Michael Mocatta finds a practical aid for recovery from addiction in a philosophy of extreme experience.
An introduction by Christophe Sauerwein, Academic Director of iCAAD.
Philosophers and psychologists have long tried to understand the irrational thoughts and behaviours of human beings, through exploring wide ranges of concepts. Science has taken off in its advancement in cognitive psychology and, more recently, neuroscience. However, brave old philosophy, as a precursor or as a meta-model of psychological conceptualisation still has a big part to play.
Together with many other founding fathers of psychotherapy Irvin Yalom has invited Spinoza, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and many other philosophers inside the consulting room space-time experience with clients, able to find through them a great deal of insight and therapeutic deployment: “From the very early days of seeing patients, I noticed that many of them seemed to be concerned with issues of their mortality, and so the philosophy training I had taken began to seem rather important to me.”
Conversely, Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenology existentialist philosopher proposed that to be a philosopher, he had to be a historian and a psychologist.
I have always wanted to propose a fresh vision about all this within iCAAD, bridging the gap between philosophers and brain researchers and practitioners hoping to better inform our epistemology and direct ways and means of action on and with our patients.
As a starting point for our “philo-psycho” explorations and reflections, I choose to take the opportunity to share with you an essay recently written by my friend Michael Mocatta on a, very out-of-main-stream, French philosopher George Bataille, whose philosophy was massively impacted by serious mental issues, childhood trauma and addictions leading to an original spiritual representation of the self.
I have known Michael for years and we had many passionate conversations about postmodern philosophy and psychotherapy with great realisation rippling into my beliefs as a psychotherapist. I am much grateful for these moments spent together sharing profound thought experiments.
A slightly shorter version of the following article has also been published in Philosophy Now (August/September 2018 issue), a great review we should all read every now and then to refresh our critical thinking over the human mind in the world!
I truly hope you will enjoy the journey as much as I did.
Over to you Michael…
George Bataille’s Experience
By Michael Mocatta, MSc, MBA
This essay will seek to explain Bataille’s philosophy, and in particular his conception of extreme exterior experiences, as a philosophy derived from madness. We shall see how Bataille writes of his experience of being driven to act by compulsions beyond his control, and together in his writings on such compulsions, and in his autobiographical writings, we can identify both symptoms and root causes of several of the most common forms of mental illness present in today’s society. We shall also see that Bataille’s concept of inner experience can be of immense value to those seeking recovery from mental illness, as can be seen by the widespread parallels between Bataille’s prescription for a sacred, still inner experience and that of the grass-roots organisation Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Core to my argument will be Bataille’s autobiographical essay Coincidences, published as a Part 2 to the novella The Story of the Eye (henceforth, ‘the Eye’) [2001: 69-74]. I shall present evidence from the psychological literature to draw parallels between Bataille’s traumatic childhood and the childhood traumas that underlie many of the most common forms of madness or mental ill-health evident in the twenty-first century – most notably addictions, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Ultimately, we shall find that Bataille’s utility lies in his fulfilment of Sontag’s definition of the ‘exemplary modern artist [as] a broker in madness.’ [Sontag 1967: 92]. Bataille’s writings span the experience of anguish, agony, and annihilation of self, but also chart a pathway to a more balanced existence. Importantly, Bataille reverses the traditional perspectives of capitalist society on those fellow sufferers; he doesn’t see them as broken, marginalised and discarded individuals – the waste matter of a capitalist society, the ‘doomed part’ of society. Instead, Bataille ascribes meaning to the disorder of their lives, and grants ‘dignity and an impact’ [Lala 1995: 111] to their suffering, creating hope for the reversal of an individual’s agony into ‘the possibility of a sudden and magical reversal, in a burst of wonder, with a new upsurge of life and the triumph of laughter charged with exuberance’ [Lala 1995: 111-115].
Bataille’s concept of experience
Bataille used certain key concepts to describe his philosophy: the sovereign self; the sacred and the profane; the horizontal and vertical axes; internal and external experiences. These concepts will help us understand his philosophical, his fictional and his autobiographical writings.
The sovereign self and the profane
Let’s begin with Bataille’s conception of the individual. Bataille presents mankind as existing in one of three states: sovereignty; slavery; and alienation.
Bataille roots the origins of ‘man’s sovereign being’ [1997: 313-15] in that which makes mankind different from animals – our ability to turn the material around us into objects. He posits that there was once a time when our experience differed not at all from the other members of the Animal Kingdom, where all that existed was an inner experience, the current moment of existence. With the advent of tools, however, mankind began to cleave from this inner experience. Now, as well as the inner experience, there was an external world of objects, objects which could be put into use. Soon enough, man began to see himself as both the subject of his own experience, and as a tool – an object, with utility, to be used himself.
The objective world is given in the practice introduced by the tool. But in this practice man, who makes use of the tool, becomes a tool himself, he becomes himself an object just as the tool is an object. [1997: 313]
In this world with objects, objects are created by practice, the shaping of one thing into another via a process of negating. That which is, the raw material qua itself, loses its essence by the practice of negation, and so becomes a new thing.
Mankind sits uneasily in this world of things. We are aware that we are not objects – but nonetheless individuals become negated, take on utility and are reified. Our response to this objectification of ourselves is to accept, to one degree or another, our status as a subjugated object. In so doing, we alienate some or all of our being. This is the lot of the majority of mankind, who form the ‘bourgeois’ centre of the capitalist system. Only a truly sovereign individual has none of this alienation, none of this servitude. A truly sovereign self is as free as a wild animal.
‘This world of things, of practice, is the world in which man is subjugated, or simply the one in which he serves some purpose, whether or not he is the servant of another. Man is alienated therein, he is himself a thing, at least temporarily, to the extent that he serves: if his condition is one of a slave, he is entirely alienated; otherwise, a relatively substantial part of himself is alienated, compared with the freedom of the wild animal. [1997: 313-14]
This world of process, of objects, is a vertically ordered world. Philosophical and economic systems are ordered. All activity, from study, to work, to sex, to religious activity is instrumentalised – all activities have value only because of the output which they produce. Progress, hierarchies and telos, are the symptoms of a system organised on a vertical axis.
The sacred, sacrifice, excess expenditure
Not everyone is able to make this compromise, or accept this system. To Bataille, an individual who rails against this system has ‘consciousness’; and a conscious individual will seek, wherever possible, to achieve moments of sovereignty by acting in ways which the system cannot tolerate or explain.
Sovereignty is experienced in the sacred, which Bataille defines as anything that serves no purpose in the world of practice. Of course, this is an impossible contradiction, for as soon as the sacred is conceptualised, it becomes a thing and has purpose. The sacred, therefore is:
‘not a thing (or formed in the image of a thing, an object of science) [yet] is real, but at the same time is not real, is impossible and yet is there’. [1997: 314]
Contradiction, then, and the ‘impossible’, lie at the heart of the sacred. ‘Life,’ for Bataille, is: ‘a booby-trap, opening up beneath our feet as we stand on it… it is nothing more than a pit of instability and vertigo into which we are plunged.’ [Lala 1995: 113]
Contrast this booby-trap against Kierkegaard’s famous metaphor, which explains anxiety as man’s awareness that he has the freedom, should he wish it, to hurl himself off a cliff. For Kierkegaard, man has the agency, and this agency produces anxiety. For Bataille, man must grapple with impossible contradictions, has no agency, and may find himself tumbling to extinction due to circumstances beyond any control. To an individual defined by alienation-servitude, this produces anxiety. But, writes Bataille, for a conscious, sovereign individual, this experience of ‘vertigo to the point of trembling in his bones’ is the route to true happiness [Suleiman 1995: 40]. The sacred lies not in denying the vertigo, but in grappling with the void into which one might be hurled at any moment.
Man, therefore, strives to obtain a thing which cannot be attained. How then are we to encounter the sacred? Historically, the sacred has been sought through organised religion where mankind has been in a hierarchical, vertical relationship first with the Church, then with those sacred things we call ‘salvation’, ‘God’, ‘Heaven’. Bataille rejects the theology of the Christian church, as he does for all other ‘vertical’ structures such as the State. The vertical axis contains only structures that promise transcendence but, ‘icarus-like’, fail to deliver [Lechte 1995: 128].
Without a vertical route to the sacred, then, and with the ‘centre ground’ of society locked in a utilitarian and transactional process of thing-making and negation, this only leaves the peripheral, the marginal, the extreme activity available as a route to sacredness. Sacredness, as we saw earlier, cannot contain anything that is of use. As such, it is only the sacrifice of the useful thing (money, the body, the mind) as an offering with no expected return in which the sacred can be found.
It is for this reason that Bataille advocates extreme experiences. The first type of experience is external, and includes: wanton drunkenness, orgiastic sexual pleasuring with prostitutes, the transgression of taboos, and the interaction with cadavers, shit and other rotting waste matter of the capitalist [Lala 1995: 107]. The second type is internal, which we will return to later.
Bataille on Metonymy
Bataille brought this immanent world, with its transgression, scatology, ‘quasi-sexual defilement’ [Sontag 1967: 106] necrophilia and other extreme experiences, into all aspects of his writing. He sought to do so without compromising his own subjectivity (reifying the sacred through writing about it). For this reason, Bataille’s preferred literary device was the metonym.
Barthes [1963: 83-118] explains that, unlike metaphor or simile, metonym draws power from what an object physically is (the sound of the word in the mouth, the shape of the object in the world). Metaphor (what an object might represent to the subconscious or conscious mind of the poet) was the preferred literary device of the Surrealists, a movement of writers and artists inspired by Freud to which Bataille had previously associated himself. Bataille found metaphor too theoretical, too tidy, to requiring of interpretation by the artist or critic who would – by virtue of this interpretative role – occupy a place of privilege in society’s vertical hierarchy.
Bataille’s preference was to ground his writing on the horizontal plane. Not only did metonymy not require interpretation by a poet (an egg, after all, is immediately recognizable as being an egg), but by intertwining metonymies through his work, Bataille could also push at the extreme limits of fiction and philosophy, with each metonymy stretching the other, creating disconcerting and unsettling new experiences for the reader.
Blue of Noon, for instance, intertwines sex with death. Where there is one, there is the other, and the two culminate in a sexual tryst between the two lead protagonists in a graveyard. Similarly, the Eye is a novel which constantly interweaves objects that resemble, or sound like, or – to use the verb so intelligently chosen by Barthes – that decline eyes and urine [Barthes 1963: 120].
This declension is hard to translate from French into English; translation inevitably dilutes the metonymy, rendering it into an associative chain closer to simile (eggs-are-like-eyes-are-like-testicles etc). Yet in French, these are nouns which share both form and sound (‘oeil and oeuf share one sound’ [Barthes 1963: 121]). The French word for sun, soleil, ‘sun-eye’ shares form and sound as well; and ‘oeufs’, in colloquial French, is colloquial slang for testicles. It may have helped English speakers grasp the physicality of the metonymy had our language retained the Middle English form ey/eyren (sounding so similar to ‘eye’) for modern egg/eggs.
Bataille and psychological pathologies
Having established the philosophical and literary purposes of Bataille’s sexual transgression, let us turn to their psychological importance. We will first compare Bataille’s autobiographical and transgressive behaviour to behaviours typical of some common mental illnesses - namely sex addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. We will then move on to examining whether there is anything in Bataille’s philosophical system that can be of assistance to people suffering from these maladies today.
In Coincidences, Bataille describes his childhood with a father maddened and blinded by syphilis, and with his mother, a ‘manic-depressive’ melancholic who attempted suicide on at least two occasions. In recounting the story of his father berating a visiting doctor for ‘fucking [his] wife’, Bataille writes that this episode left him feeling ‘a steady obligation unconscious and unwilled; the necessity of finding an equivalent to [his father’s exclamation] in any situation I happen to be in; and this largely explains the Eye’ [Bataille 2001: 73]. This, to Bataille, is a virtue as well as a compulsion: ‘How can we linger over books to which their authors have manifestly not been driven?... the freakish anomalies of the Blue of Noon originated entirely in an anguish to which I was prey. ‘ [Bataille 1988: 153-4, original emphasis].
Bataille was driven by his childhood experiences to write, and to write in this graphic and unsettling manner. It is this combination of uncontrollable compulsion to write about extreme and transgressive experiences that makes him so important to the mentally ill.
Bataille – his childhood trauma
As with many adults who exhibit and act out extreme sexual compulsions, Bataille’s childhood was lived out in a home where physical, sexual and psychological boundaries were regularly breached by his parents. Here, Bataille writes regarding his father and the Eye:
[My father] was unable to go and urinate in the toilet like most people; instead he did it into a small container at his armchair, and since he had to urinate very often, he was unembarrassed about doing it in front of me… But the weirdest thing was certainly the way he looked while pissing. Since he could not see anything, his pupils very frequently pointed up into space, shifting under the lids, and this happened particularly when he pissed…. The image of those white eyes from that time was directly linked, for me, to the image of eggs, and that explains the almost regular appearance of urine every time eyes or eggs occur in [the Eye]’. [Bataille 2001: 72]
A short while later, Bataille describes his mother’s descent into insanity.
My mother… suddenly lost her mind too. She spent several months in a crisis of manic-depressive insanity (melancholy)… One day… we… found her hanged in the attic. However, they managed to revive her... A short time later, she disappeared again. I myself went looking for her… wherever she might have tried to drown herself…. I at last found [her]: she was drenched up to her belt, the skirt was pissing the creek water [Bataille 2001: 73-74]
The young Bataille witnessed the gradual destruction of both his parents by two very different forms of madness. Both parents relied on him in a reversal of the traditional adult-child roles. He literally became the life-giver to his mother, and dealt daily with his father’s genitals, shit and piss as a parent might do with an infant.
The Eye was born from his childhood experiences of his parents’ madnesses, and their links to the images of eggs/eyes and urine/piss were transmitted into the récit through metonymy. The character Marcelle, who dies midway through the narrative, was, confesses Bataille, at least partly modelled on his mother. At the culmination of the book, after the intense and murderous frenzy in the chapel of Don Juan, it is the ‘wan blue’ eye of his mother, qua Marcelle, which stares, at the narrator, out of the vagina of the character Simone [Bataille 2001: 73].
Bataille and psychology, trauma, and pathologies
What pathologies may have accompanied Bataille’s life and extended, via the aforementioned obligations and compulsions into his writing? We shall not attempt a definitive diagnosis, but we shall highlight some parallels with common mental illnesses – sex addiction, depression, and PTSD - that will help us to examine the implications and utility of Bataille’s philosophical writing. In each case, we shall find that Bataille’s own words are strikingly similar to the wording of the psychological literature.
Bataille and Sex Addiction
Sex addiction is diagnosed when a patient exhibits compulsive or impulsive sexual acting out behaviours. It may include addiction to pornography, prostitution, hypersexuality, and paraphilia and other addictions. Let’s pause to read a case study of a sex addict-alcoholic-drug addict taken from Portrait of a Sex Addict. This contains behaviours that Bataille would recognise as extreme exterior experiences.
She would spend the evening going from bar to bar, drinking alcohol, snorting cocaine, and flirting with men. The flirting would soon turn to kissing and fondling, first with men and eventually with women. In each sexual encounter, she would take greater and greater risks… The evening then would turn into a sexual binge lasting several days and involving continuous use of alcohol, an assortment of drugs, and numerous anonymous sexual partners [Wilson 1998: 241].
Wilson proceeds to explain the causal factors of sex addiction.
Many sex addicts grew up in dysfunctional families of origin... [and] described their families as rigid, disengaged, and emotionally distant. Failure to bond was a norm in these families [1998: 233-234]. In a study of more than a thousand sex addicts, the impact of childhood abuse [physical, sexual and emotional] was significant. [It] is clear that trauma and addiction are inextricably connected for the sex addict…. [1998: 236].
Given the intense and extreme sexual lives of the characters in his fiction, it is not too difficult to find Bataille in this description. Perhaps it is not a surprise that Bataille so valourises the prostitute as both ‘the logical consequence of the feminine attitude’ [Bataille 1962: 131] and as a laudable example of unproductive, sacrificial, expenditure. After all, Bataille did describe finding ‘God’ between the thighs of the eponymous prostitute in Madame Edwarda.
“Trauma experiences and memories,’ explains Wilson, ‘seem to be encoded [in the mind of the addict] in intense, specific visual images’ [Wilson 1998: 236]. It is not a stretch to root Bataille’s preference for metonym over metaphor in the traumatic images he witnessed as a child. As we saw earlier, for Bataille, eggs, eyes, testicles and urine were specific, intense and woven into his very being.
Bataille and depression
What of depression? The existential psychologist, Irvin D. Yalom, writes that depressive patients present with a ‘dysphoric mood and neurovegetative signs… dependency, obsequiousness, inability to express rage and hypersensitivity to rejection’ [ cc ].
Troppmann, the protagonist of Bataille’s Blue of Noon, exhibits many of these symptoms throughout the novel. Here, for example, is Troppmann whilst bedridden with fever at the Parisian home of his mother-in-law, moments after committing a sexual act (despite his ailment) on a female visitor.
I was the rubbish that everyone stands on…. I had called down ill-fortune on my head, and here I was dying [N.B. Troppmann experiences a full recovery]. I was alone. I was despicable…. A black hole now opened inside me as I realised that I would never again clasp [my wife] to my breast. [Bataille 1988: 71]
Medically, depression and anxiety are linked illnesses and are often rooted in childhood trauma. The depressed mind (not the conscious self, but the mind), faced with trauma, finds the ‘integrity of the self and world.. threatened by dissolution in the wake of the trauma experience’. This is the causal factor behind suicidal thinking, a preference for death and self-annihilation (Bataille’s ‘void’). [Herringshaw 1997: 8].
Bataille and PTSD
Finally, let us look at PTSD as experienced by adult survivors of childhood trauma. Such survivors endorse:
‘a belief in luck, an impersonal distributional property of positive events…their traumatic experiences as randomly assigned to and endured by them…. [They] give little credence to the influence of justice as a force in determining the distribution of events... [Recovery from trauma for adult survivors is] heralded by the proclamation of an “existential truce” in which they achieved a complex cognitive reconstruction of concepts of self and the world which accounted for the extremes of both positive and negative experiences of their lives.’ [Herringshaw, 1997: vii-viii].
I have added the emphasis to highlight some key themes that appear in Bataille’s writing. For instance, Bataille shares, with Herringshaw’s PTSD cohort, a belief in chance.
‘We freely overcome the major difficulties involved in the individual's opposition to the collective, of good and evil…, only by denial, by a stroke of chance…The depression felt by life lived at the limits of the possible cannot exclude the passing of chance.’ [Bataille 1997: 335].
As one might predict from Herringshaw’s description, Bataille rejects the very notion of justice:
‘Without having anything against justice, obviously, one may be allowed to point out that… the word conceals the profound truth of its contrary, which is precisely freedom’ [Bataille 1997: 195].
We will return later to the concept of an ‘complex existential truce’ when we consider how Bataille reconciles his extreme exterior experience with the calmer, more serene inner experience. This, we shall see, is Bataille’s most important concept, which can bring the most hope to the mentally unwell .
Bataille on Inner Experience
Bataille suggested that the sacred could be found in extreme experiences. These fell into two categories – the external (drunkenness, orgiastic sex etc.) – and the internal. It may be helpful, in psychological terms, to associate these two categories with two stages of addiction. The external experience is akin to the addict’s acting-out experience pre-recovery. The development of recovery enables the addict to experience the sacred via internal experiences, free of the need to act-out through substances, processes, or other people.
I suggest that Bataille’s usefulness is most useful for the addict in providing an explanation, a meaning, to the painful journey he or she undergoes. The addict initially finds joy through alcohol or sex, then requires evermore extreme amounts to achieve an ever-decreasing ‘hit’. Eventually, reliance on the substance results in the addict facing ‘rock bottom’ – akin to Herringway’s ‘dissolution of the self’ or to Bataille’s void.
One of the questions asked in anguish by most addicts is ‘why me?’. Bataille’s economics, philosophy and heterology (his search for and attribution of meaning to the different, deviant, and repulsive) provides context and helps answers this question, so providing much needed comfort. Ultimately, Bataille reminds us that the path to happiness, to sovereignty, requires the individual to develop a relationship with the void/the impossible, and to pass through the void ‘trembling in his bones’ [Suleiman 1995: 40].
Bataille’s inner experience, the state that exists once the self has owned the truth of the void, accords with Herringway’s ‘complex existential truce’ and with the mental health term ‘recovery’. The individual can acquire sacred inner experiences by grappling with his suffering and with his contradictory relationship with the Impossible.
‘The chief characteristic of the inner experience is not visible action, but déchirement, an inner sundering…the hero of the inner experience actively engages himself in ‘la déchirure’. He is dominant and virile (Bataille will later say, ‘sovereign’) because he actively chooses his sundering… It is only because he writes his inner experience that we know the philosophical stakes involved in his eroticism, know the anguish he is suffering, and know too that he dominates his suffering by the act of engaging himself in it.’ [Suleiman 1995: 42]
Eventually, the self develops the ability to experience ‘une communication profonde des ētre’ (a profound communication between beings) [Golob 2016: 58]. The promise of experiencing the sacred through a profound silence, rather than destructive orgiastic exterior experiences, provides the addict with hope. Bataille recommends writing and creativity to tame and express one’s mastery of the positive and negative experiences of life. That he was able write his fiction with such power and literary skill demonstrates that it is possible to write the most unpleasant material which, because it is authentic, will be read as powerful art.
Art functions as a safe container for extremely intense feelings such as rage, despair, terror, and pain. It provides both safety and distance from the content of the experience through use of metaphor and symbolism, yet also allows opportunity for full expression of traumatic experiences. [Wilson 1998:236].
Bataille and 12 Step Recovery programmemes
No less a philosopher than Sartre raved that Bataille’s philosophy was a ‘portrait of an a paradoxical individual, a madman, not a programmeme’ [Suleiman 1995: 43]. We have seen that that which Sartre intended as an insult is, in fact, a correct diagnosis. To a fully functioning adult member of society, the contradictions and impossibilities of Bataille’s philosophy seem insurmountable. However, many who have experienced childhood traumas and addictions similar to Bataille’s find them incredibly familiar. Step 1 of the original twelve-step movement, Alcoholics Anonymous [widely available online], for instance, achieves something similarly contradictory when it states that the first step towards recovery from addiction is admitting powerlessness over that addiction.
In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous shares much with Bataille’s prescription for a life worth living. Bataille prescribes ‘ritual’; AA meetings have ‘strict guidelines’ followed worldwide. AA’s ‘fellowship’ is remarkably close to the ‘community’ that Bataille valued. Bataille’s ‘sacrifice’ matches AA’s concept of ‘service’; so too does Bataille’s prescription ‘to write’ match AA’s recommendation ‘to journal’. Even the ‘God’ of AA’s Step 3 can be an imminent ‘power greater than [one]self’ rather than a transcendental divinity.
That a major, grassroots-led international organization can be described in terms so similar to Bataille indicates that Sartre must be striking close to the mark when he associates Bataille with madness.
Madness, then, is the key to unlock Bataille’s otherwise baffling, complex and contradictory system. To someone suffering a mental illness, or locked in addiction, Bataille’s philosophy provides an explanation as to why this is happening to them. He shows that they are not doomed forever to live as ‘the accursed share’ or ‘doomed part’ (i.e. the waste products) of capitalism. Instead, there is a path to a stillness and spirituality accessible in the immanent world. In short, Bataille provides, for the mad, the belief that they can regain their sovereignty and live a fulfilling life, in constant touch with that ‘impossible’ in which lies the sacred.
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iCAAD Online 2020