The Soul’s Sacrifice of Beauty

In the beginning of Accursed Share, Bataille describes the movement of energy, presumably fed by the sun, which moves through all living things: “The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life” (Bataille 1, 21). It is this excess energy which makes up depense, the “big flame-out” (Taussig, 7) that overflows from the organism, manifesting in the biological consequences of eating, sexual reproduction and death. It doesn’t take much for Bataille to identify this excess in many societies, extended by Taussig’s fables and tied to the historic work of Mauss and Benedict. All of these writers extend the excesses of depense outside of the bodily function into the rituals and aesthetics of society.

However, embedded in Bataille’s description of the “energy circulating in the biosphere” (Bataille, 21) are two interwoven tracks about the nature of depense. Note the notion of “circulation” within this expenditure. The chants, songs and rituals of this world, along with sex, eating and death, remain a constant, ever-present frenzy of expenditure of global energy, which appear to continue ad infinitum both biologically and socially. Even in the most quotidian examples of dead flesh providing nutrition that will eventually allow for the propagation of the species, such expenditure showcases a dependence on depense for continuation and sustainability. As continuous as the energy from the sun imbues each organism beyond its need, so must that energy be wasted, no well too deep that can’t overflow with excess. Depense in this way seems inevitable, and yet such inevitability is incorporated into the corpus itself. Embedded within Bataille’s description is the fact that such depense is a wrenching from within; as much as it connects to the movement of the globe and the rising and fading of the sun, depense comes from the individual himself, tying him to this global movement. In this way, the potlatch ceremonies, with their songs, magic and violence, act as a bridge between bodily expenditure and global social phenomena.

In The Gift, Mauss is fascinated by the continuous societal interchange of the potlatch. He particularly showcases this interest in his description of the kula, the circle of exchange within the Trobriand islands. “The kula,” Mauss writes “seems to be merely the culminating point of life, particularly the kula between nations and tribes. It is certainly one of the purposes of existence and for undertaking long voyages” (27). As such, the songs, chants and rituals of the kula perpetuate his notion of a “‘natural’ economy” (5), a continuous set of activities which perpetuate a society. He even goes as far as to articulate this fact explicitly, describing the exchange of the kula as “a constant ‘give and take,’ marked by a continuous flow in all directions of presents given, accepted, and reciprocated, obligatorily and out of self-interest, by reason of greatness and for services rendered, through challenges and pledges” (29). Hence Mauss’ focus is in the perpetuation of expenditure. The songs and chants continue, and the movement of gifts and depense travels “east to west” (23), allowing the whole of life to continue. Even the impediment of western economies will not overcome this societal urge to expend. Mauss describes the people of the Trobriand islands as becoming “wealthy pearl fishermen” (21) after the Europeans had arrived on their shores, but whose culture still retains the kula.

What is absent in this description is the bodily experience of expenditure, alluded to by Mauss but hardly his focus. Mauss’ notion of the embodied experience of depense comes in his description of the giving of soul. He describes this giving in terms of the Maori as “a tie occurring through things, [that] is one between souls, because thing itself possesses a soul, is of the soul. Hence it follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself” (12). His comment undermines the gamut of emotions that such an act would embody. The pain and courage required to expend one’s self into an object or an action simply can’t be understated, and a special type of magic indeed is required to propel one’s soul into the continuous circulation of destruction and “passing-on” embodied in the depense of society and indeed in the globe itself.

Is it a surprise that such a wrenching of the soul would cause madness? It should manifest in obliteration and destruction and in violence. The very act of extricating part of the soul in and of itself must be an act of violence! Wouldn’t the success of such destruction warrant boasting? Wouldn’t such success be “humiliating” (Bataille 2, 121) to the enemy? Such an act, given further resonance by the shared customs of one’s compatriots and peers, would necessitate inevitable reverence. Hence the chants, singing and rituals, in their violence and gore as explicated by Benedict and Bataille, seem to showcase the consequences of wrenching the soul from the body. Bataille makes the key connection in his theories of the gift. It is “not a thing,” he writes; “it was not reduced to inertia, the lifelessness of the profane world. The gift that one made of it was a sign of glory…” (Bataille 1, 65). Bataille then expands this exchange of personal glory to the interchange within society: “a good many of our behaviors are reducible to the laws of potlatch; they have the same significance as it does… If there is within us, running through the space we inhabit, a movement of energy we use, but that is not reducible to utility, we can disregard it, but we can also adapt our activity to its completion outside us” (69) This energy is embedded within “the object given” (69) and “the gift’s power” (70) comes “from the fact of losing” (70). It is this loss which permeates Bataille’s explanations of destruction and sacrifice.

Benedict showcases this loss through countless examples of song and chant, as well as violent acts and humiliation. Of note are Benedict’s stories of head-hunters, whose act of killing was to mitigate bereavement by replacing one body for another, or the great acts of destruction embodied in the story of Fast Runner and Throw Away, who outcompete each other during the Winter Ceremonial, ending with the ceremonial burning of slaves and the shameful semi-suicide of Throw Away and his men. Such sacrifices and expenditures extend beyond the physical objects or slaves involved to become expenditures of the souls themselves. In describing the valuables of the Kwakiutl, Benedict states that “many of these were material things, named house-posts and spoons and heraldic crests, but the great number were immaterial possessions, names, myths, songs, and privileges which were the great boast of a man of wealth” (183). Benedict’s description of these “aesthetic” expenditures elucidates the true emotion of depense, when the soul is passed into both material and immaterial objects. Even lineage then becomes a token of destruction, as she notes. The expenditure had a collective meaning, passed down through generations and through ritual. In describing the transfer of power by means of killing, Benedict ties the act with the transfer of power embodied in the aesthetic acts of dancing and song: “Such a means of transfer implied, of course, that the whole ceremony, with the words of the songs, the steps of the dances, and the use of the sacred objects, was known to the owner before he had killed the possessor. It was not the knowledge of the ceremony he acquired. It was the title to the property” (210). In this way, the act of killing becomes a means of acquiring the title to the soul, embodied in the beautiful rituals of dance and song. Benedict concludes that societal economy is intrinsically tied to this spiritual rendering, an act fraught with personal and emotional resonance. As she puts it, “They recognized only one gamut of emotion, that which swings between victory and shame. It was in terms of affronts given and received that economic exchange, marriage, political life, and the practice of religion were carried on” (215). She follows this explanation by saying this rendering extends to the “the external world and the forces of nature” (215), once again tying the bodily and emotional state of expenditure to the whole of the world.

Benedict’s emotional scale of victory to shame finds its partner in Taussig’s scale of beauty and terror. Taussig begins Beauty and the Beast by claiming “that beauty is at root inseparable from terror” (1) Taussig uses this stance to showcase the effect of the aesthetic and beautiful; as he puts it, “Anthropologists have spent a great deal of energy describing symbols active in social life… but have we not because of this… missed… the influence of beauty in shaping and energizing society and history, beauty not as form but as force” (3)? He explores the significance of aesthetics by realizing the modern fables of aesthetic excess found in acts of material excess, from plastic surgery to hair extensions to gold monographs on toilet paper. Taussig’s examples are not dissimilar to the songs and dance of the potlatch, and stem from the same emotional and spiritual need inherent to these ceremonies. When Taussig asks “Why do we like stories that end badly, fairy tales of disaster” (12), he points again to the very physical effect of the wrenching of the soul, so powerful that the mirror neurons embedded within each of our brains are genetically programmed to empathize with fictional characters, allowing us to feel the same sense of loss that engenders the reverence felt seeing the depense of the other. When describing the fairy tale, citing Walter Benjamin, Taussing states that death, one of Bataille’s primordial expenditures, is what “grants the storyteller authority” (7). This authority is another form of the separation of the soul, which is embedded into the object, the storyteller’s story. These myths, new or old, through song, dance, or action, seem to be the most easily transmissible of the bodily feelings of depense, connecting the body to the circulation of activity that Mauss prizes as his natural economy. Aesthetics in and of itself becomes the conduit through which this bodily connection is created, beauty itself showcasing the expenditure of the soul onto the canvas, into the song, or onto the body. Taussig’s comments ring true: “Yet it is more than beauty with which beauty dazzles us. It is beauty-as-depense, a tsunami of extravagant consumption reaching ever more baroque splendor that is beautiful” (16).

Still, it is important to note that in our modern society of excessive consumption, it is telling that excess and bodily expenditure can be found in almost every act. Ours is a society based primarily on denying the “notion of expenditure” embedded deep within us, and instead we endeavor to create and preserve a standing reserve of such energy. Yet waste can be found in so many little acts, in competition and humiliation in video games, in the cups of coffee bought at Starbucks instead of made at home, even in the wasted hours browsing videos online.

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