Tristan Tzara, in his Dadaist Manifesto of 1918, argued that Dadaists were out to “assassinate beauty”. But why would anyone want to assassinate beauty?
In the previous post I discussed, with reference to Plato’s Symposium, Roger Scruton’s account of this desire to assassinate beauty in his book Beauty (Oxford, 2009). We saw that beauty is in a position to offend us in at least two ways: (1) it can make us realize that there are, indeed, levels of real distinction be found in the world: some things are more interesting, admirable, compelling, and unique than others—and this doesn’t always sit well with our democratic attitude; (2) beauty imposes an intolerable burden on us by imposing ideals which can show, by way of comparison, just how miserable our lives are. In this sense, beauty can be an affliction. And it is precisely this affliction which leads so many into a what Scruton calls a “flight from beauty”, that is, a flight from ideals, which, rather than live up to ideals and face judgment in the face of them, desecrates ideals so there is nothing to live up to. Hence the cult of ugliness, death, and nihilism to be found in art and modern culture in general (see 183-184 and chapter 8).
What I want to do here is offer a different view from Georges Bataille. In his 1957 book Erotism: Death and Sensuality (City Lights Publishing, 1986), Bataille is interested in erotic love or eroticism and its relation to death. He begins the book with a fascinating sentence: “Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death.” (11). What does this mean? Well, as living beings we experience discontinuity insofar as we are individuals who are individuated from other things: “Beings which reproduce themselves are distinct from each other, just as they are distinct from their parents. Each being is distinct from all others. His birth, his death, the events of his life may have interest for others, but he alone is directly concerned in them. He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity” (12). But this is not the whole truth of the matter. For although we don’t see how this gulf of discontinuity can be overcome, we nonetheless feel a deep need to overcome it. Indeed, this gulf can create a “dizziness” (13) that can “hypnotize” (13) us into pursuing some “licentious image” (11) or experience of death. Why death? Because death, existentially understood for humans, is continuity. Consider this passage:
“It is my intention to suggest that for us, discontinuous beings that we are, death means continuity of being. Reproduction leads to the discontinuity of beings, but brings into play their continuity; that is to say, it is intimately linked with death. I shall endeavor to show, by discussing reproduction and death, that death is to be identified with continuity, and both of these concepts are equally fascinating. This fascination is the dominant element in eroticism.” (13)
Continuity can be approached by losing certain limits that define us as individuals. Obviously if these limits are compromised too much we actually die. This is not desired for the most part! But what is desired and pursued with fascination is what we saw above: assenting to life to the point of death. This assent can take place in a variety of ways; but all these ways are forms of eroticism. Eroticism is essentially a “religious matter” (31) insofar as it, like so many religious practices, is really after experiencing continuity while alive.
How does all this relate to beauty and the perplexing desire to assassinate it?
Well, the experience of beauty is the experience of harmonious proportion, limit, balance and so on. Moreover, the beautiful object is usually placed on a pedestal as something of great worth to be preserved, admired, and so on. These characteristics show how beauty is a powerful expression of discontinuity. The beautiful object is bounded off, clearly distinguished, and set apart. Of course, it has a unity of parts that can also express continuity. But Bataille seems interested in the beautiful object as discontinuous. He says that a beautiful woman is marked by an “absence of natural heaviness that suggests the physical use of the limbs and the necessity for the framework of bone: the more ethereal the shapes and the less clearly they depend on animal reality or on the human physiological reality, the better they respond to the fairly widespread image of the desirable woman” (143). This ethereal dimension to beauty helps it stand out from the continuity of nature that marks the animal kingdom.
Now, in the face of this beauty we may feel hypnotized to try and reduce it to some form of continuity. The fascination to do this, and the joy associated with doing it, is not a matter of negating ideals so we don’t feel judged; rather, it is an outcome of our quasi-religious need to experience continuity or death while alive. This erotic drive towards continuity leads many to transgress, profane, and even spoil beauty (144-145). Consider these astonishing claims:
“If beauty so far removed from the animal is passionately desired, it is because to possess is to sully, to reduce to the animal level. Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it….Beauty has this cardinal importance, for ugliness cannot be spoiled, and to despoil is the essence of eroticism. Humanity implies the taboos, and in eroticism it and they are transgressed. Humanity is transgressed, profaned, and besmirched. The greater the beauty, the more it is befouled” (144-145). One way beauty is spoiled is by the sexual act itself which involves the non-ethereal and animalistic sex organs. These organs, as Leonardo da Vinci himself pointed out, are the opposite of the beauty of the face: “The act of coition and the members employed are so ugly that but for the beauty of the faces, the adornments of their partners and the frantic urge, Nature would lose the human race” (145). Bataille concurs and claims that, for a man, “there is nothing more depressing than an ugly woman, for then the ugliness of the organs and the sexual act cannot show up in contrast” (145).
But whatever the means of transgression, the key insight is this: the desire to assassinate beauty comes from an erotic desire to experience continuity.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this account is that the forms of transgression eroticism takes can be condemned as evil: “Evil is not transgression, it is transgression condemned” (127). Indeed, according to Baudelaire, “the unique and supreme pleasure of love lies in the certainty of doing evil” (127). Bataille takes this statement to be a “universally valid truth” (127). But then we have to ask some troubling questions: could it be that our search for wholeness in the face of beauty, Eros, is necessarily connected to transgressive acts? Could it be that acts of spoiling or “assassinating” beauty are actually acts of Eros? Could it be that evil is the outcome of Eros? Is there a desire, perhaps a religious desire to experience continuity, to make the beautiful ugly?