Georges Bataille’s Blue of Noon takes questions of political agency to their extremes. The novel follows the debauched adventures of Henri Troppmann, a self-proclaimed necrophiliac who drinks and cavorts his way around Europe with three women in the 1930s. Written during this same time period—in the midst of those pregnant years between the first and second world wars; a violent period of endemic cultural and political disillusionment across the continent—the rise of fascism in Europe serves as both the novel’s literary and literal backdrop.
The novel’s pivotal scene is an exchange between Troppmann, Lazare—a female acquaintance with whom Troppmann has little in common but feels a certain perverse attraction towards (supposedly based on Bataille’s contemporary, the Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil)—and her stepfather, Melou—a teacher of philosophy. Melou articulates the “agonizing dilemma that confronted the intellectual world in this deplorable age”:
Straining his brow in folds, he declared, ‘Should we wrap ourselves in silence? Should we, on the contrary, bestow our help on the workers as they make their last stand, thereby dooming ourselves to an inescapable and fruitless death?’
Sick from days of drinking and little sleep, a miserable Troppmann has little time for Melou’s musings and he asks step-father and -daughter: “If the working classes are done for, why are you both Communists, or socialists, or whatever?” Lazare’s response, it seems, is too stereotypically Christian for the atheist Troppmann to take seriously. She declares: “No matter what happens, we must not abandon the downtrodden.” Melou’s response, on the other hand, is far more affecting for Troppmann. Melou, on principle, seems to agree with his stepdaughter but not without recognising, with all the hallmarks of a petit bourgeois Left melancholia, that doing so threatens his own destruction.
The tension between Troppmann, Lazare and Melou embodies a contemporary melancholia that the Left seems doomed to unceremoniously trip over in pursuit of the oversized band-aid of identity politics. It also mirrors the public disagreement that had erupted between Bataille and Simone Weil in the years before Blue of Noon was written.
In his book Saints of the Impossible, Alexander Irwin explores the pair’s real-life relationship and the commonalities between their thought. He writes that the choice Troppmann is incapable of dealing with is the kind of “decision on which the whole character of life depends: the choice either to turn away from suffering or to enter its sphere fully through obedient acceptance and solidarity with the oppressed, thus exposing oneself to the destruction—but also to the possibility of transformation—that affliction represents.” How best to approach this problematic was furiously debated by Bataille and Weil, and Irwin cites a letter written by Weil which explains her perspective in their disagreement most concisely:
The revolution is for him [Bataille] the triumph of the irrational, for me of the rational; for him a catastrophe, for me a methodical action in which one must strive to limit the damage; for him the liberation of the instincts, and notably those that are generally considered pathological, for me a superior morality. What is there in common?
The conflicts that have been occupying Xenogoth for much of 2017 are here embodied in the thoughts and practices of Bataille and Weil—the internal/external tensions of communities bound by the accursed sharing of endemic mental distress and inchoate care practices; the complex dynamics of Left melancholia; the current mutations affecting the plastic pulsions of the life and death drives. The question of “What is there in common?” is almost comic in this light. In Weil’s formulation, she presents herself and Bataille as absolutists who have chosen sides, but are these sides not always already in orbit of one another, each side pushing and pulling the other through their cyclonic currents? (Bataille seems to openly recognise this in my own readings.) How can one side ever truly “win”? Aren’t both, in some way, essential? What Bataille’s book goes on to do, however, is take these nonetheless complex stances and their entanglements to their gravest conclusion. Irwin writes:
[Blue of Noon] can be read as a response to the question […] by Weil—whether revolutionary spirit must be thought of as “a kind of sickness”—and as an answer to Weil’s claim that “one cannot be a revolutionary if one doesn’t love life.” In [Blue of Noon], the revolution is indeed a sickness, or perhaps several kinds that share a common essence: necrophilia. In opposition to the life-loving revolutionary Weil held up as her ideal, Bataille offers a set of characters deeply and incurably in love with death. More provocatively, he casts Simone Weil herself as the most morbidly avid of his novel’s necrophiles. With his depiction of Weil as Lazare, Bataille wants to claim that the image of the life-loving revolutionary is based on self-deception. Those who proclaim the ideology of life nourish a secret necrophilia. But since sexual perversion carries for Bataille a potent subversive charge, political commitment tainted with the lust for death is not thereby invalidated. Necrophilia may be the only force that can restore political life.
After his encounter with Lazare and Melou, Troppmann becomes so sick that he fears he may be dying—“I felt a violent need for relief; I didn’t feel like dying the way I had on other days,” he says, alluding to the dark depression that has been fueling his recent escapades. Troppmann is a melancholic through and through. There is not one opportunity missed when he could declare his overwhelming misery. His physical and mental pain are compounded by the explicitly political melancholy he has “caught” from Melou. He invites a young acquaintance, Xenie, to his bedside—to him a deathbed—and in his contagious despair almost drives her to jump from an open window. Later, asking her to close it for fear of her falling out of it, he is relieved that now death cannot also come in—no longer allowing the Outside in.
Once he is well again—at least physically so—Troppman travels to Barcelona in order to be a spectator to the brewing Communist revolution and expected civil war between Catalonia and the Spanish south—a revolution that felt “part of the nightmare from which I thought I’d escaped.” With news that Lazare is heading to Barcelona, Troppman is sent into a fit of anxiety about seeing her again. Later, he learns that she has come to Spain to instigate a workers’ revolt by storming a local prison—explicitly a prison, rather than a military target, so that the workers that follow her do not “[succumb] to the old confusion between revolution and war.” Troppmann’s internal and interpersonal conflicts continue to mirror those of Europe around him—and those around us now once again. Every sexual faux pas is mirrored by a political one. His impotency in bed is matched by his impotency to engage politically with the European cities he passes through.
Barcelona’s tense antebellum soon erupts alongside Troppmann’s fraught relationships as Lazare, Xenie and Dirty—the woman with whom Troppmann’s debauchery fleetingly began in London—all arrive in the city. The novel concludes when, soon after the death of his friend Michel during rioting on the streets of Barcelona, Troppmann travels with Dirty to Germany, stopping in Trier—the birthplace of Karl Marx. There they come across a marching brigade from the Hitler Youth and, later that night, overcome with despair and hopelessness, fall into each other’s arms and copulate in a graveyard. Dirty, Troppmann notes, reminds him in that moment “of the soldiers who fought the war in muddy trenches” and he also thinks of Marx in his London grave. The physical presence of death all around him and the symbolic presence of lost Communist ideals finally allows Troppmann to overcome his previous impotency with Dirty.
The next day, waving Dirty off at the train station, Troppmann once again comes across a band of Hitler Youth, playing a ferocious music:
Each peal of music in the night was an incantatory summons to war and murder. The drum rolls were raised to their paroxysm in the expectation of an ultimate release in bloody salvos of artillery. I looked into the distance … a children’s army in battle order. They were motionless, none the less, but in a trance. I saw them, so near me, entranced by a longing to meet their death, hallucinated by the endless fields where they would one day advance, laughing in the sunlight, leaving the dead and the dying behind them.
Troppmann, too, boards a train out of Germany and the novel ends.
The vision of the entranced Hitler Youth alongside Troppmann’s inner experiences echoes the previously mentioned experiences of Rick Grimes’ grandfather as recalled in The Walking Dead. This in turn presents the novel’s most difficult problematic: “Had the worship of death not received its most perfect political expression already in fascism?” Of course, things are not so simple. At one point, Troppmann recalls a memory of self-harm from his schooldays; a memory of wanting to “inure [him]self to pain”—can we interpret his necrophilia as a side effect of this process of inurement; as a transformation of his internal pain into new, external desires? The implications are as political as they are sexual—the two, especially for Bataille, being inherently entwined.
The central scene featuring Troppmann, Lazare and Melou embodies this contradictory position—Troppmann, sexually enamoured with the dead; Lazare and Melou, politically enamoured with lost causes. Both positions are symbolically entwined but at the same time remain irreconcilable. They each share “death” as a horizon. Irwin writes that what Bataille hoped to articulate with the relationship between Lazare and Troppmann is that “there is no such thing as a life-loving revolutionary”:
The first step towards a realistic assessment of political prospects is the recognition that under present circumstances the revolutionary spirit is an aberration and a sickness, a death-driven avidity. […] The point is to recognize that to genuinely love life, one must have “signed a contract with death.” The love of life—to the extent that it is something other than naiveté, delusion, or cynical manipulation—will (ambiguously) emerge from, nourish, and incorporate necrophilia. A “love of life” that seeks to exclude or refuse death is not, in fact, a love of life at all, but the worship of an idealistic myth whose inevitable effect will be a devaluing of life in its real and tragic fullness.
In this way, Bataille wrote Blue of Noon as an attempt to articulate the horrors of philosophy and speculative thought in his time—which nonetheless feel applicable today, albeit intensified by our accelerating social technologies. The communal transgressions at the heart of Blue of Noon become the very act of accepting death in the face of murder by another community alongside the thirst for one’s own self-destruction—a transgression, Bataille would highlight elsewhere, that can also be found in the crucifixion of Christ, the founding event of Christianity. Blue of Noon is his own theory of a “principle of insufficiency” taken to its most extreme limits.
Although written in 1935, Blue of Noon was not published until the mid-1950s because the story of Troppmann had, for Bataille, lost its resonance. In his foreword to the eventually published book, he wrote: “Confronted with tragedy itself, why pay any attention to its portents?” Nevertheless, he also writes, “only an intolerable, impossible ordeal can give an author the means of achieving that wide-ranging vision that readers weary of the narrow limitations imposed by convention are waiting for.” Tragedy allows for aesthetic egress but that is not to say such an egress can ever hope to do tragedy itself justice. The horror of the Holocaust no doubt diminished the necrophilic Troppmann in Bataille’s mind but does he reacquire a resonance in light of the fall of the “official” Communism of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the more recent tragedies and political upheavels that Bataille did not live to witness?
As these tragedies continue to repeat themselves in seemingly infinite iterations, perhaps the portents outlined by Bataille are more necessary of our consideration than ever before.
This post is an adapted footnote from elsewhere that grew out of control.