Academic journal article Magistra

Not Enough: Ascetic Excess and the Quantity of Pleasure

Academic journal article Magistra

Not Enough: Ascetic Excess and the Quantity of Pleasure

Article excerpt

In the strange text of Inner Experience, Georges Bataille, a twentieth-century French writer and philosopher, associates bliss with both excess and pain: "Not enough! not enough anguish, suffering...I say it, I child of joy, whom a wild, happy laugh -- never ceased to carry..."(1) Not enough is a central Bataillean theme. Bataille remains, more than anyone else in the philosophical tradition, a thinker of excess, a thinker for whom any too-much is still not-enough. Excess, however, is a word at once vague and evocative. Particularly interesting are the connections between too-much-ness and paradox; that is, the effects of excess on oppositional terms.

Bataille concerns himself with excesses of pleasure and pain as they cross into one another and with the state of union beyond the borders of the excessive self, where the sacred emerges in excess of the profane.(2) Here, those ideas will be taken up alongside the notion that excess threatens systems, breaks order, by being that for which there is no proper place -- and to suggest that it is exactly the excessiveness of some ascetic and mystical practices that constitutes their powerful sense of the sacred.

The sources of Bataille's entanglement of anguish and suffering with joy and happiness are numerous, but certainly significant among them are the mystics and ascetics, particularly women, with whom he became familiar in his training as both a Jesuit seminarian (he lapsed, to put it mildly) and a medievalist librarian (as which he continued professionally). It is from them, as much as from the more obvious sources such as Freudian psychoanalysis and the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Alexandre Kojève or the Marquis de Sade, that he derives his sense of the continuity of pleasure and pain, or of the presence of pleasure in the evident pain -- the deprivations and mortifications of the self -- in ascetic practice, and the loss of self such as is found in mystical experience.

Though Bataille himself is specifically, deliberately both anti-Christian and anti-ascetic, purporting to see in asceticism a refusal of desire, it may be argued that, in fact, texts that include the element of deliberate self-deprivation, and even the willing search for or undergoing of pain, present precisely the excesses of desire he sees as the best route to the divine. It is in this specific sense that asceticism will be understood here, fully recognizing that there are others at least as legitimate. Again, it is the figure of excess that will be explored.

Looking at these practices through the representative figures of Bataille's favorite mystic, Angela of Foligno, and Catherine of Siena, not too far from her in time and place,(3) this paper will take up Bataille's complex notion of pleasure, shading into ecstasy or bliss, as a delight in intensity. This is a notion he takes from both Nietzsche and Sade, in which the quantitative limits of pleasure, such as Freudian psychoanalysis would mark,(4) burst through into the realm of pain, troubling the opposition of the terms. For saintly ascetic practice, this has unsettling implications, suggesting that the joy of these saints in finding God is present in their frantic seeking as well, and carrying over into the wholly negative-seeming practices directed at the somatic.

In other words, pain practices are also practices of a kind of joy, a self-exceeding joy that is inherently both religious (in its effort to transcend selfhood) and paradoxical. In seeking out these difficult and even damaging sensations, the saintly ascetic defies reason and its limitations to embrace the paradoxes of divine joy, exceeding the self into union with that divine.

For Angela, the road to excess begins in front of a crucifix, where she strips off all of her clothing and offers herself to Christ:

[S]tanding near the cross, I stripped myself of all my clothing and offered my whole self to him. Although very fearful, I promised him then to maintain perpetual chastity and not to offend him again with any of my bodily members, accusing each of these one by one. …

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