in varied degrees of completion. Here, Bataille returns to the question of negative value, asking “Value based on what?/ In indifference to myself/ (I watch)/ what surrounds me/ calm empty void/ which is nothing/ the absence of limits/ escapes me in every direction/ on its own/ the immensity annihilates itself/ while annihilating me/ (I am no longer anything)/ except a sliding toward that empty void…” In light of such absence, then, Filthy only achieves transcendence upon a nullification of selfhood, attained through degradation (both of the self and of others) and drunkenness. Bataille also suggests that “Anguish is the horror of time./ So is constraint and neurosis.” Filthy’s behavior, then, discards constraint in the ecstatic moment of revelry and derangement. But how does one truly transcend to such an absence of limits through this derangement, which is itself a product of these neuroses that define selfhood?

It is when the book circles around these contradictions that I found “Divine Filth” the most rewarding. In such moments, Spitzer sheds his reverence for the surface excess of Bataille as icon and strikes upon the stubborn mystery of these passages. Bataille proposes “To write is to seek luck, not for the author individually, but for all common, anonymous people. In me, the passionate action that compels me to write is part of the trajectory of luck pertaining to man in general.” Bataille purposefully circles that word, ‘luck,’ yet the term is further negated with each subsequent utterance. The erasure is here accomplished through presence instead of elimination. The concept of luck begins to shift and fluctuate, that is, to fade out. What is luck? “Luck animates the smallest parts of the universe…” But again, what is it? How does Bataille’s conception of luck relate to terms more familiar to this blog, those of indeterminacy, the arbitrary or of chance? Perhaps some indication can be found in the relationship of luck to expression. Bataille writes “To measure lost luck while trembling to express it is just a blind leap within us taken in the progression of human luck. It is neither stupidity or feebleness, but a state of grace.” Of course, luck is here defined in terms of its absence, rather than its presence.

In this regard, “Divine Filth” could be an appropriate vision of Bataille through its absence of Bataille – in fragments, blank pages and endless reiterations. Unfortunately, Spitzer’s tendency to sensationalize Bataille in the context of the rather tired trope of some black-clad literary bad boy only disservices this potentially illuminating collection. Instead of a fascinating negation of Bataille, we are confronted with Spitzer in the guise of Bataille. And while I commend his efforts to further excavate an important French writer, “Divine Filth” ultimately comes off as something of a failed promise.

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