The Power of Weakness and the Laughter of Humiliation in Georges Bataille’s “The Impossible” – Take I


Like many people, I choose what I read selectively.  While I often read fiction that speaks to my lifeworld, I sometimes pick up a novel that challenges my life and tests my boundaries.  But what really drives me to these texts is a kind of vicarious curiosity.  What, I wonder, would it be like if I were to take on the assumptions of the main character or narrator?  What would I have to sacrifice or affirm if I were to take on the life of this or that narrator or character?   Can the tendencies of a character or narrator change my way of thinking or living?   If it stays within the private space of reading, that doesn’t seem likely.  Only if I were to, so to speak, take these characters or narrators as models – as one does in traditional Judaism or Christianity – would these texts come to life.

For many years, I have had a love/hate relationship with the fiction of Geroges Bataille.  I find many his ideas – in his more theoretical texts and in much of his fiction –  to be very disturbing, gross, and challenging.  It’s hard for me to understand how I can reconcile my beliefs in Judaism with his scatological tendencies toward an ecstasy grounded in the exchange of fluids such as blood, semen, and feces.  Amongst these tendencies is also a kind of violence – either directed at a character or the narrator, himself.  But what makes these tendencies fascinating is the suggestion that his books are – like the books of different saints and mystics – spiritual exercises.   They suggest, in other words, the possibility of embodying the text and bringing to life.

In his novella, The Impossible, and in a few other places in his work (such as his essay, “The Jesuve”), there is a unique referencing of a religious sensibility that I find intriguing.  Since I am working a lot on the notion of smallness, weakness, failure, and humor in my schlemiel project, I am interested in how these realities can be used in a sense that is at once secular and religious.  In The Impossible, Bataille’s interest in weakness, failure, and humor  borders on both but it takes them in a more Christian kind of direction.  Batialle was looking for a kind of physical embodiment – in the text – that is undergirded by the passion of humiliation.   His reading of smallness and weakness is much more ridden with pathos (and the same goes for the laughter found throughout his corpus) than all schlemiel narratives.  The humiliation we see is much more lacerating.  In its efforts to turn the text into a sensuous embodiment, The Impossible, unlike many schlemiel narratives, seems to take more to violence and excess than to a kind of humility that speaks to love and goodness.

The two epigrams of the novella come from two Christian saints: Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila.  The epigram of Saint Catherine uses terms that mix the physical and the spiritual: “When he was buried, my soul reposed in peace and quiet and in such a fragrance of blood that I could not bear the idea of washing away the blood which had flowed from him onto me.”  The second epigram states that the physical “agony” of Saint Teresa of Avila provided “inexpressible delights.”

The admixture of pain with delight and the sensory exaltation of blood and its “fragrance” suggest an embodiment of spiritual experience that takes delight in pain and blood.   This is certainly counter-intuitive.  Why does embodiment of Godliness have to come through pain and waste?   Bataille insists on this connection and suggests that he is a  part of a mystical tradition that takes these elements to heart.

The first part of the book is entitled “A Story of Rats: (Journal of Danus).”  In the journal, the narrator takes us along on his spiritual search to experience “the impossible.”    His state, from the very first words, suggest that he derives pleasure from the pain that comes with love and rejection:

Incredible nervous state, trepidation beyond words: to be this much in love is to be sick (and I love to be sick).

What the narrator has is not a passion for an idea so much as for the physicality of a woman (and women) he loves.  He loses his mind over her (who he calls “B”) and revels in this loss and the ensuing weakness:

B. doesn’t cease to dazzle me: the irritation of my nerves makes her even more impressive. Everything about her is extraordinary! But in my trembling I have doubts – she’s so facile (She’s false, superficial, equivocal…Isn’t that obvious? She gets muddled and extricates herself more or less, says foolish things haphazardly, lets herself be influenced by fools.  (15)

What she wants from him (“out of playfulness, out of kindness”) is “the impossible.” What that is, however, remains a question.  Is it his love which is impossible?  Is it his powerlessness?  Since he doesn’t know what it is and how to give to her, he is humiliated.  The irony is that he enjoys the feeling of this unhappiness and wants more:

: it’s not a feeling of happiness but my powerlessness to reach her that stops me: she eludes me in any case, the sickest thing about me being that I want this and I want my love to be necessarily unhappy.  Indeed I no longer seek any happiness: I don’t want to give it to her, and I want none for myself…She’s the way she is, but I doubt that two beings have ever communicated more deeply in the certainty of their impotence. (16)

The problem with this is that there is an assumption that if the narrator torments himself more, he will come closer to her.  But really he is only coming close to himself and his failure.   The endless pull of self-deprecation and self-immolation is seen as some kind of holy passion.  And, in the end of this passage, he revels in the “certainty” of his shared impotence (as if it were objective and true).

The passion for failure and weakness are also of interest to such thinkers and writers as Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Antonin Artaud, and Jean-Luc Nancy.  It is interesting how – for both Bataille and Nancy – the pain of the body and the passion of desire are figurations for a kind of post-Christian embodiment of spirituality.   Embodiment is not just in the exposure to the desired other but the self-laceration of the subject.  The ideal state of the impossible is failure and weakness.  These categories, as one can easily figure out, are contrary to those that society emulates.  And this creates a kind of irrational passion that thrives in an excess of pain and weakness.  Torment.

For anyone to take this on, one would have to sacrifice the desire for happiness, joy, and success.  Contrary to what a reader may think, Bataille suggests, through this novella, that these sacrifices and this life of weakness are desirable and that the best figures for embodiment are based on mixing a drive for sex (Eros) with a death drive (Thanatos).    Mixing the two together, how can one live?  How can one be happy by being so…unhappy?

While many a schlemiel may live in miserable circumstances, they, by and large, are happy.  While they have what Bataille would call, in his novella, a “naïve certainty of chance,” schlemiels don’t translate each opportunity into a moment of weakness and pathetic self-humiliation.   A schlemiel, though usually a poor failure, lives a life that is more comic than tragic.   His humiliation is not so deep, bloody, and painful.  His torment is surprising, not desirable.




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