Pure happiness – essays on the impossible

Pablo Picasso, Engraving: 1, 1972


One of the essays in the recently published book

Eroticism, support of morals


Eroticism is man's own. It is at the same time what makes him blush.

But no one knows how to escape the shame that eroticism imposes.

Eroticism is the ambush into which the most prudent allow themselves to fall. Whoever thinks he is outside, as if the trap did not concern him, ignores the foundation of this life that animates him until death. And whoever thinks to dominate, taking this horror upon himself, is no less manipulated than the abstinent. He ignores the condemnation, without which the fascination of eroticism, to which he wants to respond, would cease to fascinate.

We cannot escape this horror to the point of no longer having to blush, we can only enjoy it under the condition of continuing to blush.

Charles Baudelaire wonderfully evoked (in Rockets [Projectiles] III) this scandal of thought (which is the scandal of all thought): “As for me, I say: the unique and supreme voluptuousness of love lies in the certainty of doing evil. And man and woman know from birth that all voluptuousness is found in evil.”

It is, in any case, in shame, by dissimulating ourselves, that we reach the supreme moment. How could man condemn a movement that takes him to the top? How can the apex not be desirable, moreover it is not the apex precisely from a condemnation?

There is always something deeply murky in us. The traits that fully express humanity are not the clearest. A man, if he is worthy of the word man, always has a loaded look, that look beyond which, at the same time, is to look down. If we see straight, we are manipulated. We are faced with an extreme, insoluble difficulty, prefiguring death, pain and rapture, leading to vivacity, but to suspicion. If we glimpse a straight path, reflection quickly shows its deceptive appearance.

After millennia spent searching for answers that would clarify the night that closes us, a strange truth appeared without, however, attracting the attention it should have.

Historians of religions have revealed this coincidence. Prohibitions recognized in archaic societies, by all those who composed them, had the power to shake: not only were they observed religiously, but those who had violated them were struck by such great terror that they usually died; such an attitude determined the existence of a prohibited domain that occupied an eminent place in spirits; this forbidden domain coincided with the sacred domain; he was, thus, the very element that founded and ordered religion.

What appeared in certain archaic societies could not be isolated from the set of religious reactions of humanity.

This is what can be said today.

The sacred is essentially what was achieved by the ritual transgression of the interdict.

Sacrifice – the creative act of the sacred – is an example of this. In its greatest form (it is also its most frequent form), sacrifice is the ritual murder of a man or an animal. In the past, the very death of an animal could be the subject of a ban and give rise to the murderer's rites of expiation. Only the murder of man is today subject to the universal interdict. Under defined conditions, an interdict could, and sometimes even should, be transgressed.

This principle of prohibition against transgression is shocking, even though it has a mechanical analogue in the alternation between compression and explosion, which underpins the effectiveness of engines. But it is not just the principle of eroticism, but, more generally, the principle of the creative action of the sacred. In classical sacrifice, the inflicted death, by the very fact of being criminal, puts the sacrificer, the sacrificer and the assistance in possession of a sacred thing, which is the victim. This sacred thing is itself forbidden, contact with it is sacrilegious: it is still proposed for ritual consumption. It is through this condemnation that is both sacrilegious and prescribed that it is possible to participate in the crime, which then becomes common. Crime of the participants: it is communion.

Thus, this looking beyond, which, however, is looking down is found again at the basis of a religious disturbance that founds humanity. The feeling of the sacred does not cease, even today, to found us.

Humanity, as a whole and in its public reaction as well as in the secret of eroticism, was therefore subjected to the paradoxical need to condemn the very movement that leads it to the supreme moment!

The rapprochement between religion and eroticism is surprising, but without reason. The forbidden domain of eroticism was itself, without going any further, a sacred domain. Everyone knows that in ancient times prostitution was a sacred institution. The temples of India abundantly multiplied the most tumultuous and incongruous images of love.


The condemnation, but not without reservation, of eroticism is universal. There is no human society in which sexual activity is accepted without reaction, as animals accept it: it is everywhere banned. It is evident that an interdict of this nature called for countless transgressions. Marriage itself is, at the beginning, a kind of ritual transgression of the prohibition of sexual contact. This aspect is not usually noticed, because a general ban on sexual contacts seems absurd to the extent that it is poorly understood that the ban is essentially the prelude to the transgression.

The paradox, in fact, is not in the prohibition. We cannot imagine a society in which sexual activity would not be irreconcilable with the attitude assumed in public life. There is an aspect of sexuality that opposes it to the fundamental calculation of a human being. Every human being considers the future. Each of his gestures is a function of the future.

For its part, the sexual act may have a meaning in relation to the future, but this does not always happen, and eroticism, to say the least, loses sight of the genetic scope of the desired disorder. Sometimes it even suppresses it. I return to this precise point: could human beings reach the height of their aspiration if they did not first free themselves from the calculation to which the organization of social life binds them? In other words, does a condemnation pronounced from a practical point of view, precisely from the point of view of the future, not determine the limit from which a supreme value is at stake?


I go against the widespread doctrine that sexuality is natural, innocent, and the shame associated with it is in no way acceptable.

I cannot doubt that, essentially through work, language and the behaviors linked to both, the human being exceeds nature.

Above all, however, if we approach the domain of man's sexual activity, we are at the antipodes of nature. No aspect in this domain has failed to acquire an extremely rich meaning, in which the terrors and audacities, the desires and disgusts of all ages are mixed. Cruelty and tenderness are intertwined: death is present in eroticism and the exuberance of life is offered in it. I cannot imagine anything more than this great disorder, contrary to a rational ordering of each thing. Bringing sexuality into rationalized life, eliminating its shame, linked to the irreconcilable nature between this disorder and the confessable order, is, in truth, denying it.

Eroticism, which commands its ardent possibilities, feeds on the hostility of the anguish it solicits. There is nothing in it that we can achieve without that violent movement so well translated by tremor and without having lost our footing in relation to everything possible.


Seeing an expression of the human spirit in eroticism does not, therefore, mean a denial of morality.

Morality is in fact the firmest support of eroticism. Conversely, eroticism calls for moral firmness. But we cannot imagine appeasement. Morality is necessarily the fight against eroticism, and eroticism necessarily only has its place in the insecurity of a fight.

If so, perhaps we should finally consider, above common morality, a busy morality in which nothing would ever be achieved, in which every possibility would be at stake at every moment, in which, consciously, a man would always have the impossible before him. : a relentless, exhausting fight against an irreducible force and, on each side, recognized as such.


This attitude requires great resolution, above all a singular wisdom, resigned to the indecipherable character of the world.

It is sustained only by the never-ending experience of men, the experience of religion – of the oldest, first, but, after all, of the experience of all time. I showed in the classic sacrifice the search for a fascination contrary to the principle from which it started. If we consider in religion that inaccessible apex towards which our life is led, since it is, despite everything, the desire to exceed its limit (to seek beyond what it has found), a common value appears between religion and eroticism : it is always a question of searching tremendously for what undermines the foundation that most imposes itself on the view.

Certainly the most familiar aspect of current religion is opposed to eroticism, linking itself to its condemnation almost without reservation. This religion does not cease to aspire, in bold experiments, sometimes consecrated by the admiration of the Church, to combats in which the rule is to lose your footing.

Text published in 1957 in the magazine Arts (n. 641, October 23-29, 1957).

*Georges Bataille (1987-1962) He was an anthropologist, literary critic and writer. Author, among other books, of Eroticism (authentic).


Georges Bataille. Pure happiness. Essays on the impossible. Organization and translation: Marcelo Jacques de Moraes. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2024, 254 pages. [https://amzn.to/4ahosEi]

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