While I’ve mainly been consumed by start-of-term stuff, I have been following up on a few leads in relation to the Foucault work. One of these was a piece by Georges Bataille on Nietzsche, first published in his short-lived journal Acéphale. The British Library has copies of two original issues of Acéphale – both double issues, though still very short. Pdfs of the whole short run are available at Monoskop.
Bataille is a fascinating and disturbing figure, and I’ve just started reading Michel Surya’s biography of him. While looking in the BL catalogue, I found the Encyclopædia Acephalica, published by Atlas Press, which wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but provides a lot of other material by and related to Bataille. It had a useful bibliography which has suggested a few more things to look at. But what it revealed to me was that Acéphale wasn’t just the name of the journal, but also a secret society founded by Bataille. I’m not sure how far down this particular rabbit-hole I will go, but I found that there was a recent publication in English of a host of material related to this society.
It’s entitled The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acephale (Atlas Press, 2018). Here’s the publisher’s description:
This book recounts what must be one of the most unusual intellectual journeys of modern times, in which Georges Bataille — still best known outside of France as a highly wrought pornographer (The Story of the Eye etc.) — have spent the early Thirties in far-left groups opposing the rise of Fascism, abandoned that approach in order to transfer the struggle on to “the mythological plane”.
In 1937, he founded two groups in order to explore the combinations of power and the “sacred” at work in society (Bataille associated the sacred with expenditure, eroticism and death). The first group, the College of Sociology, gave lectures that were intended to reveal the hidden undercurrents within a society on the verge of catastrophe. Bataille and Roger Caillois produced some of their finest texts for these sessions, in which many of the most celebrated intellectuals of the period participated. The second group was Acéphale, a genuine secret society whose emblem was a headless figure that in part represented the death of God. This “ferocious” anti-religion enacted torch-lit rituals in a forest at night beneath an oak tree that has been struck by lightening. Until the discovery a few years ago of the group’s internal papers (which include theoretical texts, meditations, minutes of meetings, rules and prohibitions and even a membership list), almost nothing was known of its activities. Here is the story of what must be among the strangest associations in political, literary or occult history.
This book is the first to collect a representative selection of the writings of Bataille, and of those close to him, in the years leading up to the war. They judged that the time was right to confront the most intractable problems of the human condition head-on: how to live an integrated existence in a universe that was ruthless, absurd and indifferent? And how to oppose repressive and unequal social structures given the obvious impotence of the democracies and the political left when faced with far-right ideology? Such themes have a renewed resonance today.
The texts published here comprise lectures given to the College of Sociology by Bataille, Caillois and Michel Leiris, essays from the Acéphale journal and a large cache of the internal papers from the secret society. A desparate narrative unfolds, and Bataille risked all in this wholely unreasonable quest. With a few fellow travellers, he underook what he later described as a “journey out of this world”.
It looks compendious (480 pp.), richly-illustrated and affordable at £25, especially for such a big book. A quick check of Worldcat suggests no UK libraries have a copy, so it’s now on order.
Aside from Foucault reading the journal (there are notes on it in Paris), another link is that in the 1960s Foucault was part of a tribute issue of Critique to Bataille – a journal Bataille founded. This is the well-known ‘Preface to Transgression’ piece. But Foucault also wrote the brief preface to the first volume of Bataille’s Oeuvres complètes, published in 1970, which I don’t think has ever been translated. Foucault was clearly involved in some way with the planning of the Oeuvres complètes, since he used multiple copies of pages of a draft plan as scrap paper – they are found in multiple boxes of his papers in Paris. If I continue my work on Foucault for a book on the 1960s I’ll need to dig into this further, but for now I’m interested in finding out more about Bataille’s early work, especially around Nietzsche. And finally on that, I was surprised to realise that there was a new translation of his book On Nietzsche, which appeared in 2015 with SUNY Press, translated by Stuart Kendell. I only knew the earlier version, translated by Bruce Boone with Athlone/Continuum/Bloomsbury, which I bought and read probably 20 years ago.