The Object of Desire and the Totality of the Real

Georges Bataille

1. The Object of Desire is the Universe, or the Totality of Being

Rather strangely, I describe what is hardest to comprehend, but at the same time it is the most familiar thing. Spectators of tragedies and readers of novels get the meaning of it without fully understanding it; and in their own way those who attend mass religiously do nothing but contemplate its essence. But if from the world of passion, where without difficulty tragedy and the novel or the sacrifice of mass form recognisable signs, I pass to the world of thought, everything shuts off: in deciding to bring the movement of tragedy, that "sacred horror" which fascinates, into the intelligible world, I am aware that, disconcerted, the reader will have some trouble in following me.

In reality, what fascinates in this way speaks to passion but has nothing to say to the intellect. Thus it appears, in many cases, that the latter is less lucid than a simpler reaction. In point of fact, the intellect cannot justify the power of passion, and yet it naively considers itself obliged to deny that power. But in choosing to hear of other reasons but its own, the intellect errs; for it can go into the reasons of the heart if it so chooses, provided it does not insist on reducing them first to the calculation of reason. Once it has made this concession it can define a domain in which it is no longer the sole rule of conduct: it does so if it speaks of the sacred, of what surpasses it by nature. The most remarkable thing is that it is quite capable of speaking of what surpasses it; indeed, it cannot conceive that it might finally be able to justify itself without abandoning its own calculation.

The intellect fails, in fact, in that with its first impulse it abstracts, separating the objects of reflection from the concrete totality of the real. It constructs, under the name of science, a world of abstract science, copied from the things of the profane world, a partial world dominated by utility. Nothing is stranger, once we have surpassed it, than this world of the intellect where each thing must answer the question "what is the use of that?" We then realise that the mental process of abstraction never gets out of a cycle in which one thing is related to another, for which the first is useful; the other thing in turn must be useful...for something else. The scythe is there for the harvest, the harvest for food, the food for labour, the labour for the factory where scythes are made. If, beyond the labour necessary for the manufacture of as many new scythes as are needed to replace the old ones, there is a surplus, its utility is defined in advance: it will serve to improve the standard of living. Nowhere do we find a totality that is an end in itself, that is meaningful as such, that doesn't need to justify itself by pleading its usefulness for some other thing. We escape this empty and sterile movement, this sum of objects and abstract functions that is the world of the intellect, only by entering a very different world where objects are on the same plane as the subject, where they form, together with the subject, a sovereign totality which is not divided by any abstraction and is commensurate with the entire universe.

To make this radical difference between two world perceptible, there is no finer example than the domain of erotic life, where the object is rarely situated on another plane than the subject.

The object of sensual desire is by nature another desire. The desire of the senses is the desire, if not to destroy oneself, at least to be consumed and to lose oneself without reservation. Now, the object of my desire does not truly respond to it except on one condition: that I awaken in it a desire equal to mine. Love in its essence is so clearly the coincidence of two desires that there is nothing more meaningful in love, even in the purest love. But the other's desire is desirable insofar as it is not known as a profane object is, from the outside (as an analyzed substance is known in a laboratory). The two desires fully respond to one another only when perceived in the transparence of an intimate comprehension.

Of course, a deep repulsion underlies this comprehension: without repulsion the desire would not be boundless, as it is when it does not give way to repulsion. If it were not so great, would it have that convincing force of the lover answering her lover, in darkness and silence, that nothing, absolutely nothing separates them now? But it doesn't matter: now the object is no longer anything but that immense and anguished desire for the other desire. Of course, the object is first known by the subject as other, as different from it, but at the moment it reduces itself to desire, the object, in a tremor that is no less anguished, is not distinct from it: the two desires meet, intermingle and merge into one. Without doubt, the intellect remains behind and, looking at things from the outside, distinguishes two solitary desires that are basically ignorant of one another. We only know our own sensations, not those of the other. Let us say that the distinction of the intellect is so clearly contrary to the operation that it would paralyze the latter's movement if it were compelled to fade from awareness. But the intellect is not wrong merely because the illusion denounced is efficacious, because it works and no purpose would be served by depriving the deluded partners of their contentment. It is wrong in that this is not an illusion.

To be sure, illusion is always possible in any domain whatever. We thus fool ourselves if some incomplete perception is interpreted by us as being that of a bottle: it is not a bottle; a simple reflection gave me the impression it was, and I thought I was going to touch it. But the example proves nothing. For an error of this kind is verifiable and other times it is indeed a bottle that my hand grasps. It is true that a bottle in the hand, a correct proof, is something certain, solid. Whereas, in the most favorable case, the possibility of attaining the desire or the existence of the other and not just its external signs is generally disputed. Yet an infant is not able, the first time at least, to deduce the presence of another, internally similar to it, from external signs. On the contrary, it can finally infer a presence on the basis of external signs only after having learned to associated the signs with that presence, which it must first have recognised in a total contact, without any prior analysis.

It is not so easy to isolate this contact - an internal thing on both sides - when we are talking about the embrace of adults: it occurs under conditions in which the differentiated sensations and the complex associations can never be set aside (as they are for the very young child). We are always entitled to adopt the reasoning of science: this complex of definable sensations is associated by the subject with a belief in the desire of his partner. Possibly so. But it would be futile, in my opinion, to advance further on the path of isolation. This goes without saying: we will never find in this way an isolable moment in which it will be certain that these conventionally isolated elements are not sufficient. Better to take the opposite approach, focusing on the total appearance manifested in the embrace.

This is because in the embrace everything is revealed anew, everything appears in a new way, and we have every reason from the start for denying the interest, and even the possibility, of abstract mental operations that would follow this unfolding. Besides, no one has attempted these operations....Who would presume to delineate from ponderous analyses what appeared to him at that moment? This appearance might even be defined by showing that it cannot be grasped through treatises like those published in the journals of psychology.

What strikes one from the first is a "recession" of discernible elements, a kind of drowning in which there is nothing drowned nor any depth of water that would drown. It would be easy to say to the contrary: not at all....and to cite distinct impressions. These impressions do in fact remain, despite the feeling of being drowned to which I refer.

This feeling is so strange that, as a rule, one gives up the idea of describing it. Actually, we have only one way to do so. When we describe a state we ordinarily do this by singling out aspects that distinguish it, whereas we merely have to say:

It seems to me that the totality of what is (the universe) swallows me (physically), and if it swallows me, or since it swallows me, I can't distinguish myself from it; nothing remains, except this or that, which are less meaningful than this nothing. In a sense it is unbearable and I seem to be dying. It is at this cost, no doubt, that I am no longer myself, but an infinity in which I am lost...

No doubt this is not entirely true; in fact, on the contrary, never have I been closer to the one who...but it's like an aspiration followed by an expiration: suddenly the intensity of her desire, which destroys her, terrifies me; she succumbs to it, and then, as if she were returning from the underworld, I find her again, I embrace her...

This too is quite strange: she is no longer the one who prepared meals, washed herself, or bought small articles. She is vast, she is distant like that darkness in which she has trouble breathing, and she is so truly the vastness of the universe in her cries, her silences are so truly the emptiness of death, that I embrace her inasmuch as anguish and fever throw me into a place of death, which is the absence of bounds to the universe. But between her and me there is a kind of appeasement which, denoting rebellion and apathy at the same time, eliminates the distance that separated us from each other, and the one that separated us both from the universe.

It is painful to dwell on the inadequacy of a description, necessarily awkward and literary, whose final meaning refers to the denial of any distinct meaning. We can keep this much in mind: that in the embrace the object of desire is always the totality of being, just as it is the object of religion or art, the totality in which we lose ourselves insofar as we take ourselves for a strictly separate entity (for the pure abstraction that the isolated individual is, or thinks he is). In a word, the object of desire is the universe, in the form of she who in the embrace is its mirror, where we ourselves are reflected. At the most intense moment of fusion, the pure blaze of light, like a sudden flash, illuminates the immense field of possibility, on which these lovers are subtilized, annihilated, submissive in their excitement to a rarefaction which they desired.

2. The Analytical Representation of Nature and the Vague Totality, Which is Both Horrible and Desirable

In speaking of a totality, the problem is that we usually speak of it lightly, without being able to fix our attention on that total object we speak of (when in fact it would need to be considered with the exasperated attention of the lover...).

The totality is truly alien to ordinary reflection in that it includes at the same time objective reality and the subject who perceives the objective reality. Neither the object nor the subject can form by themselves a totality that involves the whole. In aprticular, what the totality, called "nature," is for the scientific mind is a simple caricature; it is the complete opposite of a conception according to which, in the case of an unlimited sexual desire (a desire not hindered by any reservation, not contradicted by any plan, not curbed by any work), its object is precisely the concrete totality of the real; and this implies that fusion with the subject which I clumsily attempted to describe.

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