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Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography

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Georges Bataille was a philosopher, writer, librarian, pornographer and a founder of the influential journals Critique and Acéphale. He has had an enormous impact on contemporary thought, influencing such writers as Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and Sontag. Many of his books, including the notorious Story of the Eye and the fascinating The Accursed Share, are mod Georges Bataille was a philosopher, writer, librarian, pornographer and a founder of the influential journals Critique and Acéphale. He has had an enormous impact on contemporary thought, influencing such writers as Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and Sontag. Many of his books, including the notorious Story of the Eye and the fascinating The Accursed Share, are modern classics. In this acclaimed intellectual biography, Michel Surya gives a detailed and insightful account of Bataille’s work against the backdrop of his life - his troubled childhood, his difficult relationship with André Breton and the surrealists and his curious position as a thinker of excess, ‘potlatch’, sexual extremes and religious sacrifice, one who nonetheless remains at the heart of twentieth century French thought - all of it drawn here in rich and allusive prose. While exploring the source of the violent eroticism that laces Bataille’s novels, the book is also an acute guide to the development of Bataille’s philosophical thought. Enriched by testimonies from Bataille’s closest acquaintances and revealing the context in which he worked, Surya sheds light on a figure Foucault described as ‘one of the most important writers of the century’.


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Georges Bataille was a philosopher, writer, librarian, pornographer and a founder of the influential journals Critique and Acéphale. He has had an enormous impact on contemporary thought, influencing such writers as Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and Sontag. Many of his books, including the notorious Story of the Eye and the fascinating The Accursed Share, are mod Georges Bataille was a philosopher, writer, librarian, pornographer and a founder of the influential journals Critique and Acéphale. He has had an enormous impact on contemporary thought, influencing such writers as Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and Sontag. Many of his books, including the notorious Story of the Eye and the fascinating The Accursed Share, are modern classics. In this acclaimed intellectual biography, Michel Surya gives a detailed and insightful account of Bataille’s work against the backdrop of his life - his troubled childhood, his difficult relationship with André Breton and the surrealists and his curious position as a thinker of excess, ‘potlatch’, sexual extremes and religious sacrifice, one who nonetheless remains at the heart of twentieth century French thought - all of it drawn here in rich and allusive prose. While exploring the source of the violent eroticism that laces Bataille’s novels, the book is also an acute guide to the development of Bataille’s philosophical thought. Enriched by testimonies from Bataille’s closest acquaintances and revealing the context in which he worked, Surya sheds light on a figure Foucault described as ‘one of the most important writers of the century’.

30 review for Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael A.

    Exhaustive, interesting, engaging, hardly ever boring... am i talking about Bataille or this book? Har har. Both. The book was written in a pretty accessible style which surprised me, not much jargon at all and stuff that isn't immediately obvious is almost always explained in footnotes (which there are a lot of). Some things I learned from this biography that I did not know before: -Bataille and Pablo Picasso went to bullfights together -One of Bataille's most prized possessions was a horse's sku Exhaustive, interesting, engaging, hardly ever boring... am i talking about Bataille or this book? Har har. Both. The book was written in a pretty accessible style which surprised me, not much jargon at all and stuff that isn't immediately obvious is almost always explained in footnotes (which there are a lot of). Some things I learned from this biography that I did not know before: -Bataille and Pablo Picasso went to bullfights together -One of Bataille's most prized possessions was a horse's skull (???) -Bataille and Jacques Lacan were good friends - Lacan even married Bataille's ex-wife. -Bataille and Andre Breton hated each other, Surya is very sympathetic to Bataille throughout the entire biography and portrays Breton as essentially a petulant child...which could be true. Bataille seemed to be jealous of Breton's status of leader of the Surrealists and thought that he could take it to new heights (depths?) -He gave a lecture in the late 50s about eroticism in which students were expecting something about free love being good and the love revolution being liberating when instead he starts talking about how eroticism is "by its very nature, accursed, accursed to a terrifying degree; and that this curse makes the sexual embrace rending and desirable (to the point of decay); that eroticism is in all times contained within the narrow limits of religion and morality because it is accursed; that these limits had and will always have the meaning humanity needs to give its fear of death, and for this reason it is pointless and impossible to seek to abolish them; that whoever wants to be sovereignly - but alone - free to transgress them must seek dark, frightful and infernal pleasure of this curse and this fear." He was just that kinda guy.... -He helped lead a violent anti-fascist group in the late 30s that Breton basically ruined because he talked about it in a right-wing French newspaper. -Despite being relatively neutral on the Soviet Union and Communism (some criticism but not enough to be called anti-communist, also along with a hate for the bourgeoisie), decides in 1947 to contextualize and "justify" Joseph Stalin's actions that not even Sartre was willing to do. Politically he was really trying to find a "fourth way": not capitalist, not fascist, not communist (in the Soviet sense). -Was diagnosed with a terminal illness that killed him slowly over eight years, he would have random "blackouts" where he couldn't think and would be left weak. This made his writing and output even slower than before: he often left things incomplete and wanted to take on impossible tasks (he wanted to write a book about "Universal History" that Surya speculates his entire bibliography up to this point could be a part of it). -Breton called him the "excrement philosopher". He was right. Overall I wouldn't really recommend this book to just anyone - its a really hefty tome and quite an exhausting read. Lots of details and you really need to care about Georges Bataille and the context of his thought. If you don't, this book is a paperweight. If you do it's essentially a holy text.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Maxwell

    Surya’s book announces itself as “An intellectual biography”, as more, he’d like us to know, than just the salacious juice on a death obsessed pervert. Although, at 600 pages, you'd think it'd have space for both. Well, for starters, the translation is kind of clumsy. Whether or not this reflects the original text I cannot say, but sentences trail on for so long that their meaning gets tangled beyond intelligibility in subordinate clauses. Or they end far too abruptly. I was very sensitive to th Surya’s book announces itself as “An intellectual biography”, as more, he’d like us to know, than just the salacious juice on a death obsessed pervert. Although, at 600 pages, you'd think it'd have space for both. Well, for starters, the translation is kind of clumsy. Whether or not this reflects the original text I cannot say, but sentences trail on for so long that their meaning gets tangled beyond intelligibility in subordinate clauses. Or they end far too abruptly. I was very sensitive to this as I’ve been reading too many books in translation and I think it’s starting to blunt my mind. Where good books unmangled by translators enrich and enliven your inner voice, the heavy thudding pace of sentences rewired across different languages has a way of dulling it. Need to read a native speaker next. The best parts of this book survey what Bataille read and what he wrote. But he seems not to have written much until late in life (by WWII, when he was in his 40s, he had only written The Story of the Eye and Blue of Noon) so the first half of the biography is leaden by his prissy drama with Andre Breton and the surrealists. Certain chapters are unbearably tedious archives of the back-biting gossip and catty tussles between the small Bataillan contingent of the interwar Paris avant-garde and the shockingly conservative Surrealist machine. It’s very petty and boring. Who cares. Meanwhile, certain fascinating people and events in Bataille’s life are barely mentioned. We learn almost nothing about Sylvia Bataille, his wife who was impregnated by a family friend, one Jacques Lacan; eventually leaving her husband to marry Lacan. I wanted to know more about Sylvia but we learn almost nothing more than her name. Lacan himself, whose influence emanates from Bataille’s theories (the two rarely if ever explicitly referenced one another; but their deep theoretical connection resonantes if you know where to look for it), one of only several figures in Bataille’s life who measures up to him, is barely afforded a few sideways mentions. But there is an agitating surplus of information on the sycophants and second-rates who hung onto Bataille’s coattails. The tedium about the what’s-his-names who congregated around the many journals that Bataille wrote for is vast beyond comprehension. Another disappointing exclusion is Alexandre Kojève, Bataille’s intimate friend, who he considered to be ‘the greatest philosopher of the age’. Why Bataille thought so and what influence Kojève had on Bataille’s writing must be freeze-dried for another study. You won't learn about it here. I’m not yet familiar enough with Bataille's opus to totally extrapolate his involvement with Lacan and Kojève’s Hegel (they attended Kojève's legendary lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit together) but the intersection of psychoanalysis and German Idealism certainly had some sovereignty upon Bataille's theoretical works. Which is interesting, because this is the exact philosophical lineage that would be disavowed by those next generation in French philosophy; Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault & Baudrillard, who hated Hegel and psychoanalysis but incidentally received Bataille enthusiastically. Even claimed to be his heirs in certain cases. There's a disappointing absence of writing about how postmodernism walked on eggshells around Bataille's (for them) inconvenient involvement with Lacan and Kojève. Similarly, Blanchot and Klossowski, doubtlessly important to anyone who was living and writing in the same climate as them, make appearances but do not receive a serious intertextual treatment. Alas, all we ever hear about in Surya’s book is Nietzsche and Sade. So many fascinating possibilities unrealized. And the coruscating circus of 20th century Paris, vast with strangeness and intensities, feels instead like a ghost town. And Bataille is the preeminent phantom, I never got a good sense of what he was like as a person. Bataille’s vivid and exciting life, his flamboyant personality, remained an enigma when I closed the book. How did he balance his bourgeois responsibilities as a librarian, husband and father with the exhausting demands of scholarship, authorship and his legendary debauchery? And if the documentation doesn’t exist, shouldn’t a good biographer come up with a decent speculative account? What this biography does offer is a fairly apt summary of Bataille's literary influences and estimates their bearing on his work (but, again, with some disappointing occlusions). Despite its faults in other areas, I think the deep involvement with Bataille's work made the book worth reading. I’m new to Bataille (as of writing this, I’ve only read Literature & Evil and 2/3 of Eroticism) and this biography gives you a good sense for his texts; you could probably do worse for an introduction. Surya can be really insightful & you'll leave with a decent context for Bataille's books. At the very least, I now know what order to read them in. But, then, there is probably an easier way to make yourself a Bataille syllabus than a 600 page biography.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lukáš

    Given I've read various, sometimes fairly contradictory accounts of events surrounding Bataille, I went for this book and it was a great choice. Surya, a philosopher himself has done a magnificient job at recounting events, writings, mentions, interviews and second-hand accounts of Bataille. The structure of the book worked for me - while broadly chronological, it is nevertheless organized around thematic clusters and personal encounters (for example, the intellectual and political rivalities wi Given I've read various, sometimes fairly contradictory accounts of events surrounding Bataille, I went for this book and it was a great choice. Surya, a philosopher himself has done a magnificient job at recounting events, writings, mentions, interviews and second-hand accounts of Bataille. The structure of the book worked for me - while broadly chronological, it is nevertheless organized around thematic clusters and personal encounters (for example, the intellectual and political rivalities with Breton, Sartre and others). While I believe that some of the theoretical ideas of Bataille that partly structure this book can be explored at even a greater depth, to the point that perhaps something different could be made of thing here and there, there probably has to be a limit where to stop and get a book done out of it, and the author has done really well there, without things feeling forced or more 'unfinished' than Bataille's own thinking is.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bertrand

    My discovery of Bataille is fairly recent – but I am still so elated about it that I am destined to struggle in separating the man from his portrait: Surya's book seems however widely recognised as the reference work on the subject (translated as 'Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography') and convey well, I think, the excitement and fascination I experienced when reading Bataille's essays in the collection 'Visions of Excess'; There is in Surya's prose some superfluous adornment, a taste for My discovery of Bataille is fairly recent – but I am still so elated about it that I am destined to struggle in separating the man from his portrait: Surya's book seems however widely recognised as the reference work on the subject (translated as 'Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography') and convey well, I think, the excitement and fascination I experienced when reading Bataille's essays in the collection 'Visions of Excess'; There is in Surya's prose some superfluous adornment, a taste for the elegant paradox, which might have irritated me, had I not known him for a fellow devotee, but which resonates here with the occasional picturesque of Bataille's own dedicated obscenity. I will go in more detail concerning the surprisingly systematic substance of Bataille's thought in my review of those essays of his I have been reading concurrently – and their short, strident but perfectly controlled and articulated prose make I think the best introduction; What 'La Mort a l'Oeuvre' provide us with is an image their author's existence, intellectual and historical, with the occasional interpretation of specific texts, all of which emphasise the unity of Bataille's art and life (a very avant-garde concern) and the calculated distance between private life, including writing, and public personna (a more modernist strategy, akin to what Magritte will call 'conformisme tactique'). Although educated in France's foremost historical institution (after the mandatory stop by the seminary) Bataille is endearingly self-taught, so that his professional work as a librarian and a medievalist has in fact very little to do with the fiction and theory he is remembered for: it is all the more impressive then to see him engaging confidently, with fields ranging from western Marxism to existentialism, via ethnology and psychoanalysis. A man of his time he emerged in France's interwar literary avantgarde at a time when the gravitational pull of surrealism must have been near inescapable – shaped by its general thrust, he will remain dedicated to the irrational and the experience of limits, but early on he falls out with is grand-pope or with his theories, and starts the salutary pursuit of calling him out on all of his short-comings, hypocrisies and opportunism. I could never stand Breton, Aragon and their zealots, maybe for having had them forced on him back in high-school: how convenient it must have been to find in 'the unconscious' more than enough room to shove all those relics of idealism (Greek ruins and myths, romantic love, spiritual and religious iconography, etc.) a successful (if uncommitted) artist must pepper his works with to gain any recognition! But Bataille would have none of it (or very little – thus I am glad he was robbed of his 'Minautore' project, for no amount 'monstrosity' would suffice to absolve him from classical mythology) : the locus of the 'marvellous' (he abhors the term, I do not know of an equivalent) is not the commodity, the personal, the familial or the quaintly mysterious, as the surrealists would have it – it is instead snot, shit, piss, cum, mud, sweat, dirt and corpses, the lowly, the 'base' : 'base materialism' as he calls his system in the interwar period, is a surrealism de-humanised, a surrealism with no respect for tradition or convenience, profoundly devoid of dignity and seeking its own annihilation in a mystical thirst for release, both physiological and existential. One of Bataille's own coinage is the term 'heterology' and we shouldn't be surprised to find then his only lasting commitment is to heterodoxy: although Marxism will remain his frame of reference until after the war, Surya makes it clear that his constant negativity, his constant probing for the depth and the shameful, made him both fascinating to the artists, and ultimately politically unproductive, as his relationships with Boris Souvarine or Simone Weil show well. As despair seems to set in at the approach of the war, Bataille seems to shrink back from the world, retiring first in theories and practice of smaller communities (the 'Acéphale' period) and ultimately in the negative mysticism of 'L'Expérience Intérieure' that will earn him a scathing review from Sartres. In the post-war era he becomes a peripheral but important staple of the French intelligentsia, developing his original thought (muting it also somewhat, in Surya's view) into new fields such as art history. This is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the interwar period, in Western Marxism, in philosophy in general, and in Nietzsche and existentialism in particular, in art history and in issues of transgression, eroticism and abjection. It is not an 'introduction' (it can be dry at times) but for anyone already fond of its subject, it is, I think, a necessary stop.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Drew

    Michael Surya's biography is quite a hefty tome at 600 pages; however, Surya keeps each of the book's individual chapters relatively brief (rarely going over 6 pages), this decision makes the pacing seem really quick and makes reading the book a relative breeze. Surya's book is fairly thorough but a little light on the gossipy side of things considering Bataille's reputation as a bit of a roguish scoundrel. Bataille was firmly entrenched within the intellectual circles of Paris during the first Michael Surya's biography is quite a hefty tome at 600 pages; however, Surya keeps each of the book's individual chapters relatively brief (rarely going over 6 pages), this decision makes the pacing seem really quick and makes reading the book a relative breeze. Surya's book is fairly thorough but a little light on the gossipy side of things considering Bataille's reputation as a bit of a roguish scoundrel. Bataille was firmly entrenched within the intellectual circles of Paris during the first half of the 20th century, and it was a blast to read about the many stories of him rubbing shoulders with the who's who of French intelligentsia during the period. A highlight of this book, for me, is Surya documenting many lifelong personal and intellectual run-ins with André Breton. Surya is firmly in the camp of Bataille, so if one is a Breton fan they may be put off with every encounter being portrayed as Bataille getting the upper hand in every disagreement. If I had one complaint, it is that this is a work which is translated into English from French, and I'm sure that Surya's many flights of flowery language read great in its original French tongue but in English often times come across a bit campy. That being said it was never excessive enough to make me want to put the book down. Not many biographies on Battaille in English so not much for me to compare it to; however, as someone who has always been fascinated by Battaille this was worth the read for me.

  6. 4 out of 5

    K Sadov

    As much as anyone would ever need to know about the biographical details of Bataille’s life.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Alexa Tanne

    I was very excited about reading this book, but unfortunately I found that it was written quite poorly. The prose is unbearably pretentious throughout, and Surya seems to lack the ability to explain anything straightforwardly and without embellishment. Nevertheless, if you can stick with it, you'll learn some interest facets of Bataille's life, which is rewarding. The read itself though was quite irritating. I was very excited about reading this book, but unfortunately I found that it was written quite poorly. The prose is unbearably pretentious throughout, and Surya seems to lack the ability to explain anything straightforwardly and without embellishment. Nevertheless, if you can stick with it, you'll learn some interest facets of Bataille's life, which is rewarding. The read itself though was quite irritating.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Adrian Alvarez

    "One day this world will pullulate in my dead mouth." - from Bataille's gravestone I had only a vague idea of who Georges Bataille was before reading this highly recommended book. Something something naughty books... something something something provocative French intellectual... Well I have a much clearer picture now and I am so glad I trusted my intuition and dove into his fascinating life and work. This is such a well written biography. In very readable prose, Surya balances stories and relat "One day this world will pullulate in my dead mouth." - from Bataille's gravestone I had only a vague idea of who Georges Bataille was before reading this highly recommended book. Something something naughty books... something something something provocative French intellectual... Well I have a much clearer picture now and I am so glad I trusted my intuition and dove into his fascinating life and work. This is such a well written biography. In very readable prose, Surya balances stories and relationships from Bataille's life over time with a reasonable progression of his intellectual work and how one fed into the other. His life events are handled very well. There are no rosebuds here, no summing up, or getting to the bottom of the man, and yet I came away from this tome with a great sense of his ideas and influences and with more than enough context to tackle his oeuvre directly, which I am totally doing now. It would be hard to recommend this book to anyone but hard not to recommend it to anyone with even a little bit of interest.

  9. 5 out of 5

    A.

    The author treats his subject with verve, and his command of the various sources of our knowledge of Bataille's life is evident. The title is somewhat misleading, however; whatever is 'intellectual' in this text is fully subordinate to the biography. This may, in truth, be the deepest lesson this book offers - contrary to the author's own intentions, what becomes most apparent from reading this book is that Bataille is one of those rare writers for whom any separation of life from thought can on The author treats his subject with verve, and his command of the various sources of our knowledge of Bataille's life is evident. The title is somewhat misleading, however; whatever is 'intellectual' in this text is fully subordinate to the biography. This may, in truth, be the deepest lesson this book offers - contrary to the author's own intentions, what becomes most apparent from reading this book is that Bataille is one of those rare writers for whom any separation of life from thought can only be artificial.

  10. 5 out of 5

    thestarsailor

    I was honestly bored for most of it and didn't have a great understanding of what was going on, but that is more my fault and own bad ambition rather than the fault of the author. This is a two star book thanks to me, not to Surya I was honestly bored for most of it and didn't have a great understanding of what was going on, but that is more my fault and own bad ambition rather than the fault of the author. This is a two star book thanks to me, not to Surya

  11. 5 out of 5

    Raúl

    Una magnífica unión de biografía e introducción a la escritura y pensamiento del muy radical Georges Bataille, con mucho de antología de fragmentos de sus obras. Muy recomendable.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jean Igual

  13. 4 out of 5

    Niall Stevensn

  14. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Soveini

  15. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Soto

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mert Asiliskender

  17. 4 out of 5

    Megan Legault

  18. 5 out of 5

    Elona

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stephen J. Clark

  20. 5 out of 5

    Stanton

  21. 4 out of 5

    Liz

  22. 4 out of 5

    Donnie Ibis

  23. 4 out of 5

    Scott

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tyler Newton

  25. 5 out of 5

    Pavel

  26. 5 out of 5

    Marykate

  27. 4 out of 5

    John

  28. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

  29. 5 out of 5

    Frederick Holt

  30. 4 out of 5

    GK

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