The Practice of Joy before Death
All this I am, and I want to be: at the same time dove, serpent, and pig.
When a man finds himself situated in such a way that the world is happily reflected in him, without entailing any destruction or suffering – as on a beautiful spring morning – he can let himself be carried away by the resulting enchantment or simple joy. But he can also perceive, at the same time, the weight and the vain yearning for empty rest implied by this beatitude. At that moment, something cruelly rises up in him that is comparable to a bird of prey that tears open the throat of a smaller bird in an apparently peaceful and clear blue sky. He recognizes that he cannot fulfill his life without surrendering to an inexorable movement, whose violence he can feel acting on the most remote areas of his being with a rigor that frightens him. If he turns to other beings who do not go beyond beatitude, he experiences no hate, but, on the contrary, he sympathizes with necessary pleasures; he clashes only with those who pretend to attain fulfillment in their lives, who act out a risk-free charade in order to be recognized as having attained fulfillment, while in fact they only speak of fulfillment. But he should not succumb to vertigo. For vertigo swiftly exhausts and threatens to revive a concern for happy leisure or, if that cannot be attained, for a painless emptiness. Or if he does not give in, and if he tears himself completely apart in terrified haste, he enters death in such a way that nothing is more horrible. He alone is happy who, having experienced vertigo to the point of trembling in his bones, to the point of being incapable of measuring the extent of his fall, suddenly finds the unhoped-for strength to turn his agony into a joy capable of freezing and transfiguring those who meet it. But the only ambition that can take hold of a man who, in cold blood, sees his life fulfilled in a rending agony, cannot aspire to a grandeur that only extreme chance has at its disposal. This kid of violent decision, which disrupts his repose, does not necessarily entail either his vertigo or his fall in sudden death. In him, this decision may become an act and a power by which he devotes himself to the rigor whose movement ceaselessly closes in on him, as cutting as the beak of a bird of prey. Contemplation is the only context, sometimes calm and sometimes stormy, in which the rapid force of his action must one day be put to the test. The mystical existence of the one whose “joy before death” has become inner violence can never be seen as cornered, for he is able to laugh complacently at every human endeavor and to know every accessible enthusiasm: but the totality of life – ecstatic contemplation and lucid knowledge accomplished in a single action that cannot fail to become risk – is, however, just as inexorably his lot as death is that of the condemned man.
The texts that follow cannot alone constitute an initiation into the exercise of a mysticism of “joy before death.” While admitting that a method of initiation might exist, they do not represent even a part of it. Since oral initiation is itself difficult, it is impossible to give in a few pages more than the vaguest representation of that which by nature cannot be grasped. On the whole, these writings represent, moreover, less exercises strictly speaking than simple descriptions of a contemplative state or of an ecstatic contemplation. These descriptions would not even be acceptable if they were not given for what they are, in other words, as free. Only the very first text could be proposed as an exercise.
While it is appropriate to use the word mysticism when speaking of “joy before death” and its practice, this implies no more than an affective resemblance between this practice and those of the religions of Asia or Europe. There is no reason to link any presuppositions concerning an alleged deeper reality with a joy that has no object other than immediate life. “Joy before death” belongs only to the person for whom there is no beyond; it is the only intellectually honest route in the search for ecstasy.
Besides, how could a beyond, a God or what resembles God, still be acceptable? No words are clear enough to express the happy disdain of the one who “dances with the time that kills him” for those who take refuse in the expectations of eternal beatitude. This kind of fretful saintliness – which first had to be sheltered from erotic excess – has now lost all its power: one can only laugh at a sacred drunkenness allied with a horror of debauchery. Prudery may be healthy for backward souls, but those who would be afraid of nude girls or whisky would have little to do with “joy before death.”
Only a shameless, indecent saintliness can lead to a sufficiently happy loss of self. “Joy before death” means that life can be glorified from root to summit. It robs of meaning everything that is an intellectual or moral beyond, substance, God, immutable order, or salvation. It is an apotheosis of that which is perishable, apotheosis of flesh and alcohol as well as of the trances of mysticism. The religious forms it rediscovers are the naïve forms that antedate the intrusion of a servile morality it renews the kind of tragic jubilation that man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.
“I abandon myself to peace, to the point of annihilation.”
“The noises of struggle are lost in death, as rivers are lost in the sea, as stars burst in the night.
The strength of combat is fulfilled in the silence of all action.
I enter into peace as I enter into a dark unknown.
I fall in this dark unknown.
I myself become this dark unknown.”
“I AM joy before death.
Joy before death carries me.
Joy before death hurls me down.
Joy before death annihilates me.”
“I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I picture nature as a play of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.”
“I slowly lose myself in unintelligible and bottomless space.
I reach the depths of worlds.
I am devoured by death.
I am devoured by fever.
I am absorbed in somber space.
I am annihilated in joy before death.”
“I AM joy before death.”
“The depth of the sky, lost space is joy before death: everything is profoundly cracked.”
“I imagine the earth turning vertiginously in the sky.
I imagine the sky itself slipping, turning, and lost.
The sun, comparable to alcohol, turning and bursting breathlessly.
The depth of the sky like an orgy of frozen light, lost.
Everything that exists destroying itself, consuming itself and dying, each instant producing itself only in the annihilation of the preceding one, and itself existing only as mortally wounded.
Ceaselessly destroying and consuming myself in myself in a great festival of blood.
I imagine the frozen instant of my own death.”
(FOOTNOTE: One night, dreaming, X. is struck by lightening; he understands that he is dying and he is suddenly, miraculously, dazzled and transformed; at this point in his dream, he attains the unexpected, but he wakes up.)
“I focus on a point before me and I imagine this point as the geometric locus of all existence and all unity, of all separation and all dread, of all unsatisfied desire and all possible death.”
“I adhere to this point and a profound love of what I find there burns me, until I refuse to be alive for any reason other than for what is there, for this point which, being both the life and death of the loved one, has the blast of a cataract.”
“And at the same time it is necessary to strip away all external representations from what is there, until it is nothing but a pure violence, an interiority, a pure inner fall into a limitless abyss; this point endlessly absorbing from the cataract all its inner nothingness, in other words, all that has disappeared, is ‘past,’ and in the same movement endlessly prostituting a sudden apparition to love that vainly wants to grasp that which will cease to be.”
“The impossibility of satisfaction in love is a guide toward the fulfilling leap at the same time that it is the nullification of all possible illusion.”
“If I imagine myself in a vision and in a halo that transfigures the ecstatic and exhausted face of a dying being, what radiates from that face illuminates with its necessity the clouds in the sky, whose grey glow then becomes more penetrating than the light of the sun itself. In this vision, death appears to be of the same nature as the illuminating light, to the extent that light is lost once it leaves its source: it appears that no less a loss than death is needed for the brilliance of life to traverse and transfigure dull existence, for it is only its free uprooting that becomes in me the strength of life and time. In this way I cease to be anything other than the mirror of death, just as the universe is the only mirror of light.”
“I MYSELF AM WAR.”
“I imagine human movement and excitation, whose possibilities are limitless: this movement and excitation can only be appeased by war.
I imagine the gift of an infinite suffering, of blood and open bodies, in the image of an ejaculation cutting down the one it jolts and abandoning him to an exhaustion charged with nausea.
I imagine the earth projected in space, like a woman screaming, her head in flames.
Before the terrestrial world whose summer and winter order the agony of all living things, before the universe composed of innumerable turning stars, limitlessly losing and consuming themselves, I can only perceive a succession of cruel splendors whose very movement requires that I can die: this death is only the exploding consumption of all that was, the joy of existence of all that comes into the world; even my own life demands that everything that exists, everywhere, ceaselessly give itself and be annihilated.
I imagine myself covered with blood, broken but transfigured and in agreement with the world, both as prey and as a jaw of TIME, which ceaselessly kills and is ceaselessly killed.
There are explosives everywhere that perhaps will soon blind me. I laugh when I think that my eyes persist in demanding objects that do not destroy me.”
- Georges Bataille