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o n e Ecstatic and Intolerable: The Provocations of Friendship Intimacy is violence. — g e o r g e s b a t a i l l e , Theory of Religion The Tears of Eros What is truth, apart from the representation of excess, if we only see that which exceeds the possibility of seeing what it is intolerable to see, just as in ecstasy enjoyment is intolerable? — g e o r g e s b a t a i l l e , Erotism Georges Bataille died in 1962, a year after completing his last book, The Tears of Eros, a lavishly illustrated essay on the history of eroticism. This book represents a visual and textual record of this writer’s final days; the inevitability of death that had terrified and elated Bataille throughout his life had now given way to awareness of death’s imminence. In poor health, Bataille, with the assistance of his friend J. M. Lo Duca, wrote the text that would accompany the images he had collected and arranged with scrupulous care during the previous two years. PAGE 9 9 ................. 16666$ $CH1 10-02-07 14:20:20 PS 10 Ecce Monstrum Among the dozens of images comprised in this book—ranging from basreliefs of copulating figures from the Aurignacian period, to Greek statuary, to the productions of surrealists such as Hans Bellmer and André Masson— are four photos of a man undergoing the punitive process known as the lingchi, translated as ‘‘death by a thousand cuts’’ or the ‘‘hundred pieces.’’ ‘‘Reserved for the gravest of crimes,’’ this mode of torture and execution entails the dismemberment and evisceration of its victim.1 The shots were captured in Peking in 1905 and published by Georges Dumas in 1923. But Bataille’s first exposure to these images, which he characterizes as ‘‘the most anguishing of worlds accessible to us . . . on film,’’2 came through Dr. Adrien Borel, a French psychoanalyst who treated Bataille during the years 1925–27. Borel, employing a rather unorthodox strategy to approach the ‘‘virulently obsessive character’’ of his patient, made a gift of one of these photos to Bataille. Bataille credited the psychoanalytic treatment, during the course of which he received the photo, with liberating him from the series of ‘‘mishaps’’ in which he had been ‘‘floundering.’’3 Bataille claims that ‘‘this photograph had a decisive role’’ in his life, that he ‘‘never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable.’’4 Indeed, this horrific image remained the subject of his scrutiny until the time of his death. With this in mind, it is worth inquiring into the question mark that punctuates Bataille’s description of the victim in this photo as ‘‘ecstatic’’ and ‘‘intolerable.’’ This question mark appears to refer to Dumas’s Traité de psychologie, which Bataille discusses in his treatment of the photos.5 Dumas’s physiognomic study analyzes the expressions of persons in states of extreme pleasure and pain. After commenting on the unclassifiable nature of the expression on the victim’s face, Dumas avoids drawing any definitive conclusions, remarking instead that the expression is ‘‘paradoxical’’ and perhaps ‘‘ecstatic.’’ The question mark in Bataille’s text may thus respond to Dumas’s own uncertainty regarding the ecstatic state of the victim. In apparent deference to Dumas, Bataille allows the question of ecstasy to remain open. This question mark could be read as disingenuous; it may be that Bataille is in fact certain that the image portrays a state of ecstasy, that the victim’s face reveals not just torment, but rapture. This case is bolstered by Bataille’s claim that ‘‘Dumas insists upon the ecstatic appearance of the victim’s expression ,’’6 despite the fact that, as one commentator has noted, Dumas ‘‘really only mentions it on his way to concluding that the face cannot be read’’—not PAGE 10 ................. 16666$ $CH1 10-02-07 14:20:21 PS Ecstatic and Intolerable: The Provocations of Friendship 11 definitively, at least—in these terms.7 But further consideration may lead to a different conclusion. For instance, Amy Hollywood emphasizes that the conjecture concerning the victim’s putative ecstasy, however tentative, is initially made by Dumas, and is ‘‘only reluctantly taken up by Bataille.’’8 The very question of whether Bataille insists upon the ecstasy of the victim or is reluctant to accede to this hypothesis is in some sense also the response to the problem. The question mark points, finally, to...


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