Introduction by the translator
Acéphale or the Sacred Conspiracy: The Community of the Accursed Share
In the mid-1930s, during a flagitious political era, Georges Bataille founded the journal Acéphale as a protest against the horrors of Nazism, all forms of fascism, and decadent democracy. In addition to serving politically as a contra-force to the populist spirit of the times, Acéphale was also to function aesthetically as a Dionysiac contagion, with poetry, essays, and art as combative energies (one of its targets was Surrealism) celebrating the primordial individual and enacting the powers of instinct and irrationality.
In the following interview, which originally appeared in Les cahiers obliques in 1980, Paule Thévenin questions artist André Masson about the founding of Acéphale, the intricacies of its editorial history, eroticism, politics, and the possible close relation between Acéphale’s violent declarations and fascism’s authoritative aims (Masson’s own observation). Thévenin also probes Masson about the potent imagery of Acéphale (the labyrinth, the sacrificial dagger, the death’s head or skull, the burning heart, acéphalic man), ecstatic experiences, and to what degree Pierre Klossowski, Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris, nuclear physicist Georges Ambrosino, and others were involved in its efforts.
Acéphale was, however, not limited strictly to the realm of print, which is not to hull that medium of its genuine force. As Bataille declared, one of his principal aims was nothing less than the founding of a religion, or at least advancing toward such a mythic event. In “The Sacred Conspiracy,” an article included in the first issue of Acéphale, Bataille spoke of being “fiercely religious” and that, “insofar as our existence is the condemnation of all that is recognized today, an internal requirement wants us also to be imperious. What we are undertaking,” he explicitly professed, “is a war.” This war entails abandoning “the world of the civilized and its light. […] Secretly or not, it is necessary to become other, or else cease to be.” To become other or to cease to exist are acts of Marsyan expenditure that evoke the incandescent figure which Masson would create at Bataille’s behest and which would become the emblematic icon of Acéphale, a vibrant, dynamic image as eternal as any mythic symbol in human history. And it is an image that both negates and supersedes the cross.
Bataille’s mythic aim can be interpreted in relation to Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the post-theological epoch. With the collapse of the onto-theological order, the foundations of the Western and Middle-Eastern worlds collapse. Concomitantly, though they continue to persist, the politics, ethics, and virtues founded on the Abrahamic traditions also lose legitimacy. Thereafter, the phenomenon of nihilism arises, but it is a stage that humanity must pass through. Since, as Nietzsche observes, the shadow of the dead God may continue to engulf us for thousands of years, the war between Dionysus and the Crucified—a war that is between two philosophical modalities—remains to be fought; the shadow in all its manifestations must still be vanquished, again and ever again into the future, just as nature must undergo de-deification and, in order to restore it to its original condition, humanity must undergo naturalization. For, to shoot one of Nietzsche’s arrows: “It is by being ‘natural’ that one best recovers from one’s unnaturalness, from one’s spirituality.”
It is in the aftermath of this monumental crisis, in the epoch of nihilism, that Bataille lived—and our epoch remains nihilistic, just as the ages of the immediate future will continue to be nihilistic. Let us not be deluded. In the midst of such crises, subsequent to our sacrifice of God, Nietzsche wonders how we will console ourselves, then proposes in part that we invent both new festivals of atonement and new sacred games, each of which are to be earthly forms of Geistigkeit, which is to say, anti-metaphysical—or atheological—forms of the sacred. It is only through such actions, says Nietzsche, that we will be able to live up to the terrifyingly sublime deed of murdering God. “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” he asks, if not commands. This to Nietzsche is our greatest task, and all those born after the death of God “belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Bataille embodied the task of inventing new festivals and sacred games, as perhaps very few others, with an incandescent, absolute fervor. In late 1936 then, in concord with his aim of founding a religion, Bataille envisioned a ritual that would illuminate the mystery of the death of God. This involved the enactment of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman and the dispensation of blood (that of Bataille himself and another participant) at the base of the obelisk of Luxor in Place de la Concorde, which signified for Bataille the powerlessness of “the images of royalty and the Revolution…” And it is this obelisk in particular that for Bataille is “the calmest negation of the death of God,” the death that is of any absolute sovereignty. As he explains, this “apparently meaningless image imposed its calm grandeur and its pacifying power on a location that always threatened to recall the worst. Shadows that could still trouble or weigh upon the conscience were dissipated, and neither God nor time remained: total sovereignty and the guillotine-blade that put an end to it no longer occupied any place in the minds of men.” The shadows of the dead God that Nietzsche declared would possibly take thousands of years to dissipate before any degree of true sovereignty could be achieved are here evoked but as absent entities—this absence signifies Bataille’s Dionysian optimism, the promise of acéphalic man, whose star he perhaps saw on the horizon.
The topos of Place de la Concorde is for Bataille dominated by “eight armored and acéphalic figures” while its “central point marks the location of the guillotine—an empty space, open to the rapid flow of traffic,” which is to say, no one thinks anymore of the guillotine, or the king. This empty space could be interpreted as referring specifically to the emptiness that man feels after experiencing the death of God, which Nietzsche so chillingly describes in his parable of the madman. After such an epochal event, Nietzsche asserts, we as a species experience the most extreme, absolute form of solitude. It is this very tremendous solitude—far more terrifying than what infinity was to Pascal—that Bataille sought to embody and confront with his acéphalic events. Time, he avowed, is thus fearlessly conquered: “The movement of all life now places the human being before the alternatives of either this conquest or a disastrous retreat. The human being arrives at the threshold: there he must throw himself headlong into that which has no foundation and no head.”
Behind this mythic gesture is yet something else, something altogether more exacting, something perhaps alarming (Leiris found it puerile), for the secrecy that Bataille spoke of would extend itself to the formation of a secret society, and much of Thévenin’s interview with Masson concerns this clandestine reality, which is not, however, the work of a paramilitary sect. As Bataille explains in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “secrecy has to do with the constitutive reality of seductive existence, and not with some action contrary to the security of the State. Myth is born in ritual acts hidden from the static vulgarity of disintegrated society, but the violent dynamism that belongs to it has no other object than the return to lost totality; even if it is true that the repercussions are decisive and transform the world (whereas the action of parties is lost in the quicksand of contradictory words), its political repercussion can only be the result of existence. The obscurity of such projects only expresses the disconcerting reorientation necessary at the paradoxical moment of despair.” What myth born in a ritual act, what act of violent dynamism, must be kept secret from society? Is it not through a blood rite that one returns to lost totality?
Masson, who maintains his vow of silence and duly speaks of certain acts only ambiguously, claims that it was supposedly a goat or rabbit that was to be slaughtered and to act as a symbol of human sacrifice. If the exact nature of the object remains bound in secrecy, in his biography on Bataille, Michel Surya speaks of a text which describes the sacrifice of a female gibbon that was to be “trussed up like a fowl and tied to a stake in a pit, head down, its rectum opening to the sky like a flower.” Those participating in the sacrifice were to be naked and in a state of derangement provoked “by avidity for pleasure (exhausted with sensuality).” Once a ritual gesture was made, earth would be cast onto the animal, concealing everything but its “filthy solar protuberance,” “in spasm, convulsed by anguish.” Next, a woman would extend her naked body over the gibbon, then caress its slightly soiled rectum with her “pretty white fingers.” After the officiants went thru a series of exalted shrieks, tremors, sublimated eroticism, and febrile spasms, the animal was to be set aflame.
We are left with an enigma, or, conflicting histories: the possible totemic animals range from a goat to a rabbit to a gibbon, yet, there is also the question of the human totem. Although we know that no such sacrifice was ever made, a willing caper emissarius was found, though not a sacrificiant. (Some claim that Bataille was to be the caper emissarius, others that Laure [Colette Peignot] was, giving as partial evidence a poem [“Le Corbeau”] in which she refers to such a ceremony. Roger Caillois was purportedly proposed by Bataille to be the sacrificiant.) To Blanchot, what they were left with was “the mere parody of a sacrifice set up not to destroy a certain oppressive order but to carry destruction into another order of oppression.” Is this why Acéphale did not survive? Is this why the acéphalic religion could not flourish? Undoubtedly, the reasons are more complex. Bataille later spoke of his gesture as “a monstrous error,” but collecting his writings made him aware, he said, “of the error and the value of this monstrous intention.”
Thévenin’s interview with Masson was originally conducted to coincide with the publication in 1980 of publisher Jean-Michel Place’s facsimile edition of Acéphale. Here, thirty-six years later, on the anniversary of Masson’s death, the first-ever English translation of this dialogue offers us reserved proximity to the foundations of the journal Acéphale, the secret society, Masson’s resistance to the latter, related efforts made by Breton, and the question of a sacrifice that, before a lightning-struck tree, was to establish the religion.
In the midst of the political strife of our own epoch, and one in which an acéphalic ethos is virtually non-existent, the acéphalic project may serve as a model for how to become other, or to cease to be—antidotes ever more vital in an age ruled by Narcissus. There is much to condemn in what others today recognize as valuable, and there is much to be at war with. Let the agon commence.
—Rainer J. Hanshe
Paule Thévenin: Georges Bataille wrote the introduction to issue 1 of Acéphale in Tossa, on April 29, 1936, with you, in your house. What memories do you have of this visit from Bataille in Tossa, and how was the idea of the journal Acéphale born?
André Masson: Really, there, I’m lost. All that I know is that Bataille had asked me to make the cover, saying to me: “Why don’t you make a headless fellow. Imagine it starting from this idea of a man who has no head.” And I myself started to work. He also spoke of “The Sacred Conspiracy…”
PT: …which is the introduction to the first issue. But can you tell me if, from the start, the idea of Acéphale was solely an idea of Bataille’s, or was this a mutual project of Klossowski, Bataille, and you?
AM: I wasn’t in Paris at that time, so I cannot know how it materialized. Bataille explained to me that it would be a journal, naturally, but I didn’t participate in the original discussions.
PT: The title is from Bataille?
PT: Daumal had written, well before Acéphale: “It is the body that thinks in place of the head.” Do you know if Bataille knew this sentence from Daumal and if he was interested in The Great Game?1
AM: Not much, not much. I don’t see the relation very well.
PT: Then you think that he didn’t know of Daumal’s phrase?
AM: No, I don’t believe so.
PT: Why did you find yourself in Tossa in 1936?
AM: Because, after the riots at Place de la Concorde, which stupidly I had witnessed, I had decided to leave France, where I thought that fascism was going to take hold. And we had first sought out, my wife and I, Andalusia. I had a sort of presentiment that this wasn’t the place where we would stay. Following the knowledge of the Catalans, we had asked a Catalan friend of ours to search for something for us, to let us know of a place where it would be nice. Then he said Tossa de Mar, it’s a place that isn’t yet damaged. There are very few painters who go there, and even fewer writers. There are very beautiful houses for rent at a very modest price. It’s like that, absolutely by chance.
PT: In April ’36, you had no suspicion that the Spanish Civil War was going to occur?
AM: No, I did. Well… that there would be trouble, in any case. The war, no; the war with the big letter, no. I thought that there would be riots, there always are more or less, but I didn’t suspect the arrival of the war.
PT: The drawing for the cover of Acéphale was made in Tossa. And the other drawings, for example this one, which you’ve titled Le glaive [The Sword], this is the gateway?
AM: It was also made in Tossa.
PT: All the drawings for issue 1 had been made in Tossa.
AM: Yes. All, without exception.
PT: Did you have several ideas for the cover drawing?
AM: No, no, it happened spontaneously. It’s an automatic drawing.
PT: Issue 1 is dated June 24, 1936 and there is a question at the end, about the popular meeting of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ of June 7, 1936.2 The publication of this issue under the title “The Sacred Conspiracy,” was that not a kind of aristocratic challenge to the populist spirit of the times? or, on the part of Bataille, a challenge of poetry in regard to politics? How did you understand that?
AM: It was all rather obscure, obviously. I believe that the principal idea was that instinct had a great power that he had rediscovered, that he had to be wary of the mind. That’s a little like Zen, a kind of recourse to non-mind that is in the Zen doctrine. The Zen doctrine has the same basis, a doctrine that Bataille and I had known, but that didn’t have a direct influence on Acéphale.
The aristocratic side of such an enterprise is evident; it doesn’t have the publicum in sight. To the contrary, it was meant to reunite the people who just didn’t want to be swept away by big waves, but who would want to protect their individuality, above all. That was essential: the non-mind and the individual, the primordial individual.
PT: In this sense, there was nevertheless a kind of challenge?
AM: Ah, yes, obviously. It was a challenge to politics, a challenge also to established norms, to all established norms, including even Surrealism.
PT: Just now you said that your drawing was automatic, rather partly automatic we should say since the subject, a man without a head, had been provided to you by Bataille at the start. Yet, it is full of symbolic elements, for example the labyrinth of the belly.
AM: The labyrinth is the belly. In place of the sexual organ there is a skull.
AM: I know absolutely nothing and I myself have questioned it for fifty years. I am unable to figure it out. When I think of Acéphale, I think of that, because it’s subsequently been introduced into my paintings. Which is to say, when I was making the headless man, I sexed him with a skull in place of the organ.
PT: Which is to say that you were recovering the head also, in a certain way.
AM: Yes, obviously. There is something that is indeterminable.
PT: All the same, we can assume that to him it’s the death of the organ.
AM: We can say that, in any case, death is also the end of sex. I have no idea if that’s truly surrealist. I cannot explain it with logical words and with metaphysics. Does it exist in the savage arts? I believe not.
PT: In the end, it still raises the same questions.
AM: But I haven’t resolved them.
PT: And the flaming heart in the right hand?
AM: It’s a common symbol. The heart is burning. The sword in the left hand is the instrument of murder and of sacrifice.
PT: Bataille, whose text is clearly subsequent to your drawing, called it L’Arme de fer [The Iron Weapon]. It’s the instrument of sacrifice. And of what sacrifice? Did you not believe that a headless man was a man to sacrifice at that time?
AM: It’s a self-sacrificing man. He is not sacrificed; he sacrifices himself.
PT: He tears out his heart. That recalls the sacrifices as they were practiced among the Aztecs. The culminating moment of the sacrifice is when we exsect the heart.
AM: Yes. What a testimony! Yes, that’s it.
PT: The labyrinth over which, moreover, you have placed two stars, is that the intestines or another labyrinth?
AM: Ah, that’s the eternal labyrinth.
PT: Thus, the Headless Man is centered on his sex and sex is death. In certain esoteric traditions death always passes through the center, exactly. You knew them, yet were you influenced by them?
AM: I don’t remember.
PT: You believe that it wasn’t intentional?
AM: No. It really was an automatically made drawing.
PT: In his introduction, Bataille declares, and stresses: “We are fiercely religious.” What do you think was the religious content in “acéphalité”?
AM: The same title of the first text, “The Sacred Conspiracy,” proves that it is not for a religious world, but that it is for a world where the sacred exists. The sacred is not necessarily divine.
PT: That is your own position, as an old agnostic. Was that what it was for Bataille?
AM: Yes, absolutely.
PT: So, this “we are fiercely religious,” which is somewhat ambiguous if taken out of context, it’s a new sense of the sacred that one wants to introduce into poetic existence.
AM: Yes, but in that sense it is better, even in Surrealism. Basically, there is still in all this a small shift toward mysticism.
PT: Without a doubt, and if we look a little closer, the third collaborator, Klossowski, there are nets of mystical tendencies.
AM: Yes, yes, certainly, a kind of pagan mysticism.
PT: There’s a contradiction that one falls upon in the first issue. On the cover, we read that Acéphale is published by Georges Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, and André Masson, and, on the last page, we find this: “Acéphale, published by Georges Ambrosino, Georges Bataille, and Pierre Klossowski, published 4 times a year.” How do you explain that your name figures on the cover but it doesn’t figure at the end in what appears to be the editorial board?
AM: We don’t have a contradiction there.
PT: What then was Ambrosino’s role?3
AM: To me, he’s always been enigmatic. I didn’t have a real relationship with him.
PT: He wasn’t in Tossa during the preparation of this issue? And the first issue was prepared entirely in Tossa?
AM: Yes, it was prepared in Tossa. And solely by Bataille and myself. Klossowski did not come.
PT: Ambrosino was a friend of Bataille’s then?
AM: You know, I lived in Spain, I wasn’t in Paris, and a lot of things were done without me being there. I was mainly the designer of the affair.
PT: Who financed Acéphale?
AM: That, I’ve never known. I know that there wasn’t much money in any case. But I don’t know who was financing it.
PT: On the last page of issue 1, there is a question about the representative Acéphale engraving. This engraving, did you make it as well?
AM: I didn’t.
PT: It was never undertaken by you?
AM: Not in my memory.
PT: In your view there is therefore nothing that exists but the cover design?
AM: No, there was no engraving.
PT: Issue 2 was then announced in issue 1 under the title “Reparation of Nietzsche,” and it became “Nietzsche and the Fascists.” Why?
AM: There, it’s very simple. It was to give back to Nietzsche what belonged to him and to remove what the Nazis, and especially his sister, had done to him. But it was also an anti-Hitlerian position, anti-Nazi. It was a time when this system was already invasive. There, it’s a truly clear goal. It’s to give back to Nietzsche that which is Nietzschean. And to simply wash him of this fascist compliance.
PT: Did you have something to do with the choice of this subject?
AM: No. There it was Bataille.
PT: Yet, at that time you were a Nietzschean for a long period.
AM: Ah yes, that goes without saying.
PT: Then, it’s Bataille.
AM: Yes, with my approval, obviously. It was very opportune at that moment. There were not many intellectuals who had that attitude then, at least to my knowledge.
PT: In issue 1, the printer was Guy Lévis Mano and the manager a certain Jacques Savy. Who is he?4
AM: No memory.
PT: From issue 2, Georges Bataille becomes the managing director. Do you know the reason for this change?
AM: That I don’t recall.
PT: This Chavy played no role in your opinion?
AM: To my knowledge, no. A very provisional role.
PT: And Lévis Mano was simply the printer?
AM: We had close relations with Lévis Mano. He was a printer friend. He was also a poet.
PT: You had made three drawings for issue 2. Can you tell me why you called this drawing Montserrat? Because Montserrat is a high place?
AM: Because Rose and me had decided to spend a week in Montserrat. The convent rented rooms and the food was free! It was about 800 meters high, while the summit of the mountain, if I remember well, was 1600 meters.
We got lost at night, in the middle of January, and we were absolutely surrounded by precipices, it was very harrowing. I was in a state of strange exaltation. I was finally ready to descend and Rose kept me in good hands, thankfully. I don’t recall if it was by writing or by telephone that we talked to Bataille of that night on Montserrat. And, besides, he wrote the above article that appeared in Minotaure. He called it “Night in Montserrat.” There were reproductions of my paintings of Montserrat and a poem from me—a poem? it may not be worthy of the name, a little winged prose perhaps. I now can no longer place exactly at what time it was. It had to be in full development in Acéphale.5
PT: But the drawing, did you make it on Montserrat as well?
AM: No, surely not. It wasn’t drawn on Montserrat. I had to make the drawing upon my return.
PT: Is there a symbolic intention in that the character of Acéphale, that of the cover, is found in this drawing with the foot placed on the landscape exactly where you returned?
AM: Well, the place had very much interested Bataille. And, in fact, we could say that this was the place elected for Acéphale. There is a living connection there.
PT: You mean to say that it’s with the sacred, with this notion of the sacred that has always been primordial in Bataille, that Montserrat had a real link?
PT: And this drawing, which is reproduced on page 15 of issue 2, you made this where?
AM: I had to have made it in Tossa.
PT: We see Acéphale rising like a type of rocket.
AM: An explosion…
PT: This drawing and the previous one, which you called Montserrat, you made them especially for issue 2?
AM: Ah yes.
PT: And this also, I suppose, dated March 1936, Tossa de Mar?
PT: Are there any special meanings in this drawing?
AM: No, certainly not. Only, obviously, Acéphale seems to cover everything: the earth, the sky, the sea.
PT: Even a kind of mountain in which it is lost and which has that air of exploding like a volcano.
AM: And so, in place of the head, curiously enough, there’s a volcanic eruption.
PT: Then, once again, in a certain manner, you have given him a head?
AM: Yes, if you could say that. But… a very distant head.
PT: Acéphale, as a symbol, can be understood as a protest against monocephalic fascism. Yet, both Bataille and Klossowski appear as opponents of decadent democracy and of fascism.
AM: Yes, it was roughly the position of people who weren’t so bad off. Democracies really looked like an absolutely disgusting spinelessness vis-à-vis the Nazi imbecilities. So, of course, we were against both democracy and “the new aristocracy.” That is to say we took things by spirit, which is obviously a challenge. But a memory comes to me that may be a little inopportune, but which I find amusing. One time, in a café, after a meeting of the College of Sociology, which was pretty much in the same waters—the College of Sociology led by Bataille—I asked a disciple of Husserl who had attended a session of the ceremonies, a German philosopher, Landsberg:6 “What do you think the Germans will do if they arrive in Paris? What will they do with the College of Sociology?” And he answered me, straight as a bullet: “They will keep the College and have its collaborators shot.” This also showed that, by way of our violent assertions, we couldn’t be suspected of fascism, even if we may have come close to that side of fascism’s “quest for greatness.” There is always muddy water between things.
There could be an extremely distant, antagonistic relationship: one is antidemocratic and one is antifascist. We must still know to which side one leans to more. Even erroneously, it’s clear that nothing in fascism could be of interest to us. But, if you see all this as a game of chess, it is obvious that, in renouncing democracy, we came close to some of the regimes of force. So, these things, we can never avoid them. But finally we had enough to explain not to create confusion.
PT: We have the remaining impression that Bataille imagined something beyond monocephalic societies. Is that what he had explained to you? Had he revealed his conceptions to you?
AM: Bataille’s thought oscillated between the founding of secret societies and proclamations. Two completely opposite things. But me, I told him that I would never belong to a secret society. Because it was a question. This little secret society was made, but, since I didn’t witness it, I cannot speak of it. Finally, around Acéphale, we have a lot of things like this: disgust for democracy—and it was enough; horror of Nazism and of all possible forms of fascism, including that of Franco, because it mustn’t be forgotten that issues 2 and 3 of Acéphale were made in full witness to the Spanish Civil War.
PT: And at the same time, Acéphale was finally quite a monocephalic enterprise because almost all of the texts were by Bataille.
AM: Yes, obviously.
PT: Today, Klossowski declares that he will publish “nothing else” in the journal, and Caillois does not want to speak of it. We begin to wonder if Acéphale was not created by Bataille to publish his own texts.
AM: In hindsight, it looks a bit like that. In short, it’s Bataille’s journal, Acéphale.
PT: It’s surely the impetus of Bataille that issues 3–4 are still tied to Nietzsche. In the contents of this double issue, which bears the subtitle “Dionysus,” we see the names of Caillois and Monnerot, but the great majority of texts are by Bataille.
The four drawings that you illustrated for it, where did you make them?
AM: The first in Tossa, the others in Lyons-la-Forêt where we went immediately after our having left Spain. At the same time I prepared the sets and costumes for Numancia.7
PT: The drawing on page 1, which you have titled Dionysus, seems to also foreshadow the war.
AM: Before the war, there had been the Asturias revolt, the proclamation of the Free Republic of Catalonia, which had been very bloody. We were in Barcelona and we spent quite tense days there. So the atmosphere of war was already present.
PT: This is probably why some of this drawing represents an acéphalic Dionysus—the character pierces the heart of his right hand and holds a vine branch with one bunch of grapes in his left hand.
AM: Yes, he sacrifices himself and he ripens.
PT: In the drawing that you called Tragic Greece, on page 7, Acéphale has a head; he is no longer headless.
AM: There, it’s a Minotaur. Curiously, it’s becoming a minotaur. One wonders why.
PT: It’s also a massacre scene?
AM: Yes, here, on the right, a massacre. There, on the left, eroticism.
PT: The central character binds one to the other. The skull as a sexual organ then takes on its full meaning.
AM: Yes, but before, in the previous drawing, it was an octopus. It’s full of symbols.
PT: The pomegranate also returns. In the drawing of Dionysus Acéphale, on the left, there are several pomegranates.
AM: That went unnoticed, but the pomegranate, it’s my iconic fruit.
PT: We often encounter it in your drawings from 1925.
AM: In the paintings also.
PT: And this drawing, which you say may be the “Dionysian Universe,” on page 15, it’s again a massacre. From one drawing to the next, we find the same icons. In them, the fruit, the grape cluster, is as if cut off from life, suspended over a veritable chasm. We understand these drawings better if we know that you made them in 1936, a moment when things were going very badly in Spain.
AM: Things were going very badly in the world too. But in a less apparent way then.
PT: Page 26 of this double issue announces the founding of the College of Sociology. We see the name of a certain Pierre Libra. Who was he?8
AM: I didn’t know of him at all.
PT: On the other hand, your name is missing; you do not learn of this as a founding member. Was there then a refusal on your part?
PT: Was your refusal linked to this initiatory side of the society, marked in the declaration signed by its founders?
AM: Yes, that’s it. It meant nothing to me. I had the same reaction when Breton wanted us to make “idols” for the exhibition back in Europe. He wanted me to make a plaster statue of Acéphale that would allegedly be displayed at Maeght with the others. But I refused because I said: but all of this, it’s not real. Giacometti had also refused to participate in this exhibition of idols. All this proves a total capsizing. In short, to return to 1937, politics had become purely an affair of war. The spirit was to pursue the fascists, despised in democracies that repeated some of their causticness. Moreover, Bataille, to whom I said, how shameful it feels to see the cowardice of democracies before the fascists, replied to me: “But democracies are reminiscent of an old man who has his cane next to him. He is capable of one day breaking the head of the other with blows from his cane.” And that’s what happened, in effect. So Bataille had foreseen that, and he was not alone; even if we were a minority, Germany, Italy, etc., the fascist conspiracies could not succeed; they could not. There was no evidence that, for example, England would not hold. Quite the contrary. We could see very well that America was prepared to support England; so it was obvious that this would be the case in a few years. The Nazi gamble would fall; the Nazi challenge would not endure the blow. Finally, at the time, it was a very troubled atmosphere to establish anything.
PT: This is perhaps one of the reasons that explain why after this issue, which is from July 1937, it will take two years, that is to say till June 1939, to see issue 5, where there are no texts by Bataille. Do you know why?
AM: In principle, the last issue was to be devoted to eroticism. Acéphalean eroticism. And I had also already made some small drawings. But I don’t know what happened at that time.
PT: The format of the journal has changed, you see, it is much smaller. Were there political or financial reasons for that?
AM: I believe not. But it is not advertised as an issue on eroticism!
PT: No, you see, the cover is mute, more titles, more collaborator names. Only, in the center, a vignette, and a little girl, your drawing. We find the general title of the issue only inside; it’s “Folly, War, and Death.” And the issue contains three texts, all three by Bataille: “The Threat of War,” “The Madness of Nietzsche,” and “The Practice of ‘Joy before Death.’”
AM: I don’t even have these texts.
PT: You weren’t aware of this issue?
AM: I have no knowledge of it. It must have been due to a short-circuit.
PT: On the inside page, the name of Patrick Waldberg appears; he seems to have been something like the secretary of the journal.
AM: He was a late arrival. I must’ve not been in the know, surely not.
PT: Michel Leiris had to arrive before him, although his name is not at the bottom announcing the foundation of the College of Sociology. Yet Bataille said in a text that was published in the sixth volume of his Œuvres complètes that he had founded the College of Sociology with Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris, and Jules Monnerot. He added: “In fact my Acéphale friends and I decided, after a few weeks, to abandon, at least temporarily, everything that we had started (and I have to say that, to my knowledge, nothing significant has pierced through).” He also speaks of “the insignificance of the attempt” and of a “sense of [his] failure.” All the same, he always spoke of the secret society of Acéphale. Do you think that Bataille tried to constitute an initiatory school with the College of Sociology?
PT: And Leiris was part of the group at that time?
AM: Yes, I believe so.
PT: You don’t know how Bataille conceived of this initiatory college?
AM: No, because he saw that I was rebellious.
PT: Leiris declared that he was on the margins of Acéphale, Klossowski as well. Patrick Waldberg, if questioned, replies that he has nothing to say. Caillois prefers to keep quiet. We always fall on the same non-information.
Jerome Peignot, the nephew of whom Bataille then named Laure, speaks of the birth of a myth that would issue from a human sacrifice in the forest of Saint-Germain.9
AM: No one talked to me about that. It’s true that I had already shrugged my shoulders when it came to the question of secret ceremonies—I didn’t want to hear of such things. So, you think, if we were about to participate in a ceremony with a human sacrifice…
PT: Besides, who would they sacrifice?
AM: Ah, he was still to be found!
PT: One of them?
AM: That is madness. I believe that the human sacrifice would have been symbolized by the slaughtering of a goat or a rabbit; it’s of little import. In short, intellectually, it began in an interesting way. And then, when it turned to the secret society, it went extinct. I don’t know the details. I believe it was even a failure.
PT: So, according to you, when this started in Tossa, Acéphale wasn’t a secret society?
AM: Absolutely not. It was an extremely limited society, but not secret. The proof is that we could make it resemble Acéphale.
PT: And the proof is that you were made part of the group.
AM: The secret society, it happened long after.
PT: You would have read about the idea of a secret society in the College of Sociology rather than in Acéphale.
AM: I don’t know.
PT: Was there ever a moment in Acéphale when Bataille was thinking of the secret society?
AM: A little, yes, I think. And then, curious thing, it has had repercussions dating to this Surrealist exhibition back in Europe when Breton accepted the idea of an initiatory exhibition. There, it had to be a reconciliation of Bataille with the surrealists.
PT: At this time?
AM: Yes, but naturally. That’s what’s weird: it’s that this idea of a secret society, Breton liked it very much. And people aren’t aware of that; but, in fact, the culmination of it all was this exhibition in which, as I’ve just told you, I refused to participate.
PT: Artaud also refused to participate in it because of the initiatory side of the enterprise, the gradual walk from room to room, with an altar erected in each of them. If I understand you correctly, the culmination of the secret society of Acéphale, with or without a human sacrifice, was the 1947 Surrealist exhibition?
AM: That’s right, at Maeght.
PT: And yet, of all those we have named, only Waldberg is involved. Neither Caillois, nor Leiris, nor Monnerot, nor even Bataille are among the participants.
AM: Not to my knowledge, no. But there had to be—it’s what Breton wanted—a sculpture from me representative of Acéphale, so an altar to Acéphale. I was indignant. I said: “All of these things are the dreams of adolescents.” The same reaction, finally, which had made me leave Acéphale, that’s for sure.
PT: That is to say the secret society?
AM: Ah, absolutely!
PT: But do you think there was a ceremony in the forest of Saint-Germain?
AM: There, there is the secret. I believe so yes.
PT: One or more ceremonies?
AM: No human sacrifice, but ceremonies, certainly. It still had the embryo of a secret society.
PT: I’d now like you to talk to me about Bataille’s relationship to painting.
AM: As he was a very good man, he knew how to recognize very beautiful things, very well. But it’s clear that his perspective was that of a writer. For example, what he admired in Dali was not painting; it was the topics. Voilà. Likewise for all. But anyway… he was interested in painting, yes.
PT: It would be then for the subject that he chose to reproduce in The Tears of Eros several works of Gustave Moreau that André Breton and the surrealists also all greatly appreciated.
AM: Yes, but he has not forgotten Rops?
PT: Indeed. Thus, for you, his would have been a literary approach to painting?
AM: It was a purely literary approach, like Breton.
PT: Can you clarify what you mean by literary approach to painting?
AM: Ah, well, the literary approach is when one is interested more in the subject represented than in the actual poetics of the painting. The great artists want both, but there may be paintings that are of interest purely due to their plastic value—as used to be said, which is the wrong word—by their pictorial value; I would say Bonnard, for example; Bonnard is strictly painting. While there are all the Symbolist painters, for example, who are often inferior as artists, they bring something that can serve literature. Finally, this is an old quarrel that was abandoned, but, for a century, art critics, when they didn’t like an artist, the designation of literary painter was considered the worst insult. To come back to me in this regard, since we always end up there, there is an art critic, who was a good writer indeed, I’m waiting for his name to return to me… Edmond Jaloux,10 who wrote about my subject: “Adrienne Monnier just discovered a young painter who is a descendant of William Blake, etc.” and he finished: “Too bad that he’s not stupid!” It was the law.
PT: You think then that pure painting didn’t interest Bataille?
AM: No, I don’t believe that’s been noticeable. In Breton, it was the same thing. Giacometti told me that, at the time of the Liberation, there was an exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune with an amazing title like “The Happiness of Living” or something like that.11 And then he had gone there with Breton. And, in the large middle room, there’s Breton leaving Giacometti, rushing to a painting, as if attracted by a magnet, and he returns, in a disappointed air, and he says, “This is only a Bonnard.” This shows that Breton, although he could be attracted by a purely pictorial fascination, as soon as he saw that the subject was, what? a piece of a garden or a small room with a naked woman, then it was not going to be enough.
PT: For Bataille also it is the subject that mattered most?
AM: In a less formal manner than as with Breton. But finally similar, (I believe that I will get myself into trouble with everyone saying this), I believe one of the few poets and writers who has truly understood painting, the same poetics of painting, for there is poetic literature, is Baudelaire. And I think that Baudelaire has never been affected by this deformation, although he himself had very biased taste, but in a good way. I believe that Bataille was like most other writers—it was the subject that prevailed.
PT: And what, then, he could project it?
AM: Yes, that’s it. He can project a lot of things into Moreau, but not many things into Bonnard. And I refer to Bonnard purposely, because in him there is no intellectuality. There is only the joy of painting, the enthusiasm for color, the incredible refinement, the matching of tones, all of which are part of the nature of painting.
PT: Yet Bataille was interested in what you painted.
AM: Oh yes, of course… but he was very broadminded! He was not as systematic as Breton.
PT: But, if you consider the works of yours that he loved, do you have the impression that he was interested only in those where you treat a subject, when the subject was more apparent, and much less in the others?
AM: He had bought a painting of mine that is considered important and which is called L’Armure [Armor] and which is now at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. And well, he exchanged it for erotic drawings.
PT: And the original drawings of Acéphale, do you know where they are now?
AM: That, I don’t know at all.
PT: It’s like a secret society.
AM: Ah, that’s the great secret society: the destination of the works…
1 Thévenin is referring to Le Grand Jeu, a journal founded and edited by René Daumal, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, and others. A total of three issues were published in Paris between 1928 and 1930. A fourth was published in 1977. See Theory of the Great Game, tr. by Dennis Duncan (Atlas Press, 2015).
2 La rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Vel’ d’Hiv’ for short. The reference is to the meeting of the Popular Front, the parade of socialist youth. Later, on June 16–17, 1942, a Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews was conducted by the French police at the Vel d’Hiv.
3 A nuclear physicist and friend of Bataille’s who contributed to some of Bataille’s projects. Bataille sought to enlist Ambrosino in co-writing The Accursed Share. For a detailed account of Ambrosino and Bataille, see Cédric Mong-Hy, Bataille cosmique: Du système de la nature à la nature de la culture (Editions Lignes, 2012).
4 Guy Lévis Mano (1904–1980): editor, translator, poet, typographer. For further info, see: http://www.guylevismano.com.
5 See Minotaure, No. 8 (juin 1936): 50–52. The title of Masson’s poem is “Du Haut de Montserrat.” It was accompanied by the paintings Aube à Montserrat and Paysage aux Prodiges. For Masson’s recollection of his experience on the mountain, see Jean-Paul Clébert, “Georges Bataille et André Masson,” Les lettres nouvelles (mai 1971): 57–80.
6 Paul-Louis Landsberg (1901–1944), a Christian existentialist who studied under Heidegger, Husserl, and Scheler. His books include The Vocation of Pascal, The Conception of the Person, The Experience of Death, and The Moral Problem of Suicide, amongst others. In World War II he was captured by the Nazis and deported to Oranienburg, where he died.
7 Cervantes’ play about the Roman army’s siege of Numancia. The production Masson refers to was directed by Jean-Louis Barrault who, in his adaptation, made a parallel between the siege of Numancia and Franco’s siege of Madrid. It was premiered at the Nouveau Théâtre Antoine on April 23, 1937.
8 Perhaps a pseudonym. Libra is listed as a co-founder of the College of Sociology. See the “Declaration Relating to the Foundation of a Collège de Sociologie,” The College of Sociology (1937–1939), ed. by Denis Hollier (University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 5. The declaration is also signed by Ambrosino, Bataille, Klossowski, Pierre Caillois, and Jules Monnerot.
9 The forest in question is actually Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche, which is not far from Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Bataille and Colette Peignot (Laure) resided at 59b rue Mareil from the end of 1937–1938. In 1939, Patrick and Isabelle Waldberg resided there as well. A lightning-struck tree served as an emblematic totem for the members of Acéphale, who visited it frequently. It was there that the founding sacrifice of the secret society was to be made.
10 A French novelist, essayist, and critic. Jaloux was also a great admirer of the journal Minotaure: “If in a few years time somebody wants to take stock of the underbelly of our times, that is to say the preoccupations, the researches, the curiosities of these semi-secret groups who form the opinion the least exterior to an epoch, those who work in the shadows, who prepare the currents, influence the fashionable trends, confer value on the new men, it will be necessary for them to consult Minotaure.” See the front matter of Minotaure, No. 9 (1936).
11 Masson is most probably thinking of “La Douceur de vivre” (in French he says “le Bonheur de vivre”), which ran at Bernheim-Jeune from September 20–October 20, 1948.
Source note: See Bataille’s Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927–1939 and Œuvres complètes, vols. II and VI; Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Twilight of the Idols; Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community; Michel Surya’s Georges Bataille; Richard D.E. Burton’s Holy Tears, Holy Blood; Milo Sweedler’s The Dismembered Community; Bernard-Henri Levy’s Les Aventures de la liberté; Gradhiva, No. 13 (1993); and Correspondence: Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris.
André Masson (1896–1987) was a painter, sculptor, illustrator, designer and writer. After studying in Belgium, he settled in France and fought in World War I, where he suffered significant injuries. In Paris, where he held his first exhibition at Galerie Simon in 1923, he befriended Juan Gris, André Derain, Max Jacob, Michel Leiris, Antonin Artaud, Bataille, Breton and others. Originally cubist in orientation, he became a fervent practitioner of automatism and joined the Surrealist movement in 1924 (although, following a conflict with Breton, he abandoned it five years later). From 1933–1939, he contributed to Albert Skira’s avant-garde journal Minotaure, and from 1936–1939, he participated in Acéphale, to which he contributed numerous works. During the German Occupation, the Nazis condemned Masson as an entartete Künstler (degenerate artist) and he fled the country, eventually settling in the United States. Upon his arrival, custom’s officers destroyed his erotic drawings, condemning them as pornographic. In 1942 (October 14–Nov 7), he participated in the First Papers of Surrealism, the first major surrealist exhibition in the United States, staged at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in New York. Masson returned to France in 1945 and lived adjacent to Joan Miró, with whom he shared a studio. In addition to paintings and drawings, his other work includes stage and costume design (Sartre’s La Putain respectueuse and Jean-Louis Barrault’s productions of Hamlet, Numancia, and Hunger), book illustrations (Sade’s Justine, Lord Auch’s (Bataille) History of the Eye and Leiris’s Miroir de la tauromachie) and sculptures. Masson’s works are owned by the Centre Pompidou, MoMA, the Tate Gallery and Musée d’Art Moderne of Paris. In 1954, he received the prix national des arts. In 1958, the book Andre Masson: Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier was published and Jean Grémillon filmed his documentary André Masson et les quatre éléments, which was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. Masson is also the author of the Mythologie d’André Masson (1971) and Vagabond du surréalisme (1975).
Paule Thévenin (1918–1993) is most well known to anglophones as the editor of the complete works of Antonin Artaud. Considered by many in France to be something of a female pope of the French literary avant-garde, photographer and poet Denis Roche referred to her as a kind of laughing Medea. She was friends with many of the foremost artists and thinkers of the 20th century, including Jean Genet, Louis-René des Forêts, Pierre Guyotat, Pierre Boulez and Jacques Derrida. As a close confidant of Artaud, she was entrusted by him to be the literary executor of his manuscripts, which she painstakingly transcribed and edited for Gallimard, beginning soon after Artaud’s death and continuing for nearly forty years, till the near end of her own life. Thévenin’s works include Antonin Artaud’s Œuvres complètes, edited by Paule Thévenin (1994); Antonin Artaud: Dessins et portraits, texte de Jacques Derrida et Paule Thévenin (1986); Pierre Boulez Le pays fertile; Paul Klee, prepared and presented by Paule Thévenin (1989) and Bureau de recherches surréalistes. Cahier de la permanence (octobre 1924–avril 1925), with an introduction and notes by Thévenin (1988). Thévenin is also featured prominently in Jérôme Prieur and Gérard Mordillat’s exceptional documentary, La véritable histoire d’Artaud le Momo (1994).
Rainer J. Hanshe is a writer and the founder of Contra Mundum Press and Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. He is the author of two novels, The Acolytes (2010) and The Abdication (2012), which has been translated into Italian (Petite Plaisance, 2016), Turkish (Aylak Adam, forthcoming), and Slovakian (Cloaca), and the editor of Richard Foreman’s Plays with Films (2013). His other texts have appeared in Sinn und Form, Jelenkor, ChrisMarker.org, Asymptote, The Quarterly Conversation and elsewhere. His most recent work is the hybrid book Shattering the Muses (2016), a collaboration with Italian artist Federico Gori. He is currently writing two novels, Humanimality and Now, Wonder.