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t h r e e The Labyrinth: Toward Bataille’s ‘‘Extremist Surrealism’’ The Birth of Art Upon a first reading, Bataille’s late book Lascaux, or The Birth of Art1 appears straightforward enough. Published in 1955 as part of the mainstream ‘‘Great Centuries of Painting’’ series by the Skira Color Studio, the text of this book is a sustained exposition of the conditions under which the now famous cave paintings of Lascaux came into being. Though some of the hypotheses that Bataille forwards may be somewhat extravagant for a book of its type,2 his characteristic obsessions with transgression , death, sovereignty, and eroticism nonetheless surface with relative gentleness, to less eruptive effect than one might expect in a work by the author of such violent and scatological texts as the ‘‘Pineal Eye.’’ And the uncharacteristic frequency with which he deploys adjectives like ‘‘beautiful ,’’ ‘‘dazzling,’’ ‘‘miraculous,’’ and merveilleux (marvelous)3 to describe the subterranean subject of his study is more reminiscent of a photophilic PAGE 72 72 ................. 16666$ $CH3 10-02-07 14:20:31 PS The Labyrinth: Toward Bataille’s ‘‘Extremist Surrealism’’ 73 André Breton, or better suited to an exalted Nietzsche, than to the ‘‘philosophe -excrément,’’4 Bataille. The tone of the book therefore seems all wrong; its apparent straightforwardness , coupled with its aureate style, is ill-suited to Bataille, the writer of death, blindness, and the night. Indeed, how could the former editor of Documents, who had excoriated certain surrealists for their tendency to engage in a sublimating ‘‘game of transpositions,’’ be given to describe ‘‘art’s purpose’’—in a patently Bretonian formulation—as the creation of ‘‘a sensible reality whereby the ordinary world is modified in response to the desire for the extraordinary, the marvelous’’?5 This stance seems to contradict Bataille ’s otherwise rigorous refusal to transform base reality into something beautiful; it opposes his proclaimed imperative for art with ‘‘no new acceptances.’’6 The contradiction is not merely apparent—but neither does it represent a renunciation of Bataille’s previous writings. Rather, the contradiction here is strategic and, perhaps paradoxically, consonant with Bataille’s writings more generally. But it is also at once an undercutting of the reader’s expectations and, less obviously, a rupture with the two thinkers whose rhetoric Bataille’s most readily calls to mind: Friedrich Nietzsche and André Breton. The densely allusive preface7 to Lascaux provides a clue how to see these aspects of the contradiction. In the few paragraphs that introduce Bataille’s text, the editor of the ‘‘Great Centuries’’ series, Albert Skira, describes the difficult conditions in which the book was produced. He recounts the disorienting confusion of day and night, light and darkness, the visible and the invisible,8 the terrestrial surface and the subterranean depths, in which the research at Lascaux was accomplished. He claims that ‘‘nights were spent working underground in the intense light cast by projectors trained upon this magical world whose details and color nuances, invisible under the subdued lighting installed for visitors, sprang out vividly in all their pristine beauty.’’9 Further enhancing the sense of a coincidentia oppositorum, Skira goes on to say that the team of spelunking researchers would emerge from the cave at daybreak, only to go to sleep in a ‘‘hospitable inn’’ called the Soleil d’Or. The irony of this situation, which could not better dramatize the strange interplay of blindness and insight purveyed by the text had it been orchestrated by Bataille himself, would not have been lost on Bataille, who, like Breton, was particularly attuned to the ‘‘marvelous’’ effects of coincidence.10 PAGE 73 ................. 16666$ $CH3 10-02-07 14:20:32 PS 74 Ecce Monstrum And, to be sure, Bataille must have reveled in the flagrantly anti-Platonic conditions of his research, which dwells in the cave and culminates in a scholarly hymn to the mimetic faculties of prehistoric men who did not emerge from a cavern to be enlightened, but descended into its bowels to inscribe the walls with visions of animality, monstrosity, and death. But the surest clue to the obliquely contradictory character of Bataille’s book comes when Skira offers his apologetic explanation for the photographs that accompany the text—photos that are necessarily inadequate to the anamorphic splendor of the paintings they attempt to reproduce: The truth is that the Lascaux paintings mysteriously shift and change. They are not painted on a uniformly flat surface and cannot always be viewed from a normal angle, from squarely in front...


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