ACTING IN, ACTING OUT:
Ritual and Violence in the Female Characters
of Georges Bataille and Jean Genet
In order that society exist and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper, it is necessary that the minds of all the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas; and this cannot be the case unless each of them sometimes draws his opinion from the common source and consents to accept certain matters of belief already formed... If man were forced to demonstrate for himself all the truths of which he makes daily use, his talk would never end. He would exhaust his strength in preparatory demonstration without ever advancing beyond them.
Socialization is generally defined as the process of acquiring culture  . That is to say, individuals must learn the language of the culture they are born into and also the appropriate and expected means of participating within it. In this paper I am interested in examining individuals that actively invert behavioral expectations, and I will do so on two levels: first by examining the lives of the authors, George Bataille and Jean Genet, themselves, and secondly through comparing the characters they construct within their fictional texts.
At the beginning of this project I re-read Bataille's Blue of Noon, a book I had devoured over the period of a few sleepless nights when I was seventeen. The language of some scenes had impressed itself almost exactly upon my memory, while my general recollection of the content was rather inaccurate. I remember being drawn-in by Bataille's phrasing, which to me formed the tightest pinheads of tangibly subjective emotional descriptions. They were honest and self-manipulating, overly constructed and completely natural. I saw his text as distilled sets of irony being slipped between layers of self-titillating and self-loathing chatter. I identified with the torrid disaffectedness and languid rage of the protagonist, and this is what compelled me to explore his fictional and philosophical texts. It also led me to continuously seek out other authors who address similarly complex themes.
The paradoxical pulls in Bataille's writing, which become transparent in works like Guilty, project the tormented sentiment of not being able to most accurately describe an event, an emotion, a function; or in other words, attempting with great difficulty to map out the territory between the subjective and the universal. In researching, where words fail there are actions and images. Here is Bataille, shrugging about in a conservative suit, working as a librarian and republishing texts to stave off poverty; but this is not the sum of his existence. He is plotting away at subversive texts, spending evenings expelling his frustrations with prostitutes and toiling inside and outside of the system to work out his intellectual conflicts. Alternately, Genet wears his criminal character like a badge of misguided honor; he has been betrayed by social norms since birth and is content to maintain his authenticity-lending outsider prestige for the causes he is pulled in to support.
At this point, Bataille's (non)relationship with Genet becomes another layer of character development. In 1949, when Genet's first play Deathwatch opened to conservatively critical and dismissive reviews, Bataille published a highly complimentary essay on the piece. What lead Bataille to change this initial support of Genet's work into the conflictingly judgmental essay he wrote in Literature and Evil?  Their childhoods are similarly bleak, but around the same age that Bataille was sanctifying himself in pursuit of a vigorous religious lifestyle, Genet was serving time for petty theft. Genet was absolutely assured in his inversion of Good and Evil; he continuously derived great pleasure from his homosexuality and his compulsive drive to steal. He turns blue-collar workers in a brothel into iconic authority figures and murderers into heroes. Bataille is equally consumed with inversions; they are layered and unraveled in his texts and also explored through the formation of various failed societies aimed at attaining an ever higher and complex sense of communication. Bataille is frenzied by trying to establish a system outside of religion and philosophy, but relies heavily upon the inversion of these constructs as a premise, as does Genet. They are bound up in the same social scene (geographically and chronologically) but play very different roles within it. Bataille is a consistently self-defeating philosopher, and Genet is a juvenile delinquent turned celebrated artist and political activist.
The eloquence of Genet's prose initially intrigued Bataille, but I believe a disapproval of character fueled by personal judgments lead him to shut down what could have been a very interesting dialogue. The visual concreteness and high-strung finesse of their fictional writings match their strides towards an intellectually enlightened and open society; they are historically bound to the same cause, but are working towards it from different but still related ends of the social spectrum. The question that they are addressing in their works
and social communities remains the same: how does the individual cope with the societal restrictions that prohibit one's intrinsic internal desires, i.e. one's personal freedom? There is no definite response, but there are a series of possible means of self-expression exhibited in these writings which can be read as portrayals of unhappy consciousness  . Through ritual, and conversely, violence, individuals choose to either append an organization to their repression (ritual); or express themselves through exhibitionistic displays of sexuality or destructive acts that range from manipulation, to vandalism and murder (violence).
My specific interest is in comparing and contrasting the female characters from the works of both authors. The female characters in the plays and novels of Genet and Bataille are exceptional in that they have achieved a remarkable resistance to participating rationally in the social hierarchy. Internal alienation dictates the irrational externalized actions of these outcast women. At some point the characters became self-aware to the extent that they act out their lives as if it were a ritualized performance, at times meeting and later exploding societal expectations. They exhibit a finite or deliberate lack of self-control over their actions and appearance, they tend towards sexual extremes, and are consumed by the notion of the Other; that which they are not but have become cognoscente of, and whose viewpoint can be used as a means of understanding everything which is unknown to oneself.
In Bataille's fictional texts, the narrator struggles with the other inside himself; he is at once confounded, intrigued and offering up assessments of the sexuality of the female characters who surround him. In Genet's texts the female characters have othered their sexuality, which they in turn project and displace onto the objects of their frustrations. For Claire and Solange in Les Bonnes it is their mistress; for Mademoiselle, the Italian woodcutter. Bataille's female characters (Dirty in Blue of Noon, and the mother in Ma M¸re) seem to regard the narrator as an uncomprehending but necessary figure in their sadistic play, and thus simultaneously reject and invite the narrator to participate in their deviant exploits. The texts of these two authors are connected by a singular characteristic: women who actively externalize their internal sexual conflicts. Herein lies the single most important difference between the authors: as much as Bataille attempts to sort out his paradoxical philosophies, he cannot, and is thus doomed to endlessly describe his uneasy and wavering oppositional structure. Genet on the other hand, secure in his impressions of society, continues to make his social critique ever more explicit and cuttingly absurd.
Just before the curtain, in the final scene of Genet's Les Bonnes, Solange delivers the following soliloquy:
Madame is dead. Her two maids are alive: they've just risen up, free, from Madame's icy form. All the maids were present at her side-- not they themselves, but rather the hellish agony of their names. And all that remains of them to float about Madame's airy corpse is the delicate perfume of the holy maidens which they were in secret. We are beautiful, joyous, drunk and free!
This passage opens up a provocative dialogue about personal freedoms and desires. In a pragmatically narrative sense, the maids have been freed from their life of servitude. Claire drinks the poisoned tea she had first prepared to murder the actual mistress, and later consumes it while portraying "Madame" in the recuperative ritual she and her sister act out: she has been freed by death. Solange will no doubt be relieved of her domestic duties as well, but will most likely become a fugitive or an inmate. It is the last sentence of Genet's drama that resounds with particular irony, in the most tragically self-aware sense of the word. The violent act of murder has allowed two utterly repressed females to transform themselves into the type of woman (i.e. their mistress) that they have perpetually envied, that of the sexually potent and carefree "maiden" (Genet writes "the holy maidens they were in secret," evoking the defeated aspirations of girlhood fantasies). Genet's maids illustrate the confining pressure exerted upon women working within their patron's private life, i.e. a closed system of dominance and submission;  an environment in which the servile forge and wield dominance through whatever means possible. This is done in order to prevent a frenzied spiraling out, in which the controlled actions that lend humanity a sense of purpose become nothing more than reactionary, violent spasms of gratification. The maids have conceived of a ritual means to depressurize their work/life tensions, but because it mimics the actual struggle so acutely, it ultimately works to highlight and explode their frustrations at the point when it ceases to alleviate their repressive lifestyle.
The transition from acting in to acting out is one Genet also explores in his screenplay for the 1966 film Mademoiselle. The lead character, who is referred to impersonally as Mademoiselle throughout the narrative, is a schoolteacher in a small French village. Due to the prohibitive surveillance of the townspeople (which restricts both her self-expression and potential for intimate relationships) she resorts to subtle but highly destructive forms of ritualized violence. This repeated recuperative ceremony begins with a lengthy period of obsessive dressing. She sits bare-chested at her vanity, first applying tape to cover her nipples, and then make-up to her face; all the while staring at her reflection as if in a trance of sullen self-determination. She selects specific clothing from her strictly organized armoire, and finally, the pulling on of black patent leather heels and delicate fishnet gloves ends the costuming procedure. The actual destruction she inflicts upon the town ranges from opening up floodgates to drown the town's livestock, to setting life-threatening fires, all of which the townspeople suspect the promiscuous Manou, an Italian seasonal laborer, to be the culprit of. Metaphorically similar to the self-castration scene at the end of Genet's Le Balcon, Mademoiselle's final act is inciting the townspeople to kill Manou (by declaring their night of debauched sexuality a rape), effectively clamping closed her sexual potential and assuring the continuation of her self-defensive and ritualized repression. Thus, the characters in Genet's Les Bonnes use ritual in order to continue leading the lives they detest, but ultimately resort to violence as a means of recuperating the Self they feel has been lost to or demeaned by their mistress. Mademoiselle has gone one step further, by incorporating violence acted out on the townspeople as the final culmination of each of her rituals. In this way, her actions bear a resemblance to the female characters in Bataille's fiction, whose manipulative inversions of social expectations inflict a type of emotional violence upon those surrounding them.
Bataille's lifelong "stagger between laughter and anguish"  is mimicked by the reoccurring female characters and male narrator of his fictional narratives. Although the narrator is capable of participating in laughter via experiences dominated by the female characters, he is always the articulator of the anguish these exploits cause him. In the opening scene of Blue of Noon, the narrator recoils in enticed terror at the actions of his female companion Dirty. Described as beautiful and rich, Dirty is the debauched obsession of Troppmann (the narrator). Together they drink into oblivion, tramp through dive bars and into a luxurious hotel. It is here that Dirty belches whiskey-laden accusations, and finally pisses and shits herself in the presence of the hotel's elevator attendant and maid. Dirty gets washed by the maid and proceeds to converse with the attendant. As Dirty declares her distaste for well-behaved individuals (a way to disguise being scared, she says), Troppmann listens "listless" and "appalled." Reflectively he concludes:
What was happening... seemed to me trivial and somehow ludicrous. I myself was empty. I was scarcely even capable of inventing new horrors to fill the emptiness. I felt powerless and degraded. It was in this uncompliant and indifferent frame of mind that I followed Dirty outside. Dirty kept me going; nevertheless, I could not conceive of any human creature being more derelict and adrift. This anxiety that never for a moment let the body slacken provided the only explanation for a wonderful ability: we managed, with no respect for conventional pigeon holes, to eliminate every possible urge, in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever we had to.
When Troppmann admits that he is "...scarcely even capable of inventing new horrors to fill the emptiness," he is acknowledging the human preoccupation with progression, that is to say, with actions that propel time forward, tasks that busy anxious brains, or to paraphrase Tocqueville, preparatory demonstrations that exhaust strength. In lieu of constructing his own ritual, Troppmann experiences release through the shocking and penetrating actions of Dirty. An interesting contrast to the bitingly reserved female characters in Genet's works, Dirty consciously explodes the same social expectations that the maids and Mademoiselle use to postpone slipping into complete hysteria. Without Troppmann to create an analysis of her actions, and maids to resurrect her exterior appearance, Dirty would be easily dismissed as an out of control lunatic. Consummating internal desires within the multitude of established taboos is a delicate negotiation, especially if it is necessary for one to maintain some level of social viability  . Although Genet's characters ultimately commit the acts they've attempted to stave off with their personalized rituals, Bataille's characters have made a conscious choice to act, if it pleases them, as irrationally as possible.
Hélène, the mother in Ma Mère, is perhaps the pinnacle of this taboo crashing, pleasure seeking, edging on madness, female character Bataille incessantly crafts in his fictions. She is the mother of a disillusioned and sexually frustrated young man (the narrator), whose life has been entirely misjudged by her son. It is only after his father's death that Pierre is given the opportunity to be inducted into the non-traditional life his mother leads. She invites her son on a date with her lover Rhea, with the intent of either sharing (if he responds graciously) or cutting him off (if he rejects her provocation) from the intimacies of her lifestyle. She describes her motivation to Pierre: "I know what I want... Even if it kills me, to yield to my desires, to every last one of them." Finally, after numerous bottles of champagne and overcoming several blushing moments of shocked embarrassment, they reach an understanding that allows Pierre to proclaim, "I decided to continue drinking and living in just this way. My whole life long."
Bataille's characters pursue pleasure with the same arduous determination that the maids and Mademoiselle employ in order to distort and distance themselves from their sexuality. In summation, the issues of (self)control and the negotiation of (personal)space
are central to both sets of characters. In Blue of Noon and Ma Mère, the characters limit their perception of space by breaking down and accelerating time through the excessive consumption of alcohol. Genet's characters evade time by erecting a private theater around themselves that they are in control of. For Troppmann and Dirty, their spectacle is performed in public, "... in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever we had to." In a society that experiences chaos as potential violence (in an animalistic, self-protective, paranoid manner), repetitive organizational structures proliferate as a means of easing anxiety. The characters of Bataille and Genet alleviate their hysteria by creating a ritual to uphold their repressive states, and alternately by expressing themselves through exhibitionistic displays or destructive acts that inflict violence on those around them.
 For an overview on the concept of socialization, please see: O'Neil, Dennis. 2005. Socialization. http://anthro.palomar.edu/social/soc_1.htm (accessed December 1, 2005).
2 Francois Bizot gives a well-documented account of Bataille's alternating opinion of the writings of Genet. Pease see his 2004 essay Bataille's Battle With Genet in A Journal of Modern Critical Thought 27 (2): 130-145.
3 According to Hegel (in Phenomenology of Mind), self-consciousness has otherness within itself; the self is conscious of what is other than itself. Self-consciousness is contradictory when it is conscious of both sameness and otherness. Hegel calls this divided mode of consciousness the unhappy consciousness. When the independent and dependent self-consciousness lack unity, the self is in conflict with itself. This unhappy consciousness is conscious of itself as being divided and as not being able to reconcile itself with the other.
4 Please see Kristen Ross 1997 essay Schoolteachers, Maids, and Other Paranoid Histories in Genet: In The Language of the Enemy. Yale French Studies 91: 7-27.
5 My own translation from the site of L'adpf (association pour la diffusion de la pensée française), which has a concise biography of Bataille at http://www.adpf.asso.fr/adpf-publi/folio/bataille.
6 It is necessary to comment briefly on the differing social status of the women being discussed. Bataille's female characters are wealthy to the extent that they do not, and is inferred have never needed to, labor. Money provides a social cushion of sorts, a protective layer that allows for the type of (sexual) eccentricities that could destroy the employability of working class maids and schoolteachers.
1. Appel, Willa and Richard Schechner. 1995. By Means of Performance: Intercultural
Studies of Theater and Ritual. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of
2. Bataille, Georges. 1989. The Accursed Share Volume I: Consumption. New York:
3. Bataille, Georges. 1991. The Accursed Share Volumes II & III: The History of
Eroticism and Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.
4. Bataille, Georges. 1986. Blue of Noon. London: Marion Boyers.
5. Bataille, Georges. 1998. Guilty. Venice, CA: Lapis Press.
6. Bataille, Georges. 1957. La Littérature et Le Mal. Paris: Gallimard.
7. Bataille, Georges. 2003. My Mother, Madame Edwarda and the Dead Man. London:
8. Bataille, Georges. 2001. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
9. Bizet, Francois. 2004. BatailleÕs Battle With Genet. A Journal of Modern Critical
Thought 27 (2): 130-145.
10. Cetta, Lewis T. 1974. Profane Play, Ritual, and Jean Genet; A Study of His Drama.
University, AL: University of Alabama Press.
11. Frost, Laura Catherine. 2002. The Surreal Swastikas of Georges Bataille and Hans
Bellmer. Sex drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism: 59-79.
12. Genet, Jean. 1962. The Maids and Deathwatch.
New York: Grove Press.
13. Genet, Jean. 1966. Mademoiselle. (Screenplay adaptation by Marguerite Duras and
14. Giles, Jane. 1991. The Cinema of Jean Genet: Un Chant d'amour. London: BFI
15. Hegel, G. W. F. 1967. The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper & Row.
16. O'Neil, Dennis. 2005. Socialization. http://anthro.palomar.edu/social/soc_1.htm
(accessed December 1, 2005).
17. Ross, Kristen. 1997. Schoolteachers, Maids, and Other Paranoid Histories. Genet: In The
Language of the Enemy. Yale French Studies 91: 7-27.
18. Sartre, Jean Paul. 1983. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. New York: Pantheon.
19. Surya, Michel. 2002. Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. New York: Verso.
20. Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1945. Democracy in America. New York: Alfred Knopf.
21. White, Edmund. 1994. Genet: A Biography. New York: Vintage.
1. Bunuel, Luis. 1964. Diary of a Chambermaid.
2. Chabrol, Claude. 1969. Le Boucher.
3. Denis, Jean-Pierre. 2000. Les Blessures Assassinés.
4. Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. 1983. Querelle.
5. Genet, Jean. 1950. Chant D'amour.
6. Miles, Christopher. 1975. The Maids.
7. Richardson, Tony. 1966. Mademoiselle.
8. Strick, Joseph. 1963. The Balcony.
 For an overview on the concept of socialization, please see: O'Neil, Dennis. 2005. Socialization. http://anthro.palomar.edu/social/soc_1.htm (accessed December 1, 2005).
 Francois Bizot gives a well-documented account of Bataille's alternating opinion of the writings of Genet. Pease see his 2004 essay BatailleÕs Battle With Genet in A Journal of Modern Critical Thought 27 (2): 130-145.
 According to Hegel (in Phenomenology of Mind), self-consciousness has otherness within itself; the self is conscious of what is other than itself. Self-consciousness is contradictory when it is conscious of both sameness and otherness. Hegel calls this divided mode of consciousness the unhappy consciousness. When the independent and dependent self-consciousness lack unity, the self is in conflict with itself. This unhappy consciousness is conscious of itself as being divided and as not being able to reconcile itself with the other.
 Please see Kristen Ross 1997 essay Schoolteachers, Maids, and Other Paranoid Histories in Genet: In The Language of the Enemy. Yale French Studies 91: 7-27.
 My own translation from the site of L'adpf (association pour la diffusion de la pensˇe fran¨aise), which has a concise biography of Bataille at http://www.adpf.asso.fr/adpf-publi/folio/bataille.
 It is necessary to comment briefly on the differing social status of the women being discussed. Bataille's female characters are wealthy to the extent that they do not, and is inferred have never needed to, labor. Money provides a social cushion of sorts, a protective layer that allows for the type of (sexual) eccentricities that could destroy the employability of working class maids and schoolteachers.