Dating from 1944, On Nietzsche has the feel of a transitional work. Its themes of excess, risk, and self-loss had dominated Bataille’s writing since the late 1920s and do not seem freshly imagined here. They are, rather, brought together in a large, compendious argument, suggesting that at this point Bataille was interested in systematizing his thoughts and ascertaining their deepest philosophical implications. A couple of years later he was to publish his major work, La part maudite, and it is tempting to see On Nietzsche as a kind of preparation for it.
The book’s substantial preface lays out the vast cultural context in which Bataille sets his argument. He is concerned with experiencing “humanness” in its “entirety.” Since entirety involves an openness to all possible states, he argues, any undertaking or discipline that focuses desire—any orientation towards a goal—should be seen as a debilitating constraint. Earlier cultures seemed to indulge the free play of desire in their religious rituals; but in fact their mysticism was only a disguise for a kind of utilitarianism. The modern era’s secularism has done away with this obfuscation, and as a result the perplexing problem of human wholeness has now acutely posed itself.
Generally, it is a problem of going “beyond” oneself. Bataille thinks of the self intuitively as a tender, vulnerable, delicately protected enclosure, something like an egg or a jelly. When it follows the dictates of goal-oriented thinking and the rationale of self-preservation, it pays the price of remaining single and isolated. Human “entirety” requires going beyond oneself; but this implies, in Bataille’s conceptualization, receiving a wound, being broken open and spilling out. The classical model of self-surpassing, in his view, is the wounded, crucified figure of Christ, who enables humanity to unite with divinity by subjecting his divinity to defilement.
The conundrum of “going beyond oneself” is that one cannot set that activity itself as a goal for oneself. According to Bataille, even defining it theoretically, as his book tries to do, blocks the approach to it. It happens, when it happens, by chance; at most, one brings it on by taking risks, and so exposing oneself to chance. When the risk is real, it necessarily induces anxiety and distress, both because it raises the possibility of disaster, and because it neutralizes one’s powers of acting and leaves one helpless. Self-surpassing is agonizing, though it can be exuberant.
More specifically, Bataille writes here about communication with other people; and, above all, about sex. Much of the book is a journal recorded between February and August 1944, at which time he was pursuing an affair with a woman he refers to as “K.” The distress of taking risks and of passively enduring chance figures here primarily in his relation with K. He felt with her [End Page 169] the impossibility of determining his fortune by his actions. Perhaps she was peculiarly unpredictable: at one point, Bataille compares her to Brett in The Sun Also Rises. But the account of their affair, like the book as a whole, unfolds at such a high level of abstraction that Bataille seems in it to expose himself to chance in general, as if the affair had been metaphysical rather than interpersonal.
The book’s evocation of sex overall leaves one wondering how much Bataille’s metaphysical vocabulary gave rise to his anguish. In his terms, what is “not the self” is “nothingness”; when we make love, we go down from “transcendence” into “immanence” by “risking” ourselves in the “nothingness” of “woman’s nakedness.” The extremity of such language, the spareness of such categories, seems to generate a dire scenario that neither “communication” nor “humanness” is obliged, perhaps, to support.