In his infamous collection of essays Literature and Evil French philosopher Georges Bataille presents a literary thesis which rejects the innocence of fiction. In a series of analytical reviews spanning Emily Bronte to Marquis de Sade, Bataille articulates the commonsense argument that drama is necessary for all story-telling. However he locates this necessary provocation in the realm of evil. It is the moment of rebellion, the succumbing to seduction, the hysteric cracks in domestic hypnosis; the forbidden apple; the sin, which germinates into beautiful but already corrupted sagas.
We have seen how writers such as Kierkegaarde and Hesse have attempted to objectify this omnipresent evil in fictional works such as Either/Or and Narcissus and Goldmund, both of which erect a stark dichotomy between the moral sanity of the rationalist and the degradation of the creative. In Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse narrates the divergent paths of two friends – on the one hand Narcissus, a lofty intellect who becomes Abbot at the cloister where they meet as children. And on the other, Goldmund – who embarks on a life of vagrancy as an artist. In this contrast Hesse presents a Bataille-esque parable for the appetite of the artist; who ingests sensuality, criminality and even murder as the fuel for works of art capable of saying something, and not merely decorating experience.
In Narcissus and Goldmund Hesse explicates this dichotomy in a distinction between art and philosophy. For Hesse, art exists in a realm of representation, but philosophy begins where representation ends – where visual images cease and pure abstraction begins. Problematic as this theory may be, it is acceptable as a literary device and an interesting place to begin.
It points to a suspicion, seemingly held by Bataille and particularly apparent in Islam, that representation is evil. That the kingdom of art; the embodying of abstractions into physical artworks, corrupts its subjects and pilgrims. Whereas philosophers occupy an apparent guiltless space beyond representation, beyond good and evil, in pure language.
This “guilt of the creator”, supports systems of patriarchy by forbidding authority beyond that of the supreme father – where authority is legislative, and thereby creative. While Hesse’s imaginary Eve-Mother of All, idolized by Goldmund in vague flashes from childhood, represents a return to unity through sensuality and creation.
It is this “unity”; this “Mother”, which lurks at the bottom of our paranoia of representation. This blasphemous return to zero through the gateway of inception which appalls the supreme father, fearing for the disappearance of his subjects from out of the language into the abyss.
For we were coined in the Holy word, and it was language which gave us objects we can categorize in a social superstructure of moral code. It is interesting that Adam’s first task as a man was to name all the creatures of Eden. As if by receiving names their status changed in some meaningful way.
Arguably, art operates without language, while fiction and creative writing confuses linguistic referential objectivity by referring to a zero zone: an imaginary world. This is the paranoic fear of the rationalist, of Narcissus secluded to his cloister without ambiguity.
However Derrida describes the trace left over by objective reference (Limited Inc.), the loss of intimacy when we universalize experience in communication. My mother as I know her, in all her glorious singularity and meaning, can never be transmitted by the word mother – which often refers to something completely different. To a scaffold of meaning erected through intellectual history and popular usage, but never to her peculiarity. Never to this moment. Always to something else. And in between times, my mother escapes. She becomes an unspoken trace, an image which can be conjured sometimes through Art. If she were to exist only in relation to me. Here we find the true evil of communication, that neuters us from our own experience.
It is telling that upon completion of Narcissus and Goldmund, the artist Goldmund fails in his singular pursuit throughout an ambling life; to bring the image of the Eve-Mother of All into embodiment. Perhaps she exists only before communication, for the great Eve-Mother of Goldmund’s fantasy represents everything; death, life, creation. But in embodiment she would be reduce to an entity of logic, and they would both be irreparably tainted.
By: Rachel Holmes
Literature and Evil: Georges Bataille
Either/ Or: Søren Kierkegaarde
Narcissus and Goldmund: Herman Hesse
Limited Inc: Jacques Derrida