Monday, January 21, 2008

The beheading of Louis XVI


The members of Georges Bataille's secret society 'Acéphale' performed one of their yearly rituals on the 21st of January. On that day they commemorated the beheading of Louis XVI on the Place De La Concorde on January 21st 1793.

Can we reconstruct some of the meaning of this obscure ritual?

"The Place De La Concorde is the place were the death of God has to be announced and proclaimed because its obelisk is the calmest negation of it", Bataille pronounced in a 1938 essay in Acéphale's eponymous journal.

This quote leads us to examine both the obelisk and the death of God in relation to the beheading of 'citizen Louis Capet'.


From wikipedia:

"The center of the Place de la Concorde is occupied by a giant Egyptian obelisk decorated with hieroglyphics. It is one of three Cleopatra's Needles, the other two residing in New York and London.

Although the needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, they are somewhat misnamed as none has any connection with queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. They were originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis on the orders of Thutmose III, around 1450 BC. The material of which they were cut is granite, brought from the quarries of Aswan, near the first cataract of the Nile. The inscriptions were added about 200 years later by Ramesses II to commemorate his military victories.

The obelisks were moved to Alexandria and set up in the Caesarium — a temple built by Cleopatra in honor of Mark Antony — by the Romans in 12 BC, during the reign of Augustus, but were toppled some time later. This had the fortuitous effect of burying their faces and so preserving most of the hieroglyphs from the effects of weathering.

The viceroy of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, offered the 3,300-year-old Luxor Obelisk to France in 1831. The obelisk arrived in Paris on December 21, 1833. Three years later, on October 25, 1836, King Louis-Philippe had it placed in the centre of Place de la Concorde, where a guillotine used to stand during the Revolution

Thus, the obelisk was erected on the spot where Louis XVI was guillotined.

For Bataille, the obelisk was a phallic expression of absolute power. It symbolized the end of time, the denial of chance and change. It occulted regicide under an idealized, authoritarian, pro-monarchical meaning. Bataille's view of the obelisk is connected to his hatred of architecture, as expressed in Documents' critical dictionary:

"Architecture is the expression of the true nature of societies, as physiognomy is the expression of the nature of individuals. However, this comparison is applicable, above all, to the physiognomy of officials (prelates, magistrates, admirals). In fact, only society's ideal nature – that of authoritative command and prohibition – expresses itself in actual architectural constructions. Thus great monuments rise up like dams, opposing a logic of majesty and authority to all unquiet elements; it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak to and impose silence upon the crowds. Indeed, monuments obviously inspire good social behaviour and often even genuine fear. The fall of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of things. This mass movement is difficult to explain otherwise than by popular hostility towards monuments which are their veritable masters."

The Acéphale ritual thus has both an aesthetic (anti-architectural) and a political (anti-authoritarian) meaning.


The booklet "Sade Mon Prochain" ('Sade My Neighbor') by Pierre Klossowski sheds light on the relation between the death of God and the execution of Louis XVI. Klossowski was a member of Acéphale and painter Balthus's brother.

"When the blade severs the head of Louis XVI, it is in Sade's eyes not the citizen Capet, or even the traitor, who dies. It is, in his eyes as in those of Joseph de Maistre and all of the Ultramontanists, the representative of God who dies. And it is the blood of the temporal representative of God, and in a deeper sense, the blood of God, that falls back upon the heads of the people in insurrection. Catholic counterrevolutionary philosophers such as Joseph de Maistre, Bonald, and Maine de Biran speak of the putting to death of Louis XVI as a redemptive martyrdom: for them Louis expiates the sins of the nation. For Sade, the putting to death of the king plunges the nation into the inexpiable; the regicides are parricides. Sade doubtless saw in the inexpiable a coercive force; he then wished to substitute for the fraternity of the natural man the solidarity of the parricide, the solidarity of a community that could not be fraternal, because it is of Cain."

Klossowski's reading of the beheading of Louis XVI points towards Nietzsche's most famous aphorism, "The Madman", the 125th from "The Gay Science":

"'Wither is God?' he cried: 'I will tell you. We murdered him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. (...) How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to cleanse ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?'"

To the aesthetic and political meaning of Acéphale's January 21st ritual, is added a historical, criminological, theological, philosophical meaning - and perhaps even an erotic, Sadean one.


In Klossowski's text, and most clearly in the last line of the paragraph quoted above, one can hear echoes of Acéphale's project to establish a community through the murderous sacrifice of one of that society's members. The sacrificial victim is the Divine King.

The Divine King as sacrifical victim points us towards another layer of meaning - mythological in nature - in Acéphale's ritual.

In his classic 1890 book on the history of religions "The Golden Bough", Sir James Frazer examined the ethnological genealogy of an obscure ritual of the Romans of classical antiquity, which took place at the little woodland lake of Nemi. Here, the office of King of the woods was held by an escaped criminal; the King of the woods was at once a priest and a murderer. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the current priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier killer.

In explaining this murderous ritual cycle, Sir James Frazer examined myths and rites from around the world, both from classical antiquity and from non-western societies. Especially, he investigated those religious phenomena in which Kings were regarded as incarnations of a divinity and ritually put to death, either when they lost their strength or at the end of a fixed period:

"The mystic kings of Fire and Water in Cambodia are not allowed to die a natural death. Hence when one of them is seriously ill and the elders think that he cannot recover, they stab him to death.

The people of Congo believed, as we have seen, that if their pontiff the Chitomé were to die a natural death, the world would perish, and the earth, which he alone sustained by his power and merit, would immediately be annihilated. Accordingly when he fell ill and seemed likely to die, the man who was destined to be his successor entered the pontiff’s house with a rope or a club and strangled or clubbed him to death.

The Ethiopian kings of Meroë were worshiped as gods; but whenever the priests chose, they sent a messenger to the king, ordering him to die, and alleging an oracle of the gods as their authority for the command. This command the kings always obeyed down to the reign of Ergamenes, a contemporary of Ptolemy II, King of Egypt. Having received a Greek education which emancipated him from the superstitions of his countrymen, Ergamenes ventured to disregard the command of the priests, and, entering the Golden Temple with a body of soldiers, put the priests to the sword.

Sir James Frazer proposed that the periodic sacrifice of a sacred king, who incarnated a solar deity, was central to religions the world over. The periodic sacrifice had an agricultural meaning: the death and resurrection of the sacrificed God was in tune with the seasons.

Mauss, though a close friend of Sir James Frazer, was highly critical of the latter's interpretation of the sacrifice of the Divine King. Mauss proposed that for the god to take on the role of a sacrificial victim, there must be an affinity between his nature and that of the victims. So that he may come to submit himself to sacrifice, the god's own origin must be in the sacrifice itself. The god is a localization, concentration and accumulation of sanctity which is organized in the rite of sacrifice. Thus, it is in the sacrificial murder of the Divine King in which the idea of sacrifice attains it's highest expression.


Acéphale's members had spun a thick web of significance around the beheading of Louis XVI on January 21st 1793. Their ritual commemoration of that blood-spattered episode of French history comprised aesthetic, political, historical, criminological, theological, philosophical, erotic and mythological meanings.

Perhaps the ritual commemoration was Bataille's attempt to invent a Maussian contemporary 'total social fact' (fait social total), a phenomenon in which all kinds of meaning are given expression at one and the same time - religious, juridical and moral, political as well as private, and economical.

If so, the invented tradition of commemorating the beheading of Louis XVI bound together into one ceremonial practice the many motivations and factors which made up his Weltanschauung.

Post scriptum

Here is a link to a French-language essay which among others treats Bataille's essay on the Place de la Concorde obelisk.

Here is a link to a post on the brilliant Ombres Blanches blog about Bataille's cinematic aspirations.


dmtls said...

This was an intriguing and more than interesting read.

valter said...

Thanks! Your blog is one of my favorites!