Acéphale

Cover of Acéphale-Andre Masson 1936
Cover of Acéphale-Andre Masson 1937

By 1935 Georges Bataille and Andre Breton, after both being disillusioned by their dispiriting experiences within various leftist organisations and dismayed by the rise of Fascism across Europe, decided to bury the hatchet and they found common cause in the founding of Contre-Attaque, an anti-fascist movement outside of Stalinist control. Although Contra-Attaque only lasted eighteen months, Bataille and Breton would remain on good terms, even collaborating together on the Encyclopaedia Da Costa after WWII.

Bataille’s other projects around this period included the College of Sociology, which featured fortnightly lectures by members and invited guests between 1937-1939 and was attended by leading intellectuals of the day including Jean Paulhan, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Levi-Strauss and Theodor Adorno (co-author of Dialectics of Enlightenment, a book that has gotten under the skin of the New Optimist High Priest, Steven Pinker). However the College of Sociology was the exoteric manifestation of the secret society Acéphale. Little is known of the goings on within Acéphale as the strict vow of secrecy was mainly adhered to by its members, yet it appears to have been preoccupied with the concept of sacrifice.

Acéphale was also the name of a review published between 1936-1939. The term Acéphale comes from the Greek and translates as ‘having no head or chief’. The figure of the Acéphal is headless; not only man escaping his thoughts, logic and reason, but also a headless organisation, one that foregoes hierarchy. Bataille asked Andre Masson to design the cover and Andre Masson produced the above drawing on the spot. Commenting on the Acéphal, Masson said, “I saw him immediately as headless, as becomes him, but what to do with this cumbersome and doubting head?-Irresistibly it finds itself displaced to the sex, which it masks with a ‘death’s head.’ Now, the arms? Automatically one hand (the left) flourishes a dagger, while the other kneads a blazing heart ( a heart that does not belong to the Crucified, but to our master Dionysus). The pectorals starred according to whim. Well, fine so far, but what to make of the stomach? That empty container will be the receptacle for the Labyrinth that elsewhere has become our rallying sign.”

Bataille was delighted with the drawing as it neatly summarises his negative mysticism, a mysticism based on the body and the earth as opposed to the head and the stars. Bataille inverts the classic dictum of Western Esotericism, “As above, so below to as below, so above. This would form the basis of his theory of expenditure, excess and waste outlined in his most important philosophic work, The Accursed Share.

 

 

 

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