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Haunting Transcendence: The Strategy of Ghosts in Bataille and Breton.

An examination of the trope of the ghost in Andre Breton's Nadja (1928) and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'ceil (1928) [1] enables one to characterize both the political urgency of the authors' aesthetic projects in the late 1920s and 1930s and the public acrimony that erupted between them during that time. [2] The trope of the ghost was resonant for them in part because of its powerful and influential utilization by Marx and Engels, who begin their Manifesto with the declaration "A specter is haunting Europe-- the specter of Communism." They continue: "It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the specter of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself" (8). The publication of the communists' beliefs, which haunted the capitalistic structure of Europe, made the individual communist plain and visible.

Many ghosts circulate in the novels of Breton and Bataille, but neither writer trusts these specters to anchor a Marxist enterprise. Instead, they use the ghost as a way of considering the boundaries of conventional identity. Both find that the economic crisis of capitalism is bound up in sexual and gender factors that are difficult to channel into a single political movement. By examining the definitions, operations, and formulations of ghosts in the fiction of Bataille and Breton, one sees how differently they configure the political value of art. Whereas Breton uses the metaphor of the ghost to dramatize the subject's dissolution as he tries to escape ideology, Bataille uses the ghost to examine the ideological terms through which both subjectivity and the threat of subjective dissolution are realized. The ghosts in Breton reflect a hopeful potential for art to transcend psychiatric formulation and economic ideology. Bataille's ghosts deny transcendence and reflect a trace of the old sense of the word gho st: "to wound, tear, pull to pieces (OED).

Breton formulates the identity of Nadja thus: "Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I 'haunt"' (Nadja 11). Nadja, whom the narrator initially haunts and who eventually haunts him, demonstrates the central points of Breton's manifestoes. In his preface for a reprint of the Manifesto of Surrealism, he writes:

I simply believe that between my thought, such as it appears in what material people have been able to read that has my signature affixed to it, and me, which the true nature of my thought involves in something but precisely what I do not yet know, there is a world, an imperceptible world of phantasms. (ix)

The believing subject is stranded between two ideal points of a cause--effect sequence: the author and the text, or the author's intention and the text in which the intention is communicated. For Breton, the phantoms circulating in the area between the ostensibly stable poles of author and novel afford an ironic self-recognition. Breton's subject becomes a shuttlecock, batted between the cause and effect of the author and the text (or the text and the author). Although the notion of an author and a text may blur in the subject's confusion, this does not reflect merely a reversal of agency, but instead a complication of the preconditions necessary in speaking of Breton's subject. Subjectivity, or the self-recognizing "me," relies on this tension between the "I" (or the public, authoring self) and the text. For Breton, phantoms fluctuating between these formerly stable poles of subjective intent and textual product represent symptoms to be monitored in probing the subject.

This erosion of subjective certainty ironically corresponds with a determination to maintain the subject's autonomy in the face of stifling convention. Breton is not abandoning agency, but instead attempting to reject the drastically determining nature of political, social, and economic ideologies. His central concern with communism and clinical psychiatry motivated a strategic examination of instability. He felt the force of both doctrines' logic, but shunned programmatic politics that both compromised the autonomy of the interior subject and rendered any expression as the mere effect of a social construction. [3] Psychoanalysis was appreciated for offering the unconscious to the subject as a place of deep mystery. Automatic writing, chance, Mallarmean coups de des, and surrealistic transformation are predicated on engaging the interior unknown without trying to control it. Psychiatry that summed up a person in scientific formulas or reduced a person to a set of neurological functions paralyzed the subject and was antithetical to this discovery process.

As political exigencies intensified throughout the 1920s, Breton had to reconcile his value of subjective primacy with a revolutionary, presumably deterministic Marxism that configured a Hegelian materialism. [4] This dual allegiance to both materialism and subjective transformation proved contradictory, as Breton's refusal of his first duty as a member of the Communist Party exemplifies. [5] Michel Carrouges formulates the ghost as a way to preserve individual autonomy against the demands of political involvement and "a certain measure of the marvelous which can be totally reduced neither to Marxism nor to psychoanalysis.... The aim of surrealism is to awaken phantoms everywhere" (35). Breton's phantoms will not always prove marvelous, but these phantoms of the nonreducible do become opportunities for a paradoxical transcendence.

Instead of insipidly programming the individual, Breton's phantoms of the outside world shock our subjective security. Random objects of the everyday world, encountered at the junkyard or in cafes, no longer exemplify the determined nature of self-consciousness, but rather spur a realization of something new and shocking. The "convulsive beauty" they evince shakes one free from the fetters of convention, creating a consciousness in which "the individual presents itself as pure subjectivity and also (without paradox) as pure dynamism defining itself through its acts" (Chenieux-Gendron 90). The ghosts identified by Breton tear the subject from over-determined categorization by characterizing the subject as the unpredictable result or found object of time spent meandering through a flea market.

As Breton begins Nadja, he offers clear examples of strategies for and motivations behind producing phantoms. Before observing and translating Nadja's behavior, the narrator outlines the following tactic:

I intend to mention, in the margin of the narrative I have yet to relate, only the most decisive episodes of my life as I can conceive it apart from its organic plan, and only insofar as it is at the mercy of chance--the merest as well as the greatest--temporarily escaping my control, admitting me to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest. (19)

The attention to chance, to losing cognitive control through an erosion of causation, and to the flash of the convulsive recognition constitutes a strategy designed to acknowledge the self apart from either a Marxist or psychiatric program. These deny the ability to live freely. Breton's narrator describes the strict, clinical practice of psychiatry as "nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself" (24). One must discover a uniqueness or difference through which "one can recognize what I alone have been put on this earth to do ... so that I alone can answer for its fate" (13). The political paradigm is likewise deprecated as the narrator discovers Nadja while "buying Trotsky's latest work, [and continuing] aimlessly in the direction of the Opera." He remembers how "I unconsciously watched their faces, their clothes, their way of walking. No, it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution" (64). From this malaise immediately emerges the ghostly figure of Nadja.

Breton is influenced by a left-wing Hegelian belief in the essential possibility of Auflzebung, albeit with the Marxist caveat of remaining situated materially and not becoming a mere idealist. In considering subjectivity, Breton emphasizes the uplifting aspect of the Aufhebung at the expense of the canceling or nullifying connotations. This emphasis requires a seemingly contradictory commitment both to a materialistic determinism and to a potential for the subject to transform and transcend the material world through art. This dual consideration motivated "trying to blend his coherent perceptions with the irrational one of Nadja" while "aim [ing] at what he considered a superior existence, in which the contradictions caused by the nonparallel vision between Nadja and himself would be overcome purely by the effort of the mind and the acuteness of perceptions" (Balakian, Surrealism 136). For Breton, this experiment follows in the spirit of Hegel, for whom "each man hopes and believes he is better than the wor ld which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others" (Nadja 159).

Breton gives Hegelian transcendence an aesthetic twist by insisting that every real object has the potential to be transformed by the proper tasteful subject. The result is evident in Mad Love, where he writes about "the particular state of mind [to which] surrealism has always aspired" in which "the shadow and the prey [mingle] into a unique flash" (25). As "chance" becomes "the form making manifest the exterior necessity which traces its path in the human unconscious," the attempt to "boldly... interpret and reconcile Engels and Freud" is complete (23). Nadja foreshadows and personifies this commitment to chance for both the author and the narrator of the text.

In remaining incapable of logical reflection, Nadja seems to epitomize Breton's surrealist principle, but in refusing to acknowledge life's "exterior necessity," she is unable to configure a context in which her behavior effects a flash. In Breton's narrative, Nadja is only available for others who use her behavior within their own context. She is an object waiting to be found by subjects who are able to contextualize her behavior and realize an effect. As she and Breton walk down the street, "Nadja's eyes now sweep over the surrounding houses. 'Do you see that window up there? It's black, like all the rest. Look hard. In a minute it will light up. It will be red.' The minute passes. The window lights up ... and that is all" (83). Instead of affording a vantage through which to see, the window becomes a two-dimensional object whose colors merely change. In this exchange with Nadja, Breton forecloses her ability to interpret the scene, stranding her in a mystical appreciation of the phenomenon that is determi nedly impractical. The treatment of Nadja's window as a mystical object that is untranslatable into the everyday world parallels Breton's insistence on Nadja's escape from conventional metaphoric patterns through which meaning is generated.

To the extent that Breton presents her as an epitome and assumes that she offers no explanation to such predictions, Breton fails to adhere to his own ethic: he is continually analyzing and systematizing. Later, Breton describes Nadja and himself "walking along the iron railing again, when suddenly Nadja refuses to go any further." Nadja "cannot take her eyes off" a "low window that overlooks the moat" from which "everything can come. It is here that everything begins" (85). Such a statement seems to be overburdened with significance. Here the window is treated not as a two-dimensional object, but a portal to alternative metaphoric associations through which Nadja's mystical, transcendent system of meaning is implied.

What is the cryptic significance she affords the window, and why is Breton reluctant to surmise? Breton uses Nadja's fascination with the window as a symptom to support his eventual diagnosis; as a result, he obscures the very process of challenging borders of conventional identity for which he is looking. The window complements the figure of the ghost, functioning as the liminal point between the inner and outer, and self and society, but like Breton's ghosts, the transcendent implications of the window are confounded by the eventual analytical grid that Breton's diagnostic propensity imposes. Breton's formulating Nadja's perception of the window undercuts the transcendent symbolism of the window as if to remind the reader that the root of the English word window in Old Norwegian situates it in the material objects of the wind and the eye (OED). The knowing subject is reduced to the uncomfortable sensation of the wind on the eye's membrane as the subject's sight is equated with the eye's momentary glimpse o f the world between palliative blinks. This materialist rendering of the text's mystical window echoes the way Breton's analysis undercuts Nadja's mysticism. Both the seeing subject who seeks transcendence and the symbol of this transcendence (the window) are indelibly stamped by the material and social reality of their existence. The surrealist's eye at the window of art is dependent on the structure of the house whose window both frames the social landscape and provides the vantage and hierarchic advantages that underlie the individual's perspective in the social sphere. Nadja serves as a vehicle through which to stress the surrealistic transcendence while suppressing the social and material context.

Nadja's own ghostliness is demonstrated by a perpetual flight from fixed agency and becomes useful to Breton in subverting the overdetermining effects of the clinical or Marxist networks. Incapable of breaking out of her isolating reveries, of owning an agency, or of realizing the tension between her self and the world around her, Nadja goes mad. Breton writes:

the idea that freedom, acquired here on earth at the price of a thousand--and the most difficult--renunciations, must be enjoyed as unrestrictedly as it is granted, without pragmatic considerations of any sort, and this because human emancipation--conceived finally in its simplest revolutionary form, which is no less than human emancipation in every respect, by which I mean, according to the means at every man's disposal--remains the only cause worth serving. Nadja was born to serve it, if only by demonstrating that around himself each individual must foment a private conspiracy, which exists not only in his imagination . . . (142)

In attempting to free the subject from systematic determination, Breton ironically concretizes that which he would seemingly want to leave undefined. Motivated by his surrealist project, out of which his emphatic advice springs, Breton appraises Nadja and corrupts the possibility of absolutely revolting. Nadja becomes not only the "soul in limbo" to whom Breton is constantly asking the question "Who are you?" (71), but also a sign of Breton's own arrested process and of the ultimate limit of a private conspiracy across which surrealist urgency is incapable of reaching. [6]

Breton claims to offer a way of knowing the self by haunting, but according to Suleiman, this is an engineered haunting,

tantamount to refusing the existence of the unconscious . . . and the elaboration of continuous narrative. What he wants to discover is his "differentiation" from other men, not from himself. And he wants to discover his uniqueness not by seeing his life whole, moving through time, but in flashes, unexpected moments. . . .

(Subversive Intent 101)

In this endeavor, the "unexpected encounter which always tends, explicitly or not, to take on the features of a woman marks the culmination of this quest" (101) [7] The real haunter, the real ghost, is Nadja, who continually escapes the analyst's attempts to sum her up and is herself haunted by that which may or may not be reducible to the play of light on the window's square.

In order both to challenge subjectivity and to communicate that challenge to his audience, Breton constructs an alias in whom he can see the revolution taking place without losing his critical and authorial detachment and control. It is telling that Breton's alias is a woman who is subsequently torn apart by the same authority that supports Breton's position as a heterosexual male, a critic, an analyzer, and the signature-signing author of the surrealist text. The preface to the 1962 version of Nadja makes Breton's clinical tone of appraisal explicit as he begins the edition:

Just as the abundant photographic illustration has as its object to eliminate any description . . . the tone adopted for the narrative copies that of medical, above all neuropsychiatric, observation, which tends to keep a trace of all that the examination and the interrogation can yield, without taking the least trouble, in reporting it, to prettify style. (trans. by Suleiman, Subversive Intent 106)

Between Nadja's poles of photographic presence and the narrative portrayal of Nadja herself as an irrational lunatic and a chosen medium, Breton pursues the effects of ambiguity as configured in ghosts. However, it is very difficult to repress the irony of his condemnation of psychiatry when his own philosophy predetermines the phantom as a woman in relation to whom the novel's narrator is empowered through his relative economic security and gendered privilege. The cost of ambiguity proves to be relative, dependent on the gender and class determinants to which Breton fears being reduced.

While Breton never slips into madness, ultimately aware of his boundaries, Nadja is described as having forgotten common sense and become truly lost in madness. He reflects on the institutionalized Nadja:

I should have restrained her, but first of all I should have had to become conscious of the danger she ran. Yet I never supposed she could lose or might have already lost that minimal common sense which permits my friends and myself, for instance to stand up when a flag goes past, confining ourselves to not saluting it; so we do not side with whatever we feel sympathetic to on every occasion, nor permit ourselves the unparalleled joy of committing some splendid sacrilege, etc.... (142-43)

What Gloria Feman Orenstein calls Breton's "vampirelike quest for himself" (93) seals off Nadja in an unviable and ultimately inadequate symbol of the surrealistic consciousness. This symbol does not really reflect Nadja at all, but only the surrealist's need and power to legislate the parameters and context of the revolt. Revolt and its context, or madness and the diagnostic realization, offer the poles between which Breton sees his subjectivity swim, but the surrealist program, ethic, or process is itself sacrificed in ultimately serving only as yet another standard in this opposition.

Breton shows signs that he is aware of this bind, realizing that even while writing in part to critique psychiatry and communism, his surrealism is never beyond their critique. Any success would be paradoxical, as Breton reflects:

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. If only he would let me believe that on the way at least one true occasion to give it up presented itself! (Nadja 147)

The contradictory nature of Breton's project refocuses the critical emphasis to the spaces in his novel that are described as "sudden intervals between words" and "the interval separating these last lines from those which leafing through this book, would seem to have come to an end a few pages back." He finds these suspensions "enormous and priceless" and is left posing the question "How can I make myself understood?" (148). This space between the words of Breton's novel is the source of more devastating ghosts: those that slip out from behind the analyzed Nadja and the petrified surrealist appraisal.

The reader becomes Breton's analyst, asking "What haunts the author of Nadja?" Nadja, like Nadja's window, becomes an edifice around which swim the symptoms of Breton's failure to systematize those elements that do not fit into social convention. To follow Breton's logic through carefully, what is the relationship between the space he emphasizes and his role as the male author of the text? The author is alive to the extent he gives himself up to the discourse that facilitates escape from convention. He realizes his success at losing himself when he picks up the completed book and finds himself. This illumination or shock is predicated on his having adequately forgotten himself. Any standard purported to gauge adequate forgetfulness is a symptom of failure: to forget oneself completely would mean to leave behind a previous notion of self and neither to notice a difference nor to experience any shock; to remember the self erases the difference between the new and old state, thus integrating and diffusing the s hock into an untextured present.

Nadja becomes an object in which Breton would hope to find himself, but in his finished product he only encounters a wooden recognition based on a false forgetting. He acknowledges that in reading his own book, he has unsatisfactorily arrested the flux between the "thought" and the "me." The reader/author has failed to the extent that the shock can be narrated and reflected upon. In directing his inquiry to the spaces between the words, Breton attempts to maintain only the potential for the writing process to discover the self. The subject's revolution is still predicated on a will to rediscover the self objectively while repressing the necessary forgetting, but the novel can merely be a symptom of this double-bound attempt to forget and yet experience the forgetting itself.

The subject circulates like a phantom around the unutterable contents of an inaccessible forgetting. This emptiness is both tautologically inaccessible (that which is ambiguous, that which is forgotten, that which is repressed, that which is unknowable) and covered over by the production of symbolic enigmas and equations of life with ghostly states. These enigmas describe the relationship between the subject and the crypt, but never the crypt's essence. This inability to talk about the contents of the crypt evokes what Alina Clej describes as the "anti-metaphor" or the "active destruction of figuration" which implies "the destruction of the symbolic act of articulation that constitutes the very essence of language" (837). Breton's found objects are never adequate, but this inadequacy is a way of acknowledging the place of forgetting instead of the forgetting itself. Nadja's erasure, noted by Orenstein, becomes Breton's antimetaphor or cryptonym, his monument to the impossible potential of simultaneously losi ng himself and realizing the effect of this loss.

The trope of the window traces both the attempts toward surrealistic revolution and Breton's cryptonym. The enigmatic story of the man who asks the concierge to keep his key in order to prevent him from forgetting his room number ends with a curious scene:

A minute later, a man extraordinarily upset, his clothes covered with mud, bleeding, his face almost not a face at all, appears at the desk:

"Monsieur Delouit."

"What do you mean, Monsieur Delouit? Don't try to put one over on us! Monsieur Delouit has just gone upstairs!"

"I'm sorry, it's me... I've just fallen out of the window. What's the number of my room, please?" (Nadja 156)

The window is the site for negotiating the Cartesian subject (the stable agent of "me") and the determining social network (the insidiously programming "thought"). The room is a corollary of the objective self out of which springs the surrealist subject. Testing the boundaries between the possible and the real affords radical opportunities for freeing the individual's life from the organic plan, even at the cost of smacking the pavement below and literally losing one's face. Leaping out the window is a metaphor for the dangerous attempt to escape the very architecture that simultaneously constructs and regulates both the revolt and its context.

In Capital, Marx revises the invocation of ghosts that had commenced the Manifesto. Whereas the "specter of Communism" had implied a retributive return of the repressed working class, the ghost of Capital is equated with the function of money. Money is the process functioning as "a means of circulation only because in it the value possessed by commodities has taken on an independent shape. Hence, its movement, as the medium of circulation, is in fact merely the movement undergone by commodities while changing their form" (212). Money is much like Breton's narrator's ego, searching for the object that reflects his social meaning. Like money, Breton's individual is realized in the shifting process of circulation. Marx continues:

Every commodity, when it first steps into circulation and undergoes its first change of form, does so only to fall out of circulation once more and be replaced again and again by fresh commodities. Money, on the contrary, as the medium of circulation, haunts the sphere of circulation and constantly moves around within it. (213)

However, there is an important difference between Marx's and Breton's ghosts. Breton's ghost circulates in specific opposition to conventional systems of capitalistic logic. Whereas Marx limits the function of money--"One thing is necessary, however: the symbol of money must have its own objective social validity" (226)--Breton's ghosts are an attempt to disengage the self from objective social validation by transcending the realm of economic imperative.

When trying to explain why Nadja has been institutionalized, Breton acknowledges her poverty, an economic reality that his aesthetic reflections had overlooked. Breton acknowledges that even though he thought she could have pulled herself together despite her "wretched state ... Nadja was poor, which in our time is enough to condemn her, once she decided not to behave entirely according to the imbecile code of good sense and good manners" (142). This explanation is intriguing in light of the earlier exchange between Nadja and the narrator: "It is all too obvious that money gets away from her. I ask her how much she needs right away: five hundred francs. Not having the sum with me, I offer to give it to her the next day. All her anxiety has disappeared" (93). While Nadja's material necessity seems fairly straightforward, the narrator continues:

Respectfully I kiss her lovely teeth and she says, slowly, gravely, the second time a few notes higher than the first: "Communion takes place in silence. ... Communion takes place in silence." This, she explains, is because this kiss leaves her with the impression of something sacred, where her teeth "substituted for the host." (93)

In order to imagine his freedom from ideology, Breton relies on a process of mystification to which Marx refers in speaking of "the misty realm of religion" where "the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relation with each other and with the human race" (165). Breton's narrative appeals to a ritual of transubstantiation; the exchange of currency, or specie, operates like the eucharistic species in evoking spiritual connection between the narrator and Nadja. At one point, Breton notices the "coincidence" that he has given Nadja "three times the agreed amount" (97) of money. Unlike Marx, whose ghost functions to recognize the social contextuality of value, Breton rationalizes the economic exchange into a spiritual, noneconomic bond through an allusion to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Breton extends the metaphor of communion in Nadja's request that he find "a Latin or Arabic pseudonym" for the novel that she predicts he will write about her. Nadja informs "Andre" that after writing the book:

you'll take another name: and the name you choose . . . is extremely important. It must have something of fire about it, for it is always fire that recurs in anything to do with you. The hand too, but that is less essential than the fire. What I see is a flame starting from the wrist, like this (with the gesture of palming a card), and making the hand burn up immediately, so that it disappears in the twinkling of an eye. (100-01)

An appeal to the Holy Ghost, apparent in the rhetoric of communion and pentecost, enables Breton to imply a spiritual event with Nadja at the very point of economic necessity--a necessity whose force it is Breton's stated intent to escape.

While the narrator is intent on escaping ideological interpolation, he is sensible to the factors that afford him the power of authority. By signing his book, Breton frames his activity in a fashion unavailable to Nadja; further, Breton's authority is implicitly reliant on an economic security that is never fully acknowledged, but instead is rationalized through a rhetoric of spiritual transcendence that is pointedly aesthetic. In the end, Breton offers a self-consiousness that vacillates between opting Out of conventional metaphoric relations and attempting to transcend conventional relations through a sacred, inexplicable, artistic creation. As such, Breton keeps himself from "the unparalleled joy of committing some splendid sacrilege . . ." (143).

It is at this point that the unsigned novel of Georges Bataille begins an assault on the over-determining nature of Western existence. During his lifetime, Bataille never signed his name to Histoire de l'oeil. Each subsequent publication is flanked by new interpretive glosses that orient the text in relation to the absence of its most important feature: the author. This pseudonymic mockery is arrested in the posthumously published editions that definitively attach Bataille's name to the novel by "Lord Auch." It is as if the novel is the crypt of subjectivity in which Bataille's entombment is ironic. The "authorless" novel is an open crypt into which the reader wanders in search of an epitaph. Bataille's ghosts are perpetually dancing shadows of heterogeneous frenzy, only reflected in the homogeneous form of static utility that they haunt. Bataille describes shadowing itself as the mechanism that generates the myriad of possibilities out of which stable identity is asserted. [8] Instead of searching for a rev olutionary self who is fascinated with the potential of authentic revolt, Bataille pushes the restricted economy of formulated identity to its conclusive demise, focusing on gender and class. For Bataille, Western identity arises out of the ghosting process.

Bataille's "The "Psychological Structure of Fascism" (1933) describes how the individual exists "only as a function, arranged within measurable limits of collective production (which makes him an existence for something other than itself)" (Visions 138). In "The Obelisk" he writes:

Beyond these limits [of personal human destiny]--there where human meaning begins--existence matters to the extent that [human beings] attract and, apart from this attraction, they are less than shadows, less than specks of dust. And the attraction of an isolated human being is itself still only a shadow, a pitiful fleeting apparition. (Visions 214)

For Bataille, the ghost is not a symptom but a precondition of enunciation and self-recognition that confounds the quest for authentic identity. Bataille's hesitation between the metaphors of dust and shadow/apparition emphasizes the extent to which the conventional Cartesian subjective is destabilized. Because self-recognition is not a priori but relies on one's supposed function within a system, identity is merely an evanescent ghost, completely contingent on the context that facilitates the process of perception. Bataille does not valorize an ambiguous relationship between self-recognition and existence, but instead characterizes recognition itself as a continual, inescapable deceit with little creative potential.

Revolutionary politics become nearly impossible. The compelling value attached to any plan of action or rebellion against the status quo is merely a perpetuation of the subject's misguided confidence in him or herself. Any attempt to transgress is formulated within the restricted economy against which it would revolt, and as each transgression is subsumed into an ever larger and more complex yet still restricted economy, transgressive potential is evacuated of its revolutionary effect. A first step to revolutionary Aufhebung for Bataille would be the cancellation and nullification of the very subjective value that typically empowers the revolution's imperative.

Breton's opinions about Georges Bataille were at times contemptuous. Looking over a copy of "W.C." (1926) that Leiris had shown him, Breton rejected the book off-handedly (Hollier 107) and dismissed Bataille as obsessive (Bataille, Visions x). Breton's derisive comments regarding Bataille included calling him an excremental and big-toe philosopher. Near the end of the Second Surrealist Manifesto, Breton analyzes Bataille's obsessiveness:

M. Bataille's misfortune is to reason: admittedly, he reasons like someone who 'has a fly on his nose,' which allies him more closely with the dead than with the living, but he does reason. He is trying, with the help of the tiny mechanism in him which is not completely out of order, to share his obsessions: this very fact proves that he cannot claim, no matter what he may say, to be opposed to any system, like an unthinking brute. (Manifestoes 184)

Breton's attack designates a fundamental difference between his and Bataille's political ideals. Breton insists on the recuperative logic of every artistic thought and action, and places Bataille's obscenity back into a system of reason and communication. Bataille, however, writes obscenely in a doomed project of trying to rupture, but not transcend, the system. Bataille eventually assumes that his attempt to shock the economy by pushing it to its most horrifying conclusion fails to free him from it and is a definite failure. This reflects a scene in The Blue of Noon (1935) in which Monsieur Melou pursues Troppmann with a political dilemma:

"There's no denying that we find ourselves confronted with a minute, disembodied problem whose very substance seems to elude us..." He looked disconsolate. He was racked by some difficulty only he could perceive. His hands initiated a gesture. "But its consequences cannot escape a mind as caustic and restless as your own.

I turned toward Lazare and said, "You'll have to excuse me, but would you show me to the toilet?" (64)

The moral here is not that politics are not important, but instead that the imperative itself stifles the individual who revolts through the excessive: obscenity, laughter, vomiting. Of "W.C.," Bataille wrote, "it was a shriek of horror (horror at myself, not for my debauchery, but for the philosopher's head) ..." (Story of the Eye 97). This image of the headless philosopher, presuming failure but revolting nonetheless, prefigures the headless agitation of a personal Nietzscheism. [9]

In an unpublished denunciation of The Second Surrealist Manifesto called "The 'Old Mole' and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme and Surrealist" (1929-30), Bataille criticizes the Icarian ethic of transcendence in Breton's revolutionary values. Bataille formulates an opposition between the eagle and the "old mole": the eagle stands for the power of imperialism as realized in the "the unconstrained development of individual authoritarian power, triumphant over all obstacles" (Visions 34); the "old mole" resides in the "subterranean action of economic facts" (35). This reference to Hamlet marks the convergence of economic and psychological determinism in the father's authority and the economy's productive imperative. Knowledge is conf1ated with death as all individual agency is subsumed by the complex efficiency of the restricted economy. As Nietzsche notes in The Birth of Tragedy:

Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires veils of illusion. (60)

With this confounding realization, any transcendence can be only ironically formulated against an eternal paradox: in order to act, one must forget. The subject is sustained only in its ability to forget and to repress knowledge of the frame of reference's perpetual insufficiency in favor of illusions of autonomy. As a result, the subject's knowledge becomes a series of realizations regarding the subject's own insufficiency, an eternally returning lack of the essential.

Bataille criticizes Breton's surrealist effort to repress the death in knowledge. Revolutionary idealism, as understood through Nietzsche by the surrealists, "tends to make of the revolution" (which is supposed to overturn the exploiting imperial eagle) "an eagle above eagles, a supereagle striking down authoritarian imperialism" (Visions 34). In other words, the surrealists want to use power as it is manifested in the system to revolt against the system itself. However, their transcendence is generated by an exploitative erasure of the base rudiments captured in the image of the "old mole" that routs around in the bowels of the earth. Breton's supereagle works oppositionally, leaving behind a straw man of capitalistic exploitation without addressing the imperative to produce; in this way, the supereagle replicates the imperial eagle's mechanism of transcendence. Breton acknowledges neither the necessary expenditure (such as Nadja) through which his surrealistic revolt is sustained, nor the surrealists' rela tive privilege within the economic system from which they authorize revolutionary action.

Bataille notices the rebellious energy of Nietzsche's discourse, but unlike Breton, he does not contextualize it. He discusses the "flagrant disgust for the senile idealism of the establishment . . . the hypocrisy and moral shabbiness that preside over current world exploitation" (37) against which Nietzsche's discourse also reacts, but he criticizes Nietzsche for too easily supporting Breton's interpretation: "Nietzsche [is condemned] by circumstances to imagine this break with conformist ideology as an Icarian adventure" through which he is able to "seize the fire from heaven" (37). Nietzsche's transcendent sentiment, even in rejecting the powerful transcendent eagle of the system, forgets about the roots of the plant and becomes the "most inane contempt for vulgar human nature" (42). Bataille concludes that it would be "boorish to deny the reactionary and romantic character of Nietzschean morality" (38).

As Bataille concludes the essay, however, there are hints of an alternative way of conceiving political action and its meaning that rescues Nietzsche from a correspondence with Breton. Bataille begins to applaud a headless agitation, a nonallegorical, unmeaningful, and useless spirit that includes "all the vulgarity of needs small and great, with its flagrant disgust for the police who repress it" (43). Whereas the Icarian ideal stresses transcendence and represses any laughter, "acting and even thinking as if [it had] attained without laughter the violent spiritual elevation that is only the empty rumbling of [its] Words" (40), the truly human agitation can only be conceived as the ongoing act of laughter. In laughter, Bataille will ultimately salvage Nietzsche, who gives "greatest value from the perspective of philosophical truth to outburst of laughter" (39).

Bataille's contributions to La critique sociale from 1932 and 1933 ("The Critique of the Foundations of the Hegelian Dialectic," "The Notion of Expenditure," and "The Psychological Structure of Fascism") reflect a continued commitment to the unrecoverable aspect of any system, including Marxism. The revolution Bataille envisions, or necessarily cannot envision, is below politics, speaking to the conditions that make the category of the "political" necessary and that motivate production. Revolutionary emphasis on production (or reproduction) and the corresponding repression of eliminating waste (vomiting, urinating, shitting) echoes the valorization of "the revolutionary impulse of the proletarian masses" that "sometimes implicitly and sometimes openly [is] treated as sacred." In the face of such compulsion, Bataille insists on the possibility of using "the word Revolution entirely stripped of its utilitarian meaning without, however, giving it an idealist meaning" (Visions 100). This interpretation of revolu tion underscores the major difference between Breton's and Bataille's understanding of art and its relation to history.

Bataille's Hegelian Aufhebung, unlike Breton's, is rooted in Alexandre Kojeve's decree that history is fundamentally a story of struggle, while simultaneously being already over, conclusive and finished. Hegel's idea that the "spirit's being is bone" (Hollier 146) is translated to Bataille through Kojeve:

The end of history is the death of man, strictly speaking. After this death there remain: 1) living bodies with human form but deprived of spirit, that is, of time or of creative power; and 2) a spirit that exists empirically, but in the form of an inorganic reality that is not alive: as a book that, because it is not even animal existence, no longer has anything to do with time. (156)

Bataille's often-quoted 6 December 1937 letter to Kojeve stands testament to how seriously this determinism was received. And in 1944 he would write:

Hegelian Dialectic. Today, between two points, it is impossible for me not to be a hyphen, a leap, for an instant resting on nothing... the human figures you see in the air between two points are crossed out--they aren't there now. (On Nietzsche 80)

This contrasts sharply with Breton's conviction in Nadja that these suspensions between words are "enormous and priceless" and filled with phantoms of possibility.

The apparitions in Story of the Eyeare ubiquitous. The narrator's acknowledgment of ghosts is not a transformative opportunity, but a precondition to self-recognition that mocks the narrator:

But in my weariness, I realized that my life had to have some meaning all the same, and would have one if only certain events, defined as desirable, were to occur. I finally accepted being so extraordinarily haunted by the names Simone and Marcelle. Since it was no use laughing, I could keep going only by accepting or feigning to imagine a phantastic compromise that would confusedly link my most disconcerting moves to theirs. (18)

Bataille simultaneously destabilizes the complementary assumptions that the subject creates reality by reading the context, and that the context is a fixed field determining a subject. Even though the narrator seems programmed by the context ("certain events"), context continually shifts and absorbs every narrative transgression in production of the subsequent story line. The novel is not merely rejoining Nadja by saying, "Here Andre, let us see you place this in your absolute space of sameness where all contradictions fall away" (Kirsch 43), but instead enacts the impossibility of a radical transgression that can escape the absolute sameness implied by restricted economies of gender and class. The narrator's self-recognition is confined to a series of corresponding signs, defined in relation to a system of utility, that culminate only in a fatal paralysis. The italicized character names are generated from this system, but far from constituting a radical otherness, these signs are merely utilitarian reflectio ns or ghosts of a never-material authenticity. This passage performs a radical, incessant deferment that allows the reader to see the process of identity composition as a ghost dancing within an alienating economy of meaning. Such a ghost is far from marvelous, but a symptom of a perpetually lacerating realization of insufficiency.

Vicki Kirsch focuses on the window scene in Story of the Eye in which Marcelle waves a sheet as a signal from the sanitarium. Kirsch compares Nadja's drawings to Marcelle's signaling artwork, reading the "broad wet stain [glowing] in the translucent moonlight" that is in the center of Marcelle's sheet, which is "flapping and banging" (Story 24) in the wind, as "a signal of [Marcelle's] captivity and of her creativity." For "What other medium was available for [her] self-creativity" (Kirsch 49)? However, Marcelle's spark of creativity is never recognized in the text, swallowed by the narrator's narrative dissolution to which the urine stain succumbs in the course of the novel. The symbols gather an associative force that eventually ruptures the narrative continuity, and the narrator is lost in the linguistic swell of metaphors. Marcelle's stain slides into the narrator/narrative circle of association: Being / I / eye / egg / sun / moon / stain / sex / other/ society / death / nothingness / God. In the process of cycling through this tormenting deferral, the italicized Marcelle is produced, a placeholder for the identity and meaning one expects in the reading process.

This metonymic association is significantly different from the prescriptive haunting that Breton deploys to realize surrealist epiphany. While Breton tries to produce ghosts, Bataille insists that expression is only a shifting between subsequent cryptonymic antimetaphors. Even the window, a powerful sign of potential subjective communication and transformation in Nadja, is absorbed into Bataille's chain of reference, for "all that remained before us was an empty, glowing window, a rectangular hole piercing the opaque night, showing our aching eyes a world composed of lightning and dawn" (Story 28). This empty center composed of fleeting light rays is the breach from which the narrator composes a reflective self. In this way, the window is the opposite of Nadja's source of mystery and becomes a tomb transfixing Simone's and the narrator's vision: "Dumbstruck as we were about to see Marcelle bleed and fall dead in the windowframe" (28).

Brian Fitch recognizes the radical subjective destabilization that this network of signs performs and concludes that the signs themselves become the authorial force. He writes:

The scriptible finally comes into its own in Bataille's Histoire de l'ceil. Here self reference attains its ultimate realization and marks the culmination of the progressive frustration of reference that has been mapped out in these pages and the definitive collapse of the fictional reality born of concretization. (213)

For Fitch, the ghosts vanish. Any haunting is reduced to a pure typography of the word-object on the page. As Fitch traces the anagramic evolution of globe oculaire for ceil through a convergence of ceil and cul in couille, any transgressive force is emptied from the lexicon to produce a formal network. Bataille's lesson, however, is not a mere recognition of this formal network. His novel emphasizes the work any subject must do in the process of composing a narrative.

Bataille demonstrates that self-consciousness depends on channeling the network's infinite metonymic proliferation into a metaphoric relation. He simultaneously desublimates and sublimates death, using it as both a precondition and an unattainable, incommunicable end to the narrator's adventures. Riding behind Simone on his bicycle, the narrator says:

And it struck me that death was the sole outcome of my erection, and if Simone and I were killed, then the universe of our unbearable personal vision was certain to be replaced by ... a geometric incandescence (among other things, the coinciding point of life and death, being and nothingness). (Story 33)

The narrator's recognition of the metonymic trajectory yields a metaphor, and subjectivity is coterminous with the tension between metonym and metaphor. In this way, Bataille's narrator opens death to get beyond death; but, doomed to fail, he falls back into a system of recognized ghosts that can be acknowledged only in a backward glance from the vantage of the subsequent transgression.

Fitch's characterization of Story of the Eye as autotelic fails to acknowledge the Nietzschean eternal return by which Bataille saw his work driven. [10] Bataille, psychoanalyzed in 1925 by Adrien Borel, remains the interminable patient whose madness cannot be imitated, metaphorized, or adequately communicated. Bataille writes Story of the Eye and "W.C." as a therapeutic gesture. His guillotine (a la Stendahl), standing on the opening page of "W.C.," denotes an eternal return of culpability that ends only in death. Any recognition of a formal network (such as justice) beyond individual agency corresponds to the subject's being torn apart in the knowledge of death's inevitability. The subject's former security is always in the process of decomposing, leaving ghosts that haunt the tomb of a stable self who would presume to write a book. The subject can only compose a provisional self in observing these hauntings, but not an essential self immune from sliding into the trajectory toward death. As the priest's eye is torn from his body in the closing scenes of chapter 13, the "I" of a priest is vitiated by the involuntary transgression against the very systems of morality that had hitherto supported his authority and identity. The dismembering ends only in death, when the eternal return ceases to function, thus preventing the remembering and subsequent assessment of culpability.

The text's lack of authorial stability prevents a system through which to regulate these ghosts of self, but a crypt or notion of the self remains that both generates and is generated by nostalgia for the essential, authoring self. As writing becomes a self-mutilating crime promoting illusions of subjective security, desublimation becomes the paradoxical project of the guilty Bataille. He writes to tear away pretension, and writes against writing in an impossible and violent refusal not to exacerbate the wound of the self. Considered individually, both Fitch's typographic concretization and Kirsch's subjective primacy arrest the lacerating effects of the eternal return and yet continue theorizing--as if the project were Bataille's and as if Bataille's project could exist as anything but a failure. They insist on the dismemberment of the eye while saving the priest's life, so to speak. In this way, the central tension behind Bataille's politics and fiction is erased. Considered together, however, Kirsch and F itch offer the extremes of a continuum across which Bataille's ghosts of subjectivity dance. It not only remains unclear if the ghosts are producing the words or the words the ghosts, but finally this ambiguity frustrates the conventional rhetorics of selfhood, causality, and agency, illustrating the preconditions of subjective self-realization.

Further probing what has produced part 1 of the novel, the narrator comments that the words and metaphors have woven around each other in "the necessity of finding an equivalent to his blind father's exclamation 'Doctor, let me know when you're done flicking my wife!'" (Story 94-95). The author of "Coincidences" recalls "It is impossible for me to say positively that Marcelle is basically identical with my mother" before he continues by relating the insanity of his mother (who, just like Marcelle, is found hanging in the attic but, unlike Marcelle, does not die). The reader is left with a proliferation of narrative possibilities in which to situate the sliding metaphors of part I. The question remains "is the organization of a narrative sequence, such as the case history, the effect of a primal event or its cause" (Rand lv)? Between Kirsch's and Fitch's poles swims the reader of Bataille's text, asking finally, "What the hell am I thematizing here?"

Returning to Marx and Engels's invocation of the specter at the start of their Manifesto, we can see how differently Bataille and Breton consider Marxist practice. Both revolt against Marx's confidence in scientific determinism to elucidate the "real life-process," as outlined in The German Ideology. [11] Bataille's conclusion to Story of the Eye uses transgressive sexuality to vitiate the symbolic economy underpinning capitalistic economy. The final transgression of the novel is an assault on the holy trinity, disrupting the sanctity of priestly fatherhood by desecrating the image of the Holy Ghost.

Bataille's novel works to disrupt the metaphoric associations through which capitalistic forces extend themselves and link up to the religious and sexual economies of meaning. The final chapter's title, "The Legs of the Fly," symbolizes the failure of metaphoric creation and proliferation in light of the characters' experience of hardcore transgression. When Simone desecrates the consecrated hosts and forces the priest to urinate in the Eucharistic chalice, the narrative is desecrating the sacred species and the image of the Holy Trinity that Breton had used to convey his communion with Nadja. This desecration operates at the intersection of several types of authority, ultimately implying the disruption of the circulation and function of capitalism's specie. The narrator's voice mirrors the roving perspective of the priest's dismembered eye as Simone puts it "in [her] ass" (83) and rolls it over her genitalia. Bataille's name is not only the French word for battle, reflecting the embattled status of the conv entional subject, but is also the desecrated "butt-eye" that Simone utilizes in her sexual act as the narrator's own sense of self and linguistic system is reduced to a stuttering insufficiency, falling into a trailing ellipsis. [12]

As Bataille moves into the late 1930s and on into the 40s and 50s, he uses different foci to illustrate the lack of self and to shock convention into a radically different awareness of this lack as lack. A central concern in his writing is Nietzsche, whose writing he defends from fascism. Nietzsche's use by the Nazis is derived from placement in an allegory, an identity, a system, a politics; but such structures are the very targets of revolt in Nietzsche. Bataille's resistance to structure is not a transcendence, for it can never move beyond. The very structures that would enable it to use metaphor, even in a negative sense, are illusions. The discourse is not even able to be recuperated into the representation of nonmeaning. The eternal return to this paradox precludes harnessing the energy generated by the "breathless context of human existence" (Visions 191).

Nietzsche's laughter is the paradoxical energy or necessity for the subject to construct a metaphor of that which can supposedly not be metaphorized. The return of the system eternally precludes such absolute radicality. This inability to exceed the system, even through exhaustion, is the ghost haunting Bataille's vision of the impossibility of metaphorizing Nietzsche. By conflating death and life, the ghost of the eternal return still haunts Bataille in his very effort to communicate; laughter becomes the only means through which to endure the ghost of oneself. [13]

During the war Bataille would write an entire book on Nietzsche. With the Somme atheologique enterprise, Bataille revises his earlier placement of Nietzsche within an evolving revolutionary, communitarian politics by focusing instead on the subject as interior project. The internal, eternal orgasmic revolt Bataille envisions is best symbolized by the ghost of the priest in the 13th chapter of Story of the Eye, but it is a blind, laughing priest who declares: "I solicit everything negative that a laughing man can experience" (Inner Experience 79).


(1.) Histoire de l'ail was written in 1928, but only 134 copies were printed. Every subsequent publication of the novel in Bataille's lifetime was attributed to the pseudonymous Lord Auch. Five years after his death, Histoire de l'ail was published again under his real name.

(2.) For a general treatment of the relationship between Bataille and Breton, as well as between Bataille and surrealism, see John Lechte. For discussions of the role of women in Nadja and Histoire de l'ail, see Susan Rubin Suleiman's Subversive Intent, especially chapters 1, 4, and 5. For an earlier study of the ghost in Breton and Bataille, see Vicki Kirsch. Kirsch demonstrates how the ghostly figures of Nadja and Marcelle signal a form of creative female expression that utilizes the female anatomy even as it defies the seeming male domination of the female body. I focus instead on the economic register of the ghost trope as it intersects with the power represented in male authorship.

(3.) Balakian writes:

The First Manifesto was written under the aegis of Freud, who more than anyone else in his own time had shown, in tangible manner and not as the basis of faith, the interrelationship of dream and reality and had revealed by the utilization of the dream...the superior reality that man can attain through the powers of the dream and of the free play of the mind. (Magus 90)

(4.) Balakian continues:

Whereas the First Manifesto had been written under the banner of Freud, the Second is in the orbit of Hegel, in whose dialectical materialism Breton found support for his desire to overcome the contradictions and grasp the long view. While with Freud he explored inner consciousness in a movement of subjectivism and interiorization, with Hegel he is oriented toward the possibilities of projecting ideas and images into the concrete, exterior world. (Magus 97).

(5.) Robert Short notes that after half a dozen interviews and a wary admission, the surrealists

all beat a hasty retreat when Breton, who found himself posted among the gas-workers in the rue Lafayette, was asked to make a statistical report on the state of that industry in Italy. 'I just couldn't do it,' he confessed. (11)

(6.) For more on Breton's tendency to diagnose his "patients," see Lechte.

(7.) Here Suleiman is translating Breton's Entretiens 139.

(8.) See Jonathan Strauss.

(9.) Bersani writes of the way meaning is wrenched from historical paralysis: "sexuality and history are catastrophes that art has the task of repairing and redeeming. . . as if in art that turbulence can be absorbed" and the "bloody" converted into the "golden legend" (108). The hermetically sealed novel is a way of producing a transcendence over the double bind of historical situation. Bataille becomes "one of the first writers to reject the great modernist project of a domination of life through art" (113). Bataille's struggle is against the sublimating tendency of art. The "corrective will" is abandoned and there is no authority "to resolve or a superior point of view to justify broad cultural 'truth"' (113).

(10.) See Carolyn Dean.

(11.) Marx and Engels write:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. (The German Ideology 47)

(12.) Bataille wrote in French but knew English. In the chapter of Story of the Eye that I am considering here, an Englishman looks on as Simone cruelly abuses the priest. Sir Edmond, "I'Anglais," uses the English word girl when commanding the priest: "Leve-toi ... tu vas baiser la girl" (164). Bataille's essay "The Solar Anus," his exploration of the metaphoric "solar anus" in "Dossier de l'oeil pineal," and his other writings indicate that he repeatedly considered the novel's image. Finally, his experience with psychoanalysis and parapraxis would perhaps have made him aware of the English renderings of his name as "butt-eye" and even "but, I . . . "

(13.) Eventually laughter takes the place of any strictly Hegelian third phase of neutralization. Bataille points toward an incessant oscillation of the "social base" on the way to a "permanent revolution . . . not guided by Trotskyist rigor, but...inspired by the irrecoverable losses of Sadian excesses" (Visions 176). In such an instance,

laughter is not only the composition of those it assembles into a unique convulsion; it most often decomposes without consequence, and sometimes with a virulence that is so pernicious that it even puts in question composition itself, and the wholes across which it functions. (Heimonet 229)


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Title Annotation:authors Andre Breton and Georges Bataille
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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