Bataille and the Surrealists: Is Pineal Eye an Organ Without a Body?

 Blade Runner -Ridley Scott

The pineal eye is not the organ that turns two different perspectives into one. It rather attempts to turn the reality inside out so that the objects, instead of becoming visible through reflecting light, themselves overflow their objectivities and generate light. The Surrealists aimed at precisely this kind of a process through automatic writing. They aimed at replacing the objective reality with another subjectivity that would go beyond the polar opposition between the subject and the object. Surrealism tries to attain inorganicity through becoming inorganic. It desires nothing, rather than willing nothingness. It is a movement governed by the death drive rather than being the governor of the death drive.

Bataille at first looked at the Surrealists with sympathy, but before long he came to understand that it was nothing other than a false pretentiousness. Bataille says,

If we were to identify under the heading of materialism a crude liberation of human life from the imprisonment and masked pathology of ethics, an appeal to all that is offensive, indestructible, and even despicable, to all that overthrows, perverts, and ridicules spirit, we could at the same time identify surrealism as a childhood disease of this base materialism: it is through this latter identification that the current prerequisites for a consistent development may be specified forcefully and in such a manner as to preclude any return to pretentious idealistic aberrations.[1]

To understand why Bataille is so angry with the Surrealists, and especially with Dali, we have to go back to the roots of this distress caused by the attempt to show that the subject and the object are one. Bataille compares the prefix Sur at the beginning of Surrealism and Nietzsche’s Surhomme. For Bataille, what is common to both Nietzsche and the Surrealists is that they both in vain strive for a higher world, and yet since Nietzsche at least inverts his attitude and attempts to revalue all values including his own. Whereas Surrealism is a hopeless case in that all they do is to devalue everything valuable. For Bataille, the Surrealists are merely a group of people making themselves ridiculous and being the objects of nervous laughter.

Bataille doesn’t agree with the Surrealists’ understanding of beauty and meaning in art and literature. It is true, both the Surrealists and Bataille are obsessed with turning things upside down, turning the low into high and the high into the low. The difference between the Surrealists and Bataille is not only aesthetic but also ethical, a stance linked to Bataille’s concept of transgression as he puts it in parenthesis in his critique of Salvador Dali’s Lugubrious Game.   

(If violent movements manage to rescue a being from profound boredom, it is because they can lead—through some obscure error—to a ghastly satiating ugliness. It must be said, moreover, that ugliness can be hateful without any recourse and, as it were, through misfortune, but nothing is more common than the equivocal ugliness that gives, in a provocative way, the illusion of the opposite. As for irrevocable ugliness, it is exactly as detestable as certain beauties: the beauty that conceals nothing, the beauty that is not the mask of ruined immodesty, the beauty that never contradicts itself and remains eternally at attention like a coward.)[2]

For Bataille what the Surrealists do is to provoke the pre-dominant authority in such a way that can only be considered as the manifestation of ill-will. Bataille, consciously or unconsciously, uses Nietzsche against the Surrealists although he seems to be putting them in the same category for their aspirations to higher Ideals. Although Bataille sees idealisation both in Surrealism and Nietzsche, he nevertheless underlines the different means they employ to attain those higher Ideals. In both Nietzsche and the Surrealists the unconscious is filled with archaic images of Ancient Greek Mythology, but in Nietzsche these are adjusted to the demands of the present, whereas even in Breton’s writings we see sheer rage manifesting itself through exploitation of the death-drive in that the process of slashing myth and language into pieces aims at attracting punishment.

What Bataille does in his Critique of Surrealism and Nietzsche is to turn the human subject upside down and instead of idealizing higher realms he, in a way, idealizes the lower realms. Bataille situates himself in a realm lower than the realm of the law.

By excavating the fetid ditch of bourgeois culture, perhaps we will see open up in the depths of the earth immense and even sinister caves where force and human liberty will establish themselves, sheltered from the call to order of a heaven that today demands the most imbecilic elevation of any man’s spirit.[3]

Bataille’s main target is the Icarian flight which he sees both in Nietzsche and the Surrealists. As we know, Icarus didn’t obey his father’s No, and tried to fly and touch the sun. Eventually he burnt himself up. The Icarian conception of imagination as flight from reality leads to an idealization of the bourgeois values disguised as the proletarian values, and the real lower world is pushed further down. For Bataille, the reason why people see the foot as inferior to the head is their habit of attributing a higher status to the vertical forms of thought. Man should fall on his four legs, otherwise he will never be able to write himself out not only as the writer but also as the written, not only as the seer but also as the seen.

Bataille’s attitude reminds Lacan’s theory of the passage from the imaginary to the symbolic. For Lacan the Symbolic law, the Name of the Father who says No to the desiring child plays a dominant role in participation in the symbolic order and eventually becoming a sexed subject who is able to distinguish between the me and the not me. In Lacanian terms, Nietzsche and the Surrealists are locked in the mirror stage where Descartes is a respected inmate. As Breton says, “There, the atmosphere and light begin to stir in all purity the proud uprising of unformed thoughts. Man, restored to his original sovereignty and serenity, preaches there his own eternal truths, they say, for himself alone.”[4]


[1] Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme and Surrealist,” ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994), 32

[2] Bataille, 27

[3] Bataille, 43

[4] André Breton, What is Surrealism?, ed. trans. Franklin Rosemont (London: Pluto, 1978), 28

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8 thoughts on “Bataille and the Surrealists: Is Pineal Eye an Organ Without a Body?

    • Thanks very much Craig… Sometimes it might be difficult for one to know what one signifies in and through one’s words… Your comments on and references to my texts serve as mirrors for me, as though they are reflections of my thoughts materialised…
      That said, I wonder why the characters (the letters) of your blog have become rather small lately… Having difficulty reading here, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who suffers from this unpleasant situation… I would very much appreciate if you could maximize them a bit, unless you have minimized them deliberately, that is…

      • Ah, hadn’t noticed the change in language size before… yes, yes, I’ll change this today! Was working with some font changes on the site and must’ve reset some options accidentally!

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