On Georges Bataille – Childishness, Stupidity, and Salvation

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What does it mean to make “a fool out of oneself” or to act “childish?”  Both terms suggest that imitating a child or acting like a fool is shameful.  Now, imagine that the very thing that society despises most is designated as a spiritual practice.

In our last blog entry, we pointed out that Georges Bataille took Nietzsche’s notion of KINDERLAND and identified it with the future.  As we pointed out, one would have to destroy oneself if one were to get there.  The paradox is that by going backwards to childhood, one can go forwards, to the future, to KINDERLAND.

But, as with many spiritual practices, one needs to know what to do if one is to reach this sacred land of childhood.    Bataille was interested in describing these practices.  As one can imagine, Bataille relished the idea that acting like a child or becoming a fool was hated by civil society. In his book Inner Experience, he not only provides spiritual exercies of childishness, he also describes childishness and foolishness in great depth.

Bataille associates “childishness” with salvation.

The only challenge to becoming childish is not to turn it into a “project,” which would give it a meaning within a coherent totality.  Nonetheless, he insists that becoming a “true child” is the way to “deliverance.”  This path is, necessarily, shameful and self-destructive.  The task for Bataille, was to, so to speak, enact it, without turning it into a project.   The spiritual experience of the movement of the adult to childishness and shame, he believed, would be sufficient to destroy “the project.”  And open us up to a messianic “taste,” so to speak, of the promised land: KINDERLAND.

In Part II of his book, in a section entitled “Torment,” Bataille provides his reader-slash-disciple with intimate (yet intellectual) experiences of childhood and self-destruction.  By refusing to grow up and by returning to childhood, he, in effect, is not entering into the project.  In literary form, he describes or rather “dramatizes” his childhood and his struggle with maturity.

To be sure, Bataille, at the beginning of his book, notes that dramatization is a spiritual exercise: “If we did not know how to dramatize, we wouldn’t be able to leave ourselves…From this way of dramatizing – often forced – emerges an element of comedy, of foolishness which turns into laughter”(11).

Dramatization, for Bataille, distances us from tradition and reduces us to powerlessness. It is another name for acting out ones renunciation of maturity; that is, the project.

Dramatization brings one to an awareness of his or her childishness.

I will cite several lines which describe Bataille’s coming to consciousness that he is a child and the realization that he is, ultimately, “stupid.”  In grand mythic style, Bataille tells us that to return to childhood is to return to one’s origins.  The problem is that “grown ups” don’t get it:

To grasp the extent of knowledge, I go back to the source. First a small child, in every way similar to the madmen (the absent ones) I play with today.  The miniature “absent ones” are not in contact with the world, if not through the channel of grown-ups: the result of an intervention on the part of grown-ups is childishness, a fabrication.  Grown ups clearly reduce being coming into the world, which we are at first, to the level of trinkets.  This seems to me to be important: that the passage to the state of nature (from birth) to our state of reason should necessarily take place through the route of childishness.   It is strange on our part to attribute to the child itself the responsibility for childishness, which would be the character proper to children.  Childishness is the state which we put naïve being….When we laugh at infantile absurdity, laughter disguises shame, seeing to what we reduce life emerging from Nothingness. (42)

Bataille’s lesson to adults, who become children, is the following:

1) Children need to divest themselves from their parents: “The error of children: to derive truth from grown-ups.”

2) Children should not be laughed at.

Laughing at childish behavior is a “grown up” activity which, in his view, belongs to a project.  Rather than laugh at them, we should – seriously – imitate them.  But, Batialle goes beyond such advice.

In the midst of becoming childish, Bataille describes how he, and one who becomes childish, will feel shame and powerlessness.

To be sure, Bataille, craftily, alternates his reflections on childishness with reflections on shame, self-destruction, and salvation.  And this juxtaposition creates the breakdown he desires: “the idea of salvation comes, I believe, from one whom suffering breaks apart.  He who masters it, on the contrary, needs to be broken, to proceed on the path towards rapture.”

Besides being a “spiritual practice” and an “inner experience,” this alternation clearly suggests a link between childishness, self-destruction, and salvation.

Bataille dramatizes this link by shamefully confessing his passion of childishness. But, in doing so, he realizes that taking this childishness seriously may present an obstacle:

Childishness, knowing itself to be such, is deliverance, but taking itself seriously, it is enmired.”  And this “taking itself seriously” is an obstacle to “deliverance.”  To eliminate this obstacle, to dramatize it, one must laugh at it: “The search for the extreme limit can in its turn become a habit, dependent of childishness: one must laugh at it, unless, by chance, one has a heavy heart: then ecstasy and madness are within reach. (44)

As we saw above, Bataille says that one should not laugh at childishness.  But if one takes it too seriously, then Batialle tells us that one must laugh at it!  Because seriousness is too mature and is part and parcel of “the project.”  But isn’t a spiritual exercise too serious?  Should Bataille think it to be ridiculous?

Batialle avoids this reflection.  Instead, he creates a rule, because he sees an opportunity in this kind of laughter: if childishness becomes a “habit,” laugh at it so one can, through despair (a heavy heart), “reach” ecstasy and madness.

Ok, so let’s sum it up.  There are two possibilities for one to be saved from the project and “grown ups”- two, so to speak, KINDERLAND possibilities: 1) salvation through childishness or 2) salvation through the rejection of a “serious” and “habitual” childishness.

After describing these possibilities, Bataille, strangely enough, argues that to be a child one must “know” that “seriousness exists” and if one doesn’t one isn’t a “true child” : “The most serious seem to me to be children, who don’t know they are children: they separate me from true children who know it and laugh at being. But to be a child, one must know that the serious exists…if not, the child could no longer laugh nor know anguish”(44, my emphasis).

This conclusion brings us to the schlemiel and helps us to distinguish Bataille’s man-child the “true child” – from the false one, which, given what we know about this character, is the schlemiel.

“True” children are not schlemiels, since they “know” they are children.  They can “laugh” at being.  To be a child, one must “know” that “the serious exists.”  If they know this, children can laugh and know anguish.   Children cannot laugh or know anguish if they don’t know that the “serious exists.”

This implies that a schlemiel, who doesn’t understand seriousness, is not a “true” child.  A true child suffers and laughs.

But, then again, Bataille turns this around when he writes about stupidity.  Children may know that the serious exists, but they cannot be saved if they don’t “perceive a greater stupidity.”

“My privilege is to be humiliated by my profound stupidity and, no doubt, through others, I perceive greater stupidity.”

The more stupidity, the better.  We see this early on in his book as well: “The great derision: a multitude of little contradicting “everythings,” intelligence surpassing itself, culminating in multivocal, discordant, indiscrete idiocy”(25).

Bataille’s passion is for childhood and stupidity.  His desire is to be the “true child” who knows seriousness, suffers, and laughs.

To become the true child, Bataille confesses that he must dramatize the descent into idiocy.   This will return him to childhood. And it will save him.

But this is not a total loss of the mind.  As he says, the man who becomes a child “knows” as a child does that “the serious exists.”  This is a tragic vision of childhood or becoming-a-child.  He is aware of his stupidity as much as he is aware of seriousness.  He is also aware of what a “true” as opposed to a “false” child is.

Compared to the childishness of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel or Sholom Aleichem’s Motl’s childishness, Bataille’s dramatization of childishness is focused on the spiritual practice of self-destruction as revelation. The schlemiel is absent minded, but Bataille’s child is not.

And the tension between good and evil, between hope and skepticism, which the schlemiel looks to preserve, is effaced by Bataille’s “spiritual exercise” in which life, mad life, childish and idiotic life, ultimately triumphs and laughs at itself in its utter shameful Dionysian stupidity.

The way to KINDERLAND is through becoming a suffering-powerless-idiot-child.  This act of the will greatly contrasts to the simplicity of the schlemiel – the man-child – that we often see in Yiddish or Jewish American literature.  There is no passion of the schlemiel, but for Bataille there is a passion of the man-child.  The schlemiel can’t save himself, Bataille’s man-child can.

And perhaps this is the key: Judaism puts salvation outside of man’s efforts.  In Judaism, man cannot redeem or save himself.  Redemption is in the future.  The schlemiel stands, unredeemed, in relation to the future.  He can’t redeem himself through his foolishness.  (At the end of “Gimpel the Fool,” he simply moves on.  Gimpel has not changed; he is still an unredeemed schlemiel in, and this is the point, an unredeemed world.) Bataille, however, believes that through this “spiritual exercise” he (and perhaps his childish community) can be “delivered” to the KINDERLAND of the future.   A place where we can all make fools of ourselves all the time…a place where we can know, finally, that we are, shamefully, “true children!”

And this is only possible because we know, in the midst of shame and humiliation, that “the serious exists.”

So, here’s my question, is it worth passionately becoming fools and childish if we are to come to this conclusion and the consciousness that we are “true children”?  Or is this, quite simply, stupid?  Is this the point of, as Bataille might say, the “useless” exercise-slash-dramatization of “true” childhood?

Would Bataille regard this scene from John Water’s Pink Flamingos (1972) to be a spiritual exercise in becoming a child?  And does John Waters, who put the film together, know what “true children” are and that “seriousness exists?”  What do we make of these “dramatizations” of childishness?  Are they…and we saved? After all, the daughter who is quelling her mother-in-the-crib is named Divine. Is this where we are going? Is John Waters giving us a prophetic glimpse at the future? A glimpse of KINDERLAND?

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