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  • Bataille and Mysticism: A “Dazzling Dissolution”
  • Amy Hollywood (bio)

Within Georges Bataille’s texts of the late 1930s and 1940s, in particular those later brought together in the tripartite Atheological Summa, he repeatedly suggests that his primary models for writing and experience are the texts of the Christian and non-Western mystical traditions (often represented, in Bataille, by women’s writings) and those of Friedrich Nietzsche. 1 Inner Experience opens with evocations of Nietzsche, and the final volume of the trilogy, On Nietzsche, is “devoted” to his work. References to mystical writings occur throughout Inner Experience and Guilty, and significant portions of both texts can be read as providing “guides” for inner experience analogous to the “itineraries” of Angela of Foligno (d. 1309) and Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) or as spiritual daybooks like those of Mechthild of Magdeburg (d. ca. 1275). These models are, I think, the key to understanding Bataille’s own writing strategies in the Atheological Summa. 2 Despite their apparent divergence, moreover, Bataille insists that mystical and Nietzschean texts reflect and are constitutive of the same experience and writing practice.

Like both Nietzsche and the mystics, Bataille’s “antigeneric” writing mixes genres and styles within and between texts. 3 Throughout the course of his career, experience and writing are in a constant state of movement, flux, or chaos (to echo Bataille’s self-description in On Nietzsche). The Atheological Summa encapsulates within what purport to be three unified books the diversity of genres and styles that run throughout Bataille’s corpus as a whole. They contain ample quotation of Nietzsche’s texts and those of the mystics—undigested hunks and fragments of these allusive writings 4 —together with philosophical reflections, confessional meditations, diary fragments, letters, and, at the end of On Nietzsche, a set of six brief historical and theoretical appendices. Anything broaching traditional textual commentary is reserved for the margins of these nonbooks. Like many mystics, particularly women who were denied access to the traditional genres of sermon, biblical commentary, and philosophical or theological treatise, and like Nietzsche, who eschews and subverts traditional genre distinctions, Bataille comments and critiques through practice rather than exposition. Although Bataille acknowledges the oddity of his coupling the mystics and Nietzsche, he also rigorously defends it, arguing for a mystical and ecstatic experience in Nietzsche’s work. 5 As I hope to show, Bataille’s [End Page 74] experience of the failures of mysticism and of Nietzsche speak to each other and lead to Bataille’s necessary apostasy as his true discipleship.

Repetition of the divergences between Bataille and the mystics, first stated by Bataille himself in Inner Experience, has become something of a commonplace, yet his claims have not been sufficiently explored or challenged. So, for example, Alain Arnauld and Giséle Excoffon-Lafarge unproblematically assert that despite all proximities between Bataille’s texts and those of the mystics, they differ in their aims or aimlessness. Michel Surya joins a host of other scholars whose primary concern is to demonstrate (against the insinuations of Sartre, made now almost fifty years ago) that Bataille was not a Christian. Whereas the mystics’ path ends with the divine encounter, Bataille renounces all objects, aims, or end for his quest and his desire. 6 Most importantly, he rejects all idealism and any hope for salvation. Bataille himself insists on his divergence from the Christian mystics in Inner Experience and Guilty. At the same time, his citations and mimings of central texts from the Christian mystical tradition show that what fascinates him within these writings is precisely the moment in which the soul desires “to live without a why,” embracing the suffering of hell—understood as the absence of/from the “object” of desire—as desire. 7 In a move later echoed by Jacques Lacan, Bataille claims that some medieval mystics attained that beyond of which he writes, but without knowing anything about it: “Exuberance is the point where we let go of Christianity. Angela of Foligno attained it and described it, but didn’t know it.” 8

Commentators follow Bataille in resisting his identification with the mystics, then, whereas Nietzsche is a less troubling model for Bataille and his readers. In fact, Bataille...