Surrealpolitik: The Absence of Myth

Author: Georges Bataille

(2006, first published in 1994)

Quick Summary

An enormously pertinent set of short pieces dealing with most of my exact interests in surrealism, e.g., its continuing relevance and potential for development, its privileging of the "sovereignty of the instant", its insistence on total freedom of thought and imagination, its challenge to notions of the real as in the myth that we are no longer subject to myths.


There are 41 quotes currently associated with this book.

Bataille had no time for the idea that surrealism was dead. On the contrary, it had barely come into being -- it was almost the embryo for a potentiality that could be realized only in the future. This above all marks Bataille's own surrealism: it was a potentiality to be realized. [from the Introduction by translator Michael Richardson] (page 3)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise]
[W]e could take André Breton and Georges Bataille as two poles of the surrealist spirit as it has been manifested to the present. While Breton dreams of enchanted palaces constructed 'at the side of the chasm in philosopher's stones' and welcomes utopia and the 'paradise on earth' through Fourier's idea of history, Bataille, the black surrealist of catastrophe, exalts in a mysticism of unhope, in which consciousness of human absurdity is the source of an hilarious joy. [Michael Richardson in the Introduction, quoting Patrick Waldberg] (page 6)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise]
[H]e came to recognize that although contemporary society was not without myth, it had denied the very basis of ancient myth, founded on a mediation between mankind and the natural world through which the cohesion (and necessity) of society would be affirmed. The myth of contemporary society, therefore, was an 'absence of myth', since that society had deluded itself into believing it was without myth by making a myth of its very denial. Furthermore, it believed that it no longer had a need for myth, that it had evolved beyond dependence upon a ritual to establish a mediation between mankind and the rest of creation, since man now had dominion over nature. The word itself had become devalued, and 'myth' now referred to something that is by definition 'false'. Both Bataille and the surrealists were convinced that this was profoundly misguided -- and dangerously so: contemporary society was as much in need of mythical foundation as any other society, and by denying that fact it was simply making a fetish of its absence and denying part of itself. [From the introduction by translator Michael Richardson] (page 13)
Tags: [Truth & Real]
Bataille believed that [fetishized absence of myth] was where surrealism was especially important, because it had long recognized this absence of myth, and sought to confront what it brought into play. But the surrealists, unlike Bataille, had realized very early that the reviving of ancient myths could lead to nothing. Any modern conception of myth needed, on the contrary, to begin with a concept of its absence. [From the introduction by translator Michael Richardson] (page 13)
Tags: [Truth & Real]
For Bataille, this absence of myth was merely one aspect of a more generalized 'absence'. It also meant the 'absence of sacred'. 'Sacred', for Bataille, was defined in a very straightforward way -- as 'communication'. By extension, its loss also meant, therefore, an absence of communication. Quite simply, the notion of an 'absence of myth' meant a failure of communication which touched all levels of society. And a society which ceases or is unable genuinely to communicate ceases to be a society. In a very real sense it becomes an 'absence of society' or, more specifically, an 'absence of community'. [From the introduction by translator Michael Richardson] (page 13)
Tags: [Truth & Real]
For Bataille, the profound sense of surrealism lay in the fact that it recognized the falsity of rationalism's ideological claims to define what is 'real'. Such a concept destroys the notion of myth, just as it becomes itself what it denies: reality is a myth. A society that denies its mythical basis therefore denies part of its essence, and is living a lie. The crucial point here is that everything about the concept of reality is mythical. Nothing solid responds to this state: the only reality we can know is defined by the use we make of myth to define our ontological principles. The thrust of Western civilization has been to deny this mythical basis, and to posit reality as an ontological given that can be located and conquered. [From the introduction by translator Michael Richardson] (page 14)
Tags: [Truth & Real]
In positing an 'absence of myth', Bataille was looking not for a new form of mysticism, but to reintegrate the notion of ecstasy into the body social, within which it would have a virulent and contagious quality. (From the intro by Michael Richardson) (page 21)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise]
Perhaps the absence of myth is the ground that seems so stable beneath my feet, yet gives way without warning...'Night is also a sun', and the absence of myth is also a myth: the coldest, the purest, the only true myth. (page 48)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Myth, Lead Quote Candidate]
But how have we managed to confuse the thing itself with the expression it is given by painting or poetry? (page 49)
Tags: [Surrealism's Failure, Truth & Real]
Whenever the occasion has arisen, I have opposed surrealism. And I would like now to affirm it from within as the demand to which I have submitted and as the dissatisfaction I exemplify. But this much is clear: surrealism is defined by the possibility that I, its old enemy from within, can have of defining it conclusively. It is genuinely virile opposition -- nothing conciliatory, nothing divine -- to all accepted limits, a rigorous will to insubordination. (page 49)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Failure, Surrealism's Promise]
And I think that restlessness is rarely torrential, and yet...the desired designation could never lend itself to so free a shape. To connect it, as André Breton has done, to certain freedoms of expression, certainly had more than one advantage; and automatic writing was more than a petty provocation. Insubordination, if not extended to the domain of images and words, is still no more than a refusal of external forms (such as the government or the police) when ordered words and images are entrusted to us by a system which, one thing leading to another, causes the entirety of nature to be submitted to utility. Belief -- or, rather, servitude to the real world -- is, without the shadow of a doubt, fundamental to all servitude. I cannot consider someone free if they do not have the desire to sever the bonds of language within themselves. It does not follow, however, that it is enough to escape for a moment the empire of words to have pushed as far as possible not to subordinate what we are to anything. (page 49)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Promise, Rationality]
An admirable poem by a despicable person seemed contradictory. Possibly it is, but it does not follow that the best one must expect from a pure person is poetry. (page 50)
Tags: [Activism]
[I]f I except René Char, those connected with surrealism have hardly engaged in any action of significance which has not first involved the abandoning of their principles. (page 50)
Tags: [Surrealism's Failure]
How can we be sure that a poem or a painting accomplishes the 'sovereign operation' without which each of us serves the established order? On this score I see only a boundless opposition, and a severity of method applied without respite, as taking up the stake. The least weakness and, far from escaping the laws of the servile world, our works will serve it. It is not only seriousness and restless anxiety which constantly threaten to wipe out the odds. In point of fact, from the beginning, 'the sovereign operation' appeared rather like a dream. (page 50)
Tags: [Surrealism's Failure, Dreams]
What the surrealists seem most to have lacked until now is intellectual aptitude. The surrealists have even displayed a contempt for tests of the intelligence. Nevertheless, the mastery of such practice perhaps remains the key to rigorous emancipation. If individual excellence is often a sign of servility, it does not follow that we can resolve the servility of the mind by using only feeble intellectual means. Besides, if one wants to see clearly, surrealism is connected to the affirmation of its value, no less than to automatic writing itself, inasmuch as it reveals thought. What Breton taught was less to become aware of the value of automatism than to write under the dictation of the unconscious. But this teaching opened up two different paths: one led to the establishment of works, and soon sacrificed any principle to the necessities of works, so accentuating the attraction value of paintings and books. This was the path the surrealists took. The other was an arduous path to the heart of being: here only the slightest attention could be paid to the attraction of works; not that this was trivial, but what was then laid bare -- the beauty and ugliness of which no longer mattered -- was the essence of things, and it was here that the inquiry into existence in the night began. Everything was suspended in a rigorous solitude. The facilities which connect works to the 'possible', or to aesthetic pleasure, had vanished (this also extended the discussion started by Rimbaud).

But when the Surrealist Group ceased to exist, I think the failure had a greater effect on the surrealism of works. Not that works had ceased to exist with the group: the abundance of surrealist works is as great now as it ever was. But they ceased to be connected to the affirmation of a hope of breaking the solitude. Today the books are in order on the shelves and the paintings adorn the walls. This is why I can say that the great surrealism is beginning. (page 51)
Tags: [Surrealism's Failure, Surrealism's Promise, Everyday Life]
Not that I am at all opposed to the principle of committed literature. Can one not rejoice (even insidiously?) to see it taken up again today by Jean-Paul Sartre? Nevertheless, it seems necessary to recall that twenty years ago Breton based the whole activity of surrealism on this principle. I must also recall that the second affirmation of the existentialist school (that existence precedes essence) was familiar to surrealism (in so far as it bore witness to Hegel more than to Marx). It is unfortunate, if you like, that the intellectual aptitude of the surrealists could not have been up to the same level as their undeniable power to undermine. Today the intellectual value of existentialists is certain, but it is difficult to see what energy it would support. It is equally difficult to recognize the evidence: although surrealism may seem dead, in spite of the confectionery and poverty of the work in which it has ended (if we put to one side the question of Communism), in terms of mankind's interrogation of itself, there is surrealism and nothing. (page 51)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise]
The war seems to have put an abrupt end to a movement that was marking time. Since 1940 people have hardly thought about it. Nevertheless, the profound and real consequences that followed from it were not so easily disposed of. Doubtless surrealism is not dead...[W]e would not hesitate to say that, no matter what its defects or rigidity may have been, surrealism has given from the beginning a certain consistency to the 'morality of revolt' and that its most important contribution -- important even, perhaps, in the political realm -- is to have remained, in matters of morality, a revolution. (page 53)
Tags: [Surrealism's Failure, Surrealism's Promise]
In the end surrealism cannot be considered purely as a style. It is a state of mind whose intensity and aggressive force must go to the point of modifying the course of its expression (it is not surrealism if expression is limited to the habitual platitude of language). It is also a state of mind which reaches towards unification; in which, through this union, an existence beyond the self is experienced as a spiritual authority in whose name it is possible to speak...And the spiritual authority (by spiritual I merely mean: beyond the individual) that surrealism embodies is surely not limited to the few people closely connected with André Breton. (page 55)
Tags: [Surrealism, Universality]
It is difficult humanly to measure the powerlessness of those who renounce discursive language. Surrealism is mutism: if it spoke it would cease to be what it wanted to be, but if it failed to speak it could only lend itself to misunderstanding. (page 56)
Tags: [Surrealism]
[N]o one has shown more concern than André Breton to imbue even the smallest action with a meaning that involves the fate of mankind...Unlike other schools (Romanticism, symbolism), surrealism is not a rather poorly determined freewheeling mode of activity. For a Romantic or a symbolist it was not a question of life and death that Romanticism or symbolism should be this and not that. Established from the first as a moral imperative, surrealism thus brings everything into question. (page 57)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life]
Certainly surrealism must also be treated as an artistic and literary school (this is even where one must begin): as such, it is founded on automatic writing. It gives a decisive value to this type of thought, analogous to dream, which is not subordinated to the control of reason. In so doing it extricates the human mind from any end other than poetry. (page 58)
Tags: [Surrealism, Dreams]
In this confused civilization, where resources are exhausted through complex activity, where every tree hides the forest, where exhaustion endlessly substitutes the multitude of petty, fraudulent results (the luxuries others do not have) for the possibilities of life, the artist has, in the solitude of his room, a power of ultimate decision. He can reveal and magnify this irreducible part that is within us, connected to our most tenacious aspirations: he has the power to offer the life the perspective of radiance...[F]or a writer to speak in the name of the positive destiny of mankind, about which he cares with his whole heart, with a sense of rage, as the fanatic speaks of the glory of God -- this is what seems so striking [in surrealism]. (page 59)
Tags: [Surrealism, Truth & Real, Universality]
I must make one point clear: my explanation here is the ballistic study of a gunshot. The stand taken by André Breton was the shot itself...In the first period of surrealism his writing always connected the pent-up agitation of fury with the expression of its object. All his writing has engaged with the infinite destiny of mankind -- something which people in France tend to find amusing, but which also represents, at the same time, the exhilarating mark of authenticity. (page 59)
Tags: [Surrealism, Universality]
So it is that in order to reach it, one must first allow oneself to be possessed and led far away by temerity, madness and the unravelling implicit in human destiny. This would be a futile exercise if one did not begin by saying that the limits of my will are also, necessarily, the whole of human potentiality; the limits of my will are, of course, never to have limits. (page 63)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Universality, Madness]
Erected as a principle, must not caprice cease to be capricious? (page 63)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Failure]
In order to constitute itself it was necessary for rationalism to lose the profundity of modes of thought that shackled it. But if we now seek what is possible before us -- all that is possible, whether or not we might have wanted to, we who no longer have any need to construct rational thought, which is effortlessly arranged for us -- we are again able to recognize the profound value of these lost modes of thought. (page 64)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Fascism, Myth]
[S]urrealism...brings about a free poetic release without subordinating it to anything and without assigning a superior end to it. It is true that this is an attitude that is as difficult to bear as it is decisive and virilely sovereign. Yes, it really is the decisive conquest. Poetic liberty is not new. Myths and the rituals connected to them -- for instance 'Hopi ceremonies of an exceptional variety, which necessitate the intervention of the greatest number of supernatural beings that could be invested with a face and distinct attributes by the imagination' -- make this fact clear enough: that human 'thought' is everywhere and always ready to break loose. But it was once necessary to give a superior end to this release, a usually rather gross pretext. For the Hopi it is a question of 'attracting every protection over cultivation...the most important of which is maize'. To the extent that more refined religions maintain an element of poetic invention, the pretext is given in a transcendent morality, associated with salvation as a superior end. In modes of thought in which the poetic and the rational remain confounded, the mind cannot elevate itself to the conception of poetic liberty; it subordinates the existence of each instant to some ulterior goal. It has no escape from this servitude.

It is the prerogative of surrealism to free the activity of the mind from such servitude. As it consigned this activity to the shadows, rationalism stressed the binding of deeds and all thought to the end pursued. In the same way, rationalism liberated poetic activity form this binding, leaving it suspended. But the difficulty which remained was to affirm the value of what was finally released within the shadow.

In this way, what has proved to be simultaneously attained and liberated is nothing other than the instant. This is true in that man has never before been able to give value to the instant. (page 65)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Promise, Carnival, Universality]
The morality to which André Breton is drawn is rather poorly defined, but it is -- if such a thing is possible -- a morality of the instant. What is essential about it is the demand imposed on whoever expresses a will to choose between the instant -- the value of the present moment and the free activity of the mind -- and a concern for results which immediately abolish the value and even, in a sense, the existence of the instant. The accent is placed not on the fact of choosing but on the content of the choice proposed. It is only the incommensurable value of the instant that counts, not the fact that all would be in suspension. More precisely, what is at stake...prevails to a large extent over the fact that the decision belongs to me and gives me authority. Liberty is no longer the liberty to choose, but the choice renders a liberty, a free activity, possible, requiring that once decision is fixed upon it I do not allow a new choice to intervene, for a choice between the diverse possibilities of the activity unleashed would be made with a view to some ulterior result (this is the significance of automatism). The surrealist decision is thus a decision to decide no longer (that is, the free activity of the mind would be betrayed if I subordinated it to some result decided beforehand).

The profound difference between surrealism and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre hangs on this character of the existence of liberty. If I do not seek to dominate it, liberty will exist: it is poetry; words, no longer striving to serve some useful purpose, set themselves free and so unleash the image of free existence, which is never bestowed except in the instant...If we were genuinely to break the servitude by which the existence of the instant is submitted to useful activity, the essence would suddenly be revealed in us with an unbearable clarity...The seizure of the instant cannot differ from ecstasy (reciprocally one must define ecstasy as the seizure of the instant -- nothing else -- operating despite the concerns of the mystics). (page 66)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Promise, Truth & Real, Universality, Rationality]
We know that in the islands of Malaysia there is a tradition which, from time to time, consigns an individual to the fate Breton used to characterize the simplest surrealist act [i.e. shooting randomly into a crowd]. The custom of amok is well known: the lands in which the custom of amok occurs recognize, as a sort of traditional attitude, the sudden fury that overcomes an individual armed with a dagger who rushes headlong into the crowd and kills until he is killed himself. It is not exactly an act of madness, since it belongs to a perpetuated tradition. Clearly, the crowd do not in any way excuse the amok, since they kill him, but they are still complicates with a supposedly crazy act, since at the start it was understood that it is natural for a man to be overcome by the folly of amok, that it is a natural thing for a man to succumb to the obligation to confront his brother and kill him. [Similar religious frenzy in surrealism in that] value is possessed only by objects of events which have caused a shiver to pass across his temple, which we can rightfully say is a sacred shiver. (page 74)
Tags: [Surrealism]
[W]hen surrealism put forward the idea of myth, it was in response to a vibrant nostalgia in the mind of contemporary peoples, which has been alive not only since Nietzsche but even since German Romanticism. Moreover, religion is constituted by the connection to the myth of rituals. No one, then, can fail to know that the clearest certainty of surrealism is to manage to rediscover the attitudes of mind that allowed primitive man to combine in ritual and, more precisely, to find in ritual the most incisive and tangible forms of poetic is simply a question of exploring all that can be explored by man, it is a question of reconstituting all that was fundamental to man before human nature had been enslaved by the necessity for technical work. (page 75)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Capitalism, Rationality, Myth]
The man who works is a man who separates himself from the universe, the man who works is a man already shut up in his house, who binds himself to his bosses, his tables, his workbenches and his tools. The man who works is a man who destroys the profound reality...that surrealism has over the real. And there can be no doubt that the concerns of surrealism, in common with primitive rituals, has been to rediscover, outside that technical activity which weighs so heavily on today's human masses, the irreducible element by which man has no equal more perfect than a star. (page 76)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Universality]
Someone who sits comfortably, forgetting to the greatest degree what exists so as to write at random on a blank sheet the most vibrant delirium which passes through his mind, may end up with nothing of literary value. He knows that this is of no importance; he has experienced a possibility which represents an unconditional rupture with the world in which we act to feed ourselves, in which we act to cover and shelter ourselves. He has essentially undertaken an act of insubordination, in one sense he has performed a sovereign act. At the same time, he has accomplished what, within the meaning of religion itself, could appear predominant: he has achieved the destruction of the personality itself...[H]e must forget what the man of letters expects of publications, by the necessity of doing what, in spite of everything, all the surrealists have done to a certain point -- that is, carve out a literary career. (page 76)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism's Promise]
But if we now return to the difficulties with which we have seen surrealism tussle, we notice that these operations, which I have sought to define in relation to the knowledge of primitive religious life that could be called scientific, have not been free of some extremely difficult problems. By this I mean the relation between surrealism and politics. Surrealism, if one accepts the definition I have given of it, is the most complete negation of material interest. It is impossible to go any further...The moment one has recognized the impossibility of directly attaining material interest and the necessity of passing through the form that material interest has taken in the present conditions, one notices that surrealism is a very much weaker negation of this personal interest than Communism. (page 77)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics]
Today there is no possibility of imbuing surrealist life with this guarantee [of the authenticity of surrealism's "ritual"] which gives belief its efficacy. This results in the sort of feeling of emptiness, hopelessness, uselessness, superfluity and frivolousness that characterizes surrealist work. I do not mean in relation to those who want to deepen its content but, rather, in the eyes of the majority of people; and no one can actually cross this boundary in the sense that common existence alone would be of a nature to determine this character of profound reality which surrealism seeks. This surreality cannot end in genuine realities because people do not believe in it, because men as a whole do not believe in it. (page 78)
Tags: [Surrealism's Failure, Truth & Real]
It is not up to any of us to suppress capitalist reality;...we can each set ourselves a clearly defined target, like the suppression of capitalism, but it does not by any means follow that we can go beyond the capitalist world in which we exist into the world which will follow on from it...Whether we like it or not, we are enclosed in the capitalist world; we are reduced to conscious analyses of our present position, and we cannot directly know what life would be like in a world in which personal interest would have been suppressed. The first necessity for us in this respect is the sincere comprehension of all that happens, leading to a will to transform the world. (page 79)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Truth & Real]
If we cease to remain awake (and I use this term in the strongest sense of the word) to all poetic reality, if at a given moment we abandon this effort, however painful it might be, and pass over to protests which we know in advance are perfectly vain, then we immediately pass from the state of men who want to deny themselves and can change themselves through poetry, to that of those who live in the cycle of personal interest. I believe one cannot insist too strongly on the necessity of binding consciousness to depersonalization. It seems to me that surrealism has gone a long way in this direction, but the way remains open, and it is necessary for us to penetrate further into it. (page 80)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics]
If we state simply, for the sake of lucidity, that today's man defines himself by his avidity for myth, and if we add that he defines himself also by the consciousness of not having the power to gain access to the possibility of creating a true myth, we have defined a sort of myth which is the absence of myth...To this first suppression of particularity can be added -- or must be added -- the necessity of an absence of community. (page 81)
Tags: [Surrealism, Myth]
I would like to finish instead by insisting on the profound viability of the whole of this ferment which continues today. It seems to me that no matter what the difficulties, the movement of minds converges; there is on all sides -- and this is something that cannot be underestimated, despite the fact that individual attitudes often give the impression of isolation -- there is on all sides a ferment which promises man a return to a so much freer life, to a so much prouder life, a life which could be called wild. There is within today's man a profound intolerance for the sense of humiliation which is demanded every day of our human nature and to which we submit everywhere: we submit in the office and in the street; we submit in the country. Everywhere men feel that human nature has been profoundly humiliated, and what is left of religion finally humiliates him in the face of God who, after all, is merely a hypostasis of work. I imagine that if we are gathered is a dominant element which has certainly determined this presence; it is the nostalgia for a life which ceases to be humiliated; it is the nostalgia for a life which ceases to be separated from what lies behind the world. It is not a question of finding behind the world something which dominates it; there is nothing behind the world which dominates man, there is nothing that can humiliate him; behind the world, behind the poverty in which we live, behind the precise limits where we live, there is only a universe whose bursting open is incomparable, and behind the universe there is nothing. (page 82)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise]
ASTRE: Do you believe that the ideal of surrealism is lucid consciousness?
BATAILLE: The route of consciousness could not be avoided, it seems to me. If one envisages, beyond a narrowly defined surrealism, a larger surrealism, one immediately sees the precise possibilities of this lucidity appear. It seems to me that the time is ripe to speak about Maurice Blanchot's effort towards this lucidity, which is made concrete in an analysis of the position of Sade, who could be considered exemplary, who cannot be regarded as alien to surrealism, just as surrealism cannot be considered external to him. (page 86)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise]
How to write, except as a usually chaste woman getting undressed for an orgy? (page 100)
Tags: [Surrealism]
Nietzsche had already seen that the rigors of asceticism and holiness have ceased to be attractive for our age, and that only revolution and war offer the mind comparably exhilarating experiences. In the same way Roger Caillois...has no hesitation in regarding war as the counterpart in modern societies of the paroxysm of festival: war, the time of 'excess', 'violence', 'outrage'. War is the 'unique moment of concentration and intense absorption in the group of everything that ordinarily tends to maintain a certain area of independence.' Like the festival, war gives rise to 'monstrous and formless explosions that serve to break up the monotony of normal existence'. (page 121)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics]