'Christianity Would Not Want a World from Which Violence Was Excluded': God, Bataille and Derrida on the Sovereign Logic of Religious Child Killing

By Mansfield, Nick | Cultural Studies Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview

'Christianity Would Not Want a World from Which Violence Was Excluded': God, Bataille and Derrida on the Sovereign Logic of Religious Child Killing


Mansfield, Nick, Cultural Studies Review


How do you locate Gilles de Rais (1404-1440)-military figurehead, national hero, serial child-killer, archetype of Bluebeard-in any cultural, historical, political imaginary, in any religious inscape that can make sense of what he was, warrior, homicidal maniac and despicable fool? This is precisely what Georges Bataille attempts in his essay 'The Tragedy of Gilles de Rais', where de Rais finds his place as a remnant of the collapsing world of the feudal seigneur, a world he had outlived, with its military reforms and complex ecclesiastical politics. De Rais' behaviour and fate is tied up in the reconfiguration of a wealth and prestige he had inherited and that he chose to squander, or that he squandered recklessly, mindlessly, without thinking enough to choose. He could do what he did because of the liberties and resources available to the medieval lord: the property, the wealth, the disposability of the plebeian masses ('the little beggars whose throats he cut were worth no more than the horses'),1 the stunning irresistibility of the spectacle of aristocratic indulgence ('he gave way without measure to his need to astonish through magnificent fairytale expenditures').2 To Bataille, de Rais was a savage child, an animal:

Joined to the god of sovereignty by initiatory rites, the young warriors willingly distinguished themselves in particular by a bestial ferocity; they knew neither rules nor limits. In their ecstatic rage, they were taken for wild animals, for furious bears, for wolves.3

The career of Gilles de Rais is caught up then in the rampant libertinage of feudal sovereignty, a sovereignty de Rais risks sovereignly, without regard for the future, for property, for lives, for his social and political place or eternal afterlife. It is in the unfolding of Bataille's account of sovereignty that his story makes sense in its abandonment of sense, its extravagance, its determined, cruel, unnecessary and pointless waste. Yet, Gilles' fate is also wrapped up in the meaning of Christianity or, for Bataille, religion more generally, a religion Gilles embraced by spurning it in his toying with necromancy, but that nevertheless still governed his decisions, even when he was at his most insolent, and to which, in the end, as he approached his execution, he at least pretended to submit. About this religion, Bataille says in a telling aside: 'It may be that Christianity would not want a world from which violence was excluded.'4

What hypocrisy lurks in the will to denounce Christianity's essential violence? A religion of sacrifice yes, but also of authority, repression and damnation cast as love, intimidating in its instituted rhetoric, overawing in its endless recourse to emphatics, an emphatics ironically mirrored in the triumphal, pillaging denunciations of its unreason, its superstition, its hypocrisy yes, it's worth asking: what of Christianity's judgmentalism in spite of itself endures in the corrective speech of those who denounce it? But Bataille would say, Christianity is not the point in itself. The authoritarian violence of Christianity and the judgmentalism of the enthusiasm to denounce it are both phenomena of the larger thing that subsumes them both. Bataille was a renegade from a religion that was too repressive, too limiting, too anti-life, but that in all its overweening force was never enough, in denial of its own constituting excesses, because it was nothing in itself but an exemplar and thus a reduction of a larger human phenomenon, what was most 'generally the condition of [what] each human is', humanity's 'primordial condition, [its] basic condition', the human drive towards sovereignty itself.5 To Bataille, Christianity is not to be evaluated except as an instance of our exposure to the force and lure of sovereignty, that which draws us on to ourselves and the over- reaching that we ourselves by nature are.

Religion then emerges as an instantiation of the nexus of violence, subjectivation and truth-dealing that we call sovereignty. …

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