The Lugubrious Game – Georges Bataille

Intellectual despair culminates neither in cowardice nor in dreaming, but in violence. Thus there is no question of abandoning certain investigations. It is simply a matter of knowing how to give vent to rage; that’s all that’s required for thrashing around in prisons like madmen – or for overthrowing them.

Against the half-measures, the evasions, the ravings, which betray great poetic powerlessness, one can oppose nothing but a black rage and an unspeakable bestiality. There is no other way to act than like a pig, guzzling in the dung and the mud, rooting with its snout, its repugnant voracity unstoppable.

If the forms brought together by a painter on a canvas were without repercussions, if, for example – since we are speaking of voracity (even in the intellectual realm), of horrible shadows which affront the mind – jaws with hideous teeth did not protrude from Picasso’s skull to frighten those who still have the impudence to think respectable thoughts, then painting would serve well to distract people from their rage, as bars and American films do. But why hesitate to say that when Picasso paints, the dislocation of forms leads to the dislocation of thought. The immediate process of thought, which in other cases culminates in an idea, aborts. We cannot ignore the fact that flowers are aphrodisiacs, that a single outburst of laughter can penetrate and excite a crowd, consequently that an outburst of screaming constitutes an equally obstinate form of miscarriage, susceptible to the reverberations of a non serviam opposed by brute humanity to the idea. This idea has the same degrading power over man that a harness has over a horse: I can snort and rail; I cannot go left or right; the head is bridled and held fast by the idea which forces all men to walk in a straight line. They walk under the symbol, amongst others, of papers printed with the coat of arms of the State. By trickery almost, human life is made always to conform to the image of the soldier commanded to act. Sudden cataclysms, great popular outbursts, demonstrations, monstrous revolutionary killings, are the measures of the inevitable compensations.

I am trying to say, almost without preamble, that the paintings of Picasso are hideous, that those of Dali are of a terrible ugliness. To assure oneself otherwise is to be a victim of the intractability of words, or even of an evil somehow relevant to the practices of black magic. To measure the extent of the evil all that’s required is bluntly to imagine a small girl, with a charming look, whose soul will be the abominable mirror of Dali. The language of this small girl is not a language but a pestilence. And if she still appears admirably beautiful, it is, as one says, as black blood is beautiful, running over the coat of a cow or the neck of a woman. (If violence can save a being from profound boredom, it is because they can reach, by some obscure error, a terrible but satisfying ugliness. It has to be said, moreover, that ugliness can be horrible without redress, and thus, unfortunately, that nothing is more common than ambiguous ugliness provocatively offering the illusion of its opposite. As for irrevocable ugliness, it is just as detestable as certain forms of beauty: beauty which does not disguise anything, which is nothing but the mask of lost immodesty, which never fails and remains eternally at attention like a coward.)

Little by little the contradictory signs of servitude and revolt reveal themselves in all things. The great constructions of the intelligence are by definition prisons: that is why they are persistently overthrown. The dreams and illusory darknesses remain within reach of diehard irresolutes whose unconscious calculation is not after all so clumsy, since they innocently put revolt within the shelter of the law. How can one not admire loss of will, blind attraction, uncertainty adrift, going from voluntary distraction to attention? It is true that I speak here of that which *s already forgotten as Dali’s razors slice from our faces the grimaces of horror, which probably risk making us spew up like drunks this servile nobility, this Miotic idealism which leaves us under the charm of some comical slavemaster.

Strangely sick dogs have for so long licked the fingers of their masters howling a t death in the country in the middle of the night. To these frightful howlings there respond, as a thunderbolt responds to the fracas of the rain, such cries a s are difficult to speak of without excitement.

A few days before July 1789, the Marquis de Sade, doomed to rage in his dungeon in the Bastille, drew a crowd around his prison by uttering an insane scream through the drain which served to empty his dirty water, in doubtless the most consequential noise ever produced by human larynx. This cry had historic consequences, for it went: ‘People of Paris, they are killing the prisoners’. It was like the cry of an old pensioner having his throat cut at night in a suburb. It is known that Governor Launay, alarmed at the gathering uproar, had the prisoner transferred to another prison, which did not prevent his own head from going, a few hours later, to terrify the city from the top of a stake.

But if one wants to account explicitly for the excessive character of the cry, it is necessary to turn to the deposition of Rose Keller, who accused de Sade of having used her for his services. This deposition, recently discovered by Mr Maurice Heine, is categorical. The young woman recounts that after having been tortured with a whip, she tried to move him by her tears and by her pleadings, he being a man at once so prepossessing and so evil. As she invoked all manner of things saintly and touching, Sade suddenly halted, and deaf to everything, gave forth with dreadful and absolutely sickening cries.

It is understood that a chronic disquiet over a course of years may signify nothing other than the feeling that something is lacking in existence. It is hardly worth making the point that what is lacking are the cries themselves, whether uttered or heard; that everywhere the disturbed have apparently lost their heads, consigning human life to ennui and disgust, but pretending at the same moment to conserve it, even to defend it, and sometimes heroically, against the defilements which appeared to them ignoble.

This is said without critical intent of any kind; for it is evident that violence is often quite brutally hilarious, to exhaust the questioner’s patience. Here alone I take my stand. I have no choice – thus pursuing this bestial hilarity to its extreme – but to lift my heart to Dali, and to grunt like a pig before his canvases.

Originally published as le “Jeu lugubre”‘ in Documents, no. 7, Paris, December 1929.

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