Monday, January 07, 2008

Mauss / Bataille (part 1)

There is a strong thematic unity between the teachings of the great French ethnologist Marcel Mauss and the work of the so-called 'philosopher of evil', Georges Bataille: sacrifice, the sacred, power, shamanism, secret societies are themes that were taken up by Mauss and figured largely in Bataille's oeuvre. This is the first in a short series of posts in which I take up the relations between the writings of the two men. The posts are based upon Fournier's biography of Marcel Mauss, Surya's biography of Bataille and 'The Edge of Surrealism', a Roger Caillois reader. This being a blog and not an academic publication, I have omitted footnotes and references.

Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) was the nephew of the founder of French sociology Émile Durkheim, and in many ways he was the heir to his uncle's intellectual legacy. Mauss's most famous works are "Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice" (written with Henri Hubert in 1899) and "L'Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques" (1923). Mauss was not only active in academic circles, but was also a leading figure in the left-wing political scene of his era.

Bataille was introduced to the work of Mauss through his friend Alfred Métraux (1902-1963), who entered the École des Chartes just as Bataille was leaving it in 1922. Métraux had soon left the École des Chartes to study anthropology with Mauss, who was to call Métraux "one of his most brilliant students". Bataille and Métraux physically resembled each other, so much so that they were frequently mistaken for brothers. The two shared everything, "...including women in black silk pyjamas, with long gold cigarette-holders and boyish haircuts, moving around in poorly defined and rather ambiguous surroundings" (via this book). During three to four hour long morning walks along Paris's rue de Rennes or the Champs-Élysés, Métraux spoke to Bataille of Mauss and his studies of the potlach. The friendship of Bataille and Métraux would "... remain strong even after one became a great scholar and the other a great writer" (via this book). Métraux most famous work is a study on Haïtian voodoo; photos made by Métraux of a voodoo sacrificial ritual would grace Bataille's art book "Les larmes d'Eros". Métraux died by his own hand in 1963.

But Métraux was not the only friend and collaborator of Bataille that had received ethnological schooling from Marcel Mauss: Michel Leiris and Roger Caillois too were Mauss's students.

Bataille met Michel Leiris (1901-1990) at the end of 1924, shortly before Leiris was to join the Surrealists.

Six years later, Leiris was selected by Africanist and Dogon specialist Marcel Griaule to take part in the Dakar-Djibouti mission, which was organized by the Institut D'Ethnologie and financed by the French government and the Rockefeller Foundation. The mission, which took from 1931 to 1933 would "... criss-cross French West Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon, French Equatorial Africa, the Belgian Congo, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Abyssinia, Eritrea, and French Somaliland".

Leiris functioned as the archivist for the mission and as a researcher in charge of religious sociology - a theme that is at the heart of both Mauss's and Bataille's thought. "Parallel to his ongoing work (putting together the collection of objects), Leiris conducted two surveys; one on sigi so, the initiatory language of the Dogon society of Sanga (French Sudan, now Mali); the other on the zâr genie cult among the Christians of Gondar (Ethiopia)". Leiris was highly critical of the mission. "The expedition, he said, at times resembled tourism (in search of the picturesque or the exotic), at other times a circus (always on the move with the same show on every stop), at still others colonial plunder".

In 1933, the second issue of Bataille's Minotaure magazine was dedicated to the Dakar-Djibouti mission. In 1934, Leiris published "L'Afrique Fantôme" in which 'objective' ethnological data were juxtaposed with Leiris's personal experiences, dreams and self-doubts. At the time, this was a unique textual strategy, highly controversial in academia. Griaule, the mission leader, was furious and feared a back-lash from the colonial authorities; Mauss gave Leiris a talking-to, but "in a paternalistic, easy-going way". Nonetheless, Leiris became a student of Mauss's after returning from the mission. At the École pratique des hautes études, where Mauss taught ethnology, Leiris's 1938 thesis "La langue secrète des Dogons de Sanga (Soudan français)" dealt with the secret language of the Dogons of Sanga.

Roger Caillois (1913-1978) was another close associate of Bataille who was taught by Mauss, in his case sociology of religion at the École pratique between 1933 and 1935. There, he also studied comparative religion with Georges Dumézil and heard Marcel Granet apply Maussian ethnology to Chinese culture. His 1937 thesis for the École pratique, written under the informal supervision of Dumézil, was titled "Les démons de midi" (Noontime demons). Much of Caillois' work from the mid-nineteenthirties was serious ethnography, work which earned him praise from both Mauss and Dumézil. Mauss was especially enthousiastic about Caillois' 1934 article "La Mante religieuse" (The praying mantis), in which the author analyses the webs of mythological and erotic significance spun around that insect. Bataille, Caillois and yet another pupil of Mauss (Anatole Lewitzky, who had written a thesis on Siberian shamanism under the direction of Mauss) would create the (in-)famous College of Sociology, which attempted to find a in Maussian thought a weapon to at once combat the rise of fascism and revitalize society. Nonetheless, differing views with regards to the role of ethnological thought in society would cause a rift between Caillois and Bataille as the war drew nearer and nearer.

So there can be only one conclusion: Bataille's closest friends and collaborators were all schooled by Marcel Mauss. Even Bataille states in "L'Erotisme" that he did not take courses given by Mauss, it is certain that he was very familiar with Mauss's work. Furthermore, the density of the network between himself and the great ethnologist ensured that the latter's teachings could not fail to have an impact on Bataille's thinking. This impact will be explored more closely in a later post.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. I am also reading Surya's biography right now and so enjoy the additional context.

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