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A man can recognize his abandonment. The universe is as ignorant of it as a window-pane is of the wasp that crashes against its illusory surface. The rest of humanity is ignorant of it too; apparently open expressions are perhaps no more penetrable than the window-pane. But it isn’t easy to propose a representation of the world equivalent to the one the wasp must have of the obstacle in its way, of which it has no knowledge. In contrast, each time man comes up against the impossible, he has at his disposal a remarkable aptitude to see a signal of his future success, and deliverance from his suffering. Man’s universe is not closed, like a vast and luminous, sepulchral tomb of fog, because the infinite variety of appearances easily provides him with the changing perspective of hope. The mages’ star shines with sudden brightness every time it appears above the road which leads to death. The flaming bush at the end of the field, the skeleton of a bird on the shoreline, the shimmering constellation — each sign is the annunciation of an impending joy. Places abandoned by life, clusters of rock and ice, even the desert, speak an intelligible language to man, and communicate emotions charged with hope. Each figure which man meets is called upon to witness the destiny that bears him along under the planet’s skies: it must give some comprehensible answer to his almost mad interrogation.
But what do they mean – this Roman fountain, or the snowy summit of Engadine? Is the sun, or the darkness, anything more than a quirk of chance? And how can it be that a landscape, formed of interrelated appearances without any meaning, can, according to the position of the eye, in one place be empty and without charm, and in another be a breach opened upon a dazzling world? Laws of affinity and contrast can explain the effects of the play of humanized illuminations placed between us and the inexorable void. Flowers, birds and meadows make up a world which it is easy to see as destined for man’s beatitude. Sterile or devastated, empty spaces, starry nights, the ocean itself, make for a world which in contrast is hostile and savage, but fills the heart no less. Cities, the expression of the human will, show the opposition of the noble world of rich stone monuments and the abject and wild world of the slums. Each time chance happily juxtaposes shadows and lights for the pleasure of beings, now saturated with the day, now by the night, life can see nothing strange or empty on the stage on which it is played. But the illusion depends on aleatory coincidence. The screen on which light and shadow are happily composed dissipates and is decomposed sometimes as quickly as a dream-image. Then apathy, apathy without a heart and without disgust takes hold of the space occupied by the will to live — hard and cold apathy which reduces fountains, summits and beautiful landscapes to what they are.
Apathy does not allow you to keep crashing wildly against the glass. It gives to the man it overcomes the possibility of opening the hopeless and uncomprehending eyes of the dying wasp onto the universe. But while the wasp, waving its broken body on the ground, can only let itself be overcome by death, after a long struggle, the man decomposed by apathy has the possibility of drawing conclusions from his terrifying experience. He only has a distant memory of the scintillating illusions, his eyes are calm but lost on a fleeing horizon, the image of the final spasm doubles that of the flower in bloom. He looks at the world of illusions with slow anger. He shuts himself into an oppressive silence, and as he places his naked foot on the humid earth, feeling himself sinking into nature and being annihilated by it, it is with anguished joy.
Translated by Patrick ffrench. Published here for the first time in English.
A Note on the Text
The thought of the French philosopher, novelist and poet Georges Bataille (1897-1962) lends itself in some of its less formal moments to an arresting and provocative critical re-thinking which we might now call ecological. In his work, however, this is expressed in a concern with the cosmos, with the planet, and with man’s place upon it, which approximates to what some might see as poetry. His short piece ‘Le paysage’ was published in the literary review Verve in 1938, thus at a moment of political tension, punctuated by presages of the impending disaster. Despite its provenance, however, Bataille’s text should not necessarily be confined within the limits of ‘literature’, if this is seen as a kind of language removed from the world, if, in other words, one thinks of literature as predominantly determined by aesthetics. Although Verve was subtitled ‘Revue artistique et littéraire’ [an artistic and literary journal], and as a journal was associated with Surrealism, Bataille’s text itself ruins any straightforward identification of it as poetry, prose poetry, or surrealist writing. These would be elements of the world of happy illusions, postulated by Bataille, which fill the hearts of men with joy or sadness and distract them, like Pascalian divertissements, from the senseless but intoxicating apathy of being confronted with ‘things as they are’.
‘Le Paysage’ should be read, then, as a political text, but this politics is not that of states or nations, even given its critical date. The politics of Bataille’s text have to be seen in relation to the demand, powerfully voiced in the work of the Collège de Sociologie [College of Sociology], which he co-founded in 1938 with Michel Leiris and Roger Caillois, to think the world, and existence, in their totality. A politics of totality, which has nothing to do with a totalitarian politics, and indeed runs counter to it, is one which demands that one think the position of man on the planet, and the position of the planet in the cosmos, as the product of an infinitesimal chance, without meaning.
Bataille is resolutely realist and realistic about man’s place in the world. Our projections of beauty or horror onto the landscape, which constitute what we think of as ‘landscape’, are necessary illusions, without which man confronts a world without meaning, which rejects him, as long as he does not consider himself part of it and destined to return to it. But this identification with the earth is also disallowed him, since his consciousness of the world forever separates him from it; he cannot have the blind ignorance of the wasp crashing against the window-pane. Man is either the appropriative destroyer of the world or its abortive refuse. But Bataille’s final, Nietzschean, call is intriguing. It posits a joy in being subsumed by nature, which looks forward to the moment when the thin crust of human industry will be submerged under the rising oceans of the planet. The return to nature which faces each of us individually and all of us as a species, heralds something other than redemption or willed destruction. It is from the hypothesis of such a strange perspective that the fragile constructions man has erected on the surface of the earth can be looked upon now, with ‘slow anger’.
Patrick ffrench is Professor of French at Kings College, London and author of 'After Bataille: Sacrifice, Exposure, Community'