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Introduction The Sacred Monster We must refuse boredom and live only for fascination. — g e o r g e s b a t a i l l e , ‘‘The Sacred Conspiracy’’ In the 1930s, French writer Georges Bataille (1897–1962) established a secret society known as Acéphale. In the journal by the same name that provided the group’s public facade, Bataille sets the mood for this obscure ‘‘headless’’ organization, declaring with imperative exigency, ‘‘WE ARE FEROCIOUSLY RELIGIOUS.’’1 Following this fervent enunciation, he heralds the acéphalic deity that embodies this fierce religious sensibility. Enhanced by a drawing executed by his friend, the surrealist André Masson, Bataille’s description evokes a headless being, anthropomorphic but incomplete . Arms outstretched in a cruciform posture, hands bearing a blade and a flaming sacred heart, intestines visibly churning within a gaping torso, and PAGE 1 1 ................. 16666$ INTR 10-02-07 14:19:47 PS 2 Ecce Monstrum with a skull in place of the genitals, the acéphale is at once frightening and ridiculous, an absurd but fascinating conjunction of terror and hilarity. Bataille insists on the contradictory nature of this headless being. Describing the encounter with the acéphale, he writes: Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless; this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime. . . . He reunites in the same eruption Birth and Death. He is not a man. He is not a god either. He is not me but he is more than me: his stomach is the labyrinth in Figure 1. André Masson, Acéphale. 䉷 by ADAGP, Paris, 1985. PAGE 2 ................. 16666$ INTR 10-02-07 14:20:10 PS Introduction 3 which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover myself as him, in other words as a monster [monstre].2 The acéphale is thus neither merely man nor solely god,3 because he is both man and god—at once human and holy, mortal and deific. This conjunction of opposites is what endows the headless being with its aura of fascination, and what makes of it a sacred ‘‘monster.’’4 Bataille’s insistent conjunction of the monstrous and the sacred is the subject of this book. Regarded by many as one of the most important thinkers of our time, and acknowledged as an important influence by such intellectuals as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Derrida, Bataille produced a corpus of wide-ranging writings bearing the monstrous marks of the affective and intellectual contradictions he also sought to produce in his readers. In the following chapters, I will specify some of the ways in which Bataille evokes monstrosity to elicit in himself and his audience an experience of simultaneous anguish and joy—an experience that he calls sacred. In particular, Bataille is fascinated with the ‘‘left-hand’’ sacred. In contradistinction to its lucent and form-conferring ‘‘right-hand’’ counterpart, the left-hand sacred is obscure and formless—not transcendent , pure, and beneficent, but dangerous, filthy, and morbid. This sinister, deadly aspect of the sacred is at once embodied in, and communicated by, the monster. As we will see, it is in beholding the monster that one might experience the combination of ecstasy and horror that characterizes Bataille ’s notion of the sacred. The dual etymology of ‘‘monster’’ reveals that aspect of the sacred that enticed Bataille. According to one vein of etymological study, the Latin monstrum derives from monstrare (to show or display). The monster is that which appears before our eyes as a sign of sorts; it is a demonstration. But another tradition emphasizes a more ominous point. Deriving from monere (to warn), the monster is a divine omen, a portent; it heralds something that yet remains unexpected, unforeseeable—as a sudden reversal of fortune.5 In the writings of Bataille, the monster functions as a monstrance, putting on display the sinister aspect of the sacred that Bataille sees as the key to a ‘‘sovereign’’ existence. But in doing so the monster presents us with a portent of something that we cannot precisely foresee, but something that, Bataille claims, can be paradoxically experienced in moments of simultaneous anguish and ecstasy: death. PAGE 3 ................. 16666$ INTR 10-02-07 14:20:12 PS 4 Ecce Monstrum Death, according to Bataille, is not only a source of anguish, but also that by which we ecstatically escape our limited senses of self...