George Bataille and Surrealism

Erik Empson, 2006

As charted in the auto-biographical 'surrealism from Day to Day', Bataille's first encounter with Surrealism was through his friend Michel Leiris. Viewed through its effects on Leiris and how it came to divide them, Bataille's early attitude is wholly negative though it seems at this point, by his own account, not a well-informed judgement. In the following passages where Bataille talks of his early encounters with Breton, Artaud, and Aragon he gives the impression of being quite distant from the activities of the group and from personal association with its central influence Andre Breton. It would not be correct to deduce from this that Bataille was never a surrealist. In the mid- twenties Bataille was socially involved in the Parisian surrealist circles, frequenting on a social basis both the Rue de B.... and Rue de Chateaux. Bataille had one foot in and one foot out of surrealism (and he never succombed to treating Breton as a demigogue which was the fate of some many other hapless participants). This attitude was to become apparent in the affair succeeding the publication of the Second Surrealist Manifesto (final issue (no. 12) of La revolution surrealiste).

This manifesto and its aftermath represent one of the low points of the surrealist movement and Bataille's sympathy for it. Struggling to keep a tight ship with the proliferation of activities losely in the surrealist vein, in 1929 Breton instigated something of a purge, expelling and excommunicating those that he felt had digressed from the core principles of the movement. Seeking through exclusion to revamp the inner identity of the group, Breton, along with many of his closest former colleagues targeted Bataille in the assault and created the occasion for a fully exposed shit throwing contest that was to last quite a few years.

It would be too easy to see in the ensuing contest, just bitter rivalry between a power crazy, moralistic, dogmatic Breton on the one hand, and on the other the immoral, jealous, intellectually superior figure of Bataille. In these exchanges where Bataille is accused of a morbid fascination of all the low points of existence and Breton is in turned accused of being a priest, (and an ox amonsgt other things) of perpetrating a religion and ultimately of being an idealist: there is also underneath the stench of battle as it were, the working out of the deeper differences between the revolutionary cultist and the cultist revolutionary.

Useful texts:

The castrated Lion, Surrealism from day to day, Second Surrealist Manifesto - Andre Breton

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