off the shelf: Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality

brief reflections on books I haven’t read in a while

Bill Hulseman
5 min readSep 30, 2021
Auguste Rodin, “Eve after the Fall.” Photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago by the author.

I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met
Who could appreciate Georges Bataille
Standing at a Swedish festival discussing “Story of the Eye”
Discussing “Story of the Eye”
It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you
How can I explain, I need you here and not here too…
Sometimes I wonder if you’re mythologizing me like I do you…
None of our secrets are physical

from Of Montreal, “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal”

“Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death.”

from Georges Bataille, Erotism

In my final year of divinity school, I took a comparative course on the intersection of eroticism and mysticism. Each week, we’d explore that intersection in a different cultural or religious context, and throughout the term we conducted our own parallel research. Some of my classmates focused on specific examples that related to other research they were doing. My focus? Well, I embarked on a project that would change my life: Madonna. Two years earlier, she released Ray of Light, which included a curious blend of religious and spiritual ideas with pop music. Related music videos and promotional materials (including David La Chapelle’s stunning spread for Rolling Stone) represented Madonna’s engagement with Vaishnava Hindu practice, and her appearance at the VMAs included a highly stylized performance of “Shanti/Ashtangi,” based on an obscure Sanskrit prayer. Producer William Orbit also pioneered the integration of electronica into mainstream music through the album, priming many of the tracks for club and dancefloor remixes…which is where I encountered the music directly. The dancefloor was an obvious space to explore the weaving of sensuality, sexuality, and spirituality — I couldn’t stop thinking about the dancefloor as a ritual space in which people constructed, tested, and expanded their identities, values, and beliefs. This project opened the door for me to explore just that.

Early in the course, we read Erotism, Georges Bataille’s 1957 philosophical analysis of the relationship between the erotic, the mystic, the religious. In many ways, it was a heavy read for me — not in terms of its accessibility but in the ways each chapter (sometimes, each paragraph) rattled or upended the way I saw the world. Flipping through the pages again, I’m struck by the number of times I scribbled “WHOA” in the margins. The book was, for me, apparently a rolling series of ah-ha! Moments, lightning bolts, and other metaphors that capture the way Bataille challenged and inspired me. He also gave me a framework to look deeper into Madonna’s music (and really, into all things pop culture), to understand the ways in which sexuality, eroticism, and mysticism fueled the creation of and responses to art in various forms, and to more deeply and intimately understand what it means to be human.

In some ways, the book infuriatingly reflects the limitations of Bataille’s world — limitations of scientific knowledge, commitment to the gender binary, incomplete appraisals of women’s experience and sexuality, incessant essentialism — but in others, he breaks the mold and integrates new insights (like nods to evolutionary biology and Alfred Kinsey’s findings). Three things from Erotism stuck with me in profound ways and shaped not only my research about Madonna but my own lived experience and career. First, he gave me an analogy to understand fundamental relationships within the person. “Physical sexuality, always accompanying eroticism,” he writes, “is to it what the brain is to the mind.” They are not just related — they are facets of the same reality, but actualized in different contexts, in different ways, and with differing success. He extrapolates this analogy and finds parallel, essential connections at different levels of experience. For example, he describes that “The origins of war, sacrifice, and orgy are identical; they spring from the existence of taboos set up to counter liberty in murder or sexual violence.”

The second thing that stuck with me is Bataille’s characterization of the relationship between religion (while he looks toward examples from other traditions, he really dives deep into Christianity) and the sacred, pursuing the question of why Christianity is, to say the least, so exclusive in its belief. Around the same time that he was writing Erotism, the Catholic Church saw the rise of the liturgical reform movement, increasing theological emphasis on social justice, and the planting of the seeds that would result in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to reconcile faith and the modern world. In the shadow of World War II, Christians, especially in Europe, grappled with the devastation of the Holocaust, the the Nazis’ intended extermination of Jews from Europe. The Holocaust presented an unavoidable lens (which too many have, somehow, avoided) to reconsider the development of Christianity relative to other traditions and cultures, and prompted in many an urgent embrace of pluralism. Bataille seems to point to a single, common sacred that is experienced or accessed and isn’t concerned with the ultimate theological conflicts that emerge from religious diversity. Actually, he sidesteps it beautifully with a line that resonates today: “Sacredness misunderstood is readily identified with Evil.” The moral burden, I gleaned, is not on the misunderstood but on the ones doing the misunderstanding.

The third idea that stuck with me got me thinking about the ways that cultures change and evolve. Often, religion is tied inseparably to the past, and invoking religious tradition is understood (by outsiders and practitioners alike) to be invoking and returning to the norms of the ancient past in which all truths were revealed. That notion never sat well with me, and while modern ideas like Alfred North Whitehead’s process theology gave me an intellectual structure to play in, but they never really gave me enough to understand and embrace the idea of participatory culture, the idea that culture isn’t just given to us — we participate with the divine in its construction and development. Bataille didn’t apply ancient resources or modern abstractions — he looked to, well, common sense. He writes, “…mysticism guides and judges the moral life. Hence and this is really self-evident, morality cannot be confined to keeping life going as it is; it calls for life to expand and blossom.” Our work and our capacities are not confined to what we inherit; they are oriented toward constant awareness and reconstruction of the ways we see the world.

Each of these insights bolstered and framed my Madonna research, but more importantly they prompted me to explore a healthier understanding of sexuality and to, without shame or giggles, center sexuality in my understanding of society. In this way, he freed me from shackles I’d put on myself years before when I accepted that the erotic, the sensual, and the material were subordinate to the spiritual, the ethereal, and the eternal. I started to see that those abstract spaces could only be accessed through the physical and that any pursuit of spiritual perfection is itself a pursuit of erotic engagement. “The saint,” he writes, “is not after efficiency. He is prompted by desire and desire alone and in this resembles the erotic man.” Sounds an awful lot like Madonna, eh?