March 1, 2011


The Obelisk
Georges Bataille

The Mystery of the Death of God

A "mystery" cannot be posited in the empty region of spirit, where only words foreign to life subsist. It cannot result from a confusion between obscurity and the abstract void. The obscurity of a "mystery" comes from images that a kind of lucid dream borrows from the realm of the crowd, sometimes bringing to light what the guilty conscience has pushed back into the shadows, sometimes high- lighting figures that are routinely ignored. From Louis XVI's guillotine to the obelisk, a spatial arrangement is formed on the PUBLIC SQUARE, in other words, on all the public squares ofthe "civilized world" whose historical charm and monumental appearance prevail over everything else. For it is nowhere but THERE that a man, in some ways bewitched, in some ways overtaken by frenzy, expressly presents himself as "Nietzsche's madman" and illuminates with his dream-lantern the mystery of the DEATH OF GOD.

The Prophecy of Nietzsche

"Have you not heard," cried Nietzsche, "of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!' - A s many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. 'Whither is God?' he cried; 'I will tell you. We have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

'How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A GREATER DEED; AND WHOEVER IS BORN AFTER US-FOR THE SAKE OF THIS DEED HE WILL BELONG TO A HIGHER HISTORY THAN ALL HISTORY HITHERTO.' " 1

Mystery and the Public Square

While the existence of human beings may have importance within their own lives and within the limits of their personal destinies, it has none in the eyes of others. Beyond these limits-where human meaning begins-existence matters to the extent that they attract and, apart from this attraction, they are less than shadows, less than specks of dust. And the attraction of an isolated human being is itself nothing but a shadow, a pitiful fleeting apparition. It is but the tentative incarnation of WHAT IS ONLY HUMAN LIFE, which has no name and which the agitation of countless multitudes obscurely demands and constructs, in spite of appearances to the contrary. Who knows what bitterness and sanctity are exhaled in this agitation, which is horror, violence, hatred, sobs, crime, disgust, laughter, and human love. Each individual is but one of the specks of dust that gravitate around this bitter existence. The dust so effectively obscures the con- densation around which it orbits that many clear minds, whose reality, however, is only a kind of residue formed wherever activity is condensed (and not a stormy light produced in the shelterless solitude of the individual), imagine human existence as inaccurately as someone who would judge the reality of a capital by the appearance of a suburb, who would think that that life must beexamined in its empty and peripheral forms, rather than in the monuments and the monumental vistas that are its center.

Clausewitz writes in On War: "Like the obelisks that are raised at the points where the major roads of a country begin, the energetic will of the leader consti- tutes the center from which everything in military art emanates. " The PLace de La Concorde is the space where the death of God must be announced and shouted precisely because the obelisk is its calmest negation. As far as the eye can see, a moving and empty human dust gravitates around it. But nothing answers so accurately the apparently disordered aspirations of this crowd as the measured and tranquil spaces commanded by its geometric simplicity.
The obelisk is without a doubt the purest image of the head and of the heavens. The Egyptians saw it as a sign of military power and glory, and just as they saw the rays of the setting sun in their funeral pyramids, so too they recognized the brilliance of the morning sun in the angles of their splendid monoliths: the obelisk was to the armed sovereignty of the pharoah what the pyramid was to his dried-out corpse. It was the surest and most durable obstacle to the drifting away of all things. And even today, wherever its rigid image stands out against the sky, it seems that sovereign permanence is maintained across the unfortunate vicissitudes of civilizations.

The old obelisk of Ramses II is thus, at the central point from which the avenues radiate, both a simpler and a more important apparition than any other; is it not worthy of renewed astonishment that, from remote regions of the earth and from the dawn of the ages, this Egyptian image of the IMPERISHABLE, this petrified sunbeam, arrives at the center of urban life?

The Obelisks Respond to the Pyramids

If one considers the mass of the pyramids and the rudimentary means at the dis- posal of their builders, it seems evident that no enterprise cost a greater amount of labor than this one, which wanted to halt the flow of time.

The Egyptian pharoah was surely the first to give the human individual the structure and the measureless will to be that set him upright above the surface of the earth as a kind of luminous and living edifice. When individuals-long after the era of the great pyramids-have wanted to acquire immortality, they have had to appropriate the Osirian myths and the funeral rites that formerly had been the privilege of the sovereign. For it was only to the extent that a able mass of power had been concentrated in a single head that the human bemg raised to the heavens his greed for eternal power, something that had surely never taken place before the pschent designated the head of the pharoah to the holy terror of a vast populace. But once it did, each time death struck down the heavy column of strength the world itself was shaken and put in doubt, and nothing less than the giant edifice of the pyramid was necessary to reestablish the order of things: the pyramid let the god-king enter the eternity of the sky next to the solar Ra, and in this way existence regained its unshakable plenitude in the person of the one it had recognized. The existing pyramids still bear wit- ness to this calm triumph of an unwavering and hallucinating resolve: they are not only the most ancient and the vastest monuments man has ever constructed, but they are still, even today, the most enduring. The great triangles that make up their sides' 'seem to fall from the sky like the rays of the sun when the disk, veiled by the storm, suddenly pierces through the clouds and lets fall to earth a ladder of sunlight." Thus they assure the presence of the unlimited sky on earth, a presence that never ceases to contemplate and dominate human agita- tion, just as the immobile prism reflects everyone of the things that surrounds it. In their imperishable unity, the pyramids-endlessly-continue to crystallize the mobile succession of the various ages; alongside the Nile, they rise up like the totality of centuries, taking on the immobility of stone and watching all men die, one after the other: they transcend the intolerable void that time opens under men's feet, for all possible movement is halted in their geometric surfaces: IT SEEMS THAT THEY MAINTAIN WHAT ESCAPES FROM THE DYING MAN.

The "Sensation of Time" Sought by Glory

A moving perspective, represented by the shadows and traces of the successive generations of numberless dead, extends from the banks of the Nile to those of the Seine, from the angles of the pyramids to those of the monolith erected before the Gabriel palace. The long span that stretches from the Ancient Empire of Egypt to the bourgeois monarchy of the Orleans-which raised the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde "to the applause of the immense crowd"-was necessary for man to set the most stable limits on the deleterious movement of time. The mocking universe was slowly given over to the severe eternity of its almighty Father, guarantor of profound stability. The slow and obscure move- ments of history took place here at the heart and not at the periphery of being, and they represent the long and inexpiable struggle of God against time, the combat of "established sovereignty" against the destructive and creative mad- ness of things. Thus history endlessly repeats the immutable stone's response to the Heraclitean world of rivers and flames.

But from the development of this changing perspective over the centuries, a specific result that dominates even the monstrous accumulation of forms has come to light: the boundaries raised in opposition to the atrocious "sensation of time" were tied to this sensation in exactly the same way that all work is tied to a sensation of "need." Whereas "need" and poverty endlessly use up the results of useful labor, the interminable obstinacy of men eventually managed to distance from communal existence the "sensation of time," and the shameful malaise it introduced. Moderation and platitude slowly took over the world; more and more accurate clocks replaced the old hourglasses that retained a funereal meaning. The grim reaper went the way of all other phantoms. The earth has been so perfectly emptied of everything that made night terrifying that the worst misfortunes and war itself can no longer alter its comfortable perception. The result is that human striving is no longer directed at powerful and majestic limits; it now aspires, on the contrary, to anything that can deliver it from established tranquillity. Everything indicates that it was impossible for man to live without the "sensation of time" that opened his world like a nwvement of breathtaking speed-but what he lived in the past as fear he can only live now as pride and glory.

To this vision, whose consequences must be projected before us, is added the fact that life ceaselessly gravitates around limits that up to now held back agita- tion and dread. It would seem that sovereign protection has sometimes been shaken, sometimes violently toppled, and sometimes ignored-but the horizon none the less remains bound by these great figures. And when someone is carried by glory to meet time and its cutting explosion, he comes upon them again, and it is precisely at that moment that death is revealed. From the very fact that they had become, for the mass of tranquilized lives, increasingly use- less, empty, and fragile shadows, the figures stand under the threat of collapse and thus reveal, far more thoroughly than in the fearful obsessions of the past, the despairing fall of lives. They are no longer obstacles to the lost obsessive "sensation of time," but are instead the high places from which the breakneck speed of the fall is possible: and the high places themselves topple, to ensure a total revelation. The lands stray from their sun, the horizon is annihilated. And now, rising before the man who carries within himself the naive uproar of con- quest of the "death of God," the very stone that earlier had sought to limit storms is nothing more than a milestone marking the immensity of an unlimitable catastrophe. A feeling of explosion and a vertiginous weightlessness surround an imperious and heavy obelisk.

The "Tragic Time of Greece"

Starting with the immense masonry of the pyramids, this reversal of signs is not, however, the result of a uniform and regular course of things. Time has not been the object of a simple feeling of fear. In the attraction exercised by the majestic figures that impose its limit, a now solid time is no less fascinating than the ex- plosive charge packed in a steel shell. And the affinities between happiness and explosion are so profound that fiery catastrophes have always been at the mercy of transports of joy. Combat has always been preferable to tranquillity, a sudden fall to stability. Thus Greece in its earliest days already revealed the possibilities of affinity between man and violence.

It even seems that ancient Greece was engendered by wounds and crime, just as the strength of Cronus was engendered by the bloody mutilation of his father Uranus, in other words, of precisely the divine sovereignty of the heavens. Cronus, the very "human" god of the golden age, was celebrated in saturnalia; Dionysus, whose coming into the world depended on the murder of his mother by his father-the criminal Zeus striking down Semele in a blast of lightning- this tragic Dionysus, broken in joy, started the sudden flight of the bacchantes. And the least explained of all the' 'mysteries," TRAGEDY, like a festival given in honor of horror-spreading time, depicted for gathered men the signs of delir- ium and death whereby they might recognize their true nature.

This happy yet somber receptiveness of life was answered by the aggressive vision of Heraclitus. Nietzsche said that this vision was the equivalent of an earthquake, robbing the earth of its stability. He described it in images that he used ten years later to describe the death of God, images of a total yet brilliantly glorious fall. Thus in the death of God, whose whirlwind tears everything from the past, we find once again this "nostalgia for a lost world" which so painfully riveted the eyes of Nietzsche on Greece in the tragic era. And which, in the same movement, directed Nietzsche's rage against Socrates: what Socrates introduced to a tumultuous humanity was nothing less than the principle, still weak but bearing with it the quality of immutability, whose obligatory value would put an end to the levity of combat. What Socrates introduced was the GOOD: it was GOD, and already the gravity of Christianity, which dominated the tragedy of the passion of the heavens and reduced "the death of God" to the debasement of men and to sin, and turned TIME into EVIL.

The Obelisk and the Cross

The obelisks of Rome are capped with crosses, which add their metallic fragility to the pyramidal peaks of these great stone figures hausted and contained in the terrible expiation of saints, only seems to have torn apart its childhood before God in order to be rid of this father, once it had the strength. Whereas the development of ancient life little by little allowed the divine shadow to grow and rejected tragic time, the movement of occidental life strikes down, one after the other, the risky constructions that the will to endure never maintained in correct propositions. Thus, going in the opposite direction on the road traveled by the ancient world, this world, as its riches accumulate and everything in it decomposes, aspires in its depths to the tragic deliverances of primitive Greek naivete. It is true that everything takes place in an almost empty expanse, in a world which, in its entirety, is leveled and depressed by rational destruction. But in each place where the massive destiny of men is formed, the rhythm of life and death accelerates and attains a speed so great that it results only in the vertigo of the fall.

Hegel against the Immutable Hegel

What makes this movement difficult to represent is the fact that it is accelerated by increases in the sensation of rest. This is what first became apparent when the vicissitudes of human life were traced back from an obelisk. In particular, the rest attained by means of this shadow was necessary for the intellect to approach time with a light heart.

This movement was not at first clear or assured. Even Hegel describing the movement of Spirit as if it excluded all possible rest made it end, however, at HIMSELF as if he were its necessary conclusion. Thus he gave the movement of time the centripetal structure that characterizes sovereignty, Being, or God. Time, on the other hand, dissolving each center that has formed, is fatally known as centrifugal-since it is known in a being whose center is already there. The dialectical idea, then, is only a hybrid of time and its opposite, of the death of God and the position of the immutable. But it nevertheless marks the move- ment of a thought eager to destroy what refuses to die, eager to break the bonds oftime as much as to break the law through which God obligates. It is manifestly clear that the liberty of time traverses the heavy Hegelian process, precisely to the feeble extent that Socratic irony introduced into this world an eternal Being.

The equivocal image of the" death of God" more than any other shatters the imposing man. order that had fixed the features of immutable sovereignty. The irritated amuse- ment that derives from this botched copulation captures the essence of the malaise that results from the accumulation of successive forms necessary to the lives of men. Thus are revealed the happy shortcuts of Roman Christianity in which, without logic, life attempts to reconcile its impossible moods. But at the same time it becomes clear that the crafty, baroque edifice that resulted was elevated only to fall. For this occidental world, whose fevers were first ex-
Nietzsche is to Hegel what a bird breaking its shell is to a bird contentedly ab-sorbing the substance within. The crucial instant of fracture can only be de-scribed in Nietzsche's own words: "The intensity of my feelings makes me both tremble and laugh . . . I had cried too much . . . these were not tears of tenderness, but tears of jubila- tion . . . That day I was walking through the woods, along the lake of Silva- plana; at a powerful pyramidal rock not far from Surlei I stopped . . . " 2

Nietzsche's thought, which resulted in the sudden ecstatic vision of the eter- nal return, cannot be compared to the feelings habitually linked to what passes for profound reflection. For the object of the intellect here exceeds the cate- gories in which it can be represented, to the point where as soon as it is repre- sented it becomes an object of ecstasy-object of tears, object of laugh- ter . . . The toxic character of the' 'return" is even of such great importance that, if for an instant it were set aside, the formal content of the "return" might appear empty.

In order to represent the decisive break that took place-freeing life from the humilities o f f e a r - i t is necessary to tie the sundering vision o f t h e ' 'return" to what Nietzsche experienced when he reflected upon the explosive vision of Heraclitus, and to what he experienced later in his own vision of the "death of God": this is necessary in order to perceive the full extent of the bolt of lightning that never stopped shattering his life while at the same time projecting it into a burst of violent light. TIME is the object of the vision of Heraclitus. TIME is unleashed in t h e ' 'death" o f the One whose eternity gave Being an immutable foundation. And the audacious act that represents the "return" at the summit of this rending agony only wrests from the dead God his total strength, in order to give it to the deleterious absurdity of time.

A "state of glory" is thus deftly linked to the feeling of an endless fall. It is true that a fall was already a part of human ecstasy, on which it conferred the intoxication of that which approximates the nature of time-but that fall was the original fall of man, whereas the fall of the "return" is FINAL.

The Guillotine
"The very stone that earlier had sought to limit storms is now nothing more than a milestone marking the immensity of an unlimitable catastrophe . . . "Near Surlei, a rock in the form of a pyramid still bears witness to the fall of the "return" . . .

Only protracted futility-attached to servile or useful objects-can today shelter existence from the feeling of violent absurdity. The great dead shadows have lost the magical charm that made their protection so effective. And when an extreme chance wills that they still make up the center of destiny, they protect only to the extent that there is daily indifference.

The obelisk of Luxor has, after a hundred years, become the measured navel of the land of moderation: its precise angles now belong to the essential figure that radiates from its base. But the timelessness given to it is due to the absence of any intelligible affirmation: it endures by virtue of its discreet value. Where

monuments that had clearly affirmed principles were razed, the obelisk remains only so long as the sovereign authority and command it symbolizes do not become conscious. There was some difficulty in finding an appropriate symbol for the Place de la Concorde, where the images of royalty and the Revolution had proven powerless. But it was contrary to the majesty of the site to leave an empty space, and agreement was reached on a monolith brought back from Egypt. Seldom has a gesture of this type been more successful; the apparently meaningless image imposed its calm grandeur and its pacifying power on a loca- tion that always threatened to recall the worst. Shadows that could still trouble or weigh upon the conscience were dissipated, and neither God nor time re- mained: total sovereignty and the guillotine-blade that put an end to it no longer occupied any place in the minds of men.

This is the deceitful and vague response o f exalted places to the fathomless multitude of insignificant lives that, for as far as the eye can see, orbit around them-and the spectacle only changes when the lantern of a madman projects its absurd light on stone.At that moment, the obelisk ceases to belong to the present and empty world, and it is projected to the ends of time. It rises, immutable-there-dominating time's desperate flight. But even while it is blinded by this domination, madness, which flits about its angles in the manner of an insect fascinated by a lamp, recognizes only endless time escaping in the noise of successive explosions. And there is no longer an image before it, but it hears this noise of successive explo- sions. To the extent that the obelisk is now, with all this dead grandeur, recog- nized, it no longer facilitates the flight of consciousness; it focuses the attention on the guillotine.

The Place de la Concorde is dominated, from the height of the palace balus- trades, by eight armored and acephalic figures, and under their stone helmets they are as empty as they were on the day the executioner decapitated the king before them. After the execution, Marly's two horses were brought from the nearby forest and set up at the entrance to the exalted places, before which they rear without end. The central point of the triangle formed by the two horses and the obelisk marks the location of the guillotine-an empty space, open to the rapid flow of traffic.


The pure image of the heavens, the purified image of the king, of the chief, of the head and of his firmness, this pure image of the sky crossed by rays, com- mands the concord and the assurance of those who do not look at it, and who are not struck by it; but a mortal torment is the lot of the one before whom its reality becomes naked.

The purified head, whose unshakable commands lead men, takes on in these conditions the value of a derisive and enigmatic figure placed at the entrance to a labyrinth, where those who naively look are led astray without guidance, over- come with uneasy torment and glory. It is the "breath of empty space" that one inhales T H E R E - t h e r e where interpretations based on immediate political events no longer have any meaning; where the isolated event is no more than the symbol of a much greater event. For it is the foundation of things that has fallen into a bottomless void. And what is fearlessly conquered-no longer in a duel where the death of the hero is risked against that of the monster, in ex- change for an indifferent duration-is not an isolated creature; it is the very void and the vertiginous fall, it is TIME. The movement of all life now places the human being before the alternatives of either this conquest or a disastrous re- treat. The human being arrives at the threshold: there he must throw himself headlong into that which has no foundation and no head.

1. [The Gay Science, section 125, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 181. Tr.]
2. [Ecce Homo, section on Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 295. Tr.]

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