What had the face of politics and imagined itself to be political, will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. Kierkegaard’s prophecy is takenWhat had the face of politics and imagined itself to be political, will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. Kierkegaard’s prophecy is taken as the epigraph of the Acéphale journal and as the sacred task of the corresponding secret society. The College of Sociology is the third and most public layer of the new initiative Georges Bataille undertakes in April 1936. It is a decisive and paradoxical moment. At the very height of the anti-fascist struggle, Bataille turns his back on politics and leaves Contre-Attaque, the combat union of revolutionary intellectuals he has only just formed together with Claude Cahun, André Breton, and others. In the same moment, he dedicates himself completely to the secret society under the sign of the acéphale, a headless figure who has come to him in dream and trance as much as in his study of ancient art, who is starry-breasted, labyrinthine of belly and has the face of death for its reproductive organs, who clutches the knife of sacrifice in its left hand and the sacred heart in its right, and whose appearance signs the dramatic break with even the most revolutionary forms of political struggle.
Up to this point, Bataille has torched through a series of ever more revolutionary groups and cannot find his home in any; he has earned the accolade of heretic from the anarchists and communists alike. But this new group – possessed, as he puts it, of a purely religious purpose – is not a renunciation of struggle, does not signal any laying down of arms or retreat into comfort. It is said that a person’s name carries the secret signature of his fate, and Bataille, whose very name is battle, cannot renounce combat any more than he can escape his destiny. Violence and aggression are one with the free play that is life. It is politics, like the Christianity it is based on, that seeks to nullify and control this instinct, to infect life with moral reasoning and turn it against itself. What we are starting, Bataille writes, is a war. A war at a higher level, freed from the falsehoods of politics, waged at the level of the sacred. Anti-fascist, anti-Christian, and anti-Socialist, for these are not three different things but three different heads of the same monster. As Michel Camus put it in his introduction to the 1980 French facsimile edition of Acéphale, Bataille’s “political passion turned less to apoliticism than by some ‘religious’ means to the most virulent anti-politics.”
For Camus, this hostility to the politics of left and right alike provokes only bafflement. But we find a strong resonance here. The anti-political spirit has blazed through our worlds in recent decades, finding fuel in circles of post-left and green anarchists and anti-state communists, which can be seen as later iterations of the revolutionary groups Bataille frequented until the break with Contre-Attaque. To be sure, not everyone touched by anti-political fever will find her way into a cult, but some, just as surely, will. And while it would be foolish to see Acéphale as a model to follow, how could we not gaze into the rough and imperfect mirror it offers?
The mirror shows us Acéphale: the religion of madness. This is the meaning of the headless figure, as Bataille makes clear in “The Sacred Conspiracy.” We must escape our heads like prisoners their prisons. If you would sever yourself from the world of politics, aim precisely at the neck... Abandon the world of the civilized and its light, Bataille urges. It is too late to be reasonable and learned. The world of secular modernity remains hopelessly enslaved to the head, forcing us to a life void of ecstasy, a life not worth living. Below the neck lies an awakened world, beckoning us to carry out the greatest of jailbreaks. Revolutionaries are just more jailers.
If Acéphale is the religion of madness, it is also the religion of the Earth... In the mountains, fires rise up and burst forth: beneath its crust, the Earth is another star. In Masson’s sketches, the acéphale and the god Dionysos are accompanied by earthquake and volcanic eruption. Indeed, it is in volcanic soil that the grape vines sacred to Dionysos thrive, for Dionysos – born of Earth and lightning – is the fire of the earth, the god who reveals that the Earth is, like every living being, another star. Earth, in the acephalic religion, is not ground, it is not constancy, it is the sign of utter ﬂux and ungroundedness: precisely that which we consider ground becomes a crust upon the surface of a burning sun. Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sideways, forward, in all directions?
Acéphale is the Nietzschean religion, quite possibly the largest group yet formed on explicitly Nietzschean principles... But how is it possible? A Nietzschean religion, a religion under the name of the great atheist who preached the death of God? A century of musty scholarship has obscured the matter. The journal’s writings on Nietzsche uncover a long trail of overlooked writings, a labyrinthine path not deist so much as deifying and undeifying. It is nothing less than a resurrection of the truly ancient philosophy. That the earliest Greek philosophers all admitted to have learned their art in Egypt at the feet of the philosopher-priests for whom philosophy was a divine art – this fact has been nearly erased from the philosophical tradition... As often happens, much of the English-speaking difficulty with the doctrine has turned on a difficulty of translation. Nietzsche’s thought has often been reduced to mere atheism because of Zarathustra’s famous doctrine of the death of God, but Zarathustra brings these tidings as a precursor for the more radical doctrine, which is that human beings are something that must be overcome. This is the doctrine of the superhumans, which is well known, though not by this name. Most modern translators, following Walter Kaufmann, render Nietzsche’s Übermensch as “overman” in order to avoid association with comic book superheroes and Nazi propaganda – and, what is probably a secondary concern, to keep Nietzsche’s wordplay around over and under. This translation choice has had its cost. The German noun Übermensch barely appears before Nietzsche; he essentially coined the term. But the German adjective/adverb übermeschlicht was in common use, and simply means superhuman. Nietzsche himself used this term several times in earlier writings before his Übermensch coinage. Much of the confusion around the idea of the Übermensch has come from failing to notice that Nietzsche’s vision of the overcoming of the human was something precisely superhuman or supernatural. Compellingly, Loeb and Tinsley point out that Nietzsche’s first use of the term Uebermenschen (an alternate spelling of Übermenschen) referred explicitly to the supernatural... It is through the death of God – even more, by killing God – that one encounters existence itself as an eternal becoming-god and unbecoming-god. In this Nietzschean formula, godliness is not supreme goodness, not supreme wisdom, it is nothing but will to power...