By Andrea Muni
Translated by Alessandro Sbordoni
Georges Bataille’s replies are quotes or translations from the following texts: Inner Experience (1988/1943, State University of New York Press), Friendship (2001/1940, Parallax), Method of Meditation (2002/1947, Pensum), On Nietzsche (2004/1973, Continuum), “La Limite de l’Utile (Fragments)” in Oeuvres Complètes de Georges Bataille (vol. VII) (1976, Gallimard), and “Conférences 1951–1953” in Oeuvres Complètes de Georges Bataille (vol. VIII) (1976, Gallimard).
Andrea Muni: Welcome, my dear GB. First of all, I owe you an apology. Some friends and I are celebrating the 60th anniversary of your death and felt the urge to call you for this (im)possible interview. After all, this is your party and you are the main guest! Also, you could have not avoided it (literally, sic). Welcome then! Please, come inside!
Today, I would like to discuss one of your favourite and most quoted topics: laughter. There are at least two reasons for this choice: first, your theory of laughter is astounding and unequalled, unparalleled from all that has been written throughout the history of Western thought; second, your theory of laughter has the potential to polish the image that your detractors — and some of your followers as well — attached to you: a nihilist and a fool, enamoured of death and destruction up to the heights of perversion. Alas, they have never understood — like Freud and unlike Lacan (who was, moreover, one of your deranged and secret admirers) — the highly symbolical meaning of that primary instinct referred to as death drive. Far too many of them didn’t see what is at play here, what is sacrificed by this mad laughter, by enjoyment, by hopeless tears, by transgression and excess: not the organic subject, but the subject of reason that we have cherished as ourselves! The thinking subject of utility that others have etched into our flesh, calling it superego, and forced to play out with us on the grim stage of social life. In short, the death drive is whatever kills, whatever makes one lose, so to speak, the identification with this secondary subject. But your reign, dear GB, is already past this, past all this sombreness: there is your throne, together with all that enflamed your life, both as a human being and a thinker.
Let us start, shall we, from the laughter of the good ol’ Bergson. What do you think about his theory of laughter?
Georges Bataille: [This] take[s] myself back twenty years in time: at first I had laughed, upon emerging from a long Christian piety, my life having dissolved, with a spring-like bad faith, in laughter. Of this laughter, I have already described the point of ecstasy but, from the first day onward, I no longer had any doubt: laughter was revelation, opened up the depth of things. I will reveal the occasion out of which this laughter arose: I was in London (in 1920) and I was to have dinner with Bergson; I had at that time read nothing by him (nor moreover had I read much by other philosophers); I had this curiosity — while at the British Museum I asked for Laughter (the shortest of his books); reading it irritated me — the theory seemed to me to fall short (for this reason, the public figure disappointed me: this careful little man, philosopher!) but the question — the meaning of laughter which remained hidden — was from then on in my eyes the key question (linked to happy, infinite laughter, by which I saw right away that I was possessed), was the puzzle which at all costs I will solve (which, solved, would of itself solve everything).
For a long time I knew nothing other than a chaotic euphoria. After only a few years, I felt the chaos gradually to become suffocating. I was broken, undone, from having laughed too much, such that, depressed, I found myself: the inconsistent monster which I was, empty of sense and of will, frightened me.
AM: But then… you got a grip of yourself…
GB: Getting a grip of myself? [Sure, that’s] easy! Though… I myself in control of myself would scare me. Shifting to decisiveness, I quickly return to a friendship with myself, gentleness. Hence, the necessity for endless chance. At this point I can only look for chance and attempt to catch it as I laugh. Taking risks, going looking for chance — this requires patience, love, and total letting go. […]
Yesterday. Kids following behind, running. One behind a streetcar, the other trailing a bus. What’s in their small heads? The same thing as in my own. A basic difference — a decisiveness on my part (I can’t depend on others). Here I am, a self: awakening, emerging, from a long period of human infancy, in which people relied on each other for everything. But essentially, this dawn of knowledge and this full possession of self is only night, only powerlessness (impotence). A short phrase will excessively suggest chance — “Could freedom somehow not be powerless?” Any activity whose object is simply what can be wholly measured is powerful but slavish. Freedom derives from hazard.
The neurotic has only a single way out and must risk himself. Life within comes to a halt. Such life can no longer go on along familiar ways, has to open up a new path, create a new world for itself and others. Motivating this writing — as I see it — is fear of going crazy. I’m on fire with painful longings, persisting in me like unsatisfied desire. In one sense, my tension is a crazy urge to laugh.
AM: True. You’re part of the race of the great extremes, of the great leaps, as Jim Morrison would have liked it, “the highest and lowest points are the important ones. Anything else is just in between.” To think that you just missed him… Anyway, here is what I wanted to say: the experience of laughter is different to you than, let’s say, other thinkers who seriously discussed it (from Blumbenberg to Bergson and Pirandello). After all, you never had any interest in the comic: you never cared about “what” or “why” something compels us to laugh. Instead, you wanted to understand who (or rather, where) are “we” when we laugh, and, even more precisely, you wanted to understand where we are when we find ourselves laughing to death. In your works, you have described laughter as a sovereign and climatic experience, near to tears, eros, and intoxication. More broadly, you have associated it with the experience of dread — and frenzy, too: when we finally end up outside ourselves, at the edges of our beings, all the way up to the porose boundary where we communicate with others (including that particular other that is our body).
GB: [Yes], communication does not add up to human reality, but constitutes it instead.
Man — ceasing at the limit of laughter — to wish himself to be everything and wishing himself in the end to be what he is, imperfect, incomplete, good — if possible, right to moments of cruelty. […] Sovereign moments are of a relative banality: a little ardour and abandon suffice (a little cowardice however distracts us from it and the next moment we are babbling).
To laugh to the point of tears, to sensually enjoy screaming, evidently nothing is more common (strangest is our servility when we speak of serious affairs after the fact, as if they were nothing). Ecstasy is close-by: one imagines the alluring enchantment of poetry, the intensity of crazed laughter, a dizzying feeling of absence, but these simplified elements, reduced to a geometric point, in indistinctness. Again I will show the apparition of a beloved face, in the night, at the window of an isolated house, but it’s frightening, a dead woman’s face: suddenly, under this blow, night changed into day, a cold shiver into a crazy smile, as if it was nothing — for this acute ravishing hardly differs from any ordinary state. Anguish in this case would be withdrawal from risk. Love is my necessity. I’m impelled to drift into happiness, sensing chance there. […] I cannot take risks without this anguish of feeling suspended. But to take risks mean to overcome anguish.
For those I am attached to, I am a provocation. I cannot stand seeing them forget the chance they would be if they took risks.
Senseless hope excites me.
Before me I see a sort of flame, a flame that is me, that kindles me. “I’d like to bring harm on those I illuminate.” Incapable of doing anything — I survive — in laceration. And with my eyes, I follow a shimmering light that turns me into its plaything. And regarding laughter, I said “I am this. I follow it right to the explosion point. Such is laughter’s superfluity; its unfoundedness.”
Existence is not possible wherever men consider themselves in isolation: it begins with conversations, shared laughter, friendship, eroticism, that is to say, that it only takes place when being is passed from one to the other. I hate the image of being that is linked to separation and I laugh at the recluse who thinks he is reflecting on the world. He cannot really reflect on it because by becoming himself the centre of reflection, he no longer exists, just like the worlds that disappear in all directions. [When] I realise that the universe does not resemble any isolated being that is closing on oneself but to what passes from one being to the other, when we burst out laughing or when we love one another, at that moment the immensity of the universe opens up to me and I become confused with the other’s flight.
Everywhere, in every accessible reality and in every being, it is necessary to seek out the place of sacrifice, the location of the wound. Every being is affected only at the point where it succumbs. The one who in his hatred of a selfish solitude demands his own loss in ecstasy takes the immensity of the sky ‘by the throat’ because it must bleed and cry out. It is in so far as existences appear to be perfect, complete, that they remain separate and closed in on themselves. Existences only open up through the wound of the incompletion of being in them. The different beings, distinct from one another communicate because it is possible to talk about incompletion, animal nudity, wound, and it is in this communication from one to the other that they come alive through losing themselves.
AM: So laughter, which fascinated you as much as eros, communication, and the festival, is a form of — atheist and relational — access to a mystical-like state, something that we can share with others and find even in the most trivial and ordinary happenings…
GB: [Well, for example] when I was a kid and someone started to tickle my tummy, my “little stomach” used to respond with sudden muscular fits, independently of my will. Because they were out of my control, the movements used to make me laugh like a maniac. As I was set free from this withdrawal into myself, “they” (the involuntary fits) had also been relieved from me. The person who was tickling me and I had then entered a kind of shared convulsion, thanks to which this “small stomach”, my “tummy”, had escaped the steadfastness we originally ascribed to it. Laughter used to double as the tickling doubled, until it hurt; the more I felt like crying out in despair, the more I kept on laughing.
The “liberatory” moment of laughter is never at the start, but at that moment where laughter redoubles until it peaks at a marvellous intensity. It is at that moment that dread, usually contrary to all activity, has augmented the violence of the excitement, which now cannot be halted.
AM: Here is an issue that does not seem to come by itself. I’m afraid you should explain this a little more, dear GB, even though I’m well aware that explanations are not your thing.
Throughout your work — and with a kind of symptomatic stubbornness — you have coupled laughter and dread. In this regard, your account was very different from both Bergson’s theory of laughter and Pirandello’s fine representation of irony.
Laughter would seem contrary to, or even the negation of dread. Yet, you seem to consider laughter as the obverse of the coin, almost the “other side of the fabric” of dread…
GB: [Surely] dread is not the cause of laughter, although dread is crucial — in one way or another — to laughter. It’s only when dread is “lifted” that laughter begins.
Under standard conditions, an almost unnoticed form of dread is “removed” by some pleasure. Some children laugh heartily at the fall of a person they fear, the owner of the kiosk who was chasing them because they knocked the apples over. What is “removed” or “lifted” from laughter is now more the risk of dread than dread in and by itself. Unlike other forms of expenditure, there is no loss in laughter, but only an agreement with losing.
A young English lady used to laugh maliciously every time she received notice of the death of an acquaintance. This unusual behaviour — in sheer contrast with her overall good manners and courtesy — well highlights what we always give away when we laugh: that personal agreement made, deep within ourselves, between our joy and a movement that is destroying us. The young woman who laughed because she knew she “ought not to” was just like a stage actor breaking character because of a fit of giggles. Dread, while suffocating laughter, is also what makes it explode disproportionately, even more overwhelmingly than before. […]
Struck by the blows of this “doubled” laughter, I was unable to perceive anything with clarity, except maybe this painful and lustful agreement within myself about laughter and derangement. […]
What can be controlled and changed at one’s will is of little meaning and importance. If only we could not judge the emotions that we feel in these moments of mad laughter as inferior ones, then, perhaps, we would really “change our state”, sublimate ourselves, build another world. But we don’t have the strength: we are bound.
AM: You say: “we are bound”, there’s really nothing to do about this. But is it even true?
GB: We will never abolish this heaviness nor lift the conditions of our laughter. A man capable of doing this would be so different from his peers as a bird from a snake. […] Whoever possesses the strength to endure laugh, as laughter doubles, will feel like God. […] [And] so is the one who is prey of mad laughter: the crisis takes hold of him, disclosing the limitless possibility of new worlds to the point of dying. From the kind of otherworld where laughter comes upon him — where this can come upon only “despite” himself — there is no chance for this man to be distinguished from what disquiets and frightens him the most; he will not be separate from death anymore, nor from what kills, since everlasting laughter — which now tears him apart — has already pushed him beyond the edge, placing him in agreement with the terrible unison.
AM: I see. You claim that we are bound to do this but, at the end of the day, one gets the opposite feeling from your writings and your most inspired ravings. Think only, for example, of your exquisite retrieval of Nietzsche’s laughter: in your diaries, one can literally feel the triumph of dread at the hands of a sovereign and superhuman laughter. After all, you have to admit this too, GB: your laughter is very much like that of Zarathustra’s young shepherd…
And truly, I saw something the like of which I had never seen before. A young shepherd I saw; writhing, choking, twitching, his face distorted, with a thick black snake hanging from his mouth. […] Surely he must have fallen asleep? Then the snake crawled into his throat – where it bit down firmly. My hand tore at the snake and tore – in vain! It could not tear the snake from his throat. Then it cried out of me: “Bite down! Bite down! Bite off the head! Bite down!” – Thus it cried out of me, my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all my good and bad cried out of me with one shout. […](From Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, “On the Vision and the Riddle”)
What did I see then as a parable? And who is it that must some day come?
Who is the shepherd into whose throat the snake crawled this way? Who is the human being into whose throat everything that is heaviest, blackest will crawl?
— Meanwhile the shepherd bit down as my shout advised him; he bit with a good bite! Far away he spat the head of the snake — and he leaped to his feet. —
No longer shepherd, no longer human — a transformed, illuminated, laughing being!
Never yet on earth had I heard a human being laugh as he laughed! Oh my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter — and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that will never be still.
My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh how can I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now! —
Anyway, I understand what you mean, GB; the laughter you talk about is a sovereign experience, but these experiences cannot be retold without betraying them altogether. It is for this reason that, sometimes, you appear to withdraw into your own words as you talk about these experiences in theory, almost as if you were ashamed of the implicit betrayal that always lies in the communicative effort of retelling them — that attempt of putting into words this life that is nothing but ourselves. Of course, there are moments when we cannot — quite literally — know what we are; moments (or is it maybe life itself!?) when we cannot know ourselves for we are too busy being there…
GB: [Well,] this kind of autonomy — the autonomy of moments of distress or delight (ecstasy or physical pleasure) — [is] the type of autonomy least open to doubt. Sexual pleasure (concealing itself and provoking laughter) comes closest to the essence of majesty. Likewise despair.
But neither the hopeless nor the sensualist can know what majesty they have. Once known, it’s lost. Human autonomy necessarily escapes our being able to perceive it (it would be servile if it openly declared itself). True sovereignty so conscientiously effects a mortal destruction of itself that it cannot, even for a moment, pose this mortal self-destruction as a real question.
“No men around here. I’m gonna go and find one” (an American woman). Saying that requires more virtue than refusing temptation. When drinking, it’s natural to flow into the next person. Stinginess becomes a vice, the demonstration of poverty (desiccation). If it weren’t for the power that men have, their power to cast a cloud on things, poison things, go bitter, turn rancorous, boring, and small-minded, what excuse would there be for […] caution?
From hidden recesses of disaster inside us comes easy laughter, requiring angelic courage.
“The greatness of humankind lies in being a bridge, not a goal — humanness loved for its nature as transition, as decline.”
“I love those who lead life in order to founder, to go down — for they will go beyond.”
“I love the great ridicules because they are the great adorers, the arrows of desire ready to fly to the other shore.”
If you read them, these sayings of Zarathustra (prologue to the first part) mean little. They suggest possibilities, want to be lived uncompromisingly, unstintingly, by risk takers, by those who regard themselves only as leaps, in which they pass beyond the limits.
I loathe monks.
For me, turning away from the world, from chance, from the truth of bodies is shameful.
No great sin exists.
Happiness, remembering the night of drinking and dancing, dancing by myself like a peasant, a faun, with couples all around me.
Alone? Actually: there we were dancing face to face in a potlatch of absurdity, the philosopher — Sartre — and me.
I remember whirling about, dancing.
Jumping, stomping down the wooden floor.
Acting rebellious and crazy — like a fool.
For me, there’s a connection between this dance, with Sartre opposite me and a painting I recall (Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon). The third character was a store-window dummy made out of a horse’s skull and a flowing, striped yellow and mauve dressing gown. A grimly medieval canopied bed presiding over the fun.
Five months of nightmare ended in a carnival.
What a surprise — fraternising like that with Sartre and Camus (like a schoolboy in the company of the headmasters).
AM: Come on, don’t brag, GB. Let’s get back to the point, let’s get back to Nietzsche. There’s the shepherd’s laughter, and there’s also that other word, wahrlacher, which refers to Zarathustra as “the truth-laugher”. Third, there’s also that other famous quote by Nietzsche about laughter, to which you’ve always been very attached…
GB: My life with Nietzsche is a community. This community is about the experience of un-knowing, which can be accessed by a certain view of laughter. [Let me quote] Nietzsche’s words from a note from the period 1882–1884. Nietzsche writes: “To see tragic natures perish and still be able to laugh, surpassing the deepest understanding, feeling and compassion for them — is divine.” What I mean when I talk about un-knowing, experience and its effects upon us, must not be distinguished from what has been stated above. The laughter I’m concerned with — the laughter that may as well be referred to as divine — is that same laughter which can arise from the sight of tragic nature in ruins.
At the same time, there seems to be something already too hyperbolic with Nietzsche’s affirmation. It troubles me a little. Maybe it is a bit too tragic. Once the true significance of the tragic is elucidated, so that one is able to laugh about it, everything feels lighter again. As I laugh at the impossible that strucks me, as I laugh about the art of collapse, I am a god that makes fun of the possibility of being. Differently from the tragic that follows from Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, I no longer summon the impossible to avert it.
Zarathustra proclaimed laughter sacred; now I can say it clearly: laughter is lightheartedness — although if Nietzsche had said this he would have missed the target. Still, it’s true that this laughter, unlike tears, is bound to a position of dominance.
AM: My dear GB, I think many will find it hard to understand how something standing above us, getting hold of us, and somehow annihilating us to a certain degree, can also be representative of what you describe as a position of dominance and an extreme form — the only possible form, indeed — of sovereignty…
GB: We could suppose that the laughable is not just unknown, but literally unknowable; we must face this possibility. The laughable may be the unknowable in the proper sense of the term. […] In this respect, we never laugh because of something that we cannot comprehend (due to a lack of understanding or information), but because the unknowable makes us laugh. We cannot help but laugh when we move away from a world where everything has its own point of stability and towards another one where our certainties are abruptly inverted, where we discover their fallacies, where their predictability is reversed by an unpredictable element that mixes us up and reveals an ultimate truth: that outward appearances simply don’t always correspond to our expectations. Hence we realise that, although everything seems to be falling under the presumption of knowledge, the whole world is placed outside of it; and not only the world, but ourselves too.
In conclusion, there is something in the world and us that turns out to be — although knowledge prevents us from grasping it — the key; it is something that can be described exclusively as what cannot be achieved by knowledge. This, I think, is what we ultimately all laugh about; what, deep down inside, already brightens and fills us with joy.
AM: Very cute but, honestly, it’s not clear why the tragic, the unknowable, and the un-knowing should make us laugh. Why should un-knowing make us laugh given that the unknowable is ourselves? And also, why would this whirling contrast with the part of ourselves that “is not made to be known” (like Lacan, echoing your ideas, liked to say about the Real) ever brighten us with joy and laugh our arses off?
Sometimes one must treat you like this; ruminating. You’re a rare beast also for this…
GB: [Well, you know, AM,] once you bore through immensity to the other side, the tiniest muscle’s twitching, far from taking transparence to infinity, instead shatter it. […]
Only an insistence on the leap, and a nimble lightness (the essence of autonomy and freedom), give laughter its limitless dominion.
AM: True. Although I’m sceptical about working out a principle of life from such insights. What do you think?
GB: As for the subject of life and death: sometimes I bitterly eye the worst, I stake my bet, helplessly slip into horror. I know all is lost. And I know that dawn, a potential illuminator, will cast its light on a dead man.
Inside me everything laughs blindly at life. Buoyant like a child: walking through life, carrying it.
I hear the rain falling.
My depressed state the threats of death, some kind of destructive fear that also shows the way to the summit — all these whirl in me, haunting and choking me… But I am — we are — going to go on.
AM: Sure, GB, let’s go on. You are the best company anyone who finds themselves overwhelmed by great emotions will ever find on the way. A friend more than a philosopher (and that’s all for philosophy’s sake)! My life with you is a community.
Thank you for playing along with me! I am sure this would have made you laugh your head off.
I hope to talk to you again soon. Goodbye for now!
The original version of the interview was published on the Italian magazine Charta Sporca for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Georges Bataille’s death.
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