Subject and Object

by Yule Heibel on March 15, 2005

The other day Chris Locke blogged about Marianna Torgovnick’s 1998 book, Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy, which sent me to my jumbled, ratty bookshelves to find Torgovnick’s previous book, Gone Primitive; Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. For general interest, and generally in support of Chris’s research, forthwith some quotes from the latter. First, a quote that identifies some aspects of the primitive, with (I think) the most interesting bit at the end:

Among these [general tendencies of primitive societies] are the legality of customs, the presence of traditional leadership roles, the paramount importance of kinship in social and economic organization, widespread and diffuse social and economic functions assigned each individual, the importance of ritual for individual and group expression (rituals which often include dance and the expression of ambivalence), and a relative indifference to Platonic modes of thought — in short, the condition of societies before the emergence of the modern state. (p.21)

The interesting bit (at the end) is that Euro-American fascination with primitivism hinges on seeing it as somehow antithetical to the modern state. And yet the question should probably be: just how authentic or true is that, really? Isn’t primitivism something we’ve been making up all along, in reaction to our own inadequacies in dealing with modernity?

For example, take Acéphale, the 1930s avant-garde surrealist journal founded in Paris by Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, et al., which Torgovnick also discusses:

Acéphale was preoccupied with rituals of slaughter and with headlessness as a metaphor. The group’s emblem [see above] makes its concern with headlessness and with violence as a form of natural energy quite clear: the figure has no head, but it does have a death’s-head, located where the penis should be. This last detail suggests that the erotic and the violent share a common bodily locus and, sometimes, common motivations. The emblem reveals Acéphale’s fascination […] with “lower” sources of psychic energy and with ways to circumvent the Western emphasis on the mind and rationality. Accordingly, the group unblinkingly entertained the possibility that streams of blood, flooding European streets, would be necessary to overcome the stagnation of modernity. Fantasized scenes of primitive ritual appear in Acéphale as sites of boundary transgression and transcendence — as precursors and stimulants to revolution at home. This aspect of Acéphale’s thought is revealed most clearly in the writings of Georges Bataille.

Bataille was fascinated with human and animal sacrifices in primitive societies and liked to imagine the possibilities such practices might open to the West. “The Pineal Eye,” for example, includes a grotesque scene in which a blond Englishwoman cavorts with a number of nude primitive men. [Incidentally, the women are almost always blonde.] At a signal from the Englishwoman, they bind a female gibbon and bury her alive in a pit, allowing only her anus to project from the grave. As the gibbon suffocates, her anus emits a stream of excrement. The ritual is completed when “the mouth of the Englishwoman crushes her most burning, her sweetest kisses” upon the anus of the gibbon (86). The scene is one of several in the collection of Bataille’s essays called Visions of Excess in which women or little girls are brought pornographically into association with a vision of excrement as both the abject and the transcendent; as in “The Pineal Eye,” the connection between the female and the excremental vision of transcendence is usually a form of primitive or animal life (frequently an ape). (pp.149-150)

My old dog-eared copy of Visions of Excess is also on one of the bookshelves, but I remember it well enough without having to fetch it. Bataille believed he could build an economy — or rather, a sort of anti-economy — on his ideas regarding excess, excrement, transcendence. This new economic thinking was to be a sort of beyond-Marx critique of capitalism. For example, genital sex can lead to procreation, which is part of the “bourgeois,” productive economy. Therefore, presto-chango, the real revolutionary has to engage in anal sex because it is non-productive (cannot lead to impregnation). It also involves the shithole, which Bataille simply seemed unable to get away from. See his story, “The Solar Anus,” for an account of utterly cosmic anal rape, wherein the male’s head explodes, so to speak, as he indulges in a vision of an excremental sun, while “violating” the female’s anus.

But wait, we’re not done yet. …We’re not home yet:

“Transcendental homelessness” — the phrase comes from Lukács. In his theory of the novel, Lukács sees the condition of the modern Western mind, the mind that produced the novel, as “transcendentally homeless”: secular but yearning for the sacred, ironic but yearning for the absolute, individualistic but yearning for the wholeness of community, asking questions but receiving no answers, fragmented but yearning for “immanent totality.” The site of transcendental homelessness has been the site of much of this century’s interest in the primitive, but it is a difficult site to map, except in small bits and pieces.


Bataille gives us another portion of the map. In his unflagging effort to reveal the irrational baseness of man, he evolved an aesthetics of excrement which shared with the work of his colleague [Michel] Leiris a fascination for ritual and the sacred, linked to the primitive via rites of animal, but more particularly of human, sacrifice. Bataille’s linking of the primitive with human sacrifice makes crystal clear that a connection has been there all along in the West. For “sacrifice” intuitively connects to one of the persistent tropes the West associates with the primitive — cannibalism — evident in Polyphemous’ gulping down of Odysseus’ sailors and in Europeans’ obsession with Africans and Pacific islanders as cannibals. Human sacrifice is a symbolic version of cannibalism, in which the human body substitutes for the animal body, and killing for eating. It is a symbolic representation of our normal gustatory acts — but heightened, made less utilitarian, and hence “sacred.” Christianity has written some of these connections into its communion rituals — the sacrificed man-God is also the eaten man-God, body and blood.

For Bataille, human sacrifice is also a sacred, transcendental version of suicide, a version in which the voluntary destruction of the self achieves social significance. [Remember, in “The Solar Anus,” the rapist (no other term comes to mind) appears to be annihilated by the brainstorm that ensues in his head as his victim’s anus and the actual sun fuse into one cosmic vision of exploding, boundless excess.]

Bataille yearns for death (even violent death) as a way out of the intolerable uncertainty and limits of being, as a way of affirming the me, in its very improbability, with “a space peopled by stars.” The paradox resembles the one that allies sacrifice with suicide: the surrender of individuality makes “one” — no longer “one” — part of the cosmic whole. The anxiety of selfhood is transcended, even as the concept of selfhood is both obliterated and affirmed. Transcendental homelessness, a sense of cultural void, a fear of the fragility of the self, sometimes deepening into a loathing of the self or its perceived contexts: how often these seem allied to some of our greatest thinking and thinkers about the primitive.
(pp.188-190) (All quotations from Gone Primitive; Savage Intellects, Modern Lives

And this nearly concludes story hour tonight. Except for a brief comment on Synchronicity, which Chris Locke also just blogged about on his other blog. I never would have thought that I’d come across another person who plays (or played, in my case) “I Ching of the Radio” — and actually calls it that. During the heady days of late-70s/ early-80s immersion in Bataille, I played “I Ching of the Radio” whenever I was in my car. Maybe everyone called it that, and everyone played it — who knows? At any rate, John Cougar Mellencamp had a hit song around that time, whose refrain went, “Sometimes love don’t feel like it should, You make it hurt so good.” Uh, yeah, cosmic man, or at least very very acéphale….

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