The night of animality: Bataille on understanding the dawn of humanity

September 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art & Culture is a page-turner. The book works backwards, starting with art to explain the world from which it springs. At first it seems that all knowledge is at stake, & later only the philosophy of Georges Bataille, the book’s author. In the 20th century the threat of obliteration became very real. This is what Bataille is responding to, consciously. “The latest atomic experiments made tangible the notiuon of radiation invading the atmosphere & creating conditions in which life in general could no longer thrive” (87). All of a sudden apocalypse had a name. Intellectuals of the era struggled with the mortality of their race like none before them, they became gripped by the apocalypse genre — observably, a willingness to surrender to death.

Most interesting in Bataille’s study is his amendment of the death drive. He makes it the second step to wonder [wonder, being classically established as the source of all philosophy]: “when man’s need for miracles is not satisfied, it transforms itself into a passion for destruction, being at certain moments the only possible miracle, preferable to boredom, be that as it may. Such is the intensive employment of modern means of destruction: it is incontestable, prodigious, sensational” (103—4).

This strongly resembles the modes of sacrifice discussed in the previous post on Carlo Levi. Sacrifices are merely expressions of human contradiction & our ambiguous place between realms.

Bataille believes that our earliest ancestors treated the development of reason as an unwelcome mutation, saying “these men refuse the destiny that determines them: they overflow into savagery, the night of animality, which is nevertheless born of their clarity & calculation” (65). Eventually the mutation would become our most precious soirce of pride. Cultures develop, nations, notions of progress. The animal in us dies; often, even the body. We imagine ourselves as part of a purely cognitive mass: our survival is precisely the survival of this mass.

The work of cognification — accepting the mutation of reason — progresses in unison with the phenomenon of individuation. Slowly, as we renounce the animal in us, we must stop looking on ourselves as a unit as we do other animals.  Their individual lives do not count; they are hardly known by herds. Each one is an embodiment. But for our ancestors this was no longer enough now that they possessed a developing mind & a logical, thinking self (73).

The earliest humanoid renditions do not feature the face, rather obscurations, masks, or perversions [such as heads that jut forth like those of animals].* Bataille draws attention to the artistic differences between representations of animals & of humans of this time; he makes claim to the inception of realist & figural art from the first stroke of painting. Of the images referenced, the case of the man-bison from Les Trois-Fréres is perhaps most convincing. Rendering involves a requisite distance.

Les Trois-Fréres animal symphony, with the human figure piping in the centre

Les Trois-Fréres animal symphony, with the human figure piping in the centre

What these admirable frescoes proclaim with a youthful vigour is not only that the man who painted them ceased being an animal by painting them but that he stopped being an animal by giving the animal, & not himself, a poetic image that seduces us & seems sovereign. (60)

Art, like religion, has a clear lineage to the fear of death. Mortality is having an individuated sense of self. This fear is annulled by prosperity in the reproductive or creative acts, or the initiation of the self into community. Not to take part in community is to fail to create biologically or otherwise — that is what is generally referred to as a monster, an alternative to ourselves, an unsuccessful evolutionary strand. There is an irony here, for death plays two roles in human industry: the catalyst & the saboteur.

But there is one other route, & it takes the astuteness of a Bataille to identify it: among the tools of humanity, one of the earliest & most important is the ornament [Bataille goes so far as to call it the “most noteworthy contribution” (156)]. Ornaments are plastic absurdity; ornamentation is the manipulation of futility, the forgiving of our useless will for industry. They are existential even, at their best. Ornaments do not play along in the game of meaning; although designed to seduce, the response could be one of horror instead [as history shows it is, when the decorative & contentless become the primary artistic forms]. We cannot deal with the idea of something being a mere decoration, so we make sure to interpret. Coming across the cave paintings, saying simply They are beautiful/monstrous is unbearable.

Now, simply to turn Bataille’s words against his method: “[H]umanity’s understanding of itself & of the world presents a significant lacuna. In principle, no one perceives this lacuna; yet if understanding has a decisive value for man, it is the same as this lacuna” (121).


* One does not say “to spit on one’s face” but “to spit in…” The face is not a surface.


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