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  • The Impossible Sacrifice of Poetry: Bataille and the Nancian Critique of Sacrifice
  • Elisabeth Arnould (bio)

When, at the very center of his Inner Experience, Bataille arrives at what he calls the “uppermost extremity of non-meaning,” he stages for us one of the principal scenes of his “sacrifice of knowledge.” It depicts Rimbaud, turning his back on his works, making the ultimate and definitive sacrifice of poetry. This scene, which complements two other representations of the “supplice” of the experience—the crucifixion of God and the oncoming madness of Hegel—rounds out the triple sacrificial vocation of an experience of nonknowledge, at once “a-theological,” “a-gnoseological,” and “a-poetological.” It extends to poetry and language the critical and sovereign imperative of an experience that can only be called “inner” insofar as it renounces truth, knowledge, and, ultimately, speech.

What exactly, however, does this sacrificial renunciation of words represent for Bataille and why did he choose to load it with all the transgressive weight of the experience of nonknowledge (“non-savoir”)? Why place the self-sacrifice of poetry at the very center of a book that would be annulled by an immolation of speech? Indeed, why make this final “supplice”—a sacrifice of words performed and dedicated “to” “nothing”—into the core of the book’s interior rapture? Isn’t this figure of death and silence incurably equivocal? Does it not attribute the traditional traits of a “nothingness” to this “rapturous heart” of finitude that Bataille always wanted to designate as the “impossible” object of his experience? And is it not, therefore, condemned to appropriate, through this representation, the nonmeaning of a finitude that Bataille, far from conceptualizing as simple nothingness, usually prefers to designate ambiguously as “nonknowledge”?

Such are the questions I shall address in reevaluating Bataille’s concept of sacrifice in light of Jean-Luc Nancy’s critique. In his article “The Unsacrificeable,” Nancy was the first to point out the problematic nature of the sacrificial model in Bataille’s conceptualization of finitude. According to Nancy, sacrifice, including the self-sacrifice of Rimbaud so important to Bataille, is the vehicle of an “ontotheological” appropriation. And it is through sacrifice that Bataille’s reflection on finitude attempts to domesticate death while claiming to abandon it to the aporetic enunciation of a “nonknowledge.”

I shall thus examine the problematic figure of poetry’s self-sacrifice in order to expose, with Nancy, the equivocality of its conceptual appropriation. In light of Bataille’s multiple stagings and interpretations of this figure, however, I shall also attempt to demonstrate how his writing on and of sacrifice already contains the seeds of its own critique and attempts to exceed itself. Bataille did not simply want to reveal, in Rimbaud’s self-sacrifice, the inexpressible truth of finitude; he also wanted to denounce the comical lie of the sacrificial appropriation. And it is this double valence of the Rimbaldian self-sacrifice that I shall try to bring forth. [End Page 86]

Before elucidating the meaning and function of this figure in the specific context of Inner Experience and questioning its possible duplicity, one must examine the general notion upon which it is modeled. Poetry’s self-sacrifice is the “consummate” form 1 of a sacrifice that we find in the form of stagings and commentaries in Bataille’s work. As is well known, the question of sacrifice has always occupied a central place in Bataille’s thought. He has not only studied this protean ethnological phenomenon we call “sacrifice” but has also wanted to give sacrifice, beyond traditional “ontotheological” interpretations and recent anthropological reconstructions, a meaning that far exceeds these restricted determinations. Sacrifice is not simply, for Bataille, a theoretical object. A paradigmatic manifestation of the sacred and its transgressions, it marks rather a limit to conceptualization and constitutes a stumbling block to thought. As such, it is, for Bataille—or, as he himself maintains, for all thought—the locus of an interruption. Cross-culturally, sacrifice delineates the limit thought comes up against when it faces what it cannot think.

As the negation of our corporeal and intellectual limits, as the bloody excess that erupts before the fascinated eyes of a spectator, sacrifice “represents,” for...