“The sacrifice of the mass is a reminder but it only rarely makes a deep impression on our sensibility. However obsessive we find the symbol of the Cross, the mass is not readily identified with the bloody sacrifice.”1


On the surface, Bataille’s philosophy of religion is unabashedly antichristian, claiming that after the crucifixion, Christianity is capable of providing only hollow emotional comfort. Bataille holds the purpose of religion to be the pursuit a mystical return to a sort of ‘unity’ ‘oneness’ or ‘truth’ he defines vaguely as the end of ‘discontinuity’, and he views modern Christianity as unable to attain this. What exactly Bataille means by ‘continuity’ is somewhat uncertain, but he employs openly mystical language in describing it, and directly relates it to the crucifixion. Continuity, and the ability to communicate outside the discontinuity of a human life, is what the martyr attains, and precisely what Bataille holds Christianity after Christ can no longer attain.2 “Continuity is reached through experience of the divine, the divine is the essence of continuity.”3

For Bataille, Christ’s death on the cross represents the ultimate act of sacrifice, however since this brief moment of continuity and communication Christendom has degraded it, chiefly in the form of the Mass, into symbolic acts mirroring, but not embodying, the self-sacrifice and spiritual continuity. Because of this their rituals cannot bring one to the mystic state of continuity or enable communication. Since the act of self-sacrifice is considered in violation of Christian morality, Bataille concludes, “Christian religious feeling has by and large opposed the spirit of transgression”4. Having (apparently) abandoned the transgressive, or the sacrificial, act, they abandon that act which pushes them beyond the boundaries, which tether them to discontinuity. I am positioning the Martyrs as an exception to this rule.

  “Sacrifice though, while like a war a suspension of the commandment to kill, is the religious act above all others.”5 And there is a transgressive element to the act of martyrdom, the saints are pursuing death and in many ways what they do is in violation of the word of the church fathers, however as the intention is wholly selfless and in imitation and admiration of the divine act of Christ, it is made a religious act. A similar transformation is undertaken during the martyrdom, the martyr actively converts their tortures and humiliations into spiritual milestones, confounding the audience. It is evident Bataille is putting the crucifixion, and other elements of self-sacrifice in his theory, in mystical terms. The person who submits, in this case the martyr, functionally dissolves within the tradition. There is a distinction between self-sacrifice as represented by the crucifixion and as represented in Bataille’s economic theories, and that is the mystical character of union, which the individual submitting undergoes. In the scheme of the general economy, the Roman or Aztec rites of sacrifices represent the economic sacrifice, those spent are merely a part of the spectacle, in Bataille’s theory of the crucifixion and sacrifice there is a mystical and inner concern, the dissolution of discontinuity, and the ability to ‘communicate’. While, ultimately, martyrdom itself may be a result of the machinations of the General Economy, the experience of the martyrs is made distinct from the experience of the gladiators and the executed, and that distinction is made clear through Bataille. Bataille describes the transcendent ‘sharing’ of the mystical experience of discontinuity with the greater community as follows.

The victim dies and the spectators’ share in what his death reveals. This is what religious historians call the sacramental element. This sacramental element is the revelation of continuity though the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn right.6

            Sacrifice is equivalent to communication7 and one must mystically overcome the ‘discontinuity’ we all have from the supposed ‘unity’- in this case the Christian God- before one can meaningfully ‘communicate’. Christ’s sacrifice breached this wall and allowed him to ‘communicate’ Christianity and thus divine ‘continuity’ through his sacrifice; it is in this way the martyrs leave their indelible mark on Christian culture. “Initiation, sacrifices, and festivals represent so many moments of loss of self and communication between individuals… the sacred is communicated between beings, and thereby the formation of new beings,”8         

Bataille’s theory of ‘general economy’ assumes all productive interpersonal activity is part of a great social economy, in his worldview this manifests as war, human sacrifice and mystical and erotic behavior. All human activity is part of an economic system, ‘economy’ as it is conventionally understood as being only a microcosmic representation of the greater social order. Human society, and the individuals composing the society, cannot survive in a purely productive economy, just as we waste innumerable resources in order to consume meat, indulging in an impossibly costly vice, society ‘spends’ its excess in order to promote it’s own continuation. Rome and the Aztec both spend both capital and the valuable lives of slaves (and criminals and war captives) on massive spectacles, ultimately promoting their own sovereignty, while simultaneously engaging the individuals who ascribe to the collective engaging in the sacrifice, the crowds watching either macabre and orgiastic blood sport are experiencing a similar phenomena. One which Bataille characterizes as an interrelated promotion of the social collective engaging in the promotion of the spectacle, it is the Imperial Roman state, under the Julio-Claudians9, -the earthly representation of Roman society- who take over the organization of games from the aristocracy, bringing the socio-religious spectacle even closer to the body of the state. Though the religious element, already mentioned, is perhaps somewhat buried in the political and social propaganda, through Bataille’s system the rainbow of concerns associated with social phenomena-religious, political, economic- is brought immediately to bear. Just as the mass sacrifices of the Aztec are as religious as they are representations of the power of the state (The sacrifices being war captives, the feasts being paid for with the spoils of war), and just as the mass executions and elaborate blood sports of the Romans are spectacles designed as public amusement, they also promote the power, authority and cultural necessity of the political establishment as a fundamental part of the roman social order.10 The state represented the culture, and thus the religion, functions as an inexorable part of the state, another component of the elaborate ‘Roman’ body.  

  In staging opulent expenditures of capital and human lives the state engages in the same kind of self-gratifying, and in Bataille’s general economy, wasteful, expenditure (the titular Accursed Share) as the sexual fetishist, constantly developing more elaborate erotic scenarios.  And certainly, the Roman state spared little expense, staging, perhaps most infamously, elaborate naval battles, as well as fights between exotic animals, mass executions, and other decadent displays. In fact, for Bataille this wasteful social expenditure is as necessary for the continuation of human society as it is for the continued mental/emotional stability of the individual within the system. “Neither growth nor reproduction would be possible if plants and animals did not normally dispose of an excess.”11

For Bataille all organisms or bodies, being a part of a general economic system, produced wealth, and that wealth, the slaves or criminals ‘spent’ or wasted in lavish displays is dubbed the Accursed Share.12 Ultimately, while Perpetua’s martyrdom, due to it’s concerns with transformation and the Christian community, is related to the more mystical Bataillean reading of self-sacrifice emblemized by the crucifixion, it still emerges from the Roman tradition in parts. The Roman method of sacrifice, the orgiastic indulgence in the Accursed Share, is what the altruistic and selfless martyrs are reacting to in their deaths. Perpetua’s transformation represents this vividly, turning the concerns of the Spectacle from violence to spiritual progression the act of Martyrdom is transformed into a spiritual act.


Part IV. Imitation, Transgression, and Sacrifice. Conclusion.

1 Bataille, 1996. 89

2 ibid, 118

3 ibid

4 ibid

5 ibid, 87

6 ibid,82

7 Campbell, Robert A. "Georges Bataille's Surrealistic Theory of Religion." Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 11.2 (1999): 127-42. Web.  135

8 ibid

9 Kyle, 50

10 Barton, 35

11 Bataille, 1991 25

12 “He refers to the victim as the “Accursed share” that is destined for violent consumption, a mode of communication for separate beings. He also describes the victim as a “surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth.”  Olson, Carl. "Eroticism, Violence, and Sacrifice: A Postmodern Theory of Religion and Ritual." Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 6.1 (1994): 231-50.  240.

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