This lecture was delivered at The Descent of Grace: Art, Nature, and Religion A Symposium sponsored by Medieval Studies, Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (CMEMS), Humanities Center, and Department of French and Italian, Stanford University, on May 15, 2009.
Grace is a surprising concept to use in connection with both Georges Bataille and William Blake. Yet it is a concept carried through each corpus as a challenge confronted in similar ways. My purpose here will be to trace this concept across each oeuvre with a particular emphasis on the unrecognized influence of Blake on Bataille’s thought.
In January 1956, in a retrospective letter to a critic outlining major influences on his work, Bataille mentions encountering Blake “around 1935” (Bataille OC 7: 615). The immediate context of the remark is suggestive. Blake’s is the third name on Bataille’s list of influences, following Nietzsche and Sade, and preceding Kafka, Durkheim, Mauss, and Hegel. Readers familiar with Bataille’s work will recall frequent references to Blake and a chapter devoted to him in Literature and Evil, but they might nevertheless be surprised at Bataille’s level of esteem for and interest in Blake, an esteem so great that Bataille ranked Blake third after Nietzsche and Sade as an influence on his work.
The influence of Nietzsche and Sade on Bataille has of course been well documented and studied at this point. But that of Blake certainly has not. Indeed, almost nothing at all has been written about it: a case of critical neglect resulting, I think, from fidelity to disciplinary boundaries. Yet the influence was clear and acknowledged by Bataille himself.
Bataille’s direct engagement with Blake was nevertheless confined to crucial readings, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and writings, in the late 1940s, culminating in two distinct book proposals: one an anthology of translations, the other a work in interdisciplinary intellectual history linking Blake, Sade, and Goya with the birth of modernity. Beyond these projects, Blake figures prominently in – though often on the margins of – all of Bataille’s major works.
Why Blake? What did Bataille find in Blake that he had not already found in Nietzsche or Sade? I would suggest that Bataille did not find something entirely new in Blake, only a new inflection for familiar problems. In Blake, Bataille recognized a fellow antichristian, a thinker who used systems to deliver us from systems, a political prophet of sacrificial subjectivity and erotic mysticism. Bataille and Blake were both prophets of energy, which is to say of evil, which is to say of eternal delight. With Blake, Bataille shared something he did not share with Nietzsche or Sade, a pursuit of the state of grace, a state that was neither a state, in the true sense of this term, nor of grace in a sense that a Christian might accept.
But Grace, again, is a surprising word to use in connection with both Bataille and Blake. It is a word that appears only rarely in each corpus. William Blake almost never used the term to express his relationship to transcendence. Yet this is not to say that he did not live in its pursuit. Indeed as Blake never ceased telling his friends and readers, his was the life of a visionary, lived in the company of spirits. He quotes a conversation with Isaiah in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which Isaiah asserts, for him: “My senses discover’d the infinite in every thing”[Blake Complete Works, ed. Erdman, pg. 12]. At the beginning of Milton, Blake invokes his inspirational muses: “Come into my hand/ By your mild power; descending down the Nerves of my right arm/ From out the Portals of my Brain, where by your ministry/ The Eternal Great Humanity Divine planted his Paradise” [Blake, Milton 2].
For Blake, the state of grace is the state of spiritual awareness that recognizes no distinction between body and spirit, nor between perception and reality. The body, for Blake, is the instrument of perception and it is the outward form of the spiritual imagination. “The Human Imagination/ Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus”[Blake, Milton 3]. Paradoxically, to recognize the truth of the self, according to Blake, is to recognize the divine spirit within oneself. This recognition is doubly paradoxical, for the truth of the self is not the self at all, and indeed individualism, the subjectivity promoted by John Locke is the bane of Blake. But this spirit is not a spirit nor even really imagination, it is the body itself. The human body is form of the divine.
The recognition of this divine form is the purpose and teaching of Blake’s art. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake proclaims a vision of revelation, when the “whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy, whereas now it appears finite and corrupt. This will come to pass,” he says, “by an improvement of sensual enjoyment”. For this reason Blake is a practitioner of a composite art, a writing-drawing that gives physical form to abstract language. His composite art bears his message for himself and for his reader, it enacts the sensual experience of which he speaks. His work is thus personal and political at once. His goal as an artist was, he said, to “restore the golden age”, to build Jerusalem “in England’s green & pleasant land”[Milton 1].
“I rest not from my great task!” Blake says,
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life! [Jerusalem 5]
Widely and thoroughly informed, Blake transforms exoteric and esoteric notions, giving them idiosyncratic and often counter-intuitive meanings. In Blake, thought is perception, imagination is spirit, and spirit is flesh. Blake uses the language of Christianity – among other discourses – to decidedly anti-Christian effects. If he is a Christian at all, he is a Dionysian Christian, an ecstatic.
I choose this word deliberately: ecstasy suggests – in its root – an escape or deliverance from the state in which one finds oneself. Ecstasy is, in the words of Blake, “self-annihilation”[Milton 48/41]. Yet this is not to say that ecstasy is an abstract or disembodied state of bliss. Rather, it is an eruption of the flesh. This eruption, in Blake, as in Bataille, remains bound by the terrain of its occurrence: the body is a field of multiple pleasures that can, at least to a certain extent, be provoked, but that have definite limits. Experience, in other words, is always particular, always rooted in a particular body, and as Blake says, “Every body does not see alike… As a man is So he Sees.” (Letter to John Trusler, 8.23.1799). Blake’s task is the liberation of the spiritual body, the resurrection of the flesh.
This ecstatic process can also be described through reference to the contraries order and energy, wherein the ecstatic body is the energetic body. In Blake’s thought, contraries such as these are necessary and inevitable. One gives way to the other in constant and eternal oscillation. Energy bursts through order only to reestablish a new order. Inspiration falls into demonstration, reason, memory, only to resurge again as these forms themselves become vehicles for the renewal of inspiration. Contraries, in other words, never quite negate one another nor do they ever give rise to a new synthesis of opposites. Rather they are bound together as different and eternally opposed qualities of a thing or person. [See The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 3; Jerusalem 10]
The paradox implied here is difficult to parse. The human imagination is itself the divinity. This divinity both is and is not universal, as the form it takes is always particular. Blake’s vision here is a revelatory vision, historical vision. He sees the infinite in all things. This is the kingdom of heaven, if but we have eyes to see.
The paradox consists in the peculiar nature of what Blake calls the “minute particular”. If we cling to our particular experience as that of a distinct selfhood, Blake will fault us for our vanity, for our will to isolate ourselves from the world, from other people, and, oddly, from the true nature of our own experience, for this distinct selfhood is only part of what we are and it is not even the most significant part. We are and the world is, quite simply, more than we think. Reason, in fact, can lead us astray. And I use the word reason intentionally. Blake says, “I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration;/ To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour/ To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration/ To cast of Bacon, Locke & Newton”[Milton 48.41].
Bataille would of course add Descartes and Hegel to this list, and change some of the key terms, but his purpose and the structure of his thought are essentially the same. Like Blake, Bataille proposes a sacrificial model of subjectivity more intent on self-annihilation than self-recognition. For Bataille, as for Blake, the isolated individual is precisely the problem, both for the individual and for society. (We might also add for the earth as a whole.) The solution to this problem, for Bataille as for Blake, consists in self-annihilation or self-sacrifice.
Self-sacrifice is of course a very powerful phrase, and therefore difficult to understand in its proper sense. Self-sacrifice may entail the total immolation of a being on behalf of another or of others. But it need not be so grand. By self-sacrifice, both Bataille and Blake are suggesting that we perform each action as though it were a gift, an offering of our energy, of all that we are, all the trajectories of energetic disposition that we embody, not only to a particular person or group in proximity to which we are situated but also to the universe as a whole. The proposition is that we live every moment as a gift, perceiving our flesh as a field in which energy is transformed and transferred, offered back to the world, but now carrying our trace, the mark of our divine human life. In this model our flesh forms a vessel for the descent of grace.
Unlike Blake, Bataille often engages with the language of grace, though unsurprisingly this engagement is again transformative. Bataille’s thought grapples with the notion and structure of grace that he inherited from the Catholic faith of his adolescence only to change the terms and to recast the problem. In a lecture from 1942, for example, he suggested that ecstatic experience could only be pursued under peculiar conditions, conditions that he defined as determined by chance but that, he said, Christians called grace.[i]
Two years later, in another lecture, this one the famous “Discussion on Sin”, Bataille confronted the essential ambivalence of his thought on this topic. The audience for the lecture included members of the clergy and the literati, as well as several philosophers: Jean Hyppolite and Jean-Paul Sartre most notably. In a prepared response to Bataille’s lecture, Father Jean Daniélou addressed the question of ambivalence directly. Christians traditionally – including Kierkegaard – perceive sin as an opportunity for the descent of grace. Sin therefore can be a vehicle for the good but it remains sin and exists only so that it can be rejected. Bataille’s thought, however, rests on the necessary proximity of sin and grace and, moreover, as Daniélou puts it, Bataille “applies himself specifically to making [sin and grace] coexist.”[ii] Sin and grace, in other words, and for Bataille, function as contraries in Blake’s sense of this term. They are necessary opposites, each bound by an inherent opposition to its other. Grace exists only against the horizon of sin, and sin against that of grace. Blake calls this the marriage of heaven and hell.
For the theologians and philosophers who participated in the “Discussion on Sin” this was an unthinkable ménage: sin and salvation simply could not coexist. For Bataille, as for Blake, it was the reality of history. Daniélou criticized Bataille for being unable to conceive of a life without limits – a thought that Bataille would have characterized as idealistic at best – and for being unable to conceive of a positive model of communication, one in which two independent entities could share something held in common. Ironically, Bataille might have criticized this model of communication, Daniélou’s model, as insufficiently Christian, in Blake’s sense of Christianity, which insists that you must lose yourself to experience grace. Bataille’s thought – following Nietzsche, following Blake – proposed a “hyper-Christianity”. For Bataille, as for Blake, communication implies the dissolution of the self, self-sacrifice, the gift of life. The state of grace here is ecstatic and instantaneous.
In a note from 1950, Bataille discussed this process of sacrificial destruction: he wrote, “The destruction of the object is offered as grace. As in poetry. This grace is perhaps only energy, but one is unable to intend to attain it. From this, a multitude of consequences…”[iii]
The language and the structure of the thought, here as elsewhere in Bataille, is again that of Blake. Grace is perhaps only energy, according to Bataille, but energy, according to Blake, is eternal delight.
[i] Unfinished System of Nonknowledge 17.
[ii] Unfinished System of Nonknowledge 37.
[iii] Unfinished System of Nonknowledge 160-1.