- Bataille and Sartre: The Modernity of Mysticism
It is always relatively surprising to see how the great minds of an era manifest a kind of blindness when it comes to judging their peers, whether one is thinking of Balzac as the reader of Stendhal or Gide as the reader of Proust. This is undoubtedly because any truly forceful mind is also a mind so obsessed and fascinated by its own way of apprehending the world that it can admit no other system of reference, no other range of values than its own. From this point of view, “A New Mysticism,” the article that Sartre devoted in some bad faith to Bataille’s Inner Experience when the book was published in 1943, should be accorded a prime place in the annals of great literary misunderstandings. There is no doubt that the brilliant philosopher of Being and Nothingness commits a strange blunder—strange, at least, for an intellectual of his stature—with respect to the conceptual sacrifice by which Bataille seeks to reveal and, at the same time, cast out modern man’s nostalgia for the sacred. But is “blunder” the right word? Because everything in the book proceeds not as though Sartre had not understood, or badly understood, but rather as though he had pretended not to understand the true stakes that in turn are revealed and consumed by this impossible book. The harshness of his critiques, the vehemence of tone—poorly tempered by a forced irony—instead prove that Inner Experience had hit home, at a level unusual for intellectual polemics. Struck to the core, Sartre reacted. This explains why “A New Mysticism” is a “boomerang” text, or a revealing one, in the photographic sense, being more valuable for what it tells us about its author than for what it teaches about the object being criticized. It is a text in which the reader has to read what is not said, “between the lines,” seeking the cause for the text’s often flagrantly unjust and indeed petty and truistic assertions, in its defense system, or, to borrow a term from the field of psychoanalysis which Sartre so abhorred, in the author’s “denials.” To put it clearly, is not the presence of the sacred, this unknowable and virulent sacred, which seeps out of every part of Bataille’s book, through the cracks and tears in its “form” and the paradoxical gaps in its “content,” also the presence that ceaselessly haunts, with its shadow and disturbing light, the thinking of the last great philosopher-monster?
In his didactic concern to be convincing, Sartre divided his article into three parts, the first two dealing respectively with “form” and “content,” the third functioning as a verdict. Viewed fifty years later, such a division applied to a text as anti-academic as Inner Experience might seem comical. It points, however, to the seriousness being accorded in Sartre’s text to knowledge as organized within the academy and to the institutional function of the academy. From one end of the text to the other, Sartre acts as censor and judge, pitilessly pointing out, with the derisive scorn of the specialist, the philosophical naiveté of “Mr. Bataille,” particularly his rapid and unprofessional reading of Jaspers and Heidegger, which Bataille knew only in translation [see “NM” 194]. Sartre’s superior mandarin attitude explains why his first task had been to divide literary and philosophical history into two “frames of mind.” Although original, Bataille’s style and writing already had their place in a “tradition,” which is that line from Pascal to the surrealists, by way of Nietzsche, made up of writers anxious to express (themselves), writing down their [End Page 59] thoughts as they come, helter-skelter, in the exalted illumination of the moment, even before being located and fixed within the design of an argument. In modern writers, this tradition had become even more intensified. Disregarding the classical writerly values of restraint and modesty, the writer seeks to express not only his mind but also his body and its living reality, to establish with the reader a sort of “carnal promiscuity.” Thus we get Breton, who...