Sade, Bataille and Beckett Take Lunch


For Bataille, eating is a form of ‘appropriation’, one of the two polarized human impulses he locates in Sade. Its polar opposite is ‘excretion’. 

He sees eating as an oral communion involving participation, identification, incorporation, assimilation, one that can be sacramental depending on whether the food is heightened or conventionally destroyed. 

If destroyed then its preparation is vital. 

This prepping is all about strict conventions. It is in this that an appearance of striking homogeneity must be found. 

Perfection is static equilibrium. 

Eating itself is a problem as it threatens to break this stasis and equilibrium. 

Bataille makes much of ‘the very fact of swallowing’ being accompanied by ‘… a sudden liberation of great quantities of saliva.’ 

Nevertheless, despite this partial rupture, the moderate and rational form of appropriation predominates. 


‘Because cases in which eating’s principle goal is physiological tumult (gluttony or drunkedness followed by vomiting) are no doubt unusual.’ 

Food eaten in this moderated way signals a homogeneity that opposes the heterogeneity and liberating impulses of excretion. 

Food as orgy, and the very elementary form of orgy itself, represents a sacrificial consumption. 

What is an orgy for Bataille and his Sade? 

The orgy ‘… has no other goal than the incorporation in the person of irreducible heterogenous elements, insofar as such elements risk provoking an increase of force (or more exactly an increase of  mana). Eating requires the violent open mouth.’ 

The human attitude is best found, Bataille proposes, in ‘the magisterial look of the face with the  closed mouth , as beautiful as a safe.’ 

Although we’ve lost some of our awareness of what a mouth can be, it’s not too difficult to see that the eating of food requires the cannibalistic mouth of fire , a name once was applied to war cannons. 

Explosive impulses spurt through our open mouths , ‘… terror and atrocious suffering turn the mouth into the organ of rending screams.’ 

The reference to cannibalism reminds us that Bataille linked the hideous eye-cutting scene in the ‘Andalusian Dog’ film to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘cannibal delicacy’. 

This in turn is linked to a predatory breakfast, a young man who by chance is holding a coffee spoon wanting to scoop an eye into the spoon. 

This is a forbidden food, and so is a hidden desire. 

Qua food, the eye becomes an object of supreme anxiety. 

We won’t bite it, for it is conscience, at least it is in Victor Hugo’s poem. 

Louis Bunuel was sick for a week after filming the eye-cutting scene. 

Such obscenity was food fit for the Bataille orgy; ‘brutal enough to break everything that stifles.’ 

Food plays out the Sadean excretion/appropriation polarity, not in the domain of gratuitous literary impertinences such as – say, the ‘120 Days of Sodom’, imagine, but rather in the banal registers of individual and community living – let’s say instead, lunch. 

At about the same time as Bataille was thinking about de Sade, Beckett in ‘Dante and the Lobster’ has his man Belacqua prepare a lunch. 

It is pure Bataille. Pure Sade. 

Preparation is a key, requiring absolute tranquility. 

Such tight-mouthed, tight-arsed prep ( coming and going) avoids the disaster of food turning to bitterness on the palate or worse, the taste of nothing. 

The details of the equipment required are set out. 

It’s a minimalist approach comprised of just square flat toaster and asbestos grill. 

Toast is to be slow grilled on a steady flame, never rapidly. 

The sodden pith is to be avoided at all costs. 

A long barrel-loaf kept dry in a biscuit tin is either a preference or a necessity of fate. 

The erotic impulses are all finely done: 

‘ He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive.’ 

The engorged sadism of Beckett’s writing interjects at this point: 

‘ But he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face.’ 

There are other flourishes necessary here. It culminates as ever ‘… done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other.’ 

What’s added? 

A thick paste of Savora, and Cayenne, no butter, a foment of mustard, salt and pepper, Gorgonzola cheese. 

Bataille and Beckett both make a primordial crime out of the act of eating. 

This action, that makes that which exists disappear, obliges inextinguishable guilt. 

Beckett’s lepping-fresh, living lobster catches this better than Bataille’s lover’s eye (In reality an oxe’s). 

The Sadean energies of food are suddenly called out by the forseen and inevitable unquick death of the lobster, boiled alive in the pot. 

The Dantean Belacqua reaches back in this moment to the Greek chain of crimes. 

The lobster has no voice and neither pan nor beast can speak. 

Belacqua is the one who can speak and is condemned at once, once everything becomes clear. 

‘ “My God” he whined “it’s alive, what’ll we do?” 

…“Boil the beast” she said, “what else?”

“But it’s not dead” protested Belacqua “ you can’t boil it like that.”

She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses…’ 

And the terrible farce continues, in a mix of comic picaresque and touching pathos, before its climax: 

‘ Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all. It is not.’ 

According to Roberto Callasso the Delphic priests, guardians of sacrifice, gave birth to civilization and dismissed the Orphic life of honey and acorns with the terrible words: 

Eat the victim’s flesh and don’t be squeamish .’ 

What’s going on here? 

The absence and silence that follows eating, killing, dissipating, is being wrapped in civilisation’s guilt. 

Food is where everything gets judged and everyone is guilty. 

This oracular message has five components. 

The stranger must be called out of exile. 

The crime must be repeated. 

The killer must be judged. 

The victim must be filled with straw, put back on its feet and returned. (This isn’t resurrection but just the fact that it must be present again, as a reminder of its disappearance.) 

And finally, the victim must be eaten. 

Why do all this? 

Not to redeem us from guilt but rather to remind us of it. 

Food artfully repeats the crime. 

It’s a mnemonic. 

The guilt of Belacqua at the end of the story opens up to the ancient mysteries. 

The seedy and brothy foods in Beckett recall the dual Beings Kore and Demeter. 

By eating foods that are neither nectar nor ambrosia Kere and Demeter unwittingly expose themselves in Hades to human weakness. 

There are two weaknesses that are particularly relevant. 

Firstly, a submission to time that makes us all disappear one day. 

Secondly, a complicity with what eventually destroys us, our being fated to make others disappear. 

Beckett’s stories, novels, plays and fragments are abducted, secret, exiled writings, as if written by unhappy Gods trying to imitate humans. 

Apollo after killing Python, Oedipus and Orestes too, they offered libations and go into exile to free themselves from their guilt. 

This species of ancient grief is converted into Beckett’s strange imitation of writing. 

It resonates with guilt for existence disappearing down its own mouth. Similarly, food is another strange imitation, this time of the celebratory gestures of unhappy Gods.